Book Reading and Author Party

Bainbridge Island Library

1270 Madison Ave N, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 (map)

Friday, October 27, 7:00 pm

Open to the public, Reception to follow

 

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul by Barry M. Andrews

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul by Barry M. Andrews

American Transcendentalism is often viewed as a literary movement—a flowering of works written by New England intellectuals who retreated from society and lived in nature. In Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, Barry M. Andrews focuses on a neglected aspect of this well-known group, showing how American Transcendentalists developed rich spiritual practices to nurture their souls and discover the divine. The practices are common and simple—among them, keeping journals, contemplation, walking, reading, simple living, and conversation. In approachable and accessible prose, Andrews demonstrates how Transcendentalism’s main thinkers, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and others, pursued rich and rewarding spiritual lives that inspired them to fight for abolition, women’s rights, and education reform. In detailing these everyday acts, Andrews uncovers a wealth of spiritual practices that could be particularly valuable today, to spiritual seekers and religious liberals.

Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, Oct. 2017

Why Transcendentalist Spirituality?

People often ask me why I am attracted to the Transcendentalists. For the Greeks and Romans, to be a philosopher was not to craft subtle arguments, but to live a philosophical life. As Thoreau said in Walden, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates.” For the ancients, philosophy was akin to what today we call spirituality. I, too, aspire to live a philosophical or spiritual life, and for me the Transcendentalists offer the best model for doing so.

Their discipline, or praxis, was termed self-culture. For them, culture was not high-brow entertainment, as it is for us today. It did not “consist in polishing or varnishing,” Emerson said. Rather, culture meant cultivation. And the self in question is not the self of modern psychology, but the soul. Self-culture is the cultivation of the soul. Their spiritual exercises included contemplation, solitude, walks in nature, reading, journal writing, conversation, simple living, and action from principle.

Theoria, for the Greeks and Romans, was wisdom gained through contemplation. The wisdom of the Transcendentalists consisted in the belief that there is a cosmos, or unity of nature, including human nature. It is best expressed in these words of Emerson: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

My own spiritual practice has been enriched and guided by what I have learned from the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau above all.