My Take on Transcendentalism

This is something that has been going through my mind for a while, but I have felt inhibited by the idea of promoting yet another “label”, closing personal thoughts, feelings and aspirations into yet another conventional category. This is the problem I saw with the question of Aspergers syndrome, although I was very encouraged by hearing a lecture given in Rouen by Dr Laurent Mottron, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal, recently in France. The problem with diagnosis is the vast diversity of characteristics with only a few things in common. A physical pathology is typified and is diagnosed by its symptoms. A person has diabetes or does not have it, and this is ascertained through a blood test. There are some clearly identifiable mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the treatment given by a psychiatrist varies very little from person to person. Autism is something else. Distinguished from “psychopathy” and schizophrenia in about 1943, it has a number of typical characteristics, but being a spectrum, there are people on the “borderline”, the so-called “high functioning” ones. Dr Mottron’s approach is entirely different, a hypothesis that high-functioning autism and Aspergers represent a difference of personality rather than a handicap. It suddenly struck me that this condition may well be better explained in philosophical than medical terms.

This idea came home to me when I discovered American Transcendentalism, a philosophy originating in New England consisting of ideas from English and German Romanticism and German Idealism, together with other aspects proper to North America. I was particularly seized by the love of nature and the idea of simple living and self-reliance. American Transcendentalism differs somewhat from Romanticism, mainly by its religious dimension in reaction to “dogmatic” Calvinism. The Romantic would be less optimistic about human nature than the Unitarians of Massachusetts and various authors and poets inspired by these ideas, like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville.

Transcendentalism received something of a definition from its “father”, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own….

“It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man’s thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent, that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought, is popularly called at the present day Transcendental….”

One of Emerson’s flagship works was Self-Reliance. I am reminded of some of Oscar Wilde’s ideas on individualism. We are not called to imitate, copy or conform – but be ourselves. Is that morally reprehensible selfishness? It certainly can be, but there is a depth of personality where an individual person only can create and show originality. Read the essay and try to pull it out of its historical context, read a modern context into it and try to “rewrite” it in the light of your own experience. That is one possible approach, but I prefer to respect Emerson and his time, and simply extract a few ideas. There are groups of young Americans in our time calling themselves Transcendentalists, which is just as much an anachronism as calling oneself a Romantic (which I have often done, abusively). Sympathising with someone’s ideas, or some of them, does not make me that other person! This is why I opened this posting with considerations of high-functioning autism and Aspergers and Dr Mottron’s methodology of considering the highly variable characteristics without committing himself in all cases to a medical diagnosis.

Transcendentalism is usually tied up with Unitarianism, but that fact should not be used to invalidate and condemn the whole. As an Anglican Catholic, my belief in God is Trinitarian (good thing too, since I am writing on Trinity Sunday…). There are ways to spiritual freedom and aspiration other than denying the Trinity! I am not interesting in conforming to Emerson’s or anyone else’s transcendentalism or any complete philosophical system, but some elements find a profound echo in my own being. This is why I made the link between philosophy and psychology, between personalism / individualism and the varying characteristics found in people called high-functioning autists and “aspies”.

One aspect of Emerson’s essay makes me smile, his comments on travelling. In those days, travel was the preserve of scientists and explorers, invariably with ample financial resources. Nowadays, it is people crammed into aeroplanes like sardines in a tin after having been through invasive security procedures, what look like top-heavy ships for transporting people in differing degrees of luxury and entertainment. People are free to do what they want. I was once sailing my little boat in Les Pertuis near the Isle of Aix, and needed to heave-to to allow a passenger boat past. Ten-foot boats and human flesh and large propellers powered by hundreds of horsepower of diesel engines – don’t mix, understating it a little. As the small ship passed before my bows, I sheeted in my sails again and pulled in the helm. As I crossed the ship’s wake, the smell of people was quite overpowering. Any smell at sea is multiplied a hundredfold. This was the smell of perfume, sweat and cigarette smoke, a wake of humanity. Mass tourism, rather than the individual way of taking a boat out and exploring with only the company of non-human nature. I sometimes find myself on cross-Channel ferries to go to England. I last boarded a plane when my mother died in February 2013, and hated it. There is nothing more dystopian than the modern airport! “Other people”, yet I am one of the same species, and they would see me with the same uncaring eye. A priest’s concern is for persons, not people! Emerson’s point seems to me that we find God where we are, and the grass is no greener on the other side of the fence. Whither, O unsatisfied soul, as Whitman wrote.

The theme of self-reliance struck me deeply, not because of any desire to imitate these gentlemen from the last years before the American Civil War, but because the same thoughts were going through my mind long before I heard that there has been a movement on that theme. It happens to me time and time again. A practical problem so often brings me to invent its solution. The problem is nearly always that someone else invented and patented the device long before I did. I would nevertheless compare his patented version (once I knew it existed) against my own and express preferences according to the practical need. My attitude can only be self-effacing, and respect the patented invention and say nothing about what I came up with independently (because I would have saved a lot of time using the existing invention compared with coming up with my own solution). It is the same thing with thought and claiming to belong to such and such a movement. It was invented more than a century before my birth! This said, it is not a competition, simply an encouragement to develop and refine thoughts – and make progress and grow. Do not imitate or plagiarise. Be yourself and fully yourself. Don’t worry what others think.

Self-reliance may seem to express pride and refusal of obedience and submission to authority. Anarchy does not exist outside the spiritual life of the person. We can be anarchists as individuals, but we have to go along with the society in which we live outwardly. Thus, Oscar Wilde in prison could call himself a “free man”. His spirit transcended the bars and chains of that house of bondage. I am a priest in an institutional Church, and I am answerable to my Bishop. At the same time, much of my life transcends that hierarchical and priestly relationship (though I have developed something of a friendship with my Bishop). I would certainly be less rationalistic and more realistic than Emerson. Even Bernard Moitessier on his second circumnavigation under sail had to put into port sooner or later!

On the other hand, few of us can come to terms with solitude, not only our own choice of lifestyle, but the awareness that other people simply do not care. Why should they unless they’re getting paid or rewarded in some other way. Few of us are altruistic beyond being concerned for the safety of others and saving their lives in danger of death. For many things in life, being alone is the way we have to come to terms with, and make the best of it. After all, Aspergers and high-functioning autism are nothing more than that, being aware of our alienation from society and our need to bring out our own gifts and creativity. Sure, we have to play the game and act “normal”. I am reasonably good at that, being nice to others, courteous, kind, considerate and concerned about people’s health, safety and life. A part of being a priest is to do one’s duty in society, but when the day is over, I need to be alone.

Self-reliance can only come from self-knowledge and spiritual health. This is the secret of hermits and lone sailors. We are faced with ourselves and our divinity and our demons, the light and the shadow. This theme converges with the Gnostics and C.G. Jung, a process of individuation. I have read about these questions since my university days, and have worked at finding the essence of my subconscious being – and that work still continues. The Calvinist paradigm (extreme Augustinianism) postulates the utter and complete alienation of man from God. The Transcendentalist refused that radical separation. However sinful we are, divinity is never absent, and even God (from the evidence of the Yahweh of the Old Testament) is capable of sin and has to live with the duel between light and darkness. It is the condition of us all.

Society brings man to conflict, war, shouting down the other side of a discussion or a debate – as we see all the time in politics. Other people, as opposed to persons, bring stupidity into life. No progress is ever made. No lessons are learned from history. No creation is possible and beauty is trodden down. The individual person is capable of beauty (as well as sin), creates, marvels in the face of nature and the best of other human persons in a relationship of love (a domain in life in which I have largely failed).

As with many things, American Transcendentalism was more self-conscious than English and German Romanticism, and there lays its strength – and its weakness. As with most things American, Transcendentalism was more pragmatic and sought to be understood as a “missionary” movement, where Romanticism remained personal and less optimistic about human nature, more inclined to dark thoughts, the Sturm und Drang I felt as I stood on a Portuguese beach at the age of 12 almost in prayer in the face of a black and ominous Atlantic storm.

I do believe it is a mistake to identify with various labels that have arisen in history, to describe philosophies, mindsets or mental conditions. I recognise myself in some characteristics of Aspergers, as has a psychiatrist, but not all of them that are listed in the manuals. I don’t “stim”, as least visibly – and I can drive a car and sail a boat safely, both of which require spatial perception. Even my theory of mind might be more acute than most people I know. When a person is unpleasant, this causes me an excessive amount of revulsion and suffering. My social awkwardness may be caused, not by failing to understand the non-verbal signals, but being affected by them excessively. Are we seeking to conform to some fashion? On the other hand, we may find in our quest for self-knowledge some characteristics that have been given a name at some time, and this might help us to refine and strengthen our self knowledge and esteem. It is a great moment when we find that something that has always been in our lives is given a word and existence outside our own persons. We may then go and see the differences and the imperfections of any attempt to typify and bring out universal concepts. In the end it doesn’t matter what label we use or even whether we are like other persons even if only partially. Am I true to myself? As I am? As God made me?

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7 Responses to My Take on Transcendentalism

  1. wayne pelling says:

    an interesting and thought provoking article Father. RW Trine wrote a book called IN TUNE WITH THE INFINITE based much upon Emerson but then he wandered off into syncretism .This book was my grandfather’s-a one time Theosophist who became a disciple of Rudolf Steiner.

    God Bless

  2. T Graham says:

    This post reminded me of a later development in America, the Boston personalists, who transformed Hegel’s absolute idealism into a personal idealism – all reality is ultimately personal (N.B. not individual!). I came across this school of thought incidentally when I was reading up on Austen Farrer’s philosophy & was very attracted by it. It seemed to me to open a door to allow the panentheism of Emerson and the German Romantics and idealists to flow back into a more Trinitarian and Christian idea of the cosmos.
    cf. part 4 in this article

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Many thanks for adding this link to Fr. Anthony’s post – which reminded me at times of some things George MacDonald says (e.g., in discussing Rev. 2:17); MacDonald loved the work of Novalis (translating some), but I don’t know how he may come into the ‘European personalist’ context.

      The article makes me think it would be interesting to consider C.S. Lewis (that friend of Farrer) in this context, with his own development out of an ‘Philosophical Idealist’ background – as well as his love of MacDonald. It would be interesting to consider his attention to a sort of ‘personal’ bestowal of ‘consciousness’ in the Ransom books, Problem of Pain, Narnia, and elsewhere.

      It also made me think of modern Orthodox theologians – and, while the authors do not seem explicitly to discuss this aspect, I see Berdyaev and Christos Yannaras in the bibliographical material.

      (It would be interesting to consider Eric Voegelin, with, e.g., his debts to Schelling, William James, and Buber, in this context, too.)

      • Berdyaev had a very balanced view in terms of spiritual freedom and the refusal of the nihilism and anarchism ha saw develop in Russia in his time. He was definitely influenced by German Romanticism and Idealism, but remained loyal to the Orthodox Church and traditional theology and Christology. I rarely go on a journey without at least one of his books to dip into.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you – I should try that! I keep meaning to read Berdyaev, and not making a ‘proper start’: dipping into him while travelling (when I love to read in train or bus) would get me over the threshold.

      • I had The Meaning of History on my boat in Brittany. My books (1 serious philosophical work and 1 light novel) and breviary go into a waterproof box and that keeps them dry. It is a great reward after setting up the boom tent and my bed boards and dig out my camping lantern. To the gentle rocking of the water and the reflection of the moon. I don’t if that is what Berdyaev intended!

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It sounds very suitable in any case!

        (If it looks rainy, I sometime take a small hand-towel with me in my satchel, lest my hands be too wet to take up a book, once I’m snugly in the train…)

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