The Transcendentalists

Trade is also but for a time, and must give way to somewhat broader and better, whose signs are already dawning in the sky” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Young American

The Transcendentalists were a group of American anti materialists from the late 1820s and 1830s, who sought an alternative to the industrial economy amidst nature, in the simple life. Transcendentalism developed as a reaction against 18th century rationalism among a group of mostly New England thinkers and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

 The Transcendentalists lived in a bourgeois culture that was intoxicated by the possibilities of technology and by the improvements that would come with progress. The steam engine, the railway, the factory, scientific management —all of these things would eliminate distance, facilitate trade and generate wealth. Man was on the verge of conquering nature with the technological sublime and even Emerson was initially caught up in the excitement. But over time, the Transcendentalists concluded that while technology might bring material gain, it would also threaten nature and man’s spiritual connection to nature. The transcendentalists felt that most of their fellow Americans worked to hard and too slavishly. They were able to calculate and measure but often did not take the time to sense and feel. They looked at their middle-class neighbors and found, they were too concerned with their standard of living and not enough concerned with their reason for living.

In their philosophy, the Transcendentalists express how life is too precious to devote to money and things; material duties should be considered just a stepping stone to spiritual exploration. The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested a ‘gradual ethic’ that held that people begin with their material needs and are meant to ‘ascend and ascend’.

 The Transcendentalists believed in living simply and wisely and experienced their most vivid and profound experiences in nature. Their aesthetic was more naturalistic than artistic with the goal was to transcend materialism and rationalism and so penetrate their inner spirituality that was at the core of each person. “There is something greater within than the whole material creation, than in all the worlds which press on the eye and ear; and that inward improvements have a worth and dignity in themselves.” 


Words by Sidsel Solmer Eriksen