What is Transcendentalist Spirituality?

The view from Thoreau's cabin. Photograph by Barry M. Andrews

The view from Thoreau’s cabin

The soul and its cultivation were the primary preoccupations of the Transcendentalists in everything they said and did, from the pursuit of self-reliance to social reform. “Self-culture” was the defining characteristic of the age, a term widely used to refer to education and self-improvement. It took on special meaning for the Transcendentalists. They believed, as Emerson put it, that “every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world.” They experienced such ecstasies themselves and considered them to be the spiritual high water marks of their lives. They sought ways of cultivating such experiences and incorporating insights gained through them into the texture of their everyday lives. Self-culture, as they understood it, was a form of spiritual practice intended to accomplish these aims. Moreover, the work of self-culture did not end with the individual. The self in question was not the isolated, individual ego, but rather the human soul in its relation to the universal Mind, or, as Emerson termed it, the Over-soul.

Their spirituality was very much in this world, characterized by a reverence for nature, an organic world-view, a sense of the miraculous in everyday life, an optimism about human potential, a search for what is universal in religion and human experience, a strong moral conscience, and an encouragement of the individual in her or his own religious quest. Their practices to achieve self-culture—some formal, others informal—all aimed to transform both self and society. Starting as a religious revolt, Transcendentalism soon became a broad-based reform movement as members of the group sought to realize the ethical implications of their philosophical idealism. Because they believed the religious impulse was innate and universal, they looked for common elements in the world’s spiritual traditions, embracing an unprecedented religious cosmopolitanism.

— from Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming

 

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