Multiculturalism and Transcendentalism

Arthur Versluis

American Transcendentalism, a signature American movement of the nineteenth century, might superficially seem to be an early form of late-twentieth and twenty-first-century multiculturalism. As I demonstrated in American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (1993), the main figures in the movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were among the first to draw on a newly global perspective on world religions. Emerson’s and Thoreau’s works are peppered with references to Hinduism, as well as Islam, Christianity, and Christian and Islamic mysticism. One could argue that the Transcendentalists were the first multiculturalists. But in the contemporary university curriculum, the Transcendentalists are, like Platonists, seldom found. That’s because the Transcendentalists were not today’s multiculturalists. They were introducing instead a multitude of complex and salient religious philosophies they believed could be adapted to American life.

In this sense, Emerson, Thoreau, and the others in their circle, as well as of those in what I term the “second cycle of Transcendentalism,” were the true multiculturalists, insisting that the sublime insights of the world’s great religions were available to all, that no man was locked inside a philosophical prison by a set of predetermined traits. For the Transcendentalists, the Vedas or other religious texts represented cultural knowledge that can be applied to one’s own life, “appropriated” for the purposes of human enrichment and civilizational advance.

This focus on becoming better people, on becoming more cultured, on living life more deeply, impels the entire movement. It is the primary subject of Thoreau’s famous Walden; it is certainly the leitmotif of Alcott’s works and life journey, including his utopian effort at Fruitlands; and it is woven throughout Emerson’s avuncular essays on subjects such as The Conduct of Life (1860) or Society and Solitude (1870). Theirs are complex and subtle literary works with a vast set of literary, philosophical, artistic, and religious references. While each author has a distinctive personality, they are historically grouped together because of their friendships and their common characteristics. All drew on the world’s religious traditions in order to develop their own lives and consciousness, to become better and wiser individuals and, through writing and public speaking, to share what they have learned.

Here we come upon an aspect of the Transcendentalists’ works and thought that does not fit very well with contemporary perspectives on our collective intellectual inheritance. The Transcendentalists saw great authors of their past and present as contemporaries. The dialogues of Plato were conveyed from antiquity to the time of the Transcendentalists because Plato’s work had something immediate to offer. We can participate in the dialogues by reading them; Plato and his characters are present with us through them. So too with the epic poetry of Homer or Virgil: a work is one whose greatness lies in our engagement with it, in the ways that it opens new vistas for us, or as Thoreau suggested in Walden, a work through which we participate in the great morning of our own life and in the dawn of humanity at the same time. This does not mean we are slaves to or pedants of such works; it means rather that we become freer through them. Great works are those that ennoble us.

For the American Transcendentalists, a global perspective was now possible. By the middle of the nineteenth century, and certainly in its second half, great works of the Asian religious traditions had become available for the first time in translation. The Sufi poets were becoming known in the West. The Christian mystics were available, and, through the work of the indefatigable translator Thomas Taylor, so were much of the Platonic and Hermetic traditions. For the first time, a group of authors was consciously drawing on the world’s religious traditions in order to develop a universalist perspective centered on the development of the literary, philosophical, and spiritual capacities of the individual. The Transcendentalists were exploring the world’s religions to better understand what it means to be human, how to become better people, wiser, and more cultured in the full sense of that term.

The Transcendentalists and the culture they inherited can be better understood in the broad context of the Platonic tradition. In Platonic Mysticism, I discuss the history of Platonism with particular attention to how it was conveyed in a Western European Christian context via the seminal writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, for instance Mystical Theology, then through authors that include John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, and the Cambridge Platonists. In American Gurus (2014), I demonstrated how deeply Emerson’s works in particular were imbued with Platonic allusions, in particular to Plotinus, but also to Neoplatonists like Iamblichus and Proclus. It is telling that Bronson Alcott had a bust of Plato in his study on a shelf above a bust of Jesus, and that throughout his life, he participated in and promoted public dialogues or “conversations,” as well as publishing conversations (dialogues) on spiritual topics with a group of children under his tutelage at Temple School in Boston.

Platonism is important here because impelling it is the search for what is true. Platonism is dialogic; so too Transcendentalism was fundamentally dialogic. But dialogue did not exist for its own sake. Rather the purpose of dialogue was to move through conversation toward a deeper understanding of truth. In the Platonic tradition, truth is understood (as in modern science) to be universally applicable; what is true for one human being is true for another. It is not possible, as is commonly said today, to “have one’s own truth.” By definition, that is opinion, whereas truth is characterized by universality. Truth is one of the three classical transcendentalia, those being truth, goodness, and beauty.

But in the modern academy, at least in much of the humanities, such a perspective is anathema. Truth, beauty, and the good are alleged to be merely rationalizations of power relations. Multiculturalism groups together select ethnicities or interest groups, but implicitly or explicitly rejects the European cultural tradition to which Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott belonged, as well as the universalism that impels their work. Through their essays, books, journals, and conversations, the Transcendentalists sought to investigate and demonstrate what is true, good, and beautiful. Such aspirations are rarely spoken aloud in the contemporary academic world.

Multiculturalism as it is practiced in the contemporary humanities emphasizes external characteristics—skin color, social status, and gender identity, and so forth; its adherents seem much more interested in socio-political analysis and aims than in the philosophical and literary aspirations represented in Transcendentalism. Of course, Transcendentalism as a movement emphasized developing one’s inner life and in particular the quality of one’s life in light of what is beautiful, good, and true. Essentially, Transcendentalism and multiculturalism speak different languages; the first, the language of secular spirituality, the second the language of power relations. And so Transcendentalism is in eclipse in the contemporary academy.

Transcendentalism is in eclipse—that is, not currently visible. But it is perennial. What is perennial never dies; it is perpetually reborn for a new era. This is the meaning of the term “perennialism,” which is another way of describing the Platonic tradition. American Transcendentalism was a direct heir to the ancient Greek and particularly the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition not only in antiquity, but also as it reappeared later, for instance, in the Renaissance Platonism (and Hermeticism) of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Without doubt, this tradition will reappear in a new form at some point in the future. What is more, American Transcendentalism will reappear as an area of study within the academy. Certainly one can argue that the era of the American Renaissance is among the most influential and creative periods in American letters, and as such, it is of perennial interest. Harold Bloom remarked that American literature can be understood as divided between the period before and the period after Emerson. Transcendentalism is the pivotal movement of nineteenth-century American literature.

American Transcendentalism is about the shared human journey toward understanding more deeply and realizing for oneself and in one’s work what is true and good and beautiful. It also represents and encourages our journey toward perceiving and depicting the sublime. Hence in art, the movement most associated with Transcendentalism is the Hudson River School of painters, artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durand, and Albert Bierstadt. Their works, often on vast canvases, offer grand vistas of wild and pastoral nature, and in them the light is often an important feature in itself, hence the name “luminism” sometimes applied to them. One sees in their work the grandeur of the American landscape, and their works naturally evoke in us a sense of the sublime.

One of Frederic Edwin Church’s lifetime achievements, beyond his glorious paintings, was his magnificent home and estate overlooking the Hudson River Valley, which he named Olana. Olana is today a recognized and protected historic site (at the urging of one of my professors and mentors, David Huntington). The mansion Olana occupies a high point in the area and features magnificent views of the landscape. Its vistas are sublime. The house itself brings together world cultures, Persian-influenced, Italianate, and English, yet with Arabesque and Oriental flourishes—carpets and images from the Middle East and from Asia—all brought together in a magnificent American synthesis. It is in architecture what Emerson and Thoreau achieved in literature.

What can we draw from looking back at American Transcendentalism in literature, and the Hudson River School in art? Here we see a very different kind of multiculturalism. It is multicultural, not in the sense of multiple separate groups, but as a uniquely American synthesis in which the primary impetus is realization or evocation of the sublime. The sublime, harking back to Longinus, is that which calls us out of our individual social identity, out of our ordinary mundane life into what transcends us, what ennobles us. Transcendentalism and the Hudson River School call us to be greater than our mundane social selves, to open up to the grandeur and beauty of the natural world and of the greatest and most beautiful creations of human beings situated within the grandeur of nature.

What would the Transcendentalists or the artists of the Hudson River School think of an America consisting of disparate ethnic or religious interest groups divided against one another or for that matter, against the literary and artistic traditions and achievements of these very nineteenth-century authors and artists? They would have been surprised and, I think, disappointed at the lack of vision. It is not that they were uncritical of American society of the time. Emerson and Thoreau were outspoken opponents of slavery; many Hudson River School paintings can be read as critiquing American deforestation and industrialization. It is not that there were no socially critical dimensions to the works either of the Transcendentalists or of the Hudson River School—far from it. But at the same time, they also represented an America of multiple cultures synthesized into one, optimistic, at the dawn of a new era, one of individual self-development and movement toward realizing the sublime for oneself, and for others through their art. Theirs was a culture that celebrated and evoked sublimity.

By contrast, contemporary multiculturalism as enacted in the modern academy often expresses itself as strident, narrow, parochial, and apparently unaware of all that the Transcendentalists took as natural context and that made their movement possible in the first place. I do not think the Transcendentalists would have been opposed to a new campus multicultural center, but I think they would have asked, “Is that all there is? Isn’t more possible?” One can well imagine the famously irascible Thoreau asking pointed and infuriating questions, much as Socrates did millennia before. It seems entirely possible a contemporary Thoreau would find himself excommunicado because of political incorrectness, just as a contemporary Socrates would be compelled to drink the hemlock once again.

What might the Transcendentalists think of today’s interfaith movement? They would support the idea of dialogue between representatives of religions, of that I have no doubt. But they would say that the conversation ought not be only about what one believes as opposed to what another believes. Rather, it should be in the larger context of the individual desire for meaning, for greater realization of the good, the beautiful, and the true in one’s own life. How does this or that religion further or perhaps even obstruct that quest? What do the religions share in terms of advice to the seeker of the good life? The Transcendentalists would encourage the engaged intellectual life; they would encourage dialogue, but dialogue in the service of what is true, meaning universal in its applicability to our lives.

Certainly the Transcendentalists would say that bringing together multiple cultures isn’t an end in itself. It is, rather, a condition of the global world we inhabit, for good and for ill. But, the Transcendentalists would tell us, we can benefit by seeing the multiple cultures of our world through the lens of our search for higher meaning and purpose in life. And isn’t that search part of what college life is, or was, all about? What is the role of the good, of beauty, and of truth in our education? Do we aspire to become wiser? These are the kinds of perhaps discomforting questions that Transcendentalism presents us with. Little wonder Transcendentalism goes unnoticed in the contemporary academic world. But interest in it will return, without any doubt. Why? Thoreau advised in Life Without Principle, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” That is at heart what American Transcendentalism was all about. And the Eternities by definition do not disappear, they are ignored or forgotten, only to be rediscovered once again.

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