Traditionally, while considering religion, one’s mind will drift to images of a white building with tall steeple, and a priest or other leader preaching to a congregation. However, the transcendentalists bring up other images, like being on top of a mountain in the Adirondacks, or spotting a deer off in the distance. While reading Thoreau, Emerson, and all of the lovely transcendentalists, I could not help but let my mind wander to similar thoughts of existentialisms and phenomenology. It seems to me that while there most certainly are differences between transcendentalism and existentialism, there are many parallels.
Transcendentalists, such as Thoreau advocate finding religious clarity through experiences in the wilderness, truly connecting with it, and seeing God in nature. By experiencing nature, what transcendentalists believe to be God’s work, one can come very close to God. Unlike attending church and being told about God, you will be experiencing him and his work first-hand; contact! Contact is perhaps the most important aspect of transcendentalism; it pushes one to desert tradition and pursue a very personal encounter with God, rather than a universal one from church. As Thoreau trekked through the Maine woods, he encountered many phenomenological experiences, “I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, not mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wasteland. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet earth” (273 Thoreau). Thoreau was awestruck by this seemingly undiscovered earth, and this is why his experience was phenomenological. Thoreau had a moment (and many others separate from this one) where he truly couldn’t think of anything except how he was encountering such a beautiful piece of nature, and how God made it perfectly. This is what he means when he promotes contact, as there would be no such experiences with out pushing yourself into the world as it was made originally, into the wilderness.
This sort of phenomenological experience is where I find similarities between transcendentalism and existentialism. Both ways of thinking are very concerned with the individual, and focusing on one’s own experience in the world. Existentialism, however, is based on the individual’s experience in an autonomous manner, and does not easily coincide with the belief in God or gods. Whereas transcendentalism is based on the individual’s experience in relation to discovering one’s own divine experience, quite contrary to being autonomous. While these two ideologies differ concerning the divine, they both weigh the individual understanding of the self and self-consciousness very heavily.
In a way, transcendentalism is to Christianity as existentialism is to traditional philosophy, in that it calls for the individual to cast away conventional ways of making sense of life, and instead calls to investigate yourself to truly understand existence. Emerson advocates this clearly in his Divinity School Address, “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, – cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, -are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, -but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.” (6, Emerson). Here Emerson, while giving the Harvard Divinity School Address, tells these graduates to essentially put behind them all they have learned, and to acquaint themselves “at first hand with Deity”. This is very similar to what Nietzsche, a German existentialist philosopher, would say about the process of understanding oneself, save the Deity. As Nietzsche said, “One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.” (Nietzsche). Both transcendentalism and existentialism promote ideas of shedding traditional authority of religion or society in general, and instead doing very in-depth introspection to find God, or one’s own autonomous self, respectively.
Both ways of thought, in most cases, involve phenomenological experiences. This is because both bring the individual so close to the essence of being, ontologically speaking, whether the conclusion being that it is due to a God, or another means. No matter what one’s beliefs are, it is very common for both transcendentalists and existentialists alike to experience a phenomenological happening. To have such an experience does not necessitate a belief in divinity, but implies that the individual is completely awe-struck in what they conclude, which can be said of most schools of thought.
Though transcendentalism and existentialism do differ in certain aspects, they also overlap in others. Both ideologies stress the importance of the individual and the contact with what they believe to be the ultimate truth. These philosophies especially correspond in that both encourage the straying away from norms of traditional ways of religion or life, and the deeper investigation of the self, be it connection to Deity or the autonomous self.