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The Limits of Transcendentalism

            The Transcendentalist movement of the 1800's emerged in the adolescence of a fledgling American society. The Transcendentalists were characterized by a belief in the doctrine that there existed an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable only through intuition. They were idealists in a philosophical sense, seeking the permanent spiritual reality that lay behind transitory physical appearances. They were also idealists in a broader sense. They optimistically believed in the perfectibility of man, and they were often engaged in projects intended to make this ideal a reality. Ralph Waldo Emerson, champion of the Transcendentalist movement, laid the groundwork for the movement in his eloquent essay entitled, "Self-Reliance." In it, Emerson avows a gospel of spiritual self-sufficiency, where the individual possesses an inherent capability to successfully overcome the problems and pitfalls of life. Emerson furthers this notion by advocating the shrugging off of the bounds of conformity and adopting a lifestyle dictated not by society but by one's own inherent sense of morality. Henry David Thoreau, the intellectual heir to Emerson's transcendental throne, carries on in this vein in his essay, "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau uses the Transcendentalist philosophy to attack the state from an anti-slavery platform. Thoreau believes, ""That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have" (1). He suggests here that man, once in the perfect state of transcendent spiritual self-sufficiency, should have no need for a governing body at all. The essays of both men remain immensely popular and affecting even to this day. Emerson is widely referred to as the father of the American Literary tradition and Thoreau's name is seldom mentioned without the obligatory references to Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.

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