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American Intellectual History 101: Transcendentalism


The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.

This series will be divided into seven articles:

Transcendentalism is a 19th-century movement of writers and philosophers from New England, who adhered to an idealistic school of thought based on the notions of the inherent goodness of humans, the essential unity of all creation and the superiority of insight over reason and experience in the illumination of the highest truths (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998). The emergence of unitarianism in early 1800s New England is where transcendentalism first emerged. It developed out of a disagreement between "Old Light" opponents, who prized reason in their religious approach, and "New Light" theologians, who thought that religion should emphasize an emotional experience (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998). Transcendentalists promoted the idea of having a personal understanding of God and held that having spiritual insight might occur without the aid of a middleman. They supported idealism, emphasizing the natural world, and rejected materialism. Transcendentalist concepts were brought together in literature by the 1830s, which signaled the start of a more formalized movement (History, 2017). It is widely acknowledged that the notion of transcendentalism is pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his mentee Henry David Thoreau. They shared a commitment to the idea of individualism, the importance of nature, and the pursuit of truth and higher understanding. Their debates and discussions contributed to the development and refinement of transcendentalist philosophy, which profoundly influenced American literature and thought. In order to grasp the place of transcendentalism in American intellectuality, delving into the ideas and works of these two prominent figures is inevitable.

Concord, Massachusetts: a Place Chosen for Solitude by Transcendentalists

Concord, Massachusetts, and specifically Walden Pond, played significant roles in the lives and work of transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These locations provided them with inspiration, solitude, and a connection to nature, all of which were central to their transcendentalist philosophy and writings, being particularly influential in Thoreau's life. In 1845, he embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living and self-sufficiency by building a cabin near Walden Pond. The pond itself is known for its natural beauty and historical significance, particularly because of Henry David Thoreau's time spent living in the cabin near its shores. Thoreau's time at Walden Pond became the basis for his seminal work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which outlined his ideas on simplicity, self-reliance, and the importance of direct experience with nature. The peaceful solitude of Walden Pond allowed Thoreau to immerse himself in the natural world, which he believed was essential for understanding oneself and the greater truths of existence. Through his observations and reflections in Walden, Thoreau encouraged others to live deliberately, questioning societal norms and finding fulfillment in simplicity and nature.

Figure 1: Concord River

"How shall I help myself?" he asked himself in his journal the following year. His answer was: "by withdrawing into a garret, and associating with spiders and mice, determining to meet myself face to face sooner or later." (Madison, 1944, p. 110). Thoreau's response reflects in his belief in the importance of solitude and self-reflection as a means of personal development, growth and self-awareness. By intentionally seeking out such experiences, he aims to meet himself honestly and openly, ultimately hoping to gain valuable insights into his own nature.

Simplicity: As a Key in Human Life

Thoreau's ideas about a simplistic life are interwoven throughout the book, particularly in the chapter titled "Economy." Thoreau believed in the importance of living deliberately and simplifying one's life. He sought to distance himself from the distractions and complexities of modern society, choosing instead to embrace a more minimalistic and self-reliant existence. Thoreau argued that by reducing our material needs and desires, individuals can achieve a deeper sense of freedom, contentment, and connection to nature. He asserts that “it would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them…” (Thoreau, 1854, p. 267). Thoreau suggests that the comforts and conveniences of modern civilization often obscure our understanding of what is truly essential for our well-being. By immersing oneself in a simpler and more basic way of living, such as through a primitive or frontier lifestyle, one can gain a clearer perspective on the fundamental needs that sustain human life. Living in such a manner allows individuals to strip away the excesses and distractions of contemporary life, enabling them to focus on the core necessities required for survival. By doing so, they can learn to distinguish between what is truly essential and what is merely superfluous or artificially created desires.

Figure 2: Henry David Thoreau

In "Economy," Thoreau criticizes the prevailing consumer culture and its emphasis on accumulation and excess. He suggests that many people work unnecessarily to earn money to buy things they don't truly need, trapping themselves in a cycle of materialism and discontent:

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor” (Thoreau, 1854, p. 269).

Thoreau expresses his belief that many luxuries and comforts commonly associated with a prosperous life are not essential and, in fact, impede human progress and elevation. He goes on to suggest that historically, wise individuals have often chosen to live simpler and more frugal lives than even those who are economically disadvantaged. Thoreau's perspective stems from his critique of materialism and the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. He argues that the constant desire for luxuries and comforts can distract individuals from higher pursuits, such as personal growth, intellectual exploration, and spiritual development. The accumulation of material possessions can become a burden, both in terms of the effort required to acquire them and the time and attention they demand to maintain and protect. By contrast, living a simple and meager life, free from the burdens of excessive wealth and material possessions, allows individuals to focus on what truly matters. Thoreau suggests that those who choose to live with fewer luxuries and comforts often have a clearer perspective on life's essential values and are more attuned to their own inner development. However, Thoreau's thoughts on a simplistic life in Walden extend beyond material possessions. He encourages individuals to cultivate self-reliance, emphasizing the importance of personal growth, intellectual stimulation, and spiritual reflection. Thoreau values introspection, solitude, and the pursuit of one's passions as essential elements of a meaningful life.

“Trust Thyself”

Self-reliance is the touchstone of the transcendentalist notion, which was valued both by Thoreau and Emerson. Regis Michaud argues that “self-reliance is for Emerson a declaration of spiritual independence, a plea for religious autonomy. To keep the soul forever young and active, to defend its creative energies, the personal and actual character of religious experience, the right for the individual to expand into universal relations, this is the capital point of all Emerson's lecturing and preaching from 1832 to 1838” (1919, p. 76). Emerson believed that true spirituality and religious experience should not be confined to established doctrines or external authorities. Instead, he advocated for a direct and personal relationship with the divine, free from dogma and rigid institutional structures. Emerson saw self-reliance as a means of asserting one's independence from religious traditions that might stifle individual growth and the exploration of universal truths. By relying on one's own intuition, insights, and inner guidance, Emerson believed individuals could tap into a wellspring of spiritual wisdom. He encouraged people to trust their own thoughts and experiences, recognizing that each person has the capacity to access profound truths and engage in a direct communion with the divine. Emerson saw the preservation of one's creative energies and the continuous expansion of one's understanding as vital to maintaining a youthful and active soul. By cultivating a mindset of self-reliance, individuals could constantly seek new insights, challenge existing beliefs, and explore the ever-expanding realm of spiritual and universal knowledge.

Figure 3: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech given at Harvard College Divinity School in 1838 argues for a return to a more genuine and personalized type of spirituality, and stresses the value of individuality, self-reliance, and self-discovery throughout the text. By doing this, he contests the prevalent philosophical and religious paradigms of the day and establishes the groundwork for a new school of spiritual and philosophical thinking in America:

“Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.' But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding” (Thoreau, 1838, p.347).

The author reflects on the distortion and misinterpretation of the teachings of a certain individual, possibly referring to a specific historical figure or an archetype representing enlightened individuals throughout history by suggesting that the doctrine and memory of this individual have been distorted in subsequent ages, leading to a misunderstanding of their true message. Emerson emphasizes that religious teachings were not meant to be understood solely by the rational intellect. Rather, they were meant to be grasped through a deeper level of comprehension, beyond mere intellectual understanding. Emerson proclaimed that through inividuals, God acted and spoke, implying a profound spiritual connection and divine inspiration. However, the understanding and intellect of later generations reduced this profound statement to a literal interpretation, leading to a distorted perception of the teachings because language, rhetoric, and metaphors of the religious teachings became the focus, while the true essence and principles underlying their message were overshadowed. Churches and religious institutions were built not on fundamental principles but rather on superficial aspects. The author emphasizes the significance of the individual's inner revelation, seeing it as the eternal and authentic source of divine truth. Emerson suggests that this figure represents a truly exceptional individual in history who deeply valued the worth of humanity. He recognized the divine nature and potential inherent in each person and embraced the idea that the true revelation of God occurs within the heart and soul. Emerson, in his understanding and appreciation of the essence of humanity, demonstrated an extraordinary level of insight and wisdom by placing the significance on the individual itself.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connexion of events. Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark” (Emerson, 1841, p. 355).

Ralph Waldo Emerson encourages individuals to trust themselves and embrace their unique destinies. He advises them to accept the circumstances in which they find themselves, including their place within society and the interconnectedness of events. Emerson suggests that great individuals throughout history have trusted in the innate wisdom within them, allowing it to guide their actions and shape their lives. According to Emerson, every person possesses an internal compass, symbolized by the "iron string," that resonates with their true nature and purpose. Trusting oneself means recognizing and following this internal guidance, which he believes to be reliable and trustworthy. By doing so, individuals can tap into their inherent genius and fulfill their destinies. Emerson emphasizes the importance of accepting the position that divine Providence has assigned to each individual. This involves acknowledging one's role within society and recognizing the interconnectedness of events. By accepting these circumstances, individuals align themselves with the natural order of things and open themselves up to the opportunities and challenges that come their way. Emerson encourages individuals to embrace a mindset of greatness and to see themselves as agents of positive change in the world. He suggests that rather than cowering in fear or retreating from challenges, individuals should embody the qualities of guides, redeemers, and benefactors. By doing so, they align themselves with the divine effort, the universal force that drives progress and transformation. Furthermore, Emerson urges individuals to embrace their transcendent destiny and reject a mindset of dependency or victimhood. He rejects the idea of being "minors and invalids" confined to a protected corner, and instead he calls for individuals to courageously confront chaos and darkness. By advancing in the face of challenges and uncertainties, individuals can contribute to the ongoing evolution of society and bring about positive change.

In conclusion, transcendentalism, with its emphasis on the inherent goodness of humans, the unity of all creation, and the primacy of insight over reason, emerged as a significant 19th-century movement in New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, through their philosophical ideas and literary works, became key figures in the development and dissemination of transcendentalist thought. Their experiences in Concord, Massachusetts, particularly at Walden Pond, provided them with a solitude, inspiration, and connection to nature that deeply influenced their writings and philosophies. Thoreau's exploration of simplicity and self-reliance, as showcased in Walden, highlighted the importance of stripping away materialistic desires and finding fulfillment in the essentials of life. Emerson's call for self-trust and individualism challenged traditional religious structures and encouraged a personal connection with the divine. Together, these transcendentalist ideas continue to resonate today, inspiring individuals to seek truth, embrace nature, and forge their unique paths in pursuit of a more profound understanding of themselves and the world around them. The legacy of transcendentalism endures as a timeless reminder of the power of introspection, the value of simplicity, and the profound potential within every individual to shape their own destiny and contribute to the betterment of society.


Hollinger, D & Capper, C. (2005). American Intellectual Tradition: Vol. Volume 1: 1630-1865. Oxford University Press.

Madison, C. A. (1944). Henry David Thoreau: Transcendental Individualist. Ethics, 54( 2), 110-123.

Michaud, R. (1919). Emerson's transcendentalism. The American Journal of Psychology, 30 (1), 73-82.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Transcendentalism | Definition, Characteristics, Beliefs, Authors, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Thoreau, H. D. (2012). The Portable Thoreau. Penguin Random house.

History. (2017, November 15). Transcendentalism.

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Hazal Kazancı

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