Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Octavius Brooks Frothingham (18221895)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1822. Died there, 1895. Transcendentalism in New England. 1876.]
A GOD of limited power, wisdom, or goodness, is no God, and no other does Sensationalism offer. Transcendentalism points to the fact that under the auspices of this philosophy atheism has spread; and along with atheism the intellectual demoralization that accompanies the disappearance of a cardinal idea.
From this grave peril the Transcendentalist found an escape in flight to the spiritual nature of man, in virtue of which he had an intuitive knowledge of God as a being, infinite and absolute in power, wisdom, and goodness; a direct perception like that which the senses have of material objects; a perception that gains in distinctness, clearness, and positiveness as the faculties through which it is obtained increase in power and delicacy. To the human mind, by its original constitution, belongs the firm assurance of Gods existence, as a half latent fact of consciousness, and with it a dim sense of his moral attributes. To minds capacious and sensitive the truth was disclosed in lofty ranges that lifted the horizon line, in every direction, above the cloudland of doubt; to minds cultivated, earnest, devout, aspiring, the revelation came in bursts of glory. The experiences of inspired men and women were repeated. The prophet, the seer, the saint, was no longer a favored person whose sayings and doings were recorded in the Bible, but a living person, making manifest the wealth of soul in all human beings. Communication with the ideal world was again opened through conscience; and communion with God, close and tender as is anywhere described by devotees and mystics, was promised to the religious affections.
The Transcendentalist spoke of God with authority. His God was not possible, but real; not probable, but certain. In his high confidence he had small respect for the labored reasonings of Natural Religion; the argument from design, so carefully elaborated by Paley, Brougham and the writers of the Bridgewater Treatises, was interesting and useful as far as it went, but was remanded to an inferior place. The demonstration from miracle was dismissed with feelings bordering on contempt, as illogical and childish.
Taking his faith with him into the world of nature and of human life, the Transcendentalist, sure of the divine wisdom and love, found everywhere joy for mourning, and beauty for ashes. Passing through the valley of Baca, he saw springs bubbling up from the sand, and making pools for thirsty souls. Wherever he came, garments of heaviness were dropped and robes of praise put on. Evil was but the prophecy of good, wrong the servant of right, pain the precursor of peace, sorrow the minister to joy. He would acknowledge no exception to the rule of an absolute justice and an inexorable love. It was certain that all was well, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. He was, as we have said, an optimistnot of the indifferent sort that make the maxim Whatever is, is right an excuse for idlenessbut of the heroic kind who, by refreshing their minds with thoughts of the absolute goodness, keep alive their faith, hope, endeavor, and quicken themselves to efforts at understanding, interpreting and bringing to the surface the divine attributes. For himself he had no misgivings, and no alarm at the misgivings of others; believing them due, either to some misunderstanding that might be corrected, or to some moral defect that could be cured. Even atheism, of the crudest, coarsest, most stubborn description, had no terrors for him. It was in his judgment a matter of definition mainly. Utter atheism was all but inconceivable to him; the essential faith in divine things under some form of mental perception being too deeply planted in human nature to be eradicated or buried.
Taking his belief with him into the world of history, the Transcendentalist discovered the faith in God beneath all errors, delusions, idolatries and superstition. He read it into unintelligible scriptures; he drew it forth from obsolete symbols; he dragged it to the light from the darkness of hateful shrines and the bloody mire of pagan altars. Mr. Parker meditated a work on the religious history of mankind, in which the development of the theistic idea was to be traced from its shadowy beginnings to its full maturity; and this he meant should be the crowning work of his life. Sure of his first principle, he had no hesitation in going into caves and among the ruins of temples. Had that work been completed, the Transcendentalists faith in God would have received its most eloquent statement.
The other cardinal doctrine of religionthe immortality of the soulTranscendentalism was proud of having rescued from death in the same way. The philosophy of sensation could give no assurance of personal immortality. Here, too, its fundamental axiom, Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu, was discouraging to belief. For immortality is not demonstrable to the senses. Experience affords no basis for conviction, and knowledge cannot on any pretext be claimed .
The preaching of Transcendentalists caused, in all parts of the country, a revival of interest and of faith in personal immortality; spiritualized the idea of it; enlarged the scope of the belief, and ennobled its character; established an organic connection between the present life and the future, making them both one in substance; disabused people of the coarse notion that the next life was an incident of their experience, and compelled them to think of it as a normal extension of their being; substituted aspiration after spiritual deliverance and perfection, for hope of happiness and fear of misery; recalled attention to the nature and capacity of the soul itself; in a word, announced the natural immortality of the soul by virtue of its essential quality. The fanciful reasoning of Platos Phædon was supplemented by new readings in psychology, and strengthened by powerful moral supports; the highest desires, the purest feelings, the deepest sympathies, were enlisted in its cause; death was made incidental to life; lower life was made subordinate to higher; and men who were beginning to doubt whether the demand for personal immortality was entirely honorable in one who utterly trusted in God, thoroughly appreciated the actual world, and fairly respected his own dignity, were reassured by a faith which promised felicity on terms that compromised neither reason nor virtue. The very persons who had let go the hope of immortality because they could not accept it at the cost of sacrificing their confidence in Gods instant justice, were glad to recover it as a promise of fulfilment to their dearest desire for spiritual expansion.