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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 7. The General Principles of Transcendentalism

Into any detailed discussion of what that doctrine was, into any minute exposition, in other words, of the transcendental philosophy, it is impossible here to enter. A glance, however, may be taken at a few of its central and controlling features.

The word “transcendental” in its philosophic sense goes back to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, though in New England, as elsewhere, the term lost its narrowly technical application and borrowed at the same time a new shade of meaning from the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant had taught that time and space are not external realities but ways in which the mind “constitutes” its world of sense. The same is true, he had contended, of cause and effect and the other categories of the mind. Furthermore, as he brought out in his second Critique, the ideas of God, of freedom, and of immortality are inevitable intuitions of the practical nature of man, and these intuitions, since man is essentially a practical and moral being, have therefore not a merely sentimental but a real validity. From these and other Kantian conceptions a broad generalization was made, and the word “transcendental” came to be applied, in New England, to whatever in man’s mental and spiritual nature is conceived of as above experience and independent of it. Whatever transcends the experience of the senses is transcendental. Innate, original, universal, a priori, intuitive—these are words all of which convey a part of the thought swept under the larger meaning of the term. To the transcendentalists the name John Locke stood for the denial of innate ideas. “Sensationalism” was the prevalent description of the doctrine of his Essay. Transcendentalism, on the other hand, reaffirmed the soul’s inherent power to grasp the truth, and upon this basis went on to erect a metaphysical structure similar in its main outlines to the leading Platonic and idealistic philosophies of the past.

According to this view of the world, the one reality is the vast spiritual background of existence, the Over-Soul, God, within which all other being is unified and from which it derives its life. Because of this indwelling of divinity, every part of the world, however small, is a microcosm, comprehending within itself, like Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall, all the laws and meaning of the whole. The soul of each individual, therefore, is identical with the soul of the world, and contains, latently, all that that larger soul contains. Thus the normal life of continuous expansion, the making actual of the potential elements of his being. This may occur in two ways; either directly, in states which vary from the ordinary perception of truth to moments of mystical repture in which there is a conscious influx of the divine into the human; or indirectly, through the instrumentality of nature. Nature is the embodiment of spirit in the world of sense—it is a great picture to be appropriates to itself the spirit and being of God.

From these central conceptions all the other teaching of the transcendentalists are derived: their doctrines of self-reliance and individualism, of the identity of moral and physical laws, of nagative nature of evil; their spirit of complete tolerance and of absolute optimism; their defiance of tradition and disregard for all external authority.

It must not be understood, however, that metaphysics was a central interest of the transcendentalists. They were not system makers. The idealistic philosophy was to many of them more a spirit and attitude of mind than a consciously reasoned-out theory of the world, and it is as such as prevading spirit that its virtue still survives. As an explanation of the mystery of existence the transcendental philosophy makes little appeal to our own hard-headed and scientific generation; but no one, assuredly, with any measure of spiritual and poetic perception can give himself sincerely and unreservedly to one of the literary masterpieces of the transcendental school, to one of the greater essays of Emerson for example, the Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, or The Over-Soul, without a consciousness, as he puts down the volume, of having passed for the time into a higher sphere of being, without a deepened conviction of the triviality, the relative unreality, of material concerns, without a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, of nobility, of power, a feeling that that much abused word “eternal” has suddenly put on a very real and concrete meaning. Against such an actual experience no mere argument can avail. Nor does the emotion thus evoked end in vague mystical exaltation. It leaves, rather, whether the reader profit by it or not, a distinct sense of its bearing on the daily conduct of life. This spirit of uplift, together with the moral impulsion it imparts, is the heart of New England transcendentalism.