CliffsNotes on Emerson's Essays

By H. Rose; Gregory W. Tubach | Go to book overview

CRITICAL ESSAYS

Trancendentalism

Never a truly organized body of thought, and characterized by defects as well as inspirational ideals, transcendentalism became one of the most subtly influential trends in nineteenth-century America. Three main currents contributed to this uniquely American school of thought: neo-Platonism and the belief in an ideal state of existence; British romanticism, with its emphasis on individualism; and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

From neo-Platonism—as nineteenth-century educated Americans understood it—came the belief in the primacy of intellectual thinking over material reality, an idea originated by the Greek philosopher Plato. Through a series of dramatic dialogues, Plato argues that there are ideal forms existing in an absolute reality; in the material world in which we live, all objects and phenomena are imperfect representations of these ideals. Our entire lives are spent trying to perfect ourselves and our environment in hopes of attaining an ideal existence. Agreeing with Plato, philosophers like Emerson and his fellow transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott go so far as to say that ideas are the only reality: The tangible world exists solely as a manifestation of pure ideas.

This preoccupation with pure ideas also appears in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was first to use the term “transcendentalism.” His philosophical investigations of the pure workings of the mind were extremely influential throughout Western culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially as they pertain to American transcendentalism. Kant believes that transcendental knowledge is limited because, as humans, we can understand only what we are capable of perceiving. If we cannot perceive something, it simply does not exist. Other German transcendentalists, with whom Emerson is closer in his thinking, expand Kant’s reasoning. They argue that simply because we cannot perceive something does not mean that it does not exist. Emerson maintains that the soul exists, but he admits that he cannot define what this soul is, other than acknowledging when he senses it in himself or in another person.

British romanticism also influenced Emerson and transcendentalism. Romantics such as William Wordsworth and

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CliffsNotes on Emerson's Essays
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Contents 3
  • Life and Background of the Author 4
  • Chronology of Emerson’s Life 8
  • Critical Commentaries 11
  • Critical Essays 85
  • Review Questions and Essay Topics 96
  • Selected Bibliography 97
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