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Transcendentalism is an intellectual and philosophical movement that centered around the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The movement drew to its height within the period of the 1830s and 1840s, when America was entering the Romantic Era. Most of the activities of the movement took place primarily in Concord, Massachusetts (the New England region of the United States), where other significant writers, such as Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott, corresponded with Emerson.

Beliefs of the Movement

The movement served as a critique of the culture and religion of the time, whose institutions were thought to corrupt the mind of the individual. Much of the outcry of Transcendentalism came against the Mexican American War and the Unitarian Church, whose messages conflicted with the mind of the individual.

Instead of conforming to society, Transcendentalists believed in self-reliance, in which the individual becomes independent of society and follows their own internal truths. By listening to the individual intuition, the beliefs of society can be transcended for a higher consciousness and a higher truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented further on this in his essay, Self-Reliance, that "Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind."[1]

Other central beliefs of the movement included a deep interest in the natural world, as demonstated in great depth in Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods. Transcendentalists greatly believed in the ability of nature to give one a deeper understanding of life, as Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.[2]

Members of the Movement

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: Known as the founder of the Transcendentalism movement, Emerson also pioneered the individual in his essays Over-Soul and Self-Reliance
  • Henry David Thoreau: Known for his two year experiment that manifested itself into Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau strongly spoke out against society as seen in his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
  • Margaret Fuller: Known as an early feminist writer advocating women's rights and education, Fuller also served as the first editor for the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial
  • Amos Bronson Alcott: Known for his failed utopian commual living experiment at Fruitlands, Alcott sought for human perfection throught veganism, sustainable living, and abolition of slavery

Transcendentalism in Theosophy

Theosophy has often regarded Transcendentalism as a forerunner of its American Theosophical traditions, as Alvin Boyd Kuhn remarks:

No examination of the American background of Theosophy can fail to take

account of that movement which carried the minds of New England thinkers to a lofty pitch during the early half of the nineteenth century,


Transcendentalism is also given credit as an emissary of Eastern thought to America, as also remarked by Alvin Boyd Kuhn:

This developing into the very great sweep of "New Thought," and crowning all

came on the intellectual horizon the gleaming cloud of Emersonian Transcendentalism, irradiated with the golden sunlight of Oriental


Transcendentalism and H. P. Blavatsky

H. P. Blavatsky has also regarded Transcendentalism with great admiration, as it served as alternate to popular religious belief. She comments in her Collected Writings:

The American Transcendentalists discovered that life could be made a sublime thing without any assistance from circumstances or outside sources of pleasure and prosperity. Of course this had been discovered many times before, and Emerson only took up again the cry raised by Epictetus. But every man has to discover this fact freshly for himself, and when once he has realised it he knows that he would be a wretch if he did not endeavour to make the possibility a reality in his own life. The stoic became sublime because he recognized his own absolute responsibility and did not try to evade it; the Transcendentalist was even more, because he had faith in the unknown and untried possibilities which lay within himself. [5]


  1. Self-Reliance at Emerson Central Online Texts.
  2. Walden at Thoreau Reader.
  3. Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Theosophy: a Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1930), ???.
  4. Alvin Boyd Kuhn, India's True Voice (Elizabeth, NJ: Academy Press, 1955), 7.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1962), 4.