Better, smarter people than I have tried to define transcendentalism, and failed. It’s a philosophy based on intuition, on “gut feeling,” rather than rational, logical evidence. As such, it’s not something easily defined It’s more “felt” or just “gotten” once you’ve read enough and thought enough about it’s main ideas.
There are several different forms or styles of Transcendentalism, but the one we are most concerned with is American Transcendentalism. This philosophy was primarily articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but other well-known Transcendentalists were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker and Margaret Fuller. These writers and thinkers met regularly in Concord, MA in a club where they would discuss and debate the issues of the day and the emerging Transcendental mode of thought. They published a magazine called The Dial for many years that allowed them to put into writing, and thus spread beyond just their limited geographic area, the growing body of Transcendental thinking. Emerson also traveled the country giving lectures to large crowds in which he shared his philosophy of the world and his views of what it meant to be an American in the early decades of the 19th Century. Margaret Fuller took the ideas of Transcendentalism and moved them into early feminist thought and argument. Other Transcendentalists formed community farms, founded schools, and did whatever else was deemed necessary to share their world-view with the rest of society.
But what was that world-view? Well, it appears to me that the Transcendentalists were attempting to move beyond rationalism and Deism. They believed in a higher power, but it wasn’t necessarily a Judeo-Christian God. Nature is the ultimate source of wisdom, beauty and morality in the eyes of the Transcendentalists. All individual creatures have their place within the greater scheme of nature. Their goal should be to best determine that role, that function, in nature’s scheme and fulfill that role to the best of their ability. Thus, individuals should reject conformity doing what everybody else is doing just to fit in and instead do what feels right. Emerson truly believed that every person had it within themselves to know and understand what was right and what was wrong. Where people get confused, according to Emerson, is listening to what SOCIETY says is right or wrong, and not what NATURE indicates is TRULY right or wrong.
See what I mean about it getting confusing quickly? Transcendentalism has to do with Nature. It has to do with Self-Reliance and Individualism. It has to do with recognizing and valuing Beauty over all else. It has to do with being tolerant of others and their own expressions of individuality. It has to do with improving society and humankind one person, one individual at a time of not worrying so much about others and setting your own house in order first.
Transcendentalism both failed and succeeded. Once the transcendental movement became connected to the Abolition movement, the passion of the emotions invoked by the anti-slavery movement began to overtake and overwhelm the rest of the Transcendental ethos. Slavery was against Natural Law very Transcendental. We have to band together to defeat slavery and force our vision of morality on the slaveholders of the South not so Transcendental.
On the other hand, Transcendentalism also succeeded in that many of its central notions the value of the individual, the importance and beauty of Nature (not oppressive or a goldmine of resources to exploit), and the notion that one person can make a difference are all elements that persist to this day in the American psyche. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s was directly influenced by the Transcendentalists, as was the Animal Rights movement, the Feminist Movement, and the Ecology Movement of the latter half of the 20th Century.
This is just a very simple beginning explanation of Transcendentalism. Check out these websites if you want to know more: