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9 Quotes That Get to the Heart of Transcendentalism

Seeing is not always believing, and a group of intellectual trailblazers turned this notion from obscure thought to an American philosophy in the early 1800s. The movement they formed, Transcendentalism, hinged on the idea that people should understand life and morality through spirituality and intuition — avenues that “transcend” the physical senses.

The philosophy stemmed from Christianity, when a group of young men in Massachusetts training for the church’s Unitarian mission broke off to pursue their own beliefs. They believed that people are inherently good, and should trust their own conscience and spiritual insight, something the Transcendentalists valued over logic and intellect.

Transcendentalist leaders like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller saw the philosophy as a celebration of each soul’s divine equality. They pushed the idea of individuality, the notion that people should find their own unique higher purpose rather than modeling their life after others, or worse, societal norms.

Many of the Transcendentalists also shared strong beliefs about nature. They pushed the idea of finding divinity through the Earth rather than books — a reaction to materialism and rationalism at the time. This belief is detailed in written works such as Emerson’s renowned 1836 essay, “Nature,” in which he wrote, “The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.”

Transcendentalism faded by the late 1850s, but the societal push toward individualism and uncovering a higher purpose remain, as do the many lessons left by the movement’s founding leaders. Here are nine excerpts that highlight how the Transcendentalist system of thought is as relevant today as ever.

The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.
— "The Divinity College Address," Ralph Waldo Emerson

Individuality was a core Transcendentalist belief, and the movement’s leaders saw imitation as arguably the worst path to a fully realized life. In his address to Harvard Divinity School, Emerson pressed this idea further, stating that the imitator “bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man’s.”

Beauty is felt, not seen by the understanding.
— "What is Beauty," Lydia Maria Child

Rejecting the strong emphasis that 19th-century society placed on logic and rational thought, transcendentalists elevated feelings, instinct, and intuition above reason and intellect. They believed book learning had nothing on spirituality, and those who felt their way through the world with soul, then senses, would find a higher meaning and reach that ultimate purpose.

There are noble books but one wants the breath of life sometimes. And I see no divine person. I myself am more divine than any I see — I think that is enough to say about them.
— "The Letters of Margaret Fuller," Margaret Fuller

In a letter to Emerson, Fuller shares her thoughts on learning through life, not books. This is a staple in the Transcendentalist thought model, showcasing how Fuller sees spirituality as the means to divinity — not the books pushed by institutions.

What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on? If you cannot tolerate the planet that it is on?
— "Familiar Letters," Henry David Thoreau

Few Americans are as synonymous with nature as Thoreau, and this devotion to Earth seeps into his writing (including his most well-known work, the book Walden). In this letter to government leader Harrison Blake, Thoreau shares his belief that humans need to know life skills before pursuing societal norms. They should learn about the land, then build a house — not the other way around. As he wrote earlier in the letter, “Men and boys are learning all kinds of trades but how to make men of themselves.”

Money often costs too much.
— “Wealth,” "The Conduct of Life," Ralph Waldo Emerson

As seekers of spirituality and social justice, Transcendentalists had little interest in the pursuit of wealth. Emerson even warned against wealth accumulation, believing it cluttered the mind and was immoral to take more than necessary. He knew money came with baggage — a lesson that remains entirely relevant today.

The life that I aspire to live
No man proposeth me—
No trade upon the street
Wears it emblazonry
— "Independence," Henry David Thoreau

Individuality is a core tenet of Transcendentalism, and Thoreau, one of the great poets of all time, is proof of what’s possible when you forge your own path. He believed in following intuition to discover your life’s work and meaning. In fact, with much of his life lived in nature, Thoreau is a case study in shutting out the noise, turning off outside influences, and following what feels right in the heart.

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
— "Walden," Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau knew that living boldly, and chasing your own visions, would draw scrutiny from the masses. Society prefers its members stay in line and follow the social norms, but Thoreau didn’t care about satisfying society. He muted public opinion to craft his own fate, leaving a legacy that outlasted any of those 19th-century naysayers.

Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth.
— “Natural History of Massachusetts,” "The Dial," Henry David Thoreau

Transcendentalists didn’t just believe that spirituality trumped books in the pursuit of knowledge. They also saw facts as fluid, as statements made by thought leaders who’d read said books, but hadn’t taken the steps to uncover their own spirituality and deeper worldly understanding.

Every man I meet is in some way my superior; and in that I can learn of him.
— "Think," Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote from Emerson, among America’s most renowned thought leaders, is both humbling and inspiring. It’s a reminder that every human being has something to teach, and something to learn — and that a person can be constantly growing and evolving if they set aside ego, and, like Emerson, uncover new truths.

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About the Author
Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie is an Ohio-based writer and photographer who's never met a slice of pizza she didn't like — or inhale.
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