A literary and philosophical movement called transcendentalism developed in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. This movement is a reaction to certain eighteenth century rationalist doctrines and involves the rejection of strict Puritan religious attitudes . (Parrington 375). Transcendentalism is strongly influenced by Deism and opposes the strict ritualistic and dogmatic theology of all established religious institutions . (Parrington 375). Transcendentalist?s of this period are opposed to weakening Calvinistic views regarding the corruption of human nature . (Parrington 375). Transcendentalism is described as a natural religion of democracy because it claims that divinity is in every human and therefore the universe. This suggestion that the individual is potentially divine can also support the religion of aristocracy . ( Buell 168). The major influences are romanticism, idealism, self-examination, democratic individualism ">individualism , nature, and mankind among others. (Parrington 375). Buell describes writings of this time as having ?a semi- religious focus toward nature and a direct link with the universe, individual, and self.? (Buell 267).
The American writer Henry David Thoreau is considered to be the most representative writer of Transcendental thought. He writes philosophical essays in which he describes nature and individualism and writes of civil disobedience in literature for the very first time. (Eulau 119). Thoreau?s essay, also called ?Resistance to Civil Government ? is considered to be one the most famous political essays representing Transcendentalism of the era. (Vivas 317). This essay is published anonymously, but major writers of this period recognize him as the author. (Hyman 24).
There are over twenty five tenets of American Transcendentalism , however there are basic principles universally held by all transcendentalists . (Ruben 2). Thoreau writes about some of these elements in ?Civil Disobedience?. The first holds the individual as the spiritual center of the universe who ultimately holds the key to the cosmos itself. (Ruben 2). Every individual is to be respected because all of us have a part of the Oversoul in ourselves. (Ruben 4). Thoreau suggests thisbelief of individualism and self because he does not reject Goddirectly, but describes the individual and the world in terms of the individual. (Ruben 2). The second element states that the structure of the universe duplicates the structure of the individual self and all knowledge, therefore begins with self- knowledge. (Ruben 2). Thoreau strongly believes the individual and his relationship with nature is foremost to self-knowledge and compares this belief to Aristotle?s ?know thyself?. (Ruben 2). His claim is that we must know the world around us to tell us what we are and through this awakening we begin to know ourselves. (Drake 74). The third element accepts the neo-Platoic ideal that nature is a living mystery and symbolic, full of signs. (Ruben 2). Thoreau?s life and writings center on nature and the outdoors, and he suggests that human life is symbolic of nature mirroring our psyche. (Ruben 3). Finally, transcendentalism asserts that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization, to know and become one with the world, or to withdraw and remain unique and separate. (Ruben 2). The proposition is that the external is united with the internal, which gives an individual their temperament or mood, good or bad. Rubens explains that ?if I feel lousy, I may dismiss the gorgeous day??. (Ruben 2).
It is felt that a man can find himself by looking to nature, and a man can only know himself by his relationship with the outdoors. (Drake 74). Thoreau believes that the universe is wider that our views of it, and the word God disappears from his vocabulary and he refers to a vague and anonymous force to be responsible for the universe. (Drake 72). The government and citizens during this period are greatly influenced by the religious principles of Puritanism, especially predestination. The religious thought that an individual receives divine guidance immediately differs from the transcendentalist view. (Drake 75). This influence is evident in Thoreau?s example that if you were to have ten men write a journal for one day, nine would leave out their personal thoughts and lose themselves by misreporting the supposed experiences of other people. (Buell 278). He attributes this to their inability to synthesize or articulate their perceptions without spiritual reflection or significance. Thoreau concludes that ?thoughts of different dates will not cohere.? (Buell 278). He argues that human evolution also includes spiritual evolution and it is the entrenched tradition, culture and ritual of religion that hold men back.