Selections from the New England Transcendentalists

[In 1836 a handful of ardent young Unitarians, led by Emerson, Hedge, and Ripley, formed the Transcendental Club of America. In declaring for the divinity of nature, the intrinsic worth of the human soul, freedom of mind, and humanitarianism, they were in open rebellion against the "ice-house" -- Harvard Divinity School. The movement was shortlived, but the impact on American thought was profound. We reproduce a brief selection from their writings. -- Ed.]

GEORGE RIPLEY: There is a class of persons who desire a reform in the prevailing philosophy of the day. These are called Transcendentalists, because they believe in an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external senses. Their leading idea is the supremacy of mind over matter. Hence they maintain that the truth of religion does not depend on tradition, nor historical facts, but has an unerring witness in the soul. There is a light, they believe, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world; there is a faculty in all -- the most degraded, the most ignorant, the most obscure -- to perceive spiritual truth when distinctly presented; and the ultimate appeal on all moral questions is not to a jury of scholars, a hierarchy of divines or the prescriptions of a creed, but to the common sense of the human race.

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES: Emerson was an idealist in the Platonic sense of the word, a spiritualist as opposed to a materialist. He believed, he says, "as the wise Spenser teaches," that the soul makes its own body. This, of course, involves the doctrine of pre-existence; a doctrine older than Spenser, older than Plato or Pythagoras, having its cradle in India, fighting its way down through Greek Philosophers and Christian fathers and German Professors, to our own time.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON: I recognize the distinction of the outer and the inner Self; the double consciousness that, within this erring, passionate, mortal self, sits a supreme, calm, immortal mind, whose powers I do not know, but it is stronger than I; it is wiser than I; it never approved me in any wrong; I seek counsel of it in my doubts; I repair to it in my dangers; I pray to it in my undertakings.

We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight . . . . It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. . . . Nothing is dead: men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new and strange disguise . . .

WILLIAM J. POTTER: It is plain that there are two factors which enter into the composition of human nature: an infinite and a finite, a spiritual and a material, an eternal and a temporal. . . . It is possible, perhaps probable, that the soul will always have some form of body and some material limitation . . . now taking this form, now that yet always ascending in form as giving larger freedom of nature . . . as the scale of being ascends.

But over and above all change, independent of all limitations of time and matter, beyond the reach of the accidental and perishing relations of individual existence, there enters into human nature another factor by which it lays hold of a substance that is infinite and everlasting and draws its being therefrom. There is somewhat of the Absolute and Eternal in every human soul . . . something that transcends time and space and organic form and makes eternity for the soul to be the continuous unfolding of a perpetual and indestructible principle of life rather than the infinite multiplication of days and years.

FREDERIC HEDGE: The eternal destination which faith ascribes to the soul presupposes an eternal origin. . . . This was the theory of the most learned and acute of the Christian Fathers. Of all the theories respecting the origin of the soul it seems to me the most plausible and therefore the one most likely to throw light on the question of the life to come . . . . A new and bodily organism I hold to be an essential part of the soul's destination . . . the soul is the same.

JAMES FREEMAN CLARKE: The modern doctrine of the evolution of bodily organisms is not complete, unless we unite with it the idea of a corresponding evolution of the spiritual monad, from which every organic form derives its unity. Evolution has a satisfactory meaning only when we admit that the soul is developed and educated by passing through many bodies.

CYRUS AUGUSTUS BARTOL: Human individuality is not limited in time more than in space. Doubtless the almanac or family register will tell us when we were born. But the soul is older than our organism. It precedes its clothing. It is the cause, not the consequence of its material elements; else as materialists understand, it does not properly exist. Jesus asserted the truth of all men when he said: "Before Abraham was I am."

HENRY D. THOREAU: We have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. . . . That Eternity which I see in nature I predict for myself also. . . . Like last year's vegetation our human life but dies down to its root and still puts forth its green blade into eternity. . . . Methinks the hawk that soars so loftily and circles so steadily and apparently without effort, has earned this power by faithfully creeping on the ground as a reptile in a former state of existence.

LOUISA M. ALCOTT: I think immortality is the passing of a soul through many lives or experiences: and such as are truly lived, used, and learned, help on to the next, each growing richer, happier and higher, carrying with it only the real memories of what has gone before. . . . I seem to remember former states and feel that in them I have learned some of the lessons that have never since been mine here and in my next step I hope to leave behind many of the trials I have struggled to bear here and begin to find lightened as I go on. This accounts for the genius and great virtue some show here. They have done well in many phases of this great school and bring into our class the virtue or the gifts that make them great or good. We don't remember the lesser things. They slip away as childish trifles, and we carry on only the real experiences.

CHARLES C. EMERSON (brother of Ralph Waldo): The reason why Homer is to me like a dewy morning, is because I too lived while Troy was, and sailed in the hollow ships of the Grecians to sack the devoted town. The rosy-fingered dawn as it crimsoned the tops of Ida, the broad seashore covered with tents, the Trojan hosts in their painted armor, and the rushing chariots of Diomede and Idomeneus, -- all these I too saw: my ghost animated the frame of some nameless Argive. . . . We forget that we have been drugged by the sleepy bowl of the present.

But when a lively chord in the soul is struck, when the windows for a moment are unbarred, the long and varied past is recovered. We recognize it all; we are no more brief, ignoble creatures; we seize our immortality and bind together the related parts of our secular being. . . . Something there is in the spirit which changes not, neither is weary, but ever returns into itself, and partakes of the eternity of God.

AMOS BRONSON ALCOTT: To conceive a child's acquirements as originating in nature, dating from his birth into his body, seems an atheism that only a shallow metaphysical theology could entertain in a time of such marvelous natural knowledge as ours. "I shall never persuade myself," said Synesius, "to believe my soul to be of like age with my body." And yet we are wont to date our birth, as that of the babes we christen, from the body's advent, . . . as if time and space could chronicle the periods of the immortal mind. . . .

Our hope is as eternal as ourselves . . . a never ending, still beginning quest of our divinity. The insatiableness of her desires is an augury of the soul's eternity . . . A never ending still beginning quest of the Godhead in her bosom; a perpetual effort to actualize her divinity in time . . . her quarry is above the stars; her arrows are snatched from the armory of heaven. . . . All life is eternal, there is none other; and all unrest is but the struggle of the soul to reassure herself of her inborn immortality.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press.)

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