Transcendentalism vs. Puritanism: The Enduring Relevance of Competing Ideologies in Modern American Society

Transcendentalism and Puritanism share an enduring relativity embedded in modern American individualism. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau espoused the tenants of a quasi-religion governed by individuality and nature while Puritans like Jonathan Edwards, though influenced by the academics of free thinking, knelt at the altar of altruism governed by an angry God. While we indeed have deep roots within Puritanism as a nation, we are equally influenced by the individualism that is Transcendentalism. In reflecting upon the condition of modern American society, it seems clear that the divisions that separate these two distinct ideologies, their seeds planted during the time of our foundation, still frame the divisions we face as a collective people today.

In order to truly understand both the endurance and the influence of each school of thought, they must first be defined.  Transcendentalism cannot be fully comprehended without establishing its relationship to its founding father – Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts into a family that had served as esteemed clergymen for generations.  It seemed his life was destined to find its path navigated by a pastoral career but his philosophy and theology were so influenced by German and English works that he soon found himself questioning the framework that defined organized religion.  Further, a collection of his letters demonstrates that he was likewise greatly influenced by his independent and controversial Aunt Mary, whose unique, feminist spirit and keen mind would no doubt have shaped Emerson’s own penchant for individualism – a core tenant of Transcendentalism.

Though Emerson is credited with the foundation of Transcendentalism, the name itself was actually derived from the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Emerson’s works are laden with inference to Kant’s primary assertions “that the human mind “forms” experience; that the existence of such mental operations is a counter to skepticism; and that “transcendental” does not mean “transcendent” or beyond human experience altogether, but something through which experience is made possible” (Goodman, 2003).  Parting somewhat from Kant, however, is Emerson’s postulation that reason is a by-product of vision rather than a mere comprehension borne of the effort-filled workings of the mind seeking answers.  He, like his cohorts Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, experienced such vision in the trappings of nature, rather than in the confines of the church.

Another interesting though lesser known contributor to the tenants of Transcendentalism was Amos Bronson Alcott who wrote Conversations with Children Upon the Gospels.  Goodman defines his philosophy thusly, “He found anticipations of his views about a priori knowledge in the writings of Plato and Kant, and support in Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection for the idea that idealism and materiality could be reconciled”. In order to demonstrate this reconciliation, Alcott looked to the children he taught arguing that “the truth of Christianity could be found in the unimpeded flow of children’s thought” (Goodman, 2003); it’s a possible reflection of Matthew 18.3 which reads, “And He Said: “Truly I Tell You, Unless You Change and Become like Little Children, You Will Never Enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18.3, NAS Bible). The reconciliation he gestures to is the idealistic purity of a child observed in an environment most unrestrictive to his/her natural inclinations, which have yet to become wholly perverted by the expectations of societal conformity.

Rejection of conformity is also at the heart of Transcendentalism. Emerson’s essay entitled Self Reliance aims right at the heart of the conformity imposed by society and categorically dismisses anything that resembles a herd mentality.  He believed that each person should strive to find his own unique relation to the universe rather than one prescribed by dogmatic doctrine or societal pressure.  He admonishes the reader of Self Reliance to “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (Anthology 685) and further states, “there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion…” (Anthology, 684).  His hope, like his fellow Transcendentalists, for his time and that of future generations, was that “we have heard the last of conformity and consistency” (Anthology, 690).

Lastly, the exploration of the core tenants of Transcendentalism sheds the greatest light on that which differentiates it from its Puritan opposition.  It is a form of philosophical idealism that calls upon the individual to rise above the animalistic impulses in life, as well as the cultural restrictions imposed upon the individual.  In Transcendentalism, God is a life force found in everything which negates the necessity of churches or holy places.  God is found in both nature and human nature; he is a “light” in everyone.  As a rule, one must ruminate over and nourish the inner light to keep it alive and healthy.  Everyone is in possession of intuition or an inherent understanding of right and wrong but culture and society tend to corrupt the intuition.  To actualize the authority of our intuition, we must learn, think, and reflect.  Further, neither our past nor our future should limit the present.  We must live close to nature because it is our greatest teacher and our connection to God.  Individualism is that the very heart of Transcendentalism and self-empowerment is borne of the defiance of social conventions – even God is not the ultimate authority.  To the Transcendentalist, evil is not the opposite of good, it is simply the absence of good, but good is thought to be more powerful.  Finally, all things are encompassed and contained by the Oversoul, which has spiritual power.

The opposition to Puritanism in the immediately preceding tenants is only fully realized when placed in juxtaposition with the Puritanical beliefs.  Where Transcendentalists assert their natural right to an individual relationship with God, defined only by one’s own will and a communing with nature, Puritans “sought both individual and corporate conformity to the teaching of the Bible, with moral purity pursued both down to the smallest detail, as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level. They believed that man existed for the glory of God, that his first concern in life was to do God’s will and so to receive future happiness” (Wikipedia, Puritan). Puritans were largely responsible for amendments that mandated public education inspired by their belief that children could only conform properly to biblical and legal tenants if they could read them for themselves.  For Puritans, conformity was essential lest humanity lean toward absolute barbarism.

Even more inclined toward conformity was the Puritan notion that the purpose of humanity could not be fulfilled in a way pleasing to the God they served without engaging in the institute of marriage and procreation.  To the Puritan, it was sinful to regard oneself in priority above servitude to God through marriage; marriage was the utmost expression of unity and deference to God’s will.  Emerson’s Aunt Mary, was herself of Puritanical inclinations, and yet refused to marry and lived out her years as a single woman in defiance of this tenant.  It is likely that this also spurred the beginning notions of individualism in Emerson’s philosophy; his eccentric Aunt was practicing such a regard for self first long before Emerson began to embrace it and teach it.

Finally, there is the difference in the very definition of God Himself.  For the Puritan, God was something separate from humanity and it was only through conformity, hard work, marriage, and good deeds that one could strive for closeness to God and eventually, entry into his eternal kingdom.  God was ever disappointed in humanity; a point never so emphatically made as in Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.  Edwards admonishes his congregation to “consider the fearful danger you are in: ‘this a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell; you hang by a slender thread…” (Anthology, 298).  So while the Transcendentalist communed peacefully with a God alive both within and without, the Puritan lived in constant fear of the wrath of a separate being ever ready to cast him into a burning hell for his humanistic selfishness and sin.

Now that these rather binary ideologies have been defined historically and philosophically, how then is it that they endure and hold relevance in modern society, as was previously asserted?  Patrick Deneen, in his essay “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson versus Emerson” ruminates accordingly, “A question that hangs over contemporary America is whether our story will end-perhaps even self-destruct- with this emphasis on individualism and democracy understood as freedom without restraint, or whether America, like Brownson, will view the implications of its reaction against its Calvinist (Puritan) past as itself excessive and, if not convert en masse to Catholicism (religion), nevertheless come to accept a form of Christian realism-what Peter Lawler has described as “post-modernism rightly understood” (Deneen, Transcendentalism).  Deneen asserts that “what the final “Brown-sonian” turn away from our transcendental inheritance would necessitate above all is a reining in of our belief in unlimited human freedom in favor of an acceptance of limits and democracy understood better as self-restraint than thoroughgoing liberation”.  The final result of such a turning would not result simply in a re-emergence of the Puritan lifestyle nor wholly reject Transcendentalism but would instead become a hybrid of the best of both ideologies, uniting modern society as a collective whole retaining a measure of individuality in absence of an all-consuming self-interest.  Deneen postulates the hybrid is therefore a “democratic faith” that “will foster transcendence of individual identity within a more comprehensive human whole while simultaneously resisting the absorption of the ego into an undifferentiated collectivity, thereby allowing us to retain our claims to individuality-yet an individuality that was most fundamentally itself when immersed in the whole”.

Elections in recent years, polarizations of liberalism vs. conservatism, reflect the deep divisions that exist yet today in American culture – divisions borne of the founding ideologies of Transcendentalism and Puritanism. Democrats and Republications, conservatives and liberals, are a near equal divide as poll numbers in elections, as well as the resulting percentages at election’s end, have revealed.  Their core tenants, political positioning if you will, are a direct reflection of our roots embedded in the binary ideals.  Is it possible that the hypothetical recipe for a unified hybrid could at some point end this division once and for all?  While desirable, well-researched, and well-articulated by Deneen, it seems highly unlikely given the current state of affairs.  One can only hope.

Works Cited

Belasco, Susan. “Edwards: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Bedford Anthology of

American Literature. Vol. 1. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. 291+. Print.

Belasco, Susan. “Emerson: Self-Reliance.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature.

Vol. 1. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. 683+. Print.

Deneen, Patrick J. “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson Versus

Emerson.” Perspectives on Political Science 37.1 (2008): 8-16. ProQuest. Web. 21 Nov.


Field, Peter S. “The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson/ Mary Moody Emerson and the

Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History.” The Journal of American History 85.4

(1999): 1590-2. ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Goodman, Russell. “Transcendentalism.” Stanford University. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford

University, 6 Feb. 2003. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Matthew. New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995. New

American Standard Bible, 1 Jan. 1995. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Various Contributors. “Puritan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. 21

Nov. 2013. <;.

Transcendentalism: Thoreau on Writing

“Nothing goes by luck in composition. . . . The best you can write will be the best you are. Every sentence is the result of a long probation. The author’s character is read from title page to end” (Thoreau, 2009:159)

I’m writing about Transcendentalism tonight and its enduring relativity embedded in modern American individualism.  Hence, the quotes and poems by Transcendentalist founders.  While we indeed have deep roots within Puritanism as a nation, we are equally influenced by the individualism espoused by this quasi-religion.  In reflecting upon the condition of American society today, it seems clear that the divisions that separate these two distinct ideologies, their seeds planted during the time of our foundation, still frame the divisions we face as a collective people today.

Self or Denial of Self?  That is the question…

Brahma: A Poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson



If the red slayer think he slays,
      Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
      I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
      Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
      And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
      When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
      I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
      And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
      Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.