In the late eighteenth century, romanticism swept through Europe and eventually the rest of the world, which ultimately played a key factor in influencing the philosophical movement known as transcendentalism that was created in the United States. Transcendentalism brought numerous new ideas and beliefs to the world that were extremely significant in helping men and women of all races stand up for their rights and freedom. All throughout history and even to this day, we see examples of transcendentalist beliefs used to battle the societal issues of the time.
Many societies in the past and modern day contain individuals that respond to the issues of the time by harnessing three major transcendentalist virtues such as individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature which all cast key parts in the individual’s role. Individualism in transcendentalism is the belief that oneself is most successful when they are self-reliant and independent from any institution within society such as organized religion, government, and any other administration that would cause that person to not freely think for themselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of Self Reliance,was a major leader of the American transcendentalist movement. Like many others, Emerson believed that if a man did not independently think, then his mind would be poisoned because his thoughts would not be his own values and beliefs. People need to think for themselves instead of being confined by the rules of society set up by conformists. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would after immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind (Emerson 59). Emerson uses a biblical reference in his essay Self Reliance so the reader can relate to the story and truly understand what he is trying to convey. The immortal palms are in reference to when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus was a man who was beloved and celebrated, however, he was also despised because his thoughts and ideas were different from the ones everyone else shared. People who want to gather immortal palms or do something that is worthy of rejoicing cannot be restrained by what is good and bad according to society.
To succeed you have to play off of your own intuition and follow what you think is right, even if it means going against authority or power. Individualism is an extremely important aspect in the role of the individual in a society that responds to the issues of the time. Without Individualism we lose our unique identities, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and virtues, therefore it would be impossible for an individual to take the role of addressing the issues in society because there is a lack of personal conscience. Before the romanticism period, there was a movement called the age of reason that took place between 1750 and 1800. This was a period of exploration and pursuit of knowledge however society was extremely strict and dull. At the beginning of the transcendentalism movement, the leaders hoped to stop these old attitudes towards life and make society enjoyable and full of wonder and awe. This was accomplished through idealism. In transcendentalism, idealism is the emphasis on creative thinking, raising questions, and innovation. Idealism was especially important in pre-Civil War America because African Americans and women were denied the same rights as white men and a new culture of raising questions allowed people to finally start asking why can’t everyone be equal?. Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and a women’s rights activist who fully embraced idealism because she created her own ideas which she believed in and wanted to fight for.
Truth spoke about her opinions and ideas in her speech Ain’t I A Woman, which took place on May 29, 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? (Truth 99). During this time period, white men owned everything, therefore, Sojourner Truth wanted to raise questions. If white men have all the control in life and women barely have any opportunity, is it not cruel to constantly deny this group of people rights and freedom? By asking this, Truth appeals to ethos ultimately bringing her closer to the audience and building up her character and self-virtue. Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. (Truth 99) Sojourner Truth knows that most of her audience follows Christianity. By bringing up Mary, the mother of God, she appeals to logos by showing people in the audience a woman who can be trusted in a position of power. Raising questions such as Truth did plants the seed of doubt towards societal norms in listeners minds, which creates more questions to be asked and support towards her cause. Idealism consistently allows people to challenge things that they don’t think are right and just.
An individual needs to be able to ask questions and think creatively to address problems in society. Without Idealism, issues in our world would never be resolved because no one would consider asking if something was right or wrong which is why idealism is an extremely important aspect in an individual’s role in responding to issues in society. Transcendentalists did not believe in organized religion because it does not allow individuals to freely think due to the set of rules, ideas, and beliefs put in place by others. However people of transcendentalism thrived for extremely spiritual lives and believed that it was of the utmost importance to connect with nature because it is sacred. The divinity of nature for transcendentalists means that human beings should never interfere or try to control nature, their fate, or the universe and rather leave it be and let divine nature take its course as God or the Divine intended it. All human beings, male and female, were created equally in the eyes of the divine. When people disobey this, acting in an arrogant or egoistic way and turn to corruption or greed, they are trying to control nature and change fundamentals that they have no control over which breaks the relationship between nature and the soul. In Chief Seathl’s letter to The President of The United States, there are strong representations of corruption and greed in one group, the white men, while the Native Americans have grand amounts of respect for the divinity of nature.
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. (Seathl 75) Chief Seathl makes it understood that his people have extreme gratitude for nature’s beauty and sacredness. His detail when describing each aspect of the land they have come to know shows that he and his people take the divinity of nature very seriously while the Americans depict gluttony. In 1852 the United States was heavily focused on westward expansion ultimately driving Native American tribes out of the land they were living on. The Americans wanted to buy the land from the natives and this baffled many of the tribes because, in their the eyes, the land was not something they could just buy. They believed that we are guests on this earth and it is not our right to be here, it is a privilege and we need to be respectful of nature, which all human beings are apart of. All things are connected. Whatever befalls earth befalls the sons of the earth (Seathl 75). At the time, America is creating all this violence and corrupting its population through greedy and egotistical ways.
Chief Seathl understood that his people who carry out the values of divine nature were far outnumbered so he includes this warning that whatever hurts the earth will one day hurt man. According to transcendentalist values, nature is sacred and in order for human beings to live a successful and happy life, one must have a strong connection towards nature which allows that person to understand that everything in life is connected and happens for a reason. When people decide to take different paths in life and break this code, corruption and violence rise which creates issues within society. The divinity of nature is not just a key virtue specific to transcendentalism. The first representation of divine nature takes place in the Holy Bible. In Peter’s second epistle, he tells the reader that the opposite of divine nature is corruption in the world (2 Peter 1:4). Peter says that if we take part in divine nature then God’s promises, also known as the covenants between God and his people, will be true. These promises are peace among everyone and eternal life. Like Chief Seathl and Peter the Apostle, individuals need to continue the job of spreading the word and living true to the divinity of nature to be able to resolve and respond to issues in the world.
As said in the Bible, if all men and women take part in divine nature, peace in the world can thrive which is why this is such an important aspect that supports an individual’s role towards responding to issues of the time. There have been individuals in the past and in the present have had great success in upholding the role of responding to issues within society. Many of these individuals portray characteristics that are in line with transcendentalism. By knowing the importance of a person’s ability to think independently and challenge social norms, while also understanding how to properly connect with nature and treat the environment around them, an individual’s job in addressing and resolving issues within society become more transparent. Embracing the three major transcendentalist virtues which are individualism, idealism and the divinity of nature allow each and every one of us the opportunity to one day become that individual.