How Emerson and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism Could Inspire a Re-Awakening (and Consensus?) After the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 1, 2020

In the context of the contentious and bitter divides and extremes that define American politics in 2020, the time has come to construct the ideals of American Transcendentalism (aka the ideals of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) as a “third-way” ideology to that of liberalism and conservatism. I had originally drafted such a view—and this essay–just prior to when American life paused due to the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I originally framed this essay on the basis that a “third-way” ideology could emerge naturally solely within the political context. But as history was being dramatically written in another direction during March of 2020, a direction no one could have forecasted when the month began, I realized that such a changing climate (social, economic, cultural, in addition to political) only could enhance the prospects of and reinforce the rationale behind the promotion of what is now only a little known intellectual movement to become a popular American re-awakening.

Originally what may be referred to as a 19th century re-incarnation of Plato’s ancient philosophy project in Massachusetts—to put it in the most concise and crudest terms possible—American Transcendentalism heretofore has neither been considered nor refined for the purposes of consumption as a popular political doctrine or practical social philosophy. But as America is eating itself alive (or at least was prior to coronavirus) in a toxic concoction of populist democratic socialism, right-wing populism, growing inequality, and what at least feels like unprecedented identity politics, the anti-dogmatism, immaterialism, spirituality, and universality inherent in Transcendentalism can come not soon enough. In Transcendentalism lies synthesis and fusion of traditions that span the globe from Greek philosophy to Hinduism, from European Romanticism to Islam, and from Christianity to environmentalism. Drawing from multiple cultures and traditions, it is tailor-made for a multiracial coalition and consensus. Like the trajectory of America’s collective religious profile, it is post-Christian and post-theology of any kind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who along with Henry David Thoreau comprise the most iconic figures associated with American Transcendentalism, commented on the American sociopolitical climate in 1844 in “The Young American” in a manner that is arguably exponentially more definitive of the American climate in 2020:

The people, and the world, are now suffering from the want of religion and honor in its public mind. In America, out-of-doors all seems a market; in-doors an air-tight stove of conventionalism…I find no expression in our state papers or legislative debate, in our lyceums or churches, especially in our newspapers, of a high national feeling, no lofty counsels that rightfully stir the blood. I speak of those organs which can be presumed to speak a popular sense. They recommend conventional virtues, whatever will earn and preserve property; always the capitalist; the college, the church, the hospital, the theatre, the hotel, the road, the ship of the capitalist,–whatever goes to secure, adorn, enlarge these is good; what jeopardizes any of these is damnable. The ‘opposition’ papers, so called, are on the same side. They attack the great capitalist, but with the aim to make a capitalist of the poor man. The opposition is against those who have money, from those who wish to have money.

Transcendentalism itself has the capacity to satisfy the “want of a religion” that is post-dogmatic and provide a “high national feeling” and as such can be an alternative to class warfare politics fought by both the conservative and liberal sides of the political spectrum. Emerson uses the term “religion” in a broad sense and acknowledges there is no creed of any type that has enthusiastic and spirited support. Emerson is not calling for the return to dogmatic theological traditions but rather something that would naturally and genuinely enable a vociferous popular conversion. As of 2020, the profile of American youth as a demographic cohort bespeaks of a generation custom-made for the popular adoption of the ideals of Transcendentalism. After all, this is the least-religious (in the theological sense), least-partisan generation, and a generation that is largely apolitical. At a minimum, having recently been a graduate student the past several years and interacting with hundreds of members of Generation Z as anecdotal evidence, there is a zeitgeist that America’s youth are disillusioned with the prospect of merely being generic fodder for the now centuries-old mechanism of American politics and political institutions.

Transcendentalism is for renunciation, beauty, harmony, spirituality, and nature, all the things that are (or were?) only becoming increasingly absent from not only American politics but from America. The COVID-19 pandemic has fed Americans with a dose of renunciation of the material realms (i.e. consumerism, fashion, sports, and entertainment) against their will. Closing one door, it has opened another toward the immaterial, in which spirituality and nature have had to out of necessity assume more of a leading role. Such a phenomenon could connote at least the genesis of coming to consciousness of the inherent meaning of COVID-19—that the material economy is not invulnerable and global economic growth/globalization can eventually end up leading to and even facilitating diminishing returns because it is unsustainable.

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A zest for consumerism and identity politics (again, in the last age?) underscores the need for renunciation of economic materialism as the sole dominant American priority and the renunciation of both racism and ethnocentrism among all racial groups. Economic consumption needs to be renounced to a point of moderation that enables a decent standard of living—but with no aim to indefensible and overwhelmingly-obvious extravagance–so that the environment and the economy can both be mutually sustained beyond the short term. The stubborn and wrong-headed pursuit of infinite economic growth needs to be shaken at the collective level much like the pursuit of satisfying insatiable appetites needs to be shaken at the individual level. It makes sense to do this when capitalism has reached its full form (or what at least by intuition could be characterized as a close approximation of its full form when the newly-emerging industry is privatized space travel/tourism) so that the economy does not burn to ash by continually burning white hot. The pandemic provides empirical evidence that globalization and capitalism as partners yield a global economy that, like a phoenix, comes to full form before returning to ash. The pursuit of economic growth did make sense in the past to overcome scarcity and improve the material standard of living. This is why Transcendentalism was not even considered to be put up for consideration as a popular political creed before, but can be married to capitalism now as a synthesis in its advanced age to plateau and preserve capitalism’s achievements. Such a scenario where Transcendentalism moderates capitalism shows the stark contrast between Transcendentalism and socialism in that socialism is as much a materialist doctrine as capitalism. Socialism satisfies Emerson’s definition of the political “opposition”, which is “against those who have money, from those who wish to have money.” This shows that in socialism there is no priority placed on the renunciation of consumption.

Before environmental degradation, resource depletion, and climate change were on the front burner (or at least slowly becoming so), the Transcendentalists pioneered land conservation and invented environmentalism as a concept. As a 19th century intellectual movement, Transcendentalism had no means to gain traction in the context of economics because the economy had so much room to grow, so much more land still could be developed on the frontier, and America was only beginning to industrialize. Now, Transcendentalism has the capacity to offer itself as an economic agenda that informs us to pump the brakes on free market capitalism so that a resilient economy can be synthesized and maintained for the long term in a state of stability and sustainability. Transcendentalism now can be cast as an agent for—of all things—a utilitarian and economic purpose! The alternative is adherence to a dominant economic worldview (before COVID-19?) whose agents blindly and almost autonomously pursue infinite growth with finite resources and a finite environment.

Capitalism burning white hot without an ethos integrated within it that seeks to plateau and sustain an economy it has generated since the Industrial Revolution is bound only to eventually burn itself out to ash in future deep recessions or even depressions worse than the global recession that is bound to be a product of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transcendentalism can be wedded to free market capitalism to create an ideal synthesis. This is the means whereby Transcendentalism can be adopted in the context of the mainstream. Though capitalism and Transcendentalism espouse values that seemingly clash, someone can be a capitalist while espousing Emerson’s quote that “money is too expensive” to sacrifice so single-mindedly and willingly one’s labor to earn it or Thoreau’s: “a man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” All the hybrid of Transcendentalism and capitalism requires is balancing one only-seemingly contradictory ethos to the other to bring them into the harmony of an “ideal point” by individuals and the collective population. It would be akin to adhering to a point of optimality that theoretically exists between capitalism and Transcendentalism if one were to consider them on an x and y-axis, respectively. Such a point would connote the maintenance of a quality standard of living that crosses a threshold whereby one would also neither be a slave to the narrow and confining roles of producer nor consumer, roles in which when they are the exclusive ends make humans exclusively subservient to the mere functioning of the economy.

Transcendentalism will be difficult to brand at a popular level, let alone construct and promote as a coherent ideology like liberalism or conservatism. Transcendentalism naturally embodies a fluid and deeply personal perspective. It was a reaction that stood as an antithesis to the dominant religious, economic, and political cultures of its era. In this way, it was “negative” in seeking to negate positivist ideological and religious dogmas and the single-minded servitude of the individual to commercialism. Transcendentalism, as such, does not have a strict positivist dogma of its own and its value needs to be recognized in light of the diminishing returns of competing ideologies. Emerson himself characterized Transcendentalists as those who “complain that everything around them must be denied.” As an anti-ideology, though, it has the capacity to become an ideology to act to resolve the conflict, polarization, and materialism all of the other ideologies have either promoted or enabled.

Transcendentalism is neither socialism nor nationalistic capitalism—that is precisely why it can be positioned as a “third-way” to what looks like a growing storm of warring populisms that are themselves likely only steps away from the 20th century communist and fascist extremes. What could facilitate Transcendentalism’s renaissance is that it is inherently a cognitive mindset at the level of the individual. Every individual has the capacity to adopt Transcendentalism as a unique individual so that a consensus at a collective level can be attained from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. In this sense, Transcendentalism is a departure from populism, which seeks to stir up a hysterical fervor at the mass level from the elites down to the people to confront popular dissatisfaction with the government or the state of the economy.

This era is ripe for Transcendentalism in what in many ways would be its third American iteration. The “covenant,” so to speak, needs to be renewed. There was a wild zeal for Transcendentalism in the 1830s-1850s in New England which dissipated. The counterculture/hippies, New Age, and environmentalism of the 1960s-1970s was a brief (if flawed, radical, non-mainstream, and largely unconscious) renewal before the waters receded and gave rise to the largely single-minded materialistic domination of the 1980s-2020. American youth can rekindle the ideals of Transcendentalism in a new iteration that finally casts it into the mainstream. High school and college students in 2020 are, at least again by my intuition and personal experience with them, good-natured and bent on shunning cheap consumerism and cheap dogma whether its spouted from corporate America or organized political parties. Adoption of Transcendentalism ends religious divides because it calls on adherents to discover the divine/transcendent through experiencing nature and bridging what the commonalities are among disparate theologies (in other words, bridging what is perennial and what was derived originally by many religious traditions via nature and intuition). This is quite literally the definition of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism should by no means build a wall of hostility to block off those who adhere to other religions. Rather, it should be a bridge toward building a consensus among the multiplicity of faith traditions, since it inherently embodied this spirit from the outset.

Transcendentalism has the potential to shakeup how race is viewed in America. Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial youth, as members of growing “new minority” ethnic groups heretofore largely marginalized, can potentially recast themselves, and as a result be recast in the collective consciousness, as the leaders of this third-way. They can lead by being the first generation to finally send both racism and ethnocentrism packing. And though it provides a means to recast Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial youth in a leading role, white and black youth can lead right alongside them so as to achieve a universal multiracial consensus.

There are three iconic texts that together make up the unofficial “triumvirate” of Transcendentalist philosophy and could thus provide guidance with respect to a prospective contemporary and popular reincarnation of Transcendentalism: Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher, was a foundation to American Transcendentalism as his Sartor Resartus was an inspirational book to Emerson and Thoreau and was wildly consumed by American youth in the 19th century, being reprinted more than several times. Emerson spent his own time and money to see that it was published in Boston, as it was rejected by Carlyle’s local London presses. One 19th century American youth, Charles Godfrey Leland, said that he had read Sartor Resartus “forty times, ere I left college.” An English visitor to America, Harriet Martineau, summarized the transformative impact Sartor Resartus had made in America: “Perhaps this is the first instance of the Americans having taken to their hearts an English work which came to them anonymously, unsanctioned by any recommendation, and even absolutely neglected at home [in Britain]. The book is acting upon them with wonderful force.” Although it is cryptic and a satirical work of fiction, Sartor Resartus is valuable in that it constructs a rationale for as to why someone would become a Transcendentalist through realizing the limitations and hollowness of the material culture dominated by dogma and consumerism.

Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836 in Boston like Sartor Resartus, theorized Transcendentalism as a response and alternative to the dual threats he perceived: the dryness and unemotional appeal of the orthodoxy of Unitarian Christianity (and other dogmatic theological traditions) and the almost universal enthrallment of humanity for commerce to the entire extent of their lives. Emerson’s Nature promoted nature, beauty, and spirituality to take priority over the nexus of uncompromising adherence to dogma and consumerism. In so doing, reality and the nature of the universe could be accounted for by discerning the spirit inherent in the material objects of Earth.

Thoreau read both Sartor Resartus and Nature as an undergraduate at Harvard and this influenced his famous stay in a cabin at Walden Pond and his subsequent account of it in Walden. Thoreau experimented as to what the life a Transcendentalist described by Carlyle and Emerson might be like if one decided to take the plunge and actually commit to a lifestyle renouncing dogmatic religion, politics, and commerce.

The last remaining step is the conscious and popular adoption of Transcendentalism, which has yet to be considered as a viable prospect, much less tried. Transcendentalism has yet to be promoted as a third way to re-awaken America and achieve what is so sorely needed in 2020–a consensus, at least in some form and to some degree. Since every individual has had a different experience with nature and has had varying types and levels of discontent toward political, religious, and commercial establishments, a popular mobilization toward the adoption of Transcendentalism would likely take on a variety of contrasting yet overlapping shades. After all, Transcendentalism’s role would not be to replace the core economic and cultural structure but merely to reform, preserve, and enhance it to the point of achieving, to use Emerson’s phrase, a “high national feeling.” Such a popular adoption of Transcendentalism would be consistent with Thoreau’s explicit insistence that others, potential proselytes reading Walden, NOT adopt his specific lifestyle: “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible.” The popular adoption of Transcendentalism (without purely replicating Thoreau) by those who hold different ideologies and theologies, have different socioeconomic statuses, and are constituted in a diversity of races and ethnicities at the starting gate would most assuredly yield such diversity in persons that Thoreau has in mind. In its popular adoption, Transcendentalism would also sew together a natural consensus in which it is consciously and explicitly acknowledged that devotion to the status quo of politics, commercialism, and dogmatic religion leaves out much that is desirable and preferable.


Teaser photo: Walden Pond.

Brian Wolfel

Brian Wolfel is a PhD candidate in political science at Syracuse University and holds a BA in Government from Cornell University and a Masters of Public Health degree from University of Arizona. Currently he is in the process of completing his dissertation entitled "American Transcendentalism Contra Contemporary Political Philosophy."

Tags: American politics, building resilient societies, Transcendentalism