It isn’t easy to revolutionize the worlds of writing, philosophy and social science at the same time, but a trip to the woods is an excellent place to start. Just ask Mr. Henry David Thoreau. Of course, to do that, you’d need to take a time machine back to the 1830s, the decade that saw the birth of American Transcendentalism, a movement inspired by visionaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amos Bronson Alcott and other gentlemen who liked to use all three of their names. Including this fellow named Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau lived his entire life in New England and spent significant periods of time in Maine. Yet in many ways, Thoreau lived in a world all his own. Of course, he shared the same world, the same New England and the same Maine as everyone else. It’s just that he saw it all in a different light.
Arriving at a true definition of Transcendentalism is as difficult today as it was in the time of Thoreau and his compatriots. The roots of the movement can be traced all the way back to the philosophy of Plato. Perhaps the best way to begin a definition is to say that Transcendentalism was a natural flowering of the seeds of the American experiment in individualism, self-reliance and, despite the dour looks in the old photos, the pursuit of happiness.
So what exactly were the Transcendentalists trying to transcend? In essence, they envisioned a way of living in which the individual could go beyond the limits imposed by structured society and conventional thinking and truly reach a higher level of awareness, imagination and creativity, ultimately connecting with one’s essential nature.