Transcendentalism | Definition | Characteristics

In the early 19th century, Transcendentalism became popular in the United States, mainly in the New England region. It highlighted the value of individuality, instinct, and the bond between humans and the natural world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller are a few of the prominent names connected to transcendentalism. It was a response to the rationalism, technological materialism, and increasing emphasis on business and industry that characterized the intellectual and cultural milieu of the time.

Definition of Transcendentalism

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, coined the term “transcendentalism” to express the viewpoint that some universal truths, such as the presence of God, cannot be established by reason alone but must instead be understood through intuition or “transcendental” understanding. A group of American thinkers who were inspired by Kant and other European philosophers accepted this concept.

Background of Transcendentalism

Religious revivalism, which is connected to the New Light and Old Light dispute, was one of the major influences for transcendentalism. A theological disagreement known as the New Light and Old Light Debate broke out in the American colonies in the middle of the 18th century. It was a battle between two divisions of the Congregational Church, which at the time was the main religious institution in the colonies.

Read More: Seamus Heaney as a modern Poet

The Old Lights were traditionalists who upheld the stringent Calvinist predestination belief, which maintained that God had already predetermined who would be spared and who would be condemned. They were critical to the Great Awakening’s growing revivalism, which placed a strong emphasis on spiritual conversion and personal experiences.

The New Lights, on the other hand, supported the Great Awakening and thought strongly about the value of emotional encounters and individual conversion. They maintained that salvation was accessible to everyone, not simply those chosen by God.

The New Light and Old Light dispute was a microcosm of larger social and cultural shifts occurring in the colonies at the time, including the rise of a new middle class and a rising emphasis on individualism. New religious movements like the Baptist and Methodist religions, which prioritized individual conversion and feelings and experiences, were also influenced by the dispute.

Read More: Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy

Transcendentalism origin:

The first manifestation of transcendentalism was a gathering of intellectuals who met in George Ripley’s home in 1836 to exchange thoughts and principles. This group comprised Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who went on to become the movement’s true leader.

The Transcendentalist movement was formalized in Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature,” which became its defining text. He made the case that nature was the ultimate source of truth and beauty and that by spending time in nature, people might unite with the divine and experience spiritual enlightenment.

Transcendentalism grew out of this foundation into a more comprehensive philosophical and literary movement that stressed individualism, independence, and the value of philosophical and spiritual inquiry. The movement peaked in the 1840s and 1850s, yet many people today still identify with its principles and concepts.

Characteristics of transcendentalism:

Transcendentalism is distinguished by a number of core ideals and principles as well as a particular writing and speaking style. Transcendentalism has a number of key characteristics, including:

Individualism and intuition

Transcendentalists, who relied on the power of the individual mind and spirit, placed a high value on intuition and freedom. Transcendentalists held that people should depend on their own sense of intuition and experience rather than accepting the legitimacy of institutions or prevailing ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, penned the following in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He encouraged individuals to pursue their own paths and pay attention to their inner voices rather than living up to others’ expectations.

Read More: Romanticism in English Literature

Connection with nature:

Transcendentalists valued their relationship with the natural world and considered it as a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Transcendentalists held that direct encounters with nature may help people perceive the divine. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, stated that “Nature is a symbol of spirit… It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual” in his essay “Nature.” He thought that people may communicate with a more spiritual world through nature.

They also looked to nature for moral inspiration and direction. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, wrote in his book “Walden” about his experiences residing in a cottage in the woods next to Walden Pond. He viewed nature as a means of escaping society’s corrupting influence and discovering a more straightforward, genuine way of life.

Transcendentalists highlighted the need of honoring and coexisting with nature. They believed that the natural world should be revered and maintained as a precious resource. For instance, Thoreau stated that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” in his essay “Walking.” He made the case that maintaining the natural world was our duty since it was vital to human welfare.


Transcendentalists praised the search for one’s own truth and meaning and urged people to defy society rules and traditions. Nonconformity was a central tenet of their philosophy. Transcendentalists held that people should question ingrained ideas and customs that stifle their individuality and creativity. For example, in his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” He emphasized that people shouldn’t be frightened to voice their own opinions, even if they conflict with the views of society.

Read More: Renaissance in English literature


Transcendentalists valued idealism highly because they thought that each person’s mind and soul had the ability to improve the world. Transcendentalists had high hopes for human development and thought that people could endeavor to make the world a better place. Emerson stated, for instance, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…and the future will be built by our own hands”, in his essay “The American Scholar.” He had hope for the future and saw it as a period of possibilities.


Transcendentalists valued reform because they felt that through personal development and activity, people might work to improve society. Abolitionism and women’s suffrage were two social and political issues that transcendentalists actively supported. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, discussed his opposition to slavery and support for abolitionist John Brown in his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts”.

Transcendentalists saw education and intellectual development to be crucial for both social and personal change. For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “the mind is a whole and demands satisfaction for all of its faculties” in his essay “The American Scholar.” He made the case that education should educate the whole person rather than only impart practical knowledge.

Read More: Keats as a romantic poet

Major Transcendentalist thinkers:

Ralph Waldo Emerson is regarded as one of the most important individuals in the formation of transcendentalism. He was an American philosopher, writer, and poet who lived from 1803 to 1882. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in a family that appreciated learning and culture; He studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he developed an interest in the writings of German idealist philosophers like Friedrich Schelling and Immanuel Kant.

Emerson’s thoughts regarding the significance of the individual that came under the topic of what he called “self-reliance”. Everywhere he turned, he observed people living traditional lifestyles that were constrained by social conventions and religious traditions. Nobody could be themselves, Emerson reasoned, since everyone was too preoccupied with being someone else.

Emerson aimed to free people from the weights of the past, religion, and societal structures so that they could discover their true selves. In his own words, “History is an impertinence and an injury; Our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us…” He insisted that we must live from within, relying only on our own instincts. Nothing is more sacred than the integrity of your own thought, he said in his conclusion.

As a pantheist, Emerson believes that God can be found in all of creation, whether in the tiniest sand grain or the brightest star and more importantly, each of us possesses the divine spark. We are not simply being impulsive or selfish when we follow our own desires; rather, we are realizing a divine plan that history, society, and organized religion typically attempt to hide from us. Emerson believed that the earth’s mountains, grains, and stars show how closely nature, God, and humanity are connected. They merge into one. They also help Emerson see the value of every person as a component of God.

Emerson emphasizes the importance of the commonplace. In articles like “The American Scholar” and “The Poet,” Emerson argued that the American everyday was a suitable topic for literature. Emerson believed that the transcendentalist God is present everywhere, and it is the poet’s responsibility to make this apparent. He stated, “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful… Even a corpse has its own beauty.” This statement is coming from a man who had peeked inside his first wife’s tomb a year after her passing.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau  saw technology as a frequently pointless diversion. He recognized the useful advantages of new discoveries, but he also cautioned that these discoveries couldn’t address the underlying problems with achieving personal pleasure. Instead, according to Thoreau, we should look to the natural world, which is rich with spiritual significance. He believed that waterfalls, forests, and animals have intrinsic value in addition to their aesthetic appeal and ecological significance. The ideal way for us to view ourselves is as a part of nature; we should consider ourselves to be nature itself, looking inside itself rather than as an outside force or the ruler of nature.

According to Thoreau, citizens have a moral duty to oppose governments that enforce hypocritical or blatantly unfair laws. Thoreau then went to something he called: civil disobedience:  protesting injustice by peacefully rejecting it. Despite spending time alone, Thoreau shows us how to navigate the shockingly large, intricately intertwined, and morally disturbing modern civilization. He encourages us to live authentically by participating with the world and renouncing our support for the government when we perceive it to be doing wrong rather than merely avoiding material life and its diversions. His writings continue to be relevant and serve as a reminder of how crucial it is to live without the distractions of money, technology, and other people’s opinions in order to live in accordance with our finest and truest nature.

Leave a Comment