PART THREE: THE TRANSCENDENTAL MINDChapter I
THE GENESIS OF TRANSCENDENTALISM
From the doctrine of the open mind that was the core of Unitarianism, came the transcendental movement that marked the full flowering of the New England renaissance. It was the native response of the mind of New England to the summons of revolutionary romanticism, and its ardor was the greater for being so long delayed. Creatively influenced though it was by French Utopianism and German mysticism, its manners and mode of thought received a particular impress from an environment long preparing and that was natively congenial. "Practically," say its most penetrating historian, transcendentalism "was an assertion of the inalienable worth of man; theoretically it was an assertion of the immanence of divinity in instinct, the transference of supernatural attributes to the natural constitution of mankind."1 It was the glowing expression of philosophic Utopianism, the flaring up of old fires of idealism, before the scientific and materialistic reactions destroyed its romantic dreams. It accepted kinship with the social idealism of the Declaration of Independence; it accepted the dynamic principle of equalitarianism; but it sought to go farther and provide a sure defense and justification of an idealism that it professed to find established in human nature, by establishing it in metaphysics.
The explanation of this curious throwback to earlier times in the mind of transcendental New England is clear enough to anyone acquainted with the history of Puritan thought struggling with the mystical element of Christian experience. Since the far-off days of Roger Williams - the seeker and mystic who was so great a puzzle to his realistic brethren - idealism had been starved in New England. Its mystical aspirations had been repressed by dogma, and its elusive dreams brought to nothing. Jonathan Edwards struggled life-long to hold his idealism in subjection to theology, and ended in abortive reaction; a potential Emerson, another Berkeley, he re-welded the bonds of dogma on the mind of New England, putting off for two generations the day of its release. Even in the freer minds idealism suffered from the repressions of the common rationalism; with Locke and Hume in the ascendancy the mystic found the times uncongenial to his needs. The dawn of a new day seemed to be breaking with the shift of interest from theology to politics, during the stirring days of the Revolution. The submerged idealism of New England came to expression in the dreams of homespun democrats like Sam Adams, and expanded in the sunshine of French Utopianism; but unfortunately Boston Federalism reasserted the old dogmatisms and put a speedy end to the movement. It shut the door upon all democratic aspiration and bade it go about its business. It was from such a narrow environment that the rising movement of Unitarianism received its impress. From a sterile rationalism, a respectable close-fisted conservatism, it could not escape; and in consequence the new movement of liberalism was taken over by Federalism and became a new orthodoxy. "The pale negations of Boston Unitarianism" - to use Emerson's well-known phrase - provided little nourishment for transcendental hopes.
Nevertheless Unitarianism carried within it the seeds of the new faith - in its intellectual attitude, if not in its philosophy. "The Unitarians as a class," remarks Frothingham, "belonged to the school of Locke, which discarded the doctrine of innate ideas, and its kindred beliefs. . . . Unitarianism . . . has rarely, if ever, been taught or held by any man of eminence in the church who was a Platonist" (Transcendentalism in New England, Chapter VI). But in spite of its eighteenth-century nurture because of it, indeed - Unitarianism was a profoundly liberalizing movement. It was a narrow and local phase of a world-wide revolution; the special contribution of Boston to the great work of disintegrating the past to make ready for the future. It loosened the grip of dogma on the Puritan mind and widened the field of reading and thinking. But it did very much more - it recovered the original principle of Protestantism, the principle of individual responsibility, that had been tacitly denied by Calvinistic orthodoxy. It asserted the essential decency of human nature men may not be the children of God but they are assuredly not children of the devil; and it summoned this decent human nature to live decently in accordance with its nature. It would not coop up the mind in dogma; it would not close all roads to heaven but one. The Unitarians might be instinctively conservative, as was natural to prosperous persons, but they at least acknowledged "themselves to be friends of free thought in religion." Their doctrine was not a creed but an attitude of mind. If they themselves were not Seekers, they professed a willingness for others to become Seekers. Very likely few of them measured up to the full stature of such liberalism; nevertheless they "honestly but incautiously professed a principle broader than they were able to stand by, and avowed the absolute freedom of the human mind as their characteristic faith" (ibid., Chapter VI).
All this was excellent, but it was not enough. It remained to see what the free mind should discover in its venturesome quest into the unknown. Intellectually emancipated, with the bleak dogmas of election and reprobation put away, with the God of wrath dethroned and the God of love lifted up, and with the dynamic principle of freedom of inquiry in their possession, the younger generation of New England intellectuals naturally opened their eyes to discover what winds of new doctrine were blowing in the world. They were pretty much all Unitarians - the young transcendentalists - and largely clergymen; their primary interest was metaphysical and they had already abandoned Locke for Plato. The rationalistic eighteenth century was dead to them and they set forth to discover another age. Hints and suggestions of that better age had come to them from overseas - from Wordsworth and Shelley, from Cousin and Madame de Stael, from Coleridge and Carlyle; and the fresh beauty of that new poetry, the enormous stimulus of that new metaphysic, fired them with a desire to seek this inspiration at its source and drink from the living waters. And so they discovered romantic Germany where the new idealism had quite routed the philosophy of sensationalism, and a great school of transcendental thinkers was in triumphant possession of the field. It was a profoundly stimulating discovery, and from it dated the rise of New England transcendentalism.
The immediate creative influence of the new contact with Germany was to strengthen the incipient Platonism of the rebellious intellectuals, and provide it with an added sanction. Transcendentalism, it must always be remembered, was a faith rather than philosophy; it was oracular rather than speculative, affirmative rather than questioning; and it went to Germany to find confirmation of its faith, not to reexamine its foundations. Faith preceded metaphysics, and if the metaphysics had been lacking intuition would have supplied its place, poetic inspiration would have sufficed the needs of transcendental minds. They had found God for themselves before the philosophers justified them; they took to Germany what they sought there. Nevertheless it was a tremendous experience to come upon their own philosophy there, erected into a system, supported by a complete metaphysic; a philosophy that had put to rout the fashionable skepticism of Voltaire and Condillac, established on the sensationalism of Locke, and offering justification for faith in God and man - faith in a divinity indwelling in nature and the individual soul - by a masterly dialectics. That experience determined the development of New England transcendentalism. The metaphysic of Kant, he mysticism of Jacobi, the idealistic egoism of Fichte, the transcendentalism of Schleiermacher - the new gospel of the renascent German spirit -these were the living waters of truth to the thirsty minds of the New England intellectuals, from which they drank eagerly, never doubting their sufficiency. They were poets and prophets; they were young and strong in faith; others might concern themselves with the dialectics of idealism, they would apply it in their daily lives.
In essence this new transcendental faith was a glorification of consciousness and will. It rested on the rediscovery of the soul that had been dethroned by the old rationalism; and it eventuated in the creation of a mystical egocentric universe wherein the children of God might luxuriate in their divinity. The Unitarians had pronounced human nature to be excellent; the transcendentalists pronounced it divine. They endowed it with great potentialities; made of it a dwelling place of the Most High; discovered the secret voice of God in the buried life that men call instinct; refused to heed any other command save this inner voice of God. With ebbing faith men may deny their own divine nature, but the divinity is not destroyed; the music of the indwelling Godhood murmurs in the shell till the tide returns to flood it again. The one great miracle is the daily rebirth of God in the individual soul; every day is a new day; every act is a fresh wonder; faith, hope, trust, accompany man in his adventurous journeyings. Why, therefore, demanded the transcendentalist, should he not trust himself? Why should he not walk confident in his own high purpose? Why should he doubt and question the buried compulsions that urge him forward? If he is indeed a child of God, let him live as unto God; and if it should turn out that there has been some mistake in the premises and he proves to be a child of the devil, then let him live as unto the devil. Better so than not to trust himself.
Quite obviously they were arch-romantics - these young poets of the new faith; children of an age given over to new hopes and disintegrating revolutions; inexperienced prophets of a world in flux, before the scientific spirit had stripped them of their wings. The fascinating book of nature and of man had been newly opened to them, and like Miranda they were ready to exclaim,
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in 't!
They could see only God because in their thinking God had filled their minds. No evil lurked in the secret places of their hearts to whisper doubts concerning the goodness of life; no ominous clouds veiled the divine light that wrapped their universe about. After two hundred years of discipline in righteousness the old dogmatic pessimism was dissipated, leaving not a rack behind. The evil was gone and God remained; and in this new world the sons of God were to be henceforth heirs of the kingdom, free to fulfill that good which is the final reality. Arch-romantics, they were dreaming a transcendental dream, as other arch-romantics were dreaming their Jacksonian dream, their imperialistic dream, their Utopian dream. Romanticism comes to different issues in different men and different times: Emerson and Jefferson were unlike enough, as their worlds were unlike; but they were both romantics and their idealism was only a different expression of a common spirit.
Years after the transcendental ferment had subsided, one of the lesser prophets of the movement offered a statement of the faith that deserves to be recalled:
Transcendentalism [he said] relies on those ideas in the mind which are laws in the life. Pantheism is said to sink man and nature in God; Materialism to sink God and man in nature; and Transcendentalism to sink God and nature in man. But the Transcendentalist at least is belied and put in jail by the definition which is so neat at the expense of truth. He made consciousness, not sense, the ground of truth. . . . Is the soul reared on the primitive rock? or is no rock primitive, but the deposit of spirit - therefore in its lowest form alive, and ever rising into organism to reach the top of the eternal circle again, as in the well one bucket goes down empty and the other rises full? The mistake is to make the everlasting things subjects of argument instead of sight. . . .Our 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 exist. . . . What is it that accepts misery from the Most High, defends the Providence that inflicts its woes, espouses its chastiser's cause, purges itself in the pit of its misery of all contempt of His commands, and makes its agonies the beams and rafters of the triumph it builds? It is the immortal principle. It is an indestructible essence. It is part and parcel of the Divinity it adores. It can no more die than he can. It needs no more insurance of life than its author does. Prove its title? It is proof of all things else. It is substantive, and everything adjective beside. It is the kingdom all things will be added to. (C. A. Bartol, quoted by Frothingham in Transcendentalism in New England, Chapter XIV.)
This is sheer mysticism, and mystics in greater or less degree all the transcendentalists were - isolated and lonely in the midst of men, seeking always a larger fellowship, awaiting those fleeting moments of illumination that should light up the meaning of life. "Mine is a certain brief experience," says Emerson, "which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time, - whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth, - and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belong trust, a child's trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more" (The Transcendentalist). Fleeting and incommunicable are such illuminations, yet like the clear sunlight to eyes that are open. "If you do not need to hear my thought, because you can read it in my face and behavior, then I will tell it you from sunrise to sunset. If you cannot divine it, you would not understand what I say" (ibid.). And because the realist found himself quite incapable of such understanding, the transcendentalist turned away from him to live by himself. "They feel that they are never so fit for friendship, as when they have quitted mankind, and taken themselves to friend."
Such an attitude of mind may easily become the father of criticism. Communing with the ideal rarely begets complacency; the actual seems poor and mean in comparison with the potential. Hence the transcendentalists, willingly or not, were searching critics of their generation. They were impatient of any falling short of the ideal, and their lives in consequence became an open indictment of a Yankee world given over to materialism. "By their unconcealed dissatisfaction," said Emerson, "they expose our poverty, and the insignificance of man to man." "Their quarrel with every man they meet, is not with his kind, but with his degree. There is not enough of him,-that is the only fault. . . .They make us feel the strange disappointment which overcasts every human youth. So many promising youths, and never a finished man! " (The Transcendentalist.)
As to the general course of living, and the daily employments of men, they cannot see much virtue in these, since they are parts of this vicious circle; and as no great ends are answered by the men, there is nothing noble in the arts by which they are maintained. Nay, they have made the experiment, and found that, from the liberal professions to the coarsest manual labor, and from the courtesies of the academy and the college to the conventions of the cotillion-room and the morning call, there is a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming, which indicates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without aim. (Ibid.)
Idealists though they were, they could not escape meddling with the real which encompassed them on all sides-with institutions, laws, society, with the state itself. They were far more interested in God than in Caesar, and they found it impossible to divide loyalties that too often clashed. When Caesar essayed to impose his will upon theirs, when he put their ideals in jeopardy by demanding allegiance to laws they did not approve, they quietly denied him sovereignty and followed their own paths. With such men nothing could be done; their very lives were a criticism and a judgment on New England and America. Transcendentalism may have run into its follies, but foolish in its critical judgment - blind to the gap between profession and reality - it was not. It might be severe, but it was honest and intelligent, and honest intelligent criticism America stood greatly in need of.
1 See Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England. Chapter VI.