It was frivolous and flippant of me to compare the 19th century Transcendentalists and those influenced by their thought with hippies. Rather, they were the counter-culture of their day. Just as in the 1960s and 70s in the U.S., there were many varieties of expression of Transcendentalism among those who were part of or touched by that movement. In the 20th century counter-culture were some who just wanted to practice meditation and wish for peace on earth. Some, like hippies, wanted to adopt an alternative lifestyle such as communal living or self-sufficiency on the land. Others were activists–marching for civil rights, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, fighting for equal rights for women, campaigning for the preservation and restoration of our environment and ecology. What united the counter-culture of the 20th century was its anti-establishment, anti-authority attitude. Some wanted to drop out of the dominant culture, stop working in the mainstream economy, get high and enjoy life, while others struggled to change society.
The Transcendentalist movement was like that. There were many manifestations of its ideas, but, like our most recent cultural upheaval, it was primarily driven by challenges to the status quo in all areas of society. Some people, like Thoreau (for a while) just wanted to drop out. Emerson thought people should concentrate on their own self-development and society would progress and improve as a result of the advances in individuals.
The activists, however, fought first for changes in their churches and religious beliefs, then for the abolition of slavery, for labor rights, for amelioration of the economic, social, and political systems that caused poverty and kept people from rising out of poverty, and against corruption in high places–in business and government. They sought women’s rights, free public education, and prison reform. They protested the Mexican War. They adopted all kinds of counter-culture ideas and practices, such as vegetarianism, for goodness’ sake! And free sex!
The driving force behind the Transcendentalist counter-culture movement were the ideas about God of the first such thinkers. While some remained Christians, some remained ministers of churches, and others left organized religion altogether, they all rejected orthodoxy, the literal reading of the Bible, and traditional religious creeds and practices. As George Ripley, one of the chief leaders of the movement and founder of the communal living experiment, Brook Farm, explained:
“There is a class of persons who desire a reform in the prevailing philosophy of the day. These are called Transcendentalists,–because they believe in an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external senses. Their leading idea is the supremacy of the mind over matter. Hence they maintain that the truth of religion does not depend on tradition, or on historical facts, but has an unerring witness in the soul. There is a light, they believe, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world…to perceive spiritual truth.”
For them, the source of ultimate authority was not a God “out there somewhere,” not the Bible, not the church, not the government, and not tradition or custom or “conventional wisdom.” It was the individual conscience. Or as Christians would say, “the Christ within.”
Everyone knows one of the most important ideas to come from the Transcendentalists, from Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail for refusing to pay the tax that supported the Mexican War– the idea of civil disobedience. Putting this idea into practice helped India gain its independence from Britain and it helped black people in this country gain equal rights.
I expect to finish reading American Transcendentalism today and then I’m going to work with Carole Samples’ templates for creating seam treatments.
I’ve long known that I need both stitching and study to be satisfied and content with my life, but last year I let stitching take over, take all my “active” time. The five-month long study of Blake, though I missed stitching for all that time, and this week’s immersion in a book, have reminded me that I need to have balance and include both study and stitching in my life. That’s hard, when I get so little done at all.
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