Can Catholics Be Transcendentalists?

Note: this question is about the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, not the Transcendentalism of Eastern meditation practices.

Walden Pond, MA, where Thoreau lived out transcendentalism.

When I was in high school, my sophomore English teacher made us read the works of Transcendentalism (e.g., Thoreau) and Anti-Transcendentalism (a.k.a. Dark Romanticism, e.g., Edgar Allen Poe).  I’m a very slow reader and have never cared much for American literature, so I simply pretended to read it (sorry, Mrs. Roberts), picking up details here and there.  By way of preface, both sides of the argument are incorrect.  As a high school student, I was shocked by the rugged simplicity found in Thoreau’s Walden.  What seemed senseless then later became an obvious fact of life at my college seminary in a monastic setting.  Out in the middle of nowhere with no means of transportation and little exposure to mind-numbing entertainment, my first semester came with a painful withdrawal from the usual pace of life.  Over the course of the year, though, I found myself loving simplicity and the joy it brought me.  Ever since then, I’ve had a strong desire to go out away from the hustle-bustle of the city and enjoy a simple life in the country, contemplating the transcendentals – truth, beauty, and goodness.  Over the next few months, my family will be doing just that.  It raises a question: is there a way to baptize Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism seems quite a bit like secular humanism and Unitarianism combined, a boundless confidence in the goodness of human nature and a condemnation of the violence supposedly done to it by social structures, such as political bodies and organized religion.  Anti-Transcendentalism, on the other hand, focuses to a Calvinist degree on the sinfulness of man and his inability to change for the better.

This debate is a classic one, shockingly similar to other debates in previous centuries, such as the divergent views on human nature in the American and French revolutions and even the tension of the internal struggle according to dualism (e.g., Manichaeanism).  Is man good or evil?  The solution, of course, is St. Augustine’s: “For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?”  Man is good, as the transcendentalists believed, but he is not perfectly good.  The evil that is in him, however, is not its own principle, but is a mere privation of good.  Transcendentalists are more correct than Anti-Transcendentalists.  What they say positively (that man is good) is true, just not entirely, while Anti-Transcendental teaching is true only negatively – man is not really evil, but is imperfect.

Below are a few of the basic philosophical points of Transcendentalism, along with corrections Catholics would need to make to baptize the movement:

  • Simplicity of Life – On the surface, some traditional ways of living out Catholicism could appear very similar to traditional Transcendentalism.  If confronted with both Thoreau and a Catholic hermit, outsiders would immediately notice simplicity.  What correction would Catholicism provide?  Our simplicity would be not merely to advance our own independence with a humanist intention, but to detach ourselves from worldly things so to love God better.  Detachment would bring not only joy and closeness to God, but also authenticity of life – we would truly enjoy life, rather than its imitation.
  • Meditation – Again, to outsiders the meditation of Catholicism, especially Franciscan spirituality, would seem reminiscent of Thoreau.  His writing, after all, was clearly the result of meditation on the nature of the woods and Walden Pond, and we Catholics have long admired the beauty and order found in nature, and the many lessons it has to teach us.  What correction would Catholicism provide?  While Thoreau’s spirituality was vaguely pantheistic, Catholicism would insist on seeing the Creator in His creation.  The spark that lights our meditation might be some part of creation, but the ultimate object of our meditation is always God and His actions.  Furthermore, we meditate by the aid of grace, and not simply by our own human powers.
  • Solitude & Silence - Solitude and silence are wonderful things for the spiritual life, as any hermit will tell you, but not all men are ready for them.  Men who are unprepared for them have been known to go mad.  What correction would Catholicism provide?  Despite the benefits of solitude and silence – universally good for all men in limited doses – Catholicism would urge moderation according to vocation.  Married lay people may need some time in solitude and silence each day, diocesan priests perhaps a bit more, and monks quite a great deal more.  We were made for different things and we have to respect that.
  • Self-Reliance – There are few things more appealing to some today than self-reliance.  In a time when we are so used to having everything done for us, many men are striving to relearn long lost techniques.  Thoreau built his own cabin and grew his own crops.  Self-reliance includes living within one’s means, so as not to require more than you can provide.  What correction would Catholicism provide? Rather than self-reliance simply as an exercise in humanism, Catholicism would point out that God has given each man special gifts.  When we use those gifts, we glorify God who made it possible.  However, it is also necessary to remember that because God has given each man special gifts, it seems logical to trade goods and services with those who have the gifts to produce them.  We need not insist on doing it all ourselves.  By relying on solidarity with others, and fair trade of goods and services, we can all live beyond the means of those things we can do ourselves, without being irresponsible or excessive.

Here are two things Catholicism cannot appreciate about Transcendentalism:

  • Anarchism – One of the things Thoreau could not stand was government.  Arrested for refusing to pay taxes (though he had good reason), Thoreau believed that man should be unhindered by societal regulations, left to his own self-government.  Many hail him today as the greatest anarchist of American history and the father of civil disobedience.  What correction would Catholicism provide?  If civil disobedience is refusal to go along with what the people want and to suffer the consequences, encouraging others to do the same, then Jesus Christ is the real father of civil disobedience.  He was obedient not to the state first, but to God.  Nevertheless, He taught us to follow just laws.  Anarchy is the antithesis of the Church’s teaching on government.  Thoreau would probably argue that God intended for man to be free and made him great for that reason, but Catholicism would respond that governments exist – even if some of them are bad governments – to keep men free and great.
  • Spirituality vs. Religion – As a Unitarian, Thoreau was not a big fan of organized religion.  He would have viewed them, as many do today, with the suspicion that, like government, they existed to reign in the human spirit.  What correction would Catholicism provide?  Of course, as Catholics, we know that not to be the case.  Some will argue that religion, like government, keeps men in check.  That is certainly true to an extent, but the real purpose of religion is not to herd the imperfect into a neat, orderly flock.  Even a perfect person must practice religion because religion is the practice of his faith.  Religion is what we do when we love God, plain and simple.

6 Comments

  1. Geo /

    Great post. I have ususally been guilty of tossing out the baby vis-a-vis Transcendentalism. Thanks for helping me rethink my position.

  2. Thoreau, Emerson, et al. are brilliant minds and entirely full of wisdom. I am a Catholic, and an ardent fan of transcendentalism as a philosophical movement, just as I also love stoicism, Christian existentialism, and Thomism. But my being Catholic comes first over all these things.
    I think your article is quite fair, and does a good job of highlighting the good and the bad in their thought (though I am confessedly very sympathetic to Thoreau’s anarchism).

  3. kelso /

    Transcendentalism also drew the great convert Orestes Brownson for a short while. Thoreau, however, never missed the Friday evening train into Boston from Walden Pond’s Concord stop. Weekends in the city were a lot more fun than fishing all alone from a cabin by a lake in the woods. Unless you are a contemplative given to love of Christ in solitude, that is. If one’s religion is “disorganized” it is not a religion. Neither is life a living if it is disorganized. Since Christ established it as a visible society with visible sacraments, the only truly organized religion is the Catholic religion.

  4. Excellent – and so concise! It would have taken me reams of . . .kilobytes to hash this out.

    Riddle me this: Since American Lit wasn’t your favorite, do you suppose we could do the same with aspects of British Romanticism?

  5. very well written indeed. Especially the Spirituality vs. Religion part…