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.




Wurmbrand said...


By the way, did you ever read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, about the young "gnostic" idealist Chris McCandless who perished in the Alaskan wilderness having gone there to destroy the false self within? Thoreau is mentioned, of course.

Krakauer's understanding of the matter is sub-Christian, although his book is fascinating. McCandless is almost like someone out of Dostoevsky's Demons -- "possessed" by an idea, and needing Christ's deliverance.

Into the Wild represents one side of American idealism, the "unfettered" and ultimately destructive "individualism" that finds expression in the West Coast bumper sticker that reads "Be your own god."

I like to contrast Into the Wild with Eric Brende's Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Here too is an expression of an idealism more often seen in America than in many parts of the world, but of a more wholesome kind. Brende and his wife seek to live lives of simplicity ... even of Christian simplicity. They settle for a year among an Amish or Amish-like group. The book recognizes difficulties there. But it is really a fine book to balance against the Krakauer.

Thursday said...

I assume you've read Jim Kalb's essay on Emerson. If not, it's here.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - yes, I thought it was a good essay. I either commented on it or exchanged e-mails with JK on the subject, I can't remember which...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I have heard of the first of these books, but not the second.

I empathize strongly with the impulse to escape from the machine-like and alienating aspects of modernity - it is a living death for many sensitive people. Especially when combined with Leftist, secular, hedonic materialism, because this means that there is *nothing else* but this world, now.

The devilish aspect of this is that the people who most loathe this in personal terms are generally those who do most to promote this world - via their Leftist political views, support of the cancer of bureaucracy, their relaitivistic nihilism.

"In Freud's time we felt oppressed in the family, in sexual situations, in our crazy hysterical conversion symptoms, and where we felt oppressed, there was the repressed. Where do we feel that thick kind of oppression today? In institutions--hospitals, universities, businesses; in public buildings, in filling out forms, in traffic…"

James Hillman

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

I wanted to build on Dr. Charlton’s comment above: “I empathize strongly with the impulse to escape from the machine-like and alienating aspects of modernity – it is a living death for many sensitive people. Especially when combined with Leftist, secular, hedonic materialism, because this means that there is *nothing else* but this world, now.” This is a critical point, one deserving of a longer engagement in this forum, as the felt alienation to modernity on the part of many sensitive individuals – the reaction against its pervasive spiritual ugliness, in fact – is one of the most evident and most compelling ‘existential’ arguments against it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spiritual ugliness of the modern world is bound up with its implicit nihilism. As Frithjof Schuon has trenchantly observed, “Ugliness is the price paid for ontological revolt.” [Frithjof Schuon, “Form and Substance in the Religions”] In a certain manner, ugliness is, like evil, conceived as an ontological privation – that of the Beautiful, in Platonic terms. In this way also, ugliness is phenomenally associated with unreality and nothingness:

“Ugliness is, very paradoxically, the manifestation of a relative nothingness: of a nothingness which can affirm itself only by denying or eroding an element of Being, and thus of beauty. This amounts to saying that, in a certain fashion and speaking elliptically, the ugly is less real than the beautiful, and in short that it exists only thanks to an underlying beauty which it disfigures; in a word, it is the reality of an unreality, or the possibility of an impossibility, like all privative manifestations.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Esoterism as Principle and as Way”, p.181

Of course, it is modern civilization, built upon the abyssal foundation of nihilism, which is characteristically and perhaps uniquely alienating and ugly in this manner:

“One might conceivably hold the opinion that the question of beauty is secondary from the standpoint of spiritual truth, an opinion that is both true and false, but it would be quite impossible to shut one’s eyes to the strange absence of beauty from an entire civilization, namely the civilization that surrounds us and that tends to supplant all others. Modern civilization is in fact the only civilization that resolutely places itself outside the spirituality of forms, or the joy of spiritual expression, and this must clearly have some significance. It is also the only civilization which feels the need to proclaim either that its own ugliness is beautiful or that beauty does not exist. This is not to say that the modern world in fact knows nothing of beautiful things or that it totally repudiates them—or that traditional worlds know nothing of ugliness—but it only produces them incidentally and relegates them more or less completely to the realm of luxury; the serious realm remains that of the ugly and the trivial, as though ugliness were an obligatory tribute to what is believed to be ‘reality.’”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Logic and Transcendence”, p.214

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

(continued from above)

To live in such a state is devastating for the soul, which “lives among the dead husks of things”, not merely in terms of the ugliness of surrounding forms, but in the horizontal compression of prosaic life, cut off from the Transcendent:

“Man, in his fallen state, is closed to the Mercy which seeks to save him; this is hardness of heart, indifference towards God and the neighbor, egoism, greed, mortal triviality; such triviality is as it were the inverse counterpart of hardness, it is the fragmenting of the soul among sterile facts, among their insignificant and empty multiplicity, their desiccating drab monotony; it is the chop and change of ‘ordinary life’ where ugliness and boredom pose as ‘reality’. In this state, the soul is both hard like stone and pulverized like sand, it lives among the dead husks of things and not in the Essence which is Life and Love; it is at once hardness and dissolution.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Stations of Wisdom”, p.150

Finally, the ugliness of modernity, arising out of Western Christendom, is all the more sharply to be distinguished from the sensibility to the beauty of spiritual forms of the Medieval Christian civilization that preceded it:

“We know very well that there are some who will not at any price admit the unintelligibility or the ugliness of the modern world, and who readily employ the word ‘aesthetic’, with a derogatory nuance similar to that attaching to the words ‘picturesque’ and ‘romantic’, in order to discredit in advance the importance of forms, so that they may find themselves more at ease in the enclosed system of their own barbarism. Such an attitude has nothing surprising in it when it concerns avowed modernists, but it is worse than illogical, not to say rather despicable, coming from those who claim to belong to the Christian civilization; for to reduce the spontaneous and normal language of Christian art— a language the beauty of which can hardly be questioned—to a worldly matter of ‘taste’—as if medieval art could have been the product of mere caprice—amounts to admitting that the signs stamped by the genius of Christianity on all its direct and indirect expressions were only a contingency unrelated to that genius and devoid of serious importance, or even due to a mental inferiority; for ‘only the spirit matters’—so say certain ignorant people imbued with hypocritical, iconoclastic, blasphemous and impotent puritanism, who pronounce the word ‘spirit’ all the more readily because they are the last to know what it really stands for.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”, p.69

Gabe Ruth said...

I read Mr. Kalb's piece a few months ago, and it did a wonderful job pinning down that most slippery of schools of thought. Not really being an intellectual, I've never been in much danger falling into it, but its song had caught my ear at times. The self-righteous note that Thoreau strikes is completely irresistible to the modern, and draws in some seekers also.

Peter S., thanks for the Schuon quotes. What did he think of St. Augustine? There's an idea in his Confessions where he talks about the existence of pure evil being inconsistent with existence that the first one reminded me of. The last one will be used in the great First Things vs. Front Porch Republic feud very soon.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said,

Re: Gabe Ruth,

Schuon refers to St. Augustine with some frequency and on a variety of topics, such that it is impossible in a restricted context such as this to adequately cover his views. Suffice it to say that he considers him a foremost Christian authority – a view that, of course, simply coincides with that of the Church as a whole. The measure he takes of the Saint – that of “the best of mankind” – might be seen from the following quote:

“But modern man lives below himself and would like to impose on Heaven his own arbitrary and convenient evaluation of the human condition; he would like, as Voltaire put it, ‘to sit under his own fig tree and eat his own bread without asking himself what is in it.’ Now, in order to do this, there is no need to be a man; any animal accomplishes as much without difficulty. It is our theomorphic nature that dictates our behavior; our real nature is that which God asks of us, or that which, in the sight of the Absolute, is our true destiny. The fact that the best of mankind – to say the least – have never stopped short at ‘eating their bread under a fig tree without asking themselves any questions’ proves that the Voltairian man is mistaken, that his dream is unrealizable and engages no one but himself; since Plato, Virgil and St. Augustine have existed, it can no longer be said of man that he is a goat or an ant.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Treasures of Buddhism”, p.57

Regarding Schuon’s understanding of the nature and reality of evil, he shares the Platonic, Plotinian and Augustinian understanding of evil as an ontological privation, as in the following pair of quotes:

“According to Plato and Saint Augustine, the cause of the world is the tendency of the Good to communicate Itself; negatively speaking, this cause is a result of the Infinitude of the Supreme Principle, which necessarily implies the “possibility of the impossible,” namely the possibility of the Absolute not to be the Absolute. But since this possibility is absurd, it can be realized only in an illusory dimension, that of Relativity, of ‘Māyā’; whence the ambiguous possibility of the world, precisely.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “The Transfiguration of Man”, p.66

“All our preceding considerations evoke the question of the ‘why’ of universal Manifestation and, secondarily, as a result of this question, the problem of evil. To answer the question of why there is a relativity, hence a ‘Māyā’, and consequently a Manifestation, we may refer in the first place to an idea of Saint Augustine which we have mentioned more than once, namely that it is in the nature of the Good to want to communicate itself: to say Good is to say radiation, projection, unfolding, gift of self. But at the same time, to say radiation is to say distance, hence alienation or impoverishment; the solar rays dim and become lost in the night of space. From this arises, at the end of the trajectory, the paradoxical phenomenon of evil, which nonetheless has the positive function of highlighting the good ‘a contrario’, and of contributing in its fashion to equilibrium in the phenomenal order.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism”, pp.17-8

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

(continued from above)

Also of interest is Schuon’s comparative observation, citing Augustine, regarding the possibility of intellectual illumination – as witnessed in Meister Eckhart’s well-known statement, “There is something in the soul which is uncreated and uncreatable…this is the Intellect” – in the following quote:

“Before the Sufis, this same expression (Oculus Cordis) was used by Saint Augustine and others; it is connected with the well-known theory of this Father and the Doctors who followed him, according to which the human intellect is ‘illuminated’ by divine Wisdom. The question of knowing whether or not there is a historical connection between the ‘Eye of the Heart’of Plotinian doctrine, Augustinian doctrine and Sufic doctrine (‘Ayn al-Qalb) is doubtless insoluble and in any case unimportant from the standpoint in which we place ourselves; it suffices to know that this idea is fundamental and is met with almost everywhere. Let us not forget to mention that Saint Paul, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, speaks of the ‘eyes of your heart’ (‘illuminatos oculos cordis vestri, ut sciatic…’) (I, 18). On the other hand, it is hardly necessary to recall that according to the eighth beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount, it is they whose hearts are pure who shall see God.”

– Frithjof Schuon, “The Eye of the Heart”, p.3

One might conclude with perhaps his most incisive citation from the Saint, and may the last word stay the longest:

“‘The love of God’, says St. Augustine, ‘comprises all the virtues.’”

– Frithjof Schuon, “Gnosis: Divine Wisdom”, p.112

Daniel said...

I should probably do some more reading before commenting, as I haven't read Kalb's essay yet, and am in the process of reading some Schuon. But...

@Dale: I read that Krakauer book, as well as "Under the Banner of Heaven." Krakauer is a gifted writer, and he has a knack for discovering the hidden underside of a story. I found "Into the Wild" a fascinating book. Krakauer is clearly sympathetic to his subject. Indeed, the rejection of meaningless, hyper-capitalist society is a healthy thing, something we all feel if we are at all alive to the world.

McCandless was (according to Krakauer) a starry-eyed idealist, and this led directly to his premature death. Krakauer points out that McCandless was lucky not to have died on his misguided boat trip around the Gulf of California. The death he ultimately met in the wilds of Alaska was, in a sense, overdue, given his near-total disregard for the essential non-human nature of truly wild places. Nature doesn't want to destroy human beings. But it is totally unfeeling towards us and has no qualms about destroying a human life with poisonous plants, inclement weather, or wild beasts. There's no morality, in the human sense, in the ecosystem of deep Alaska. Deep Alaska isn't therefore an evil place; it simply it what it is. McCandless threw off the strictures of hyper-capitalist mass culture, but he never bothered to do the hard work of learning how to survive on his own without the help of human society (a possible, if perhaps risky, endeavor). And so he perished alone and in pain, far too young.

"Under the Banner of Heaven" was more problematic to me. Krakauer seemed to be pushing an agenda. While describing the more vile and bizarre sects of cultish Mormons that persist in the American and Canadian western territories, he tried very hard to thereby indict all Mormons. And of course, as anyone who has spent an afternoon in Salt Lake City can tell you, Mormons are not only decent people, they display on the whole a level of casual and common decency that has almost totally disappeared in other Western cities. Western people would do well to be more like the Mormons, not less so. But Krakauer in that book betrays that he's fully indoctrinated in the anti-white, anti-religious propaganda of the modern world. So, while his exposé of the cult communities in Arizona and British Columbia is worthwhile and trenchant, his attempt at a larger condemnation of all Mormon society (simply for being white and pious) rings hollow. In fact, it's totally off-base and ideological.

Daniel said...

Bruce, I agree with your general analysis of the Transcendentalists here, though from how you describe things, I'm certainly less well-acquainted with them than you are. (Just have read "Walden" and one large collection of Emerson essays.)

Do you think this is just a specific instance of a general phenomenon? The phenomenon I have in mind is the idea that deviations from tri-partite Good (True, Beautiful, Virtuous, as you so often reference) can sometimes result in shooting stars, as it were. That is to say, if I am willing to sacrifice the True and the Virtuous in the name of Beauty, I might actually create some very beautiful things. Likewise I can write some excellently True philosophical treatises (well.. I can't, but someone could) and sacrifice the Virtuous and Beautiful, and create some very excellent analysis. (Matisse would perhaps be an example of the first, and Marx an example of the second). Etc.

But people like Emerson (or Matisse, or Marx) can only do their transgressive work and have it appear brilliant if there is a general background of dedication to tri-partite Good. Emerson could focus on aesthetics and still be a decent man (Virtuous and True, in his own imperfect but admirable human way) precisely because he came from a world which imbued in him the qualities which he would later conveniently dismiss. If he had never learned Truth and Virtue, if he had been a dissipated liar in his personal life, he never could have written his inspiring essays on aesthetic joy. Likewise a brilliant analytical mind, like Marx, could never achieve the heights of his incisive analysis into the mechanisms of capitalism if he hadn't been a classically educated and well-disciplined person.

Nowadays, thanks to the Marxes and Duchamps and Freuds of the world, all of whom were brilliant in their own way, we live in a world where NONE of the beautiful, nor the true, nor the virtuous holds sway. And so to latch onto Emerson (or Marx, or even Matisse) is an incomplete solution to the gross problem of lived bankruptness.

McCandless, of the comments Dale and I made above, is an example of this. He intuited the evil of the world around him, but he grabbed onto the idea of improved Beauty without grasping the idea of improved Virtue and (especially, given how retarded he was about the actual nature of the wilderness) improved Truth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - thanks for that. Certainly, that's what I was trying to say.