Ah. Autumn is in the air, so, of course, I am sipping coffee and eating candy pumpkins. We’ve had rain of late and much cooler weather—no 100-degree temperatures in sight for at least a week now. When I think of autumn, I begin to think of the glories of New England where the trees will soon unbox their bright crayon colors: scarlets, yellows, oranges, tangerines, not to mention some lovely russets. There is sure to be a crispness in the air that exhilarates.
And I can never think of New England without considering Concord, home of “the shot heard round the world,” the birthplace of freedom, land of literary giants, and the greenhouse of Transcendentalism. How so many deep thinkers, philosophers, writers, and educators ended up in one village is a marvel to me. Likely much of it can be attributed to Transcendentalism itself and its best-known adherent Ralph Waldo Emerson who drew many to that philosophy.
The Transcendental Movement, which began in Concord in the very early 19th Century was, in large part, a reaction against the beliefs of rationalism taught in such places as Harvard College. Some intellectuals and thinkers had begun to question the rationalist notion that all knowledge, truth, and understanding could come through the use of a person’s five senses. By relying on these, rationalists argued, people could think through most any situation and come to a reasonable conclusion. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (influenced by Emerson), Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody—to name a few—began to dispute this strongly-held view. They believed that understanding and knowledge transcended rational thought based only on the senses, and that people should live close to nature and rely on intuition as well.
Transcendentalism had several tenants, a strong belief in self-reliance being one of them, a belief that all able-bodied people should be responsible and carry their own weight in the world thus necessitating work. Many Transcendentalists also believed communal living to be a workable idea (a seeming contradiction to some of us), perhaps leading to a kind of utopian existence. Two communities in the area of Concord that grew out of this Transcendental philosophy were Fruitlands and Brook Farm where residents would work, be paid the identical hourly wage for their work, and therefore contribute to the general good. Nathaniel Hawthorne enthusiastically joined Fruitlands for a while but gave it up after a few months, unhappy that he did not have enough time to write because of the physical labor and that people whose labor consisted of little more than thinking or contemplating life by looking out a window were paid the same hourly wage. Bronson Alcott’s Brook Farm, a bit stricter in concept, also failed within a short period.
Henry David Thoreau, who spent a couple of years living alone and off the land at Walden Pond near Concord, you may remember, fully embraced Transcendentalism’s philosophy concerning the intuitive and spiritual importance of life while emphasizing the closeness to nature, as well as the importance of self-reliance. He was convinced these things contributed to man’s happiest state, famously writing in his book Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Transcendentalism largely had died out by the mid-19th century. But the writings and philosophies of its famous practitioners continue to influence the writers and thinkers of today.
5 thoughts on “Autumn, Concord, and Transcendentalism”
Iron sharpens Iron. I always feel most alive and energetic when a complementary team is striving to build or discover something worthwhile.
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The Transcendentalists were quite a interesting group who certainly held together though they sometimes had slightly different convictions. They are fascinating to study as individuals and were also self-reliant..
I have tried to learn and adhere to some Stoic principles over the last few years. I’m no expert, but it would seem there is some overlap here with the Transcendentalists with regards to using self-reliance and reason.
Great post as always.
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I will need to “study-up” on Stoicism. I know the philosophy emphasizes self-control and looking to nature, so the two may not be far apart. Transcendentalism seems a bit softer, maybe more education and intellectually leaning, but I may be wrong about that. Elizabeth Peabody started the first kindergartens, Emerson was a Unitarian minister who pulled away from Unitarianism due to its insistence on Rationalism. Most of my exposure to philosophy has been through the study of literature, so my prism may be limited.