Saturday, 4 February 2012

New England Transcendentalism


The New England transcendentalists were a loose group of thinkers and writers gathered around Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord Massachusetts - the best known of the group is Henry David Thoreau who was some 13 years younger than Emerson and also lived in Concord.


For quite a long time - especially from about the mid 1990s to mid 2000s - Emerson and Thoreau, and their extended group were the focus of my reading.

This was mainly a personal project, involving collecting books, and a pilgrimage to Concord in 1998. But I did complete a publishing project related to this:


Looking back on the New England Transcendentalists (NETs), I now perceive that they were the glorious beginnings of the slippery slope down to disintegration and nihilism. In other words, Emerson was exactly what his most vehement critics said he was.

Emerson, though, was a prime example of a familiar phenomenon among creative geniuses - he was brought-up as a very devout Christian, strongly influenced by a strictly puritan aunt - then he became a Unitarian minister which was strictly not a Christian, and finally he became a transcendentalist (although seldom using the name).


What is, or was, a transcendentalist?

My understanding is that a transcendentalist believes in the reality of transcendent Good (or, at least, some aspects of transcendent Good) despite not believing in God - or, at least, not a personal god, not believing in salvation.

So Emerson believed in the reality of transcendent beauty, and chose to devote his life to this - but the choice was based on the fact that this made him happy, rather than that the choice was 'right'.

As for morality, although - like all humans - Emerson had much to say about moral issues - this seems to have been, ultimately, a personal matter - perhaps aesthetic above all.

As for truth - Emerson told the truth as he saw it, for the length of time it took to write the sentence; and then another, then another. There was no conception that these truths corresponded to a stable reality - the only 'reality' was the intense moment. (Which is itself an incoherent belief.)


Yet Emerson was a man of great sweetness of nature: he had no reason to be Good, by his philosophy, yet he was Good - although his philosophy was, it turned out, pernicious.

So perhaps Emerson was a Good man who, by his lectures and writings (his 'job' was that of a travelling lecturer) probably did net Evil.


As for Thoreau - compared with Emerson he was an even greater writer, but a much simpler thinker.

I have come to regard Thoreau's philosophy as an exercise in self-justification, especially a justification of self will - of selfishness - of getting the maximum pleasure with the minimum of work.

Thoreau saw life as a battle between the self and society - society wants the individual to expend huimself in socieatal goals - it was the hjob of the individual to do the minimum of these imposed duties compatible with his health and survival.


Thoreau took hedonism to the level of an art form - his own hedonism took the form of contemplation of nature including scientific study, and writing.

For much of my life Thoreau was a hero, and I would not concede that his philosophy was one of near-solipsistic selfishness, yet it was.

Thoreau took Emersonian transcendentalism, and - less constrained by personality and less grounded in tough puritanism - and ran with it. In doing so he created a body of prose writings of the first rank - yet almost poisonous to modern man.


So I am now exceedingly ambivalent about the NETs. The allure of Emerson and Thoreau, as transitional-figures of genius remains powerful; their overall tendency and effect, I now regard as pernicious.

So I take the NETs much more selectively than in the past. I used to try and go deep into Transcendentalism, my approach was immersive (I can recall many immersive moments!) - convinced that it was the highest path if only I could understand and attain it.

Nowadays I see transcendentalism as incoherent, and unstable yet tending towards nihilism. It tries to believe in the reality of the transcendent - yet without belief in the reality of God (or gods) or divine revelation there is no reason to believe in the transcendent.

Emerson tried to argue that the transcendent could either be intuited, or become the subject of 'scientific' knowledge (e.g. his lectures on the 'natural history' of the intellect) - but this was not true, and disagreement cannot be resolved.


Without God the transcendent becomes merely a subjective assertion - backed up only by rhetoric or propaganda, temporary alliances - hence, in the face of the trend of modernity, transcendentalism is weak, unstable, pointing down a slope towards materialism and nihilism, and self-indulgent yet self-justifying hedonism.

...Held back for a few decades by Emerson's natural goodness and Thoreau's literary genius, but then descending unimpeded.