Practical Transcendentalism

Like everyone else, I read about transcendentalism in history class, but never elected to read the works of any transcendentalists. Too boring. A bunch of flakes. Is there anyone who reads Ralph Waldo Emerson by choice?

Turns out I was wrong — not about Emerson; he was a flake — but about the doctrine itself. It wasn’t flaky. It was developed in Germany by a guy named Friedrich Schleiermacher, who explained it to an American named George Bancroft, who explained it to a guy named Edward Everett, who explained it to a guy named Theodore Parker.

That might have been that, except a young lawyer in Illinois named William Herndon picked up on Parker’s works and showed them to his law partner, Abraham Lincoln.

This is all explained in Gary Wills’ book Lincoln at Gettysburg.

Parker, whose father fired the first shot of the American Revolution (from our side) was an abolitionist who expressed the transcendentalist ideals in ways that the average person could understand. Many transcendentalists had quit the Christian churches, but Parker kept his pulpit, because he embraced a transcendental form of Christianity:

“By Christianity, I mean that form of religion which consists of piety — the love of God and morality — the keeping of His laws. That is not the Christianity of the Christian church, nor of any sect. It is the ideal religion which the human race has been groping for.”

Parker had a transcendental view of democracy, too: “By Democracy, I mean the government over all the people, by all the people, and for the sake of all.” Sound familiar?

“This is not the democracy of the parties, but it is that ideal government, the reign of righteousness, the kingdom of justice, which all noble hearts long for, and labor to produce, the ideal whereunto mankind slowly draws near.”

It was from Parker that Lincoln drew his deeply held attachment to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence as the founding document of our republic. The Constitution was merely a compromise that embodied the selfish interests of the parties involved, a vehicle through which the country could gradually attain the ideals of the Declaration.

“First comes the Sentiment,” Parker wrote, “the feeling of liberty; next the idea — the thought becomes a thing. Buds in March, blossoms in May, apples in September — that is the law of historical succession.”

Parker died in 1860, so he never got to see the apples, but his ideas will live forever as they are embodied in Lincoln’s Gettyburg Address, which has inspired may generations and will, hopefully, inspire many more.