The entire American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century was built on the foundation of recycled Pantheism. Here in lies its lure and its danger. It is conformity disguised as non-conformity. Assent cloaked in dissent. Ugliness parading as beauty.
The movement’s great luminaries were Alcott in Literature, Thoreau in living out civil disobedience, Putnam, Fuller, Longfellow, the list goes on, and of course, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is truly American through and through filled with all the trappings of rugged individualism, the exaltation of nature, and lofty ideals that is so appealing to seekers everywhere.
There can be no doubt that Emerson’s Representative Men deals with heroes with a more velvet glove than Carlyle’s work on hero worship. And, Emerson’s selective essays are inspiring, lucid, and terse. Who could object to his essays on character, art, prudence, and friendship? When he says, “To be great is to be misunderstood,” it just rings true and as right as rain. So what seems to be the problem here?
Ever since high school I saw really no problem until I reread his essay on self-reliance. One line jumped out at me and chilled me to the bone. It was this one line that recently convinced me as a 61 year old man that not only can one not build their life or personal philosophy on his writings but one cannot build their life or personal philosophy on the entire movement without falling into a bottomless pit of real deception.
Why? Because this one line, this one single sentence is absolute arrogance at its most perilous, that can bring one down so low because it seeks to exalt one so high. This sentence is the smoking gun to the entire movement. It is its summation. The sentence goes thus,”Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”. Excuse me? What did he just say? Did he say what I think he said? Well, hot damn, I think he really did!
What Emerson is saying is that nothing, and he means nothing, as in no thing whatsoever is sacred at all unless is comes from your own mind. This absolute exclusivist statement means that anything that does not proceed from a human beings pea-sized brain has no intrinsic quality of the sacred. Let me catch my breath on this one. Did you just see that? Dear reader, do you have any idea how dangerous this statement really is? It is the clarion call to strut around in the arrogance of self-autonomy. It is the exaltation of the mind over love that comes from the heart.
No matter how great the integrity of the mind as a thinking machine, I ask you, can it really conjure up the sacred? Well, I guess that all depends on how one defines the word sacred now, doesn’t it? It also depends if one buys into the hypothesis of the absolute centrality of the mind as in regards to human existence. The cogency, weight, and deceptive element in this statement alone has at its root the appeal to reason, when in reality it is in fact a faith proposition. Surprised?
Emerson is asking his readers, or more like telling them, to put all their faith in the mind as the tool of integrity to bring about something not just good, or even great, but sacred. SACRED. If that is not a faith proposition then I don’t know what is. This is emblematic of the puritanical religious nature of Americans but in the guise of being secular, reasonable, confident, glossed over with a sort of beatific spirituality riding on the wings of the assumption that nature is divine not just in the woods but also in the mind.
Of course, the Transcendentalists would deny that they had anything in common with the Puritans that they deplored, stating that no Oliver Cromwell are we. However, the strain of puritanism is virtually everywhere in the good ole US of A, and it rears its ugly head in many forms. This one sentence expresses in a nutshell the rivers of ink written in abstract ideals to see what this movement really was at its core.
It was a movement that defined the sacred as coming from the brain instead of coming from the truly eternal outside of time where essence proceeds existence. There is nothing transcendental about American Transcendentalism. Nothing. For it has transcended nothing because it is stuck in the finite mind as its only source and therefore stuck in time. Both Augustine and Einstein make a very compelling case in regards to time and the nature of the mind in regards to an impossible task it takes to break out of it by mere human effort.
The movement in its totality is merely self-reliant, arrogant in its inception, arrogant in its formation, and arrogant in its solipsistic practice of exalting nature as divine. This was nothing more than mental projection. No more, no less. When they said, “We are not like you Christians who believe in your so-called transcendent Christ,” you’re damn straight they were not! Therein lies its bombastic sophistry in all its flowery speech that led to another palace of nowhere.
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