“Meet Mr. Thoreau”

A brief sketch of

There is no understanding Henry David Thoreau, the source of his inspiration and the rationale for his life’s work, without appreciating the ideas that shaped his view of the world.

Thoreau was a self-described “transcendentalist,” one of a group of influential New England writers shaped by the intellectual movement of the same name. By the time of his graduation from Harvard,  Thoreau had been introduced to transcendentalist ideas by his mentor and Concord neighbor, the eminent Concord writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The American transcendentalist movement, itself part of the broader 19th Century European Romantic movement, was inspired by the publication of Emerson’s essay, “Nature” in 1836 and “Self-Reliance” in 1841. Like other Romantics, American transcendentalists rejected the prevailing “philosophy of empiricism” which held that all knowledge comes from experience, from information acquired by the fives senses and the intellectual capacity to reason.

While transcendentalists agreed that knowledge of the physical environment (or “matter”) was acquired this way, they asserted that each and every individual could also learn about a higher reality, the “world of the spirit,” through an inborn power. Known as common sense or “intuition,” this trans-scendental power functioned above and beyond the five senses. The faculty of “intuition” provided every person with their own ability to know what is absolutely true.

Transcendentalists saw nature not only as beautiful, but as a reflection of divinity--literally, the face of God. They believed that the “macrocosm” (the universe) and the “microcosm” (the individual) were directly connected. Both  also contained the divine, as well as all other objects, animate and inanimate. They believed that the purpose of human life was union with the so-called “over-soul”  which embraced--and was reflected in-- everything in the world. People could develop their potential by immersing themselves in the beauty of  the natural world. Beauty and truth could be experienced only through intuition, though careful observation of nature might help to uncover its laws and provide a glimpse into the divine.

Though transcendentalists were preoccupied with the “world of spirit,” they tended to be anti-religious, that is, they felt that organized churches obstructed the individual’s relationship to God. They felt that the authority of organized religion needed to be rejected and that people needed to find God within themselves, through the power of “intuition.” In pursuit of this divine knowledge, seekers needed to be prepared to resist accepted social codes and customs. Truth could be found in nature and within one’s self. Self-reliance and individuality--not obedience to outside authority--were the pathways to self-understanding and to the divine. Only by being true to one’s spiritual quest, by being prepared to really “see” nature around and within one’s self and to “listen” to one’s intuitive power, could one find Truth--and God.

[This sketch relies heavily on the Encarta (1995) and World Book (1997) Electronic Encyclopedias for content and some phrasing.]

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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