The Mystic.

From: Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880)
Author: Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1880 New York



  IF among the representatives of spiritual philosophy the first place belongs to Mr. Emerson, the second must be assigned to Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott,—older than Mr. Emerson by four years (he was born in 1799), a contemporary in thought, a companion, for years a fellow townsman, and, if that were possible, more purely and exclusively a devotee of spiritual ideas. Mr. Alcott may justly be called a mystic—one of the very small class of persons who accept without qualification, and constantly teach the doctrine of the soul’s primacy and pre-eminence. He is not a learned man, in the ordinary sense of the term; not a man of versatile mind or various tastes; not a man of general information in worldly or even literary affairs; not a man of extensive commerce with books. Though a reader, and a constant and faithful one, his reading has been limited to books of poetry—chiefly of the meditative and interior sort—and works of spiritual philosophy. Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, Jamblichus, Pythagoras, Boehme, Swedenborg, Fludd, Pordage, Henry More, Law, Crashaw, Selden, are the names oftener than any on his pages and lips. He early made acquaintance with Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and never ceased to hold it exceedingly precious, at one period making it a rule to read the volume once a year. His books are his friends; his regard for them seems to be personal; he enjoys their society with the feeling that he gives as well as receives. He loves them in part because they love him; consequently, in all his quoting of them, his own mind comes in as introducer and voucher as it were. His indebtedness to them is expressed with the cordiality of an intimate, rather than with the gratitude of a disciple. His own mind is so wakeful and thoughtful, so quick and ready to take the initiative, that it is hard to say in what respect even his favorite and familiar authors have enriched him. What was not originally his own, is so entirely made his own by sympathetic absorption, that the contribution which others have made is not to be distinguished from his native stores. Few men seem less dependent on literature than he.

  Mr. Alcott is a thinker, interior, solitary, deeply conversant with the secrets of his own mind, like thinkers of his order, clear, earnest, but not otherwise than monotonous from the reiteration of his primitive ideas. We have called him a mystic. Bearing in mind the derivations of the word—μυειν—to brood, to meditate, to shut one’s self up in the recesses of consciousness, to sink into the depths of one’s own being for the purpose of exploring the world which that being contains; of discovering how deep and boundless it is, of meeting in its retreats the form of the Infinite Being who walks there in the evening, and makes his voice audible in the mysterious whispers that breathe over its plains, it well describes him. He is a philosopher of that school; instead of seeking wisdom by intellectual processes, using induction and deduction, and creeping step by step towards his goal,—he appeals at once to the testimony of consciousness, claims immediate insight, and instead of hazarding a doctrine which he has argued, announces a truth which he has seen; he studies the mystery of being in its inward disclosures, contemplates ultimate laws and fundamental data in his own soul.

  While Mr. Emerson’s idealism was nourished—so far as it was supplied with nourishment from foreign sources—by the genius of India, Mr. Alcott’s was fed by the speculation of Greece. Kant was not his master, neither was Fichte nor Schelling, but Pythagoras rather; Pythagoras more than Plato, with whom, notwithstanding his great admiration, he is less intimately allied. He talks about Plato, he talks Pythagoras. Of the latter he says:

  “Of the great educators of antiquity, I esteem Pythagoras the most eminent and successful; everything of his doctrine and discipline comes commended by its elegance and humanity, and justifies the name he bore of the golden-souled Samian, and founder of Greek culture. He seems to have stood in providential nearness to human sensibility, as if his were a maternal relation as well, and he owned the minds whom he nurtured and educated. The first of philosophers, taking the name for its modesty of pretension, he justified his claim to it in the attainments and services of his followers; his school having given us Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Plutarch, Plotinus, and others of almost equal fame, founders of states and cultures. He was reverenced by the multitude as one under the influence of divine inspiration. He abstained from all intoxicating drinks, and from animal food, confining himself to a chaste nutriment; hence his sleep was short and undisturbed; his soul vigilant and pure; his body in state of perfect and invariable health. He was free from the superstitions of his time, and pervaded with a deep sense of duty towards God, and veneration for his divine attributes and immanency in things. He fixed his mind so intently on the attainment of wisdom, that systems and mysteries inaccessible to others were opened to him by his magic genius and sincerity of purpose. The great principle with which he started, that of being a seeker rather than a possessor of truth, seemed ever to urge him forward with a diligence and activity unprecedented in the history of the past, and perhaps unequalled since. He visited every man who could claim any degree of fame for wisdom or learning; whilst the rules of antiquity and the simplest operations of nature seemed to yield to his researches; and we moderns are using his eyes in many departments of activity into which pure thought enters, being indebted to him for important discoveries alike in science and metaphysics.”

  It is evident that the New England sage made the Greek philosopher his model in other respects than the adoption of his philosophical method implied. The rules of personal conduct and behavior, of social intercourse, and civil association, were studiously practised on by the American disciple, who seemed never to forget the dignified and gracious figure whose fame charmed him.

  Mr. Alcott’s philosophical ideas are not many, but they are profound and significant.

  “The Dialectic, or Method of the Mind,” he says in “Concord Days” under the head of Ideal Culture,” constitutes the basis of all culture. Without a thorough discipline in this, our schools and universities give but a showy and superficial training. The knowledge of mind is the beginning of all knowledge; without this, a theology is baseless, the knowledge of God impossible. Modern education has not dealt with these deeper questions of life and being. It has the future in which to prove its power of conducting a cultus answering to the discipline of the Greek thinkers, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle.” “As yet we deal with mind with far less certainty than with matter; the realm of intellect having been less explored than the world of the senses, and both are treated conjecturally rather than absolutely. When we come to perceive that intuition is the primary postulate of all intelligence, most questions now perplexing and obscure will become transparent; the lower imperfect methods then take rank where they belong, and are available. The soul leads the senses; the reason the understanding; imagination the memory; instinct and intuition include and prompt the Personality entire.”

  “The categories of imagination are the poet’s tools; those of the reason, the implements of the naturalist. The dialectic philosopher is master of them both. The tools to those only who can handle them skilfully. All others but gash themselves and their subject at best. Ask not a man of understanding to solve a problem in metaphysics. He has neither wit, weight, nor scales for the task. But a man of reason or of imagination solves readily the problems of understanding, the moment these are fairly stated. Indeas are solvents of all mysteries, whether in matter or in mind.”

  “Having drank of immortality all night, the genius enters eagerly upon the day’s task, impatient of any impertinences jogging the full glass. Sleep and see; wake, and report the nocturnal spectacle. Sleep, like travel, enriches, refreshes, by varying the day’s perspective, showing us the night side of the globe we traverse day by day. We make transits too swift for our wakeful senses to follow; pass from solar to lunar consciousness in a twinkling; lapse from forehead and face to occupy our lower parts, and recover, as far as permitted, the keys of genesis and of the fore worlds. ‘All truth,’ says Porphyry, ‘is latent;’ but this the soul sometimes beholds, when she is a little liberated by sleep from the employments of the body, and sometimes she extends her sight, but never perfectly reaches the objects of her vision.”

  “The good alone dream divinely. Our dreams are characteristic of our waking thoughts and states; we are never out of character; never quite another, even when fancy seeks to metamorphose us entirely. The Person is One in all the manifold phases of the Many, through which we transmigrate, and we find ourself perpetually, because we cannot lose ourself personally in the mazes of the many. ‘Tis the one soul in manifold shapes. Ever the old friend of the mirror in other face, old and new, yet one in endless revolution and metamorphosis, suggesting a common relationship of forms at their base, with divergent types as these range wider and farther from their central archetype, including all concrete forms in nature, each returning into other, and departing therefrom in endless revolution.”

  “What is the bad but lapse from good,—the good blindfolded?”

  “One’s foes are of his own household. If his house is haunted, it is by himself only. Our choices are our Saviors or Satans.”

  “The celestial man is composed more largely of light and ether. The demoniac man of fire and vapor. The animal man of embers and dust.”

  “The sacraments, symbolically considered, are

Baptism, or purification by water;
Continence, or chastity in personal indulgences;
Fasting, or temperance in outward delights;
Prayer, or aspiring aims;
Labor, or prayer in act or pursuits.

  These are the regimen of inspiration and thought.”

  The following, from the chapter entitled “Genesis and Lapse,” in “Concord Days,” extends Mr. Alcott’s principle to a deep problem in speculative truth. He quotes Coleridge thus:

  “The great maxim in legislation, intellectual or physical, is subordinate, not exclude. Nature, in her ascent, leaves nothing behind; but at each step subordinates and glorifies,—mass, crystal, organ, sensation, sentience, reflection.”

  Then he proceeds:

  “Taken in reverse order of descent, spirit puts itself before; at each step protrudes faculty in feature, function, organ, limb, subordinating to glorify also,—person, volition, thought, sensibility, sense, body,—animating thus and rounding creation to soul and sense alike. The naturalist cannot urge too strongly the claims of physical, nor the plea of the idealist be too vigorously pressed for metaphysical studies. One body in one soul. Nature and spirit are inseparable, and are best studied as a unit. Nature ends where spirit begins. The idealist’s point of view is the obverse of the naturalist’s, and each must accost his side with a first love before use has worn off the bloom, and seduced their vision. . . .

  “Whether man be the successor or predecessor of his inferiors in nature, is to be determined by exploring faithfully the realms of matter and of spirit alike, and complementing the former in the latter. Whether surveyed in order, descending or ascending, in genesis or process, from the side of the idealist or of the materialist, the keystone of the arch in either case is an ideal, underpropped by nature or upheld by mind.”

  “Man, the sum total of animals, transcends all in being a Person, a responsible creature. Man is man, in virtue of being a Person, a self-determining will, held accountable to a spiritual Ideal to affirm that brute creatures are endowed with freedom and choice, the sense of responsibility, were to exalt them into a spiritual existence and personality; whereas, it is plain enough that they are not above deliberation and choice, but below it, under the sway of Fate, as men are when running counter to reason and conscience. The will bridges the chasm between man and brute, and frees the fated creature he were else. Solitary, not himself, the victim of appetite, inmate of the den, is man, till freed from individualism, and delivered into his free Personality.”

  The next extract is from the Chapter on Ideals:

  “Enthusiasm is essential to the successful attainment of any high endeavor; without which incentive one is not sure of his equality to the humblest undertakings even. And he attempts little worth living for, if he expects completing his task in an ordinary lifetime. This translation is for the continuance of his work here begun; but for whose completion, time and opportunity were all too narrow and brief. Himself is the success or failure. Step by step one climbs the pinnacles of excellence; life itself is but the stretch for that mountain of holiness. Opening here with humanity, ‘tis the aiming at divinity in ever-ascending circles of aspiration and endeavor. Who ceases to aspire, dies. Our pursuits are our prayers, our ideals our gods.”

  In the journals of Theodore Parker, Mr. Alcott is represented as taking an active part in the thinking and talking of the period immediately preceding the establishment of the “Dial,” and as expressing audacious opinions; among others, this—which suggests Hegel, though it might have reached Mr. Alcott from a different quarter—that the Almighty progressively unfolds himself towards His own perfection; and this, that the hideous things in nature are reflections of man’s animalism; that the world being the product of all men, man is responsible for its evil condition; a doctrine similar to the Augustinian doctrine of the Fall, hinted at also in the Book of Genesis. It was the doctrine of Jacob Boehme, one of Mr. Alcott’s seers, that as the inevitable consequence of sin, the operation of the Seven Qualities in Lucifer’s dominion became perverted and corrupted. The fiery principle, instead of creating the heavenly glory, produced wrath and torment. The astringent quality, that should give stability and coherence, became hard and stubborn. The sweet was changed to bitter; the bitter to raging fury. This earth—once a province of the heavenly world—was broken up into a chaos of wrath and darkness, roaring with the din of conflicting elements. Eden became a waste; its innocence departed, its friendly creatures began to bite and tear one another, and man became an exile and a bondsman to the elements he once controlled.

  In 1837 Mr. Alcott—not Mr. Emerson—was the reputed leader of the Transcendentalists, none being more active than he in diffusing the ideas of the Spiritual Philosophy, and none being so uncompromising in his interpretations of them. He was generally present at the meetings of the informal Club which, under different names, held meetings at the private houses of members, from 1836 to 1850. Mr. Ripley had consultations with him in regard to the proposed community which was later established at Brook Farm. When Mr. Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. Alcott joined that cause, and was faithful to it till the end. With the movement for the emancipation and elevation of women, he was a sympathizer. He was one of the reformers who met at Chardon Street Chapel, in 1840, to discuss plans of universal reform—Garrison, Edmund Quincy, Henry C. Wright, Theodore Parker, William H. Channing, Christopher Greene, Maria Chapman and Abby Kelly being of the number. In those days he was intimate with Emerson, Ripley, Hedge, Brownson, Clarke, Bartol, Stetson, and well known as a leader in speculative thought. His period of Pythagorean discipline had already begun. In 1835 he put away the use of animal food. Declining to join either the Brook Farm community, or that of Adin Ballou, at Milford, he undertook to do his part towards the solution of the “labor and culture problem,” by supporting himself by manual labor in Concord, working during the summer in field and garden, and in winter chopping wood in the village woodlands, all the time keeping his mind intent on high thoughts. To conventional people he was an object of ridicule, not unmingled with contempt, as an improvident visionary. But Dr. Channing held him in admiration.

  “Mr. Alcott,” he wrote to a friend, “little suspects how my heart goes out to him. One of my dearest ideas and hopes is the union of labor and culture. I wish to see labor honored and united with the free development of the intellect and heart. Mr. Alcott, hiring himself out for day labor, and at the same time living in a region of high thought, is perhaps the most interesting object in our commonwealth. I do not care much for Orpheus, in “The Dial,” but Orpheus at the plough is after my own heart. There he teaches a grand lesson, more than most of us teach by the pen.”

  The Orpheus in “The Dial” perplexed others beside Dr. Channing, and amused nearly all he perplexed—all whom he did not exasperate and enrage. The “Orphic Sayings”—Mr. Alcott’s contribution to the magazine—attracted the attention of the critics, who made them an excuse for assailing with ridicule, the entire transcendental party. “Identity halts in diversity.” “The poles of things are not integrated.” “Love globes, wisdom orbs, all things.” “Love is the Genius of Spirit.” “Alway are the divine Gemini intertwined,”—the very school-boys repeated these dark sayings, with a tone that consigned the “Dial” and its oracles to the insane asylum. Yet the thought was intelligible, and even simple. In ordinary prose it would have sounded like common-place. It was the mystic phrase, and the perpetual reiteration of absolute principles that made the propositions seem obscure. The extracts from these “Sayings,” given in a previous chapter, are remarkable for crystalline clearness of conception, as well as of expression. The writer’s aim evidently was to deliver what he had to utter, in language of exact outline, and with the utmost economy of words. A singular sincerity characterized his mind and his life; he formed his beliefs on ideal laws, and based his conduct on them. In conduct and bearing, as in thought, he was a disciple of the philosopher of Samos. Fascinated by his vision of an ideal society, and determined to commence with a scheme of his own, he resolutely began by withdrawing from civil society as constituted, declined to pay the tax imposed by the authorities, and was lodged in Concord jail, where he would have stayed, had not his friend, Samuel Hoar, father of Judge Hoar, paid the tax for him, against his wish, and procured his immediate release. This was in 1843. The next spring found him inspecting lands suitable for a community. The next summer saw him, with some English friends, domesticated on the “Wyman Farm,” at Harvard, a piece of ninety acres, bordering the Nashua river, with an old house on it. “Fruitlands”—for so the community was named—did not justify its name. A single summer and autumn dissipated the hopes planted there, and with them the faith that the world could be refashioned by artificial arrangements of circumstances.

  The surprising thing was, that such a man should ever have fallen into the notion that it could; he was an idealist; his faith was in the soul—not in organization of any sort; he was a regenerator, not a reformer. All the good work he had done was of the regenerative kind, through an awakening of the spiritual powers of individuals. His mission was to educate—to draw out souls, whether of children or adults. Faith in the soul was his inspiration and his guide.—He early accepted the office of teacher, made it the calling of his life, and in the exercise of it, kept in mind this faith in the soul as the highest of qualifications. To understand his enthusiasm, it is only necessary to apprehend his idea. In the chapter on Childhood, in “Concord Days,” that idea is thus conveyed:

  “To conceive a child’s acquirements as originating in nature, dating from his birth into his body, seems an atheism that only a shallow metaphysical theology could entertain in a time of such marvellous natural knowledge as ours. ‘I shall never persuade myself,’ says Synesius, ‘to believe my soul to be of like age with my body.’ And yet we are wont to date our birth, as that of the babes we christen, from the body’s advent, so duteously inscribed in our family registers, as if time and space could chronicle the periods of the immortal mind, and mark its longevity by our chronometers. Only a God could inspire a child with the intimations seen in its first pulse-plays; the sprightly attainments of a single day’s doings afford the liveliest proofs of an omniscient Deity, revealing His attributes in the motions of the little one! Were the skill for touching its tender sensibilities, calling forth its budding gifts, equal to the charms the child has for us, what noble characters would graduate from our families—the community receiving its members accomplished in the personal graces, the state its patriots, the church its saints, all glorifying the race.”

  The process of education was spiritual, therefore, to entice the indwelling deity forth by sympathy. The first experiment made with set purpose, with definite idea and calculated method, was tried in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1825. So original was it in design and execution, and so remarkable in results, that the fame of it went abroad. Rev. Samuel J. May, minister in Brooklyn, Conn., a zealous friend of common-school education, being, along with the school committee, convinced that the schools throughout the State needed improvement, prepared a printed circular calling attention to the subject, and propounding questions so framed as to draw out full and precise information from every town. Among the letters received in answer to the circular was one from Dr. Wm. A. Alcott, a “philosopher and philanthropist,” author of the “House I Live In,” and other books on physical and moral training, calling particular attention to this remarkable school, kept on a very original plan, by his kinsman:

  “His account,” says Mr. May, “excited so much my curiosity to know more of the American Pestalozzi, as he has since been called, that I wrote immediately to Mr. A. B. Alcott, begging him to send me a detailed statement of his principles and methods of teaching and of training children. In due time came to me a full account of the school of Cheshire, which revealed such a depth of insight into the nature of man; such a true sympathy with children; such profound appreciation of the work of education; and withal, so philosophically arranged and exquisitely written, that I at once felt assured the man must be a genius, and that I must know him more intimately; so I wrote, inviting him urgently, to visit me. I also sent the account of his school to Mr. William Russell, in Boston, then editing the first Journal of Education ever published in our country. Mr. Russell thought as highly of the article as I did, and gave it to the public in his next October number.”

  “Mr. Alcott accepted my invitation; he came and passed a week with me before the close of the summer. I have never, but in one other instance, been so immediately taken possession of by any man I have ever met in life. He seemed to me like a born sage and saint. He was radical in all matters of reform; went to the root of all things, especially the subjects of education, mental and moral culture. If his biography shall ever be written by one who can appreciate him, and especially if his voluminous writings shall be properly published, it will be known how unique he was in wisdom and purity.”

  The chief peculiarity of the Cheshire School was the effort made there to rouse and elevate individual minds. Single desks were substituted for the long forms in common use; blackboards were introduced, and slates which put the pupils on their mettle; a library was instituted of carefully selected books, the reading whereof was diligently supervised and directed; hopes were appealed to instead of fears; gentleness took the place of severity; the affections and moral sentiments were addressed, to give full action to the heart and conscience, the physical being replaced by the spiritual scourge; light gymnastic exercises were introduced; evening entertainments gladdened the school room after working hours; even the youngest scholars were encouraged to dear their minds by keeping diaries. In these and other ways, especially by the enthusiasm and dignity of the master, knowledge was made attractive, and the teacher’s office was made venerable.

  The plan, albeit nearly the same with that practised by Pestalozzi in Switzerland, was original with Mr. Alcott, the product of his peculiar philosophical ideas. Had those ideas been less deep and lofty, the method might have commended itself to all as it did to Mr. May; but, had they been less deep and lofty, it would not have been tried at all. A profound faith in the soul suggested it, and certainly a profound faith was required to sustain it. But faith in the soul was no more popular then than it is now, implying, as it did, radical convictions on all sorts of questions, and familiar assumption of the truth of the opinions. Such a teacher is not permitted to be conventional. Mr. Alcott showed himself the disciple of Pythagoras in that he was the worshipper of ideal truth and purity, the uncompromising servant of the spiritual laws. When this was fairly understood, as it was in two years, the experiment was terminated.

  The idea, which made the teacher suspected by the school committee boards, was recognized and applauded by the finest spirits in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. The reformers hailed the reformer; the spiritualists welcomed the spiritualist. In Hartford, Drs. Gallaudet and Barnard; in Boston, Dr. Channing and Mr. Garrison, the Mays, Quincys, Phillipses, and other families of character and courage; in Philadelphia, Dr. Furness, Matthew Cary, Robert Vaux, and the radical Friends took him up. Mr. Emerson saluted him with high expectation, in the words addressed by Burke to John Howard:

  “Your plan is original, and as full of genius as of humanity; so do not let it sleep or stop a day.”

  The project of a school on the new plan was started in Boston; Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Miss Hoar, Mrs. Nath’l Hawthorne being among the most deeply interested. It was kept in the Masonic Temple during the year 1834, The account of this experiment has been so fully given by Miss Peabody, the original scribe, in a volume entitled “Record of a School,” placed within easy reach by a Boston publisher, only two years ago, and largely read, that to describe it here would be impertinent. In her new preface, Miss Peabody, who of late years has become an enthusiastic advocate of Frœbel’s method, which approaches the mind from the outside, while Mr. Alcott approaches it from the inside, frankly declares that she has

  “Come to doubt the details of his method of procedure, and to believe that Frœbel’s method of cultivating children through artistic production in the childish sphere of affection and fancy is a healthier and more effective way than self inspection, for at least those years of a child’s life before the age of seven.”

  While thus honestly declaring her abandonment of Mr. Alcott’s plan, she affirms her belief

  “That his school was a marked benefit to every child with whom he came into communication. . . .”

  “What I witnessed in his school room threw for me a new light into the profoundest mysteries that have been consecrated by the Christian symbols; and the study of childhood made there I would not exchange for anything I else I have experienced in life.”

  The Boston school was made more closely conformable to the spiritual idea than any previous ones. The intellectual tone of the society he frequented, the sympathy of his transcendental friends, the standing of his pupils, the expectation of exacting lookers on, encouraged the philosopher to give free rein to his theory. The principle of vicarious punishment—the innocent bearing pain for the guilty—the master for the pupil—was adopted as likely to enlist the sentiment of honor and noble shame in the cause of good behavior. A portion of the time was set apart for direct address by way of question and answer, to the higher faculties of the scholars. Mr. Alcott gave a series of “Conversations on the Gospels,” with most interesting and surprising results. These too were reported, and are very suggestive and astonishing reading.

 But even in Boston, the teacher’s faith in the soul found an unresponsive public. The “Conversations on the Gospels “were furiously attacked in the newspapers. The conservative spirit was aroused; the sectarian feeling was shocked; and the school, which began with thirty pupils, and rose to forty, fell away to ten; the receipts, which in the first year were $1,794, in the fourth (1837), were but $549, and at last only $343. In April, 1839, the furniture, library and apparatus of the school were sold to pay debts. The culture, refinement, liberality, philosophic aspiration of Boston, led by such men as James Freeman Clarke, Frederick H. Hedge, Chandler Robbins, George Russell, and by such women as Margaret Fuller, Miss Peabody, Miss Martineau, and the mothers of boys who have since done credit to their names, were not sufficient to protect the institution from failure, or the teacher from insult and obloquy. Prejudice, and prejudice alone, defeated the scheme.

  But the idea and the apostle survived. Miss Harriet Martineau, who knew Mr. Alcott well in 1837, spoke of him on her return home to James Pierrepont Greaves, an ardent English disciple of, Pestalozzi. Mr. Greaves gave the name “Alcott House,” to a school near London, which he had founded on the Pestalozzian method; he even meditated a visit to America, for the express purpose of making the acquaintance of the New England sage, and would have done so but for illness, which terminated in death. A long letter from him to Mr. Alcott, was printed in the “Dial” of April, 1843, a portion whereof it is interesting to read, because it throws light on the cardinal ideas of this school of thinkers. Mr. Alcott’s reply to the letter is not before us, but it was probably, in the main, sympathetic. The letter is dated London, 16th December, 1837:

  DEAR SIR,—Believing the Spirit has so far established its nature in you, as to make you willing to co-operate with itself in Love operations, I am induced, without apology, to address you as a friend and companion in the hidden path of Love’s most powerful revelations. “The Record of a School” having fallen into my hands, through Miss Harriet Martineau, I have perused it with deep interest; and the object of my present address to you (occasioned by this work) is to obtain a more intimate acquaintance with one, in our Sister Land, who is so divinely and universally developed. Permit me, therefore, dear sir, in simple affection, to put a few questions to you, which, if answered, will give me possession of that information respecting you and your work, which I think will be useful to present and to future generations of men. Also a mutual service may be rendered to ourselves, by assisting, to evolve our own being more completely, thereby making us more efficient instruments for Love’s use, in carrying forward the work which it has begun within us. The Unity himself must have his divine purpose to accomplish in and by us, or he would not have prepared us as far as he has. I am, therefore, willing to withhold nothing, but to receive and transmit all he is pleased to make me be, and thus, at length, to become an harmonious being. This he can readily work in the accomplishment of his primitive purposes. Should you think that a personal intercourse of a few weeks would facilitate the universal work, I would willingly undertake the voyage to America for that purpose. There is so decided and general a similarity in the sentiments and natures addressed in the account of your teaching, that a contact of spirits so alike developed would, no doubt, prove productive of still further development. Your school appears to work deeper than any we have in England, and its inner essential character interests me. If an American bookseller will send over any of your books to his correspondents here, I shall be happy to receive and pay for them.

  In the year 1817 some strong interior visitations came over me, which withdrew me from the world in a considerable degree, and I was enabled to yield myself up to Love’s own manner of acting, regardless of all consequences. Soon after this time, I met with an account of the Spirit’s work in and by the late venerable Pestalozzi, which so interested me that I proceeded at once to visit him in Switzerland, and remained with him in holy fellowship four years. After that I was working with considerable success amongst the various students in that country, when the prejudices of the self-made wise and powerful men became jealous of my influence, and I was advised to return to England, which I did; and have been working in various ways of usefulness ever since, from the deep centre to the circumference; and am now engaged in writing my conscientious experiences as well as I can represent them in words, and in teaching all such as come within my sphere of action. Receptive beings, however, have as yet been but limited, and those who permanently retain, have been still less; yet, at present, there appears a greater degree of awakening to the central love-sensibility than before. I see many more symptoms of the harvest-time approaching in this country. There is, at present, no obvious appearance of the Love-seed beginning to germinate.

  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

  The child has two orders of faculties which are to be educated, essential and semi-essential; or in other words, roots and branches.

  Radical faculties belong to the interior world, and the branchial to the exterior.

  To produce a central effect on the child, the radical faculties must be first developed; to represent this effect, the branchial faculties must be developed. The radical faculties belong entirely to Love; the branchial to knowledge and industry.

  It is imperative upon us to follow the determination of the radical faculties, and to modify the branchial always in obedience to the radical.

  It is the child, or the Love-Spirit in the child, that we must obey, and not suffer the Parents or any one else to divert us from it.

  Good is not to be determined by man’s wishes, but Good must originate and determine the wish.

  The Preceptor must watch attentively for every new exhibition of the child’s radical faculties, and obey them as divine laws.

  We must in every movement consider that it is the Infinite perfecting the finite.

  All that is unnecessary in the external must be kept from the child.

  The Preceptor’s duty is, as far as possible, to remove every hindrance out of the child’s way.

  The closer he keeps the child to the Spirit, the less it will want of us, or anyone else.

  The child has an inward, sacred, and unchangeable nature; which nature is the Temple of Love. This nature only demands what it will give, if properly attended to, viz.: Unfettered Liberty.

  The Love Germs can alone germinate with Love. Light and Life are but conditions of Love. Divine capacities are made by love alone.

  Love education is primarily a passive one; and, secondarily, an active one. To educate the radical faculties is altogether a new idea with Teachers at present. The parental end must be made much more prominent than it has been.

  The conceptive powers want much more purification than the perceptive; and it is only as we purify the conceptive that we shall get the perceptive clear.

  It is the essential conceptive powers that tinge all the consequences of the exterior conceptive powers.

  We have double conceptions, and double perceptions; we are throughout double beings; and claim the universal morality, as well as the personal.

  We must now educate the universal moral faculties, as before we have only educated the personal moral faculties.

  It is in the universal moral faculties that the laws reside; until these laws are developed, we remain lawless beings.

  The personal moral faculties cannot stand without the aid of the universal moral faculties, any more than the branches can grow without the roots.

  Education, to be decidedly religious, should reach man’s universal faculties, those faculties which contain the laws that connect man with his maker.

  These reflections seem to me to be worthy of consideration. Should any of them strike you as worth while to make an observation upon, I shall be happy to hear it. Suggestions are always valuable, as they offer to the mind the liberty of free activity. The work we are engaged in is too extensive and important, to lose any opportunity of gaining information.

  The earlier I receive your reply, the better.
       I am, dear Sir, yours faithfully,


  In 1842, Mr. Alcott visited England with the aim to confer with the philanthropists and educators there, to exchange views, collect information, and gather hints on the subject of literary and social methods. Mr. Greaves was dead; but the living friends of the “First Philosophy” received him with hearty respect and joy, introduced him to men of literary and philanthropic eminence, and made his arrival the occasion of meetings for conversation on the religious, social and ethical questions of the day. The meetings were held mostly at an institution managed on his own methods and called by his own name, the school of Mr. Wright at Alcott House, Ham, Surrey. Strange people were some of those he met, Communists, Alists (deriving their name from Alah—the Hebrew name for God), Syncretic Associationists, Pestalozzians, friends and advocates of self-supporting institutions, experimental Normal Schools, Hydropathic and Philosophical Associations, Health Unions, Philansteries, Utopias of every description, new social arrangements between the sexes, new devices for making marriage what it should be.

  The London Morning Chronicle, of July 5th, contained the following advertisement:

  “Public Invitation.—An open meeting of the friends to human progress will be held to-morrow, July 6th, at Mr. Wright’s, Alcott House School, Ham Common, near Richmond, Surrey, for the purpose of considering and adopting means for the promotion of the great end, when all who are interested in human destiny are earnestly urged to attend. The chair taken at three o’clock, and again at seven, by A. Bronson Alcott, Esq., now on a visit from America. Omnibuses travel to and fro, and the Richmond steamboat reaches at a convenient hour.”

  The call brought together some sixteen or twenty persons, from various distances; one a hundred miles; another a hundred and fifty. “We did not find it easy to propose a question sufficiently comprehensive to unfold the whole of the fact with which our bosoms labored,” writes a private correspondent of the “Dial.”

  “We aimed at nothing less than to speak of the instauration of spirit, and its incarnation in a beautiful form. When a word failed in extent of meaning, we loaded the word with new meaning. The word did not confine our experience, but from our own being we gave significance to the word. Into one body we infused many lives, and it shone as the image of divine or angelic, or human thought. For a word is a Proteus, that means to a man what the man is.”

  The “Dial” of October, 1842, prints an abstract of the proceedings, which are interesting, as illustrations of the phases that the Spiritual Philosophy assumed, but would occupy more space here than their significance warrants. Three papers were presented, on Formation, Transition, Reformation. The views, it is needless to say, were of the extreme school. The essayist on the first theme advanced the doctrine that evil commenced in birth; that the unpardonable sin was an unholy birth; that birth “must be surrendered to the spirit.” The second essayist maintained that property was held on the tenure of might and immemorial custom; that “pure love, which is ever communicative, never yet conceded to any being the right of appropriation.” “We ignore human governments, creeds and institutions; we deny the right of any man to dictate laws for our regulation, or duties for our performance; and declare our allegiance only to Universal Love, the all embracing Justice.”

  The reader of the paper on Reformation pursued the same train of thought; he demanded amendment of monetary arrangements, the penal code, education, the church, the law of primogeniture, and divorce; challenged reliance on commercial prosperity and popular representation; denied the right of man to inflict pain on man; asserted that the question of generation preceded that of education; that the reign of love was supreme over that of opinion; insisted on “the restoration of all things to their primitive Owner, and hence the abrogation of property—either individual or collective;” and on “the divine sanction, instead of the civil and ecclesiastical authority, for marriage.” It was his idea, that “aspirations are the pledge of their own fulfilment,”—that “beneath the actual which a man is, there is always covered a possible to tempt him forward”—that “beneath sense lie reason and understanding; beneath them both, humility; and beneath all, God”—that “to be God-like we must pass through the grades of progress.” “Even now the God-life is enfolded in us; even now the streams of eternity course freely in our central heart; if impelled by the spirit to intermingle with the arrangements of polities of the world, in order to improve them, we shall discover the high point from which we begin, by the God-thought in our interference; our act must be divine; we seem to do, God docs; God empowers legislators, and ennobles them for their fidelity; let them, however, be apostles, not apostles’ representatives; men of God, not men of men; personal elevation is our credentials; personal reform is that which is practicable, and without it our efforts on behalf of others are dreams only.”

  No remarks from Mr. Alcott are recorded. That the meetings satisfied and cheered him may be inferred from the circumstance that, immediately after his return from England, he undertook to inaugurate the ideal social state at Fruitlands—with what success we know.

  In 1859, Mr. Alcott had another and larger opportunity to exercise his wisdom as an educator of youth. He was chosen superintendent of the schools of Concord; a position that called out the finest qualities of his mind, and put to immediate use the results of his long experience, but relieved him from the business arrangements for which he had never displayed an aptitude. The three brief but remarkable reports that he made on the condition and needs of the schools, increase one’s respect for the workings of the spiritual philosophy in this field of effort. If the suggestions offered in those reports were to any considerable extent adopted, if the noble and gracious spirit of them was felt, the schools of Concord should be model schools of their class.

  “The school is the primary interest of the community. Every parent naturally desires a better education for his children than he received himself, and spends liberally of his substance for this pleasure; wisely hoping to make up his deficiencies in that way, and to complement himself in their better attainments; esteeming these the richest estate he can leave, and the fairest ornaments of his family name.”

  “Especially have I wished to introduce the young to the study of their minds, the love of thinking; often giving examples of lessons in analysis and classification of their faculties. I think I may say that these exercises have given much pleasure, and have been found profitable alike to the teacher and the children. In most instances, I have closed my visits by reading some interesting story or parable. These have never failed of gaining attention, and in most cases, prompt responses. I consider these readings and colloquies as among the most profitable and instructive of the superintendent’s labors.”

  Pilgrim’s Progress, Krummacher’s Parables, Æsop’s Fables, Faery Queen, the stories of Plutarch and Shakspeare, were his favorites.

  “The graceful exercise of singing has been introduced into some of the schools. It should prevail in all of them. It softens the manners, cultivates the voice, and purifies the taste of the children. It promotes harmony and good feelings. The old masters thought much of it as a discipline. ‘Let us sing’ has the welcome sound of ‘Let us play,’—and is perhaps the child’s prettiest translation of ‘Let us pray,’—admitting him soonest to the intimacy he seeks.”

  “Conversations on words, paraphrases and translations of sentences, are the natural methods of opening the study of language. A child should never be suffered to lose sight of the prime fact that he is studying the realities of nature and of the mind through the picture books of language. Any teaching falling short of this is hollow and a wrong done to the mind.”

  “For composition, let a boy keep his diary, write his letters, try his hand at defining from a dictionary and paraphrasing, and he will find ways of expressing himself simply as boys and men did before grammars were invented.”

  “Teaching is a personal influence for the most part, and operating as a spirit unsuspected at the moment. I have wished to divine the secret source of success attained by any, and do justice to this; it seemed most becoming to regard any blemishes as of secondary account in the light of the acknowledged deserts. We require of each what she has to give, no more. Does , the teacher awaken thought, strengthen the mind, kindle the affections, call the conscience, the common sense into lively and controlling activity, so promoting the love of study, the practice of the virtues; habits that shall accompany the children outwards into life? The memory is thus best cared for the end of study answered; the debt of teacher to parents, of parents to teacher discharged, and so the State’s bounty best bestowed.”

  “A little gymnasticon, a system of gestures for the body might be organized skilfully and become part of the daily exercises in our schools. Graceful steps, pretty musical airs, in accompaniment of songs—suiting the sentiment to the motions, the emotions, ideas of the child—would be conducive to health of body and mind alike. We shall adopt dancing presently as a natural training for the manners and morals of the young.”

  “Conversation is the mind’s mouth-piece, its best spokesman; the leader elect and prompter in teaching; practised daily, it should be added to the list of school studies; an art in itself, let it be used as such, and ranked as an accomplishment second to none that nature or culture can give. Certainly the best we can do is to teach ourselves and children how to talk. Let conversation displace much that passes current under the name of recitation; mostly sound and parrotry, a repeating by rote not by heart, unmeaning sounds from the memory and no more. ‘Take my mind a moment,’ says the teacher, ‘and see how things look through that prism,’ and the pupil sees prospects never seen before or surmised by him in that lively perspective. So taught the masters; Plato, Plutarch, Pythagoras, Pestalozzi; so Christianity was first published from lovely lips; so every one teaches deserving the name of teacher or interpreter. Illustration always and apt; life calling forth life; the giving of life and a partaking. Nothing should be interposed between the mind and its subject matter cold sense is impertinent; learning is insufficient—only life alone; life like a torch lighting the head at the heart.”

  “Next to thinking for themselves, the best service any teacher can render his scholars is to show them how to use books. The wise teacher is the key for opening the mind to the books he places before it.”

  “Stories are the idyls of childhood. They cast about it the romance it loves and lives in, rendering the commonest circumstances and things inviting and beautiful. Parables, poems, histories, anecdotes, are prime aids in teaching; the readiest means of influence and inspiration; the liveliest substitutes for flagging spirits, fatigued wits.”

  “A little atlas of the body mythologically shown from the artist’s points of view, the plates displaying the person to the eye, in a set of draped figures, is a book much wanted for first lines in drawing. A child’s piety is seen in its regards for its body and the concern it shows in its carriage and keeping. Of all forms the human form is most marvellous; and the modest reverence for its shadings intimates the proper mode of studying it rightly and religiously as a pantheon of powers. The prime training best opens here as an idealism, the soul fashioning her image in the form she animates, and so scrutinizing piously without plucking the forbidden fruit.”

  “There is a want of suitable aids to the studies of these mysteries. The best books I know are poor enough. In the want of a better, we name for the study of matter in its connection with the mind, including the proper considerations regarding health and temperance, Graham’s ‘Laws of Life,’ a rather dull but earnest book; and for smaller classes and beginners Dr. Alcott’s ‘House I Live In.’ Miss Catherine Beecher’s book for studies in Physiology and Calisthenics, is a practical treatise, and should be in, all schools. Sir John Sinclair’s ‘Code of Health’ contains a republication of the Wisdom of the Ancients, on these subjects, and is a book for all persons and times.”

  “Perhaps we are correcting the old affection for flogging at some risk of spoiling the boys of this generation. Girls have always known how to cover with shame any insult of that sort, but the power of persuasion comes slow as a promptitude to supersede its necessity. Who deals with a child, deals with a piece of divinity obeying laws as innate as those he transgresses, and which he must treat tenderly, lest he put spiritual interests in jeopardy. Punishment must be just, else it cannot be accepted as good, and least of all by the wicked and weak.”

  “The accomplished teacher combines in himself the art of teaching and of ruling; power over the intellect and the will, inspiration and persuasiveness. And this implies a double consciousness in its possessor that carries forward the teaching and ruling together; noting what transpires in motive as in act; the gift that in seeing controls. It is the sway of presence and of mien; a conversion of the will to his wishes, without which other gifts are of little avail.”

  “Be sure the liveliest dispensations, the holiest, are his (the unruly boy’s)—his as cordially as ours, and sought for as kindly. We must meet him where he is. Best to follow his bent if bent beautifully; else bending him gently, not fractiously, lest we snap or stiffen a stubbornness too stiff already. Gentleness now; the fair eye, the conquering glances straight and sure; the strong hand, if you must, till he fall penitent at the feet of Persuasion; the stroke of grace before the smiting of the birch; for only so is the conquest complete, and the victory the Lord’s. If she is good enough she may strike strong and frequent, till thanks come for it; but who is she, much less he, that dares do it more than once, nor repents in sorrow and shame for the strokes given? Only ‘the shining ones’ may do it for good.”

  “Our teachers open their schools with readings from the New Testament, and this reading is in some of the schools, and would, but for a diffident piety, be followed in all, by devotions and the singing of some suitable morning hymn. The spoken prayers and praises are not enjoined by our rules; and we think we show therein that tender courtesy to the faiths of the heart that true piety loves and cannot overstep. An earnest and sweet disposition is the spring from which children love to taste, and best always if insinuated softly in mild persuasions, and so leading to the practice of the loves and graces that soften and save. A course of readings from the Picture Testament might favor the best ends of spiritual culture. A child should be approached with reverence, as a recipient of the spirit from above. The best of books claims the best of persons and the gracious moments to make its meanings clear; else the reading and listening are but a sound, a pretence, and of no account. I have wished these books were opened with the awe belonging to the eminent Personalities portrayed therein, thinking them best read when the glow of sentiment kindles the meaning into life in the morning hour—the teacher opening her school by opening their leaves.”

  The following earnest words respecting the duties of the State in regard to the education of its children, may fitly close these fragmentary extracts, which give but the scantiest notions of the richness of suggestion in these reports:

  “It is difficult to reach the sources of ignorance and consequent crime in a community like ours, calling itself free, and boasting of its right to do what it will. But freedom is a social not less than an individual concern, and the end of the State is to protect it. The first object of a free people is the preservation of their liberties. It becomes, then, their first duty to assume the training of all the children in the principles of right knowledge and virtue, as the only safeguard of their liberties. We cannot afford to wait at such hazards. The simplest humanities are also the least costly, and the nearest home. We should begin there. The State is stabbed at the hearth-side and here liberty and honor are first sold. It is injured by family neglect, and should protect itself in securing its children’s virtue against their parents’ vices; for, by so doing, can it alone redeem its pledges to humanity and its citizens’ liberties. A virtuous education is the greatest alms it can bestow on any of its children.”

  Meetings for conversation with the parents of the scholars were a device of Mr. Alcott for bringing the subject of education home to those whose concern in it should be the deepest.

  His faith was from the first in conversation, rather than in lecturing or in preaching. Preaching assumed too much in the single mind, paid less than due respect to the minds of the hearers, and gave no opportunity for the instant exchange of thoughts. Lecturing was intellectual and even less sympathetic. By conversation the best was drawn out and the best imparted. All were put on an equality; all were encouraged, none oppressed.

  “Truth,” Mr. Alcott declares “is spherical, and seen differently according to the culture, temperament and disposition of those who survey it from their individual standpoint. Of two or more sides, none can be absolutely right, and conversation fails if it find not the central truth from which all radiate; debate is angular, conversation circular and radiant of the underlying unity. Who speaks, deeply excludes all possibility of controversy. His affirmation is self-sufficient; his assumption final, absolute. Thus holding himself above the arena of dispute he gracefully settles a question by speaking so home to the core of the matter as to under mine the premise upon which an issue had been taken. For whoso speaks to the personality dives beneath the grounds of difference, and deals face to face with principles and ideas.”

  “Good discourse sinks differences and seeks agreements. It avoids argument, by finding a common basis of agreement; and thus escapes controversy by rendering it superfluous. Pertinent to the platform, debate is out of place in the parlor. Persuasion is the better weapon in this glittering game.”

  “Conversation presupposes a common sympathy in the subject, a great equality in the speakers; absence of egotism, a tender criticism of what is spoken. Good discourse wins from the bashful and discreet what they have to speak, but would not, without this provocation. The forbidding faces are Fates to overbear and blemish true fellowship. We give what we are, not necessarily what we know; nothing more, nothing less, and only to our kind; those playing best their parts who have the nimblest wits, taking out the egotism, the nonsense, putting wisdom, information in their place.”

  Mr. Alcott therefore forsook the platform, seldom entered the pulpit, adopted the parlor, and made it what its name imports, the talking place. Collecting a company of ladies and gentlemen, larger or smaller, as nearly as possible of similar tastes and culture, he started a topic of general interest and broad scope—usually one of social concern with deep roots and wide branches,—and began his soliloquy in a calm and easy strain, throwing out suggestions as he went on, and enticing thoughts from the various minds present. If none responded accompanied, the discourse proceeded evenly till the measure of an hour was filled. If the company was awake, and sympathetic, the soliloquy became conversation and an evening full of instruction and entertainment followed. When circumstances favored—the room, decorations, atmosphere, mingling of elements—the season was delightful. The unfailing serenity of the leader, his wealth of mental resource, his hospitality of thought, his wit, his extraordinary felicity of language, his delicacy of touch, ready appreciation of different views, and singular grace in turning opinions towards the light, made it clear to all present that to this especial calling he was chosen. For years Mr. Alcott’s conversations have been a recognized institution in Eastern and Western cities. Every winter he takes the field, and goes through the Northern and North Western States, with his scheme of topics. The best minds collect about him, and centres of influence are established that act as permanent distributors of culture. The noble idealism never pales or falters. Neither politics, science, financial convulsion, or civil war, disturb the calm serenity of the soul that is sure that mind is its own place, and that infinite and absolute mind is supreme above all.

All Sub-Works of Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.