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TRANSCENDENTALISM

THOUGH we have followed the oratory, the scholarship, and the Unitarianism of New England almost to the present time, there has been reason for considering them before the other phases of Renaissance in that isolated region where the nineteenth century produced such a change. At various times we have touched on the fact that the period from 1798 to 1832– marked in England by everything between the “ Lyrical Ballads” and the death of Scott, and in America by all the New York literature from Brockden Brown to Bryant – really comprised an epoch in the literary history of both countries. It was during this period that the three phases of intellectual life which we have now considered fully declared themselves in New England; and in these years nothing else of equal importance developed there.

The very mention of the dates in question should remind us that throughout the English-speaking world the revolutionary spirit was in the air. It showed itself in the extreme individualism of literature in England, where the writers suddenly became almost as unlike one another as those of the preceding century had been similar; it showed itself there in that constitutional revolution which finally resulted in the Reform Bill; and in native American letters it showed itself in the somewhat imitative but soundly sweet writings of Brockden Brown, Irving, Cooper, and Bryant. The contrast between these and the contemporary writings of England may already have suggested a marked difference in the societies to which, as we can now see, the revolutionary spirit came at the same time. The essence of this spirit is its fervid faith in the excellence v of human nature; let men be freed from all needless control, it holds, and they may be trusted to work out their admirable salvation. In the old world, where the force of custom had been gathering for immemorial centuries, the speech and behaviour of enfranchised humanity was apt to take extravagant form. In America, on the other hand, where the one thing which had been most lacking was the semblance of polite civilisation, the very impulse which in Europe showed itself destructive appeared in a guise which at first makes it hard to recognise.

One need not ponder long, however, to feel, even in this staid new America, a note as fresh as was the most extravagant revolutionary expression in Europe. Our elaborately rhetorical oratory, to be sure, and our decorous scholarship, seem on the surface far from revolutionary; and so does the gently insignificant literature which was contemporary with them a bit further south. Yet all alike were as different from anything which America had uttered before as was the poetry of Wordsworth or of Shelley from what had previously been known in England. When we came to the Unitarianism of New England, the revolutionary spirit showed itself more plainly. The creed of Channing was of a kind which, except for the unusual chance of immediate social dominance, might almost at once have revealed its disintegrant character. Happening, as it did, however, to possess itself of the ecclesiastical system established by generations of ancestral orthodoxy, it produced at first no more obvious superficial change than a refreshing amelioration of the prospects visible from the good old Boston pulpits.

The enfranchised human nature of New England, too, at first expressed itself in no more appalling forms than the oratory of Webster or of Everett; than the Anthology Club, the Boston Athenæum, and the “ North American Review ; than the saintly personality and the ethereal speculations of

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Channing. Under such revolutionary influences as these the new generation of Boston grew up, which was to find expression a few years later.

In all such considerations as this there is danger of taking consecutive phases of development too literally. To say that Г r

Unitarianism caused the subsequent manifestation of free thought in New England would be too much; but no one can doubt that the world-wide revolutionary spirit, of which the first New England manifestation was the religious revolution effected by Unitarianism, impelled the following genera

tion to that outbreak of intellectual and spiritual anarchy which lis generally called Transcendentalism.

This queerly intangible Transcendentalism can best be understood, indeed, by recurring to the text of Channing's celebrated sermon on Unitarian Christianity. “Prove all things," asserted the cheerful theologian; “hold fast that which is good.” Prove all things; do not accept tradition ; scrutinise whatever presents itself to you. If evil, though defended by the Bible itself, cast it aside; if good, even though the Bible utterly neglect it, cherish it as a gift of God. To this principle Channing adhered all his life; but Channing's life was essentially clerical ; it was that of a conscientious and disinterested religious teacher, whose great personal authority was strengthened by rare purity of nature. Educated in something like the old school of theology, he generally consecrated his devout boldness of thought to religious matters.

In the generation which grew up under the influence of which Channing is the most distinguished type, the revolutionary spirit declared itself more broadly. The traditional educatio of New England had been confined to theology, to classics and mathematics, and to the Common Law. So far as it had indulged itself in speculative philosophy, it had treated this as ancillary, mostly to theology and sometimes to jurisprudence. Meanwhile it had paid little attention to the modern literature even of England, and none at all to that of other languages

than English. Obviously there were many things in this world which intelligent young Yankees might advantageously prove, with a view to discovering whether they were worth holding fast. To say that they did so in obedience to Channing's specific teachings would be mistaken ; but certainly in obedience to the same motive which induced his choice of that Thessalonian text, the more active and vigorous young minds of New England attacked, wherever they could find them, the records of human wisdom. They wished to make up their own minds as to what they believed about the eternities, and to do so with no more deference to any authority than that authority seemed rationally to deserve.

The name commonly given to the unsystematised results at which they arrived - widely differing with every individual —

— is apt. However they differed, these impulsive and untrained philosophical thinkers of renascent New England were idealists. V With the aid of reading as wide as their resources would allow, they endeavoured to give themselves an account of what the universe really means. They became aware that our senses perceive only the phenomena of life, and that behind these phenomena, beyond the range of human senses, lurk things not phenomenal. The evolutionary philosophy which has followed theirs holds a similar conception; it divides all things into two groups, — the phenomenal or knowable, concerning which our knowledge can be tested by observation or experiment, and the unknowable, concerning which no observation or experiment can prove anything. With scientific hardness of head evolutionary philosophy consequently confines its energies to phenomena. With unscientific enthusiasm for freedom the first enfranchised thinkers of New England troubled themselves little about phenomena, and devoted their energies to thinking and talking about that great group of undemonstrable truths which must always transcend human experience. In so doing, we can see now, they followed an instinct innate in their race. They were descended from two

centuries of Puritanism ; and though the Puritans exerted

their philosophic thought within dogmatically fixed limits, ✓ they were intense idealists, too. Their whole temperamental

energy was concentrated in efforts definitely to perceive absolute truths quite beyond the range of any earthly senses. The real distinction between the Puritan idealists and the Trans

cendental idealists of the nineteenth century proves little more v than that these discarded all dogmatic limit.

A typical example of the state of things which ensued lately transpired in the talk of a Bostonian, educated more than fifty years ago under Transcendental influences, but long since become an earnest Christian. Some discussion of metaphysics arising, he gravely said that of course no one doubted human nature to be quadruple, - consisting of mind, body, soul, and spirit. The distinction between mind and body is generally familiar, and that which separates the soul from these is nowise strange to any one familiar with the Transcendental period; but what the difference may be between soul and spirit only a Transcendentalist could ever have told you. Yet this dogmatic assertion of old Transcendentalism had survived as unquestioned truth in a mind which for years had been devoutly obedient to orthodox Christianity. Idealists, like this, making dogmatic assertions about unknowable things, pretty much all the Transcendentalists were.

A second agreement among them one can generally assert: almost all believed in innate ideas. Such a belief, of course, is inherent in the doctrine of conscience so vigorously maintained by Channing. Metaphysically the matter is endlessly disputable, belonging to the region where proof is out of the question. Do men come into the world with blank minds on which images are impressed by the accidents of our earthly experience? or are they born with certain ideas, definitely and unchangeably true? The question has been discussed and perhaps will be discussed by many schools of philosophy. Transcendentalism did not trouble itself with much formal discussion.

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