Transcendentalism, a movement of the 1830s-40s, was the counterculture of its day. Rather than a coherent philosophy, it was exemplified by what it protested: the pervading Christian emphasis on original sin, society's demand for conformity, the position of women, rigid educational systems and the institution of slavery. The transcendentalists believed in the importance of individual conscience.
Prominent transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and many ministers, Unitarians, and social reformers. A movement of mostly New Englanders around Boston, the transcendentalists strove to change their society. Since many of them were writers, the main thrust of the movement was literary.
Transcendentalists were of no strict creed or belief system; however, there were commonly held ideas among them. These concepts included: God is everywhere and is in everything; when a person dies, their soul passes back to the "Oversoul"; individual thought and conscience are more important than society's dictates; every person is to be respected as they are all part of the divine (thus, the emphasis on women's rights and the wrongness of slavery); and ideas of self-reliance and civil disobedience.
The movements of the 1960s could be considered as an outgrowth of the ideas of transcendentalism: the back to nature paradigm, anti-war protests, individual importance and action against a static society, openness to new religious ideas, experimentation with drugs and meditation and the fight for civil rights. Many of the movements of the 1960s reflected the thoughts and ideas of the early transcendentalists.
21st Century Transcendentalism
Once again, the basic counter-cultural impulses can be seen in the early years of the 21st century. People are beginning to explore old and new ideas about self-sufficiency, sustainable living, ecological concerns, a desire for harmony with the natural environment and exploration of new age philosophies and religions. The concerns of the time may have changed, but the push back against societal conformity remains the same.
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