the Puritan roots of Thoreau’s transcendentalism

Here’s a paper I wrote in college for my American Literature to 1865 class.

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The Puritan Roots of Thoreau’s Transcendentalism
Dr. Alexander
Clayton Emmer
Wednesday, December 2, 1992 — Franciscan University of Steubenville
English 301

If I met a man who spent his Sunday afternoons communing with the cattails, I would be more likely to say that he was a product of Woodstock than an inheritor of the legacy of New England Puritanism. Nevertheless, it is possible for a worshipper of Nature to spring from the soil of Puritan ideology: Henry David Thoreau is a case in point. Before discussing the influence of Puritan ideas upon the writings of Thoreau, however, one should pause momentarily to examine a more immediate influence upon the work of this unique American author.

The writer with the most formidable influence on Thoreau was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, a prominent public figure in nineteenth—century American letters and a friend of Thoreau, founded the American school of Transcendentalism, an ideology characterized by “a reliance on the intuition and the conscience” (Holman Handbook, 481). As the father of this philosophy, Emerson may be described as follows:

the spokesman for ‘Nature,’ the ‘optimist’ who does not understand the world’s evil or pain. He is thus removed from the march of time, idealized as a ‘primordial’ figure whose vision isolates him from the political and social struggles of his age. (Heath 1467)

The writings of Thoreau, which portray the individual as an autonomous being who reaches transcendent truth directly through communion with Nature, echo the Transcendental beliefs of Emerson.

While the works of Thoreau are grounded in Transcendentalism, this philosophy is, in turn, indebted to the legacy of New England Puritanism. The Transcendentalists, in championing their ideology, made use of certain Puritan ideas. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau draws upon two Puritan ideas — the notion of an autonomous, illumined individual and the concept of reform fueled by dualism — as he formulates an Edenic view of the world.

The New England Puritans, in rejecting the authority of the religious institutions of Europe, established in seed form the idea that individuals should not be ruled by external authority, but by the internal authority of an enlightened conscience. In the works of writers such as William Bradford and Cotton Mather, the pilgrimage to America is viewed as an exodus ordained by conscience. Mather, for example, asserts that the Puritans were “driven to seek a place for the Exercise of the Protestant Religion, according to the Light of their Consciences, in the Deserts of America” (Heath 407). Ultimately, the Puritan position tends toward the belief that the conscience, illumined by divine light, is a governing principle which replaces external authority.

The notion of an autonomous, enlightened conscience reaches a climax in Transcendental philosophy. Holding conscience as the supreme authority, Transcendentalists believed that “human beings were divine in their own right” and that “to trust self was really to trust the voice of God speaking intuitively within” (Holman 482). The belief in man as divine represents a great divergence from Puritan belief (Holman 482), but the idea is rooted in the Puritan emphasis on the governing power of the conscience.

In the writings of Thoreau, the Transcendental notion of the autonomous, illuminated conscience is placed in the context of communion with Nature. For Thoreau, a man experiences himself as divine through his contact with Nature, which is itself divine. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he refers to Nature as a mother to man. Through communion with Nature, man comes into his own divinity: “Sometimes a mortal feels in himself Nature, not his father but his Mother stirs within him, and he becomes immortal with her immortality” (Concord 321). The immortality of Nature consists in the fact that she “has perfected herself by an eternity of practice” (Concord 274). Since Nature is perfect, men should imitate her patterns; she is the norm toward which man’s self—perfection should tend: “Marching is when the pulse of the hero beats in unison with the pulse of Nature, and he steps to the measure of the universe; then there is true courage and invincible strength” (Concord 153). By conforming to the patterns of Nature, the authority of the individual becomes, at least by implication, infallible: “Examine your authority…. Your scheme must be the framework of the universe; all other schemes will soon be ruins” (Concord 68). In short, the individual receives illumination and possesses divine authority through communion with Nature.

In asserting that the conscience, illumined by contact with Nature, is the supreme authority for the individual, Thoreau finalizes the absorption of authority into the self which had been initiated by the Puritans and carried on by puritan-minded thinkers. In Thoreau’s work, the collapse of authority reaches a new extreme. While Cotton Mather rejected the religious authority of the Church, he did not reject all external authority. Similarly, while Frederick Douglass absorbed religious authority into the State in formulating Abolitionism as a civil religion, he maintained a confidence in State authority. Thoreau, on the other hand, will not pledge allegiance to either Church or State, for he has achieved an illumination whereby he judges the authority of these institutions as incomplete. In his essay entitled Resistance to Civil Government, he writes:

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution… but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain—head. (Heath 1980)

According to Thoreau, the illumined individual should not content himself with submitting to the authority of religious or political institutions. Instead, he should conform his ways to the rhythms of Nature and thus arrive at a state of self- governance.

Thoreau borrows from the Puritans not only the notion of the illumined individual, but also the understanding that the world, beset by a dichotomy between good and evil forces, must be ‘redeemed’ through reform. While differing significantly from the dualism of the Puritans, Thoreau’s view of the world is essentially dualistic.

Dualism may be defined as “a doctrine.., that recognizes the possibility of the coexistence of antithetical. .. principles” (Holman 155). The Puritans highlighted the dualism in the world in order to encourage individuals to reform their lives. For the New England Puritans, the conflict in the universe was between the spirit and the senses, as in Hawthorne’s stories, or between heaven and hell, as in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

For Thoreau, however, the conflict between good and evil takes place wherever the living individual battles against the dead institutions of mankind. Man is, in himself, pure, but has been corrupted by stagnation in outdated traditions: “I love mankind, but I hate the institutions of the dead unkind” (Concord 117). Men’s lives must be vital, not stagnant: “A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant” (Concord 118).

According to Thoreau, men must constantly call for change in society in order to avoid rotting amidst dead institutions. Reform is essential in order to tip the scales of a dualistic world in favor of that which is living and good: “Undoubtedly, countless reforms are called for because society is not animated, or instinct enough with life…. All men are partially buried in the grave of custom” (Concord 118). Thoreau encourages man to abide by the authority within himself — that is, to act in accord with the movements of Nature — because he believes that “the laws of Nature are the purest morality” (Concord 309). In exercising the authority of his conscience, an individual awakens the living and divine element within himself which is at war with all that is dead and demonic. In his essay on civil disobedience, Thoreau writes:

Action from principle,–the perception and the performance of right,–changes things and relations…. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. (Heath 1972)

Through the exercise of conscience, individuals purge from society all that is stagnant.

In his adoption of Puritan ideas on his own terms, Thoreau has come far from the Calvinist theology of his Puritan predecessors. While Puritan writers focused on the loss of Eden in the world, Thoreau, as a Transcendentalist, asserts that Eden has merely been neglected. Nature is not flawed, but exhibits an “ancient rectitude and vigor” (Concord 150). Men are not flawed either, but merely need to awaken their senses so that they can act in a natural way: “We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life” (Concord 324). An individual reaches the state of divine bliss by connecting himself with the rhythms of Nature: “He [man] needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of earth” (Concord 322). In short, by maintaining harmony with Nature, man achieves the happiness of eternity: “Here or nowhere is our heaven” (Concord 323). This is the creed of Transcendentalism.

The Transcendental impulse of Thoreau is captured well in a central image of A Week on the Concord Merrimack Rivers. Before beginning an account of his river trip, Thoreau describes the desire he experienced to float upon the currents of the Concord River:

I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made… and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom and float whither it would bear me. (Concord 23)

Thoreau’s desire to drift upon the currents of the river symbolizes his desire to abandon himself to the natural motions of the universe, to encounter truth through communion with Nature. Through this communion, he becomes an illumined individual; through this communion, he overcomes the entropy of human institutions; through this communion, he rediscovers the joy of Eden in an experience of Transcendental ecstasy.

Works Cited:
Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. Sixth edition. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Lauter, Paul, et al. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Volume 1. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1990.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. New York: New American Library, 1961.

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