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LEsson 3a

The Transcendental
As another straw showing which way the philosophical
wind is blowing, in these days of intellectual unrest,
and as a corroboration of the statements made in the
preceding chapters of this book, I ask that you consider the
following quotations from the latest work of Professor William
James, of Harvard University, which work is based upon a series
of lectures upon the philosophical situation of the present
day. It should be stated, however, that these quotations do not
necessarily represent Professor James s own personal beliefs
or opinions, but are merely expressions of his observations
regarding the prevailing spirit of modern philosophical thought
in the universities and among men of advanced education.
Professor James says:
Those of us who are sexagenarians have witnessed in our own
persons one of those gradual mutations of intellectual climate, due to
innumerable influences, that make the thought of a past generation
seem as foreign to its successor as if it were the expression of a
different race of men. The theological machinery that spoke so livingly
The Crucible of Modern Thought
to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of
nothing, its judicial morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards
and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an
intelligent and moral governor, sound as odd to most of us as if it were
some outlandish savage religion.
Professor James then goes on to speak of the spirit of modern
philosophical thought in the universities, as follows:
Dualistic theism is professed at all Catholic seats of learning,
whereas it has of late years tended to disappear at our British and
American universities, and to be replaced by a monistic pantheism
more or less disguised. I have an impression that ever since T. H. Green s
time absolute idealism has been decidedly in the ascendant at Oxford.
It is in the ascendant at my own university of Harvard. Also: Our
contemporary mind having once for all grasped the possibility of
a more intimate weltanschauung, the only opinion quite worthy of
arresting our attention will fall within the general scope of what may
roughly be called the pantheistic field of vision, the vision of God as the
indwelling divine rather than the external creator, and of human life as
part and parcel of that deep reality.
In the present chapter it is my purpose to consider one of
the most direct and immediate of the innumerable influences
to which is due the present gradual mutation of intellectual
climate, that makes the thought of a past generation seem as
foreign to its successor as if it were the expression of a different
race of men, as Professor James has so well stated. This direct
and immediate influence of which I speak, which has had
so much to do with the bubbling of the Crucible of Modern
Thought, is the influence of the Transcendental Movement of
New England of 1830 1850, and the influence of Emerson in
particular. I feel justified in asserting that the present condition
of spiritual unrest and the prevalence of monistic idealism, while
having its original source far back in the past history of thought,
The Transcendental Movement.
nevertheless reached us through the direct channel of the great
Transcendental Movement in New England in the first half of
the last century, and largely through the individual channel of

expression of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The lovers and admirers

of Emerson have long claimed this, and the opponents of the
movement are now beginning to recognize it. As one disgusted
orthodox speaker recently said: Emerson is the fellow who is at
the bottom of all this trouble. His pantheistic teachings are now
bearing fruit.
The beginnings of the Transcendental Movement in New
England may be seen in the remarkable interest manifested
by educated New Englanders, during the first twenty-five
years of the nineteenth century, toward the classical literature
of England and Germany. Previous to that time the influence
of Locke and Bentham had been dominant in philosophical
thought in this country. The theory of innate ideas was denied,
and there was a decided tendency in favor of the utilitarian
basis of ethics and morals. Protesting against this view, some
of the American Unitarians advanced ideas which, even in that
early day, were denominated the new thought and declared
their preference for the conception that man possessed innate
ideas and also higher faculties transcending the senses and the
ordinary understanding. These advocates of the earlier new
thought felt that religion and morality had a higher source
than ordinary reason, and must be placed in the category of
revelations of the intuition of man, arising from the presence of
the Indwelling Spirit.
The influence of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Herder, Goethe
and others began to displace that of the old literary idols,
and exerted a decided direction in the formation of the new
thought which was supplanting the older philosophical
conceptions. Coleridge taught the doctrine of a higher reason,
or transcendental intuition, by which he held the advanced soul
might exercise an immediate perception of things supersensible,
and which was not a faculty or property of the mind, but rather
The Crucible of Modern Thought
the manifestation of the Indwelling Spirit, which latter was a
spark from the Universal Spirit. He held that there was but
One Spirit, which was shared in by all human beings; the Many
being, in a sense, identical with the One. Wordsworth taught a
poetical pantheism, with its conception of a nature animated
by the Universal Spirit, and as Universal Mind manifested as Law
and Order. The influence of Goethe and other German writers
were in the same general trend all pointed in the direction of
a new pantheistic philosophy. A new interest was awakened in
Plato, and the Neo-Platonists, and a demand was shown for the
writing of the mystics and idealists of the past. In this fruitful
soil, the roots of the New England Transcendental Movement
found that nourishment which led to its rapid growth.
Transcendentalism has been defined, briefly, as the
philosophical conception that there can be knowledge of
transcendental elements, or matters wholly beyond the
ordinary experience of the human mind. The term was used
by Kant. As Wallace says: Kant s philosophy describes itself as
Transcendentalism. The word causes a shudder, and suggests
things unutterable. Transcendentalism is diametrically opposed
to the philosophical views which hold that all knowledge
arises from sensation or experience, and is also opposed to the
agnostic view that reality is unknowable. But the term itself has
taken on a wider and more general signification by reason of
its popular use by the New England Transcendentalists, and its
identification with the philosophy of Emerson, in the popular

mind. In fact, the English-speaking peoples now use the word

generally in the sense of designating the ideas and principles
of the New England School, rather than those of the Kantian
Margaret Fuller, one of the prominent New England
Transcendentalists, in her Memoirs, says:
Transcendentalism was an assertion of the inalienable integrity of
man; of the immanence of Divinity in instinct. On the somewhat
The Transcendental Movement.
stunted stock of Unitarianism, whose characteristic dogma was
trust in human reason, as correlative to Supreme Wisdom, had
been grafted German Idealism, as taught by masters of most various
schools by Kant and Jacobi, Fichte and Novalis, Schelling and Hegel,
Schleiermacher and de Wette, by Madam de Stael, Cousin, Coleridge,
and Carlyle; and the result was a vague, yet exalting, conception of the
god-like nature of the human spirit. Transcendentalism, as viewed by
its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and
rituals to the Temple or the Living God in the soul.
Herzog gives us the orthodox view of the philosophy, in his
Religious Encyclopedia, as follows:
In religion, the typical Transcendentalist might be a sublimated
theist; he was not, in any accepted sense, a Christian. He believed in
no devil, in no hell, in no evil, in no dualism of any kind, in no spiritual
authority, in no Savior, in no Church. He was humanitarian and an
optimist. His faith had no backward look; its essence was aspiration,
not contrition.
This last quotation is particularly interesting, inasmuch as it
proves the contention of the influence of Transcendentalism
upon the modern philosophical and religious thought.
Compare Herzog s statements of what the Transcendentalist
did not believe, and what he did believe, with the prevailing
spirit of religio-philosophical thought, and see how the
criticism of Transcendentalism becomes the prophecy of the
popular thought of the early twentieth century! Surely this is a
clear case of cause and effect.
About 1830, and the years immediately following, the various
elements from which the Transcendental Movement was
afterward composed began to approach each other, drawn
together by the attraction of common interest. Emerson s
Nature, written in 1836, was an active element in the
crystallization, although the writings of others had much to
The Crucible of Modern Thought