Rise of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism “was essentially a romantic belief, a rejection of inductive science in favor of self-perceived truth” (Merchant 204). According to Thoreau, the material world had minimal importance in a world where the individual and nature should be emphasized. Nature wasn’t an organism to be exploited, but rather a way to truly know God. Ralph Waldo Emerson critiques the meaning of wealth in a material world. Emerson explains how steam has existed for thousands of years, but now that it is being used to transport goods it has suddenly allowed people to become wealthy. Fruit has been grown since the beginning of time and is now being sold in markets for a profit. He seems to lament the state of affairs in the 1840s. “The true thrift is always to spend on the higher plane; to invest and invest, with keener avarice, that he may spend in spiritual creation and not in augmenting animal existence” (Merchant 190). This statement falls right in line with the values of transcendentalism. Rather than investing to acquire material possessions, people should invest in themselves spiritually through reflection and learning about others. Henry David Thoreau was also a transcendentalist. Thoreau lived in a forest near Concord, Massachusetts where he grew a bean field. Rather than sell the beans on the marketplace, Thoreau is the consumer of the beans. In this way he is rejecting the capitalist attitude that one should profit off of one’s labor (Merchant 192-193). Thoreau would also follow animals and take notes from their perspective. For example, “the fox climbed a hillside, momentarily dragging its white-tipped tail in the snow, then struck out across a potato field and into another meadow” (Merchant 203). Although many people would not care about the movements of a fox, Thoreau documented them because he believed each animal had its own unique purpose which contributed to life. Thoreau rejected the idea that human beings had to be the center of all things and adopted the biocentric view. The “biocentric world view stated that all species of life are effectively equal because they depend upon others for survival, for food, shelter, air, and water” (Merchant 204). Thoreau and Emerson were both people who take unpopular positions during a time in which capitalism was becoming more and more the norm.

Transcendentalism arose in New England due to the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. Without the rise of capitalism and its negative effects, (destruction of nature & pollution) transcendentalism probably would not have come about. In earlier centuries, most people were subsistence farmers who engaged the land as a means of providing for themselves and their family not for making a profit. With the transportation, industrial, and market revolution things changed drastically. Thoreau saw how his town of Concord was being affected by the rise of various technologies, and in turn decided that enough was enough.


Works Cited

Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.