menu

Does Transcendentalism Affect Us Today?


In the 1830s and 1840s, writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller produced a series of books, essays and other works that took a radical new approach to philosophy, religion and political life. This new philosophy is known as transcendentalism. The transcendentalist movement only lasted a few decades, but its core ideas still influence political activists, environmentalists and people interested in alternative religion.

American Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism arose in the 1830s among a loose network of friends and acquaintances, most of whom lived in eastern Massachusetts, who met or corresponded with each other to discuss new ideas in philosophy. Transcendentalism incorporated ideas from the German idealists such as Kant, as well as Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The transcendentalists never attempted to develop a clearly defined set of doctrines, but transcendentalist writers stressed similar themes. Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of personal spiritual experiences, reverence for nature, and a willingness to challenge established authority for moral reasons.

Civil Disobedience

In 1846, transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay the poll tax because of his opposition to slavery and the war with Mexico. In 1849, Thoreau published his essay, "Resistance to Civil Government," in which he advocated for the use of civil disobedience to resist slavery and unjust wars. According to an essay by Linck Johnson in "The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism," this essay inspired both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi in their campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience. Modern protesters and activists who use civil disobedience tactics in imitation of King and Gandhi show the continued influence of Thoreau's ideas.

Environmentalism and Feminism

Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson wrote extensively about the importance of solitude and the possibility of experiencing transcendent mystical states when alone in nature. Thoreau spent three years living alone in his cabin on Walden Pond in an attempt to live a simpler and more authentic lifestyle. According to an essay by Robert E. Burkholder in "The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism," transcendentalist attitudes about nature influenced the founders of the modern environmentalist movement such as Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring." Transcendentalists also influenced feminist thought. Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller published "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" in 1845, arguing that women were being kept in an artificial state of dependency due to rigid notions about gender.

Alternative Religion

Modern interest in Asian religions in the United States owes much to the influence of the transcendentalists. Emerson was deeply familiar with Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, and referred to Hindu and Buddhist ideas often in his writing. According to "American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions" by Arthur Versluis, professor of English at Washburn University, transcendentalist references to Eastern religion influenced the Theosophist and New Thought movements. These movements brought a modified version of Eastern religion into American popular culture, later influencing the New Age movement.

About the Author

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

Photo Credits
  • GeorgeBurba/iStock/Getty Images