Transcendentalism in Theology and Literature.

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



  ONE of the earliest students of the German language in Boston was Dr. N. L. Frothingham, Unitarian minister of the First Church. Among the professional books that interested him was one by Herder, “Letters to a Young Theologian,” chapters from which he translated for the “Christian Disciple,” the precursor of the “Christian Examiner.” Of Herder, George Bancroft wrote an account in the “North American Review,” and George Ripley in the “Christian Examiner.” The second number of “The Dial” contains a letter from Mr. Ripley to a theological student, in which this particular book of Herder is warmly commended, as being worth the trouble of learning German to read. The volume was remarkable for earnest enlightenment, its discernment of the spirit beneath the letter, its generous interpretations, and its suggestions of a better future for the philosophy of religion. Herder was one of the illuminated minds; though not professedly a disciple, he had felt the influence of Kant, and was cordially in sympathy with the men who were trying to break the spell of form and tradition. With Lessing more especially, Herder’s “Spirit of Hebrew Poetry,” of which a translation by Dr. James Marsh was published in 1833, found its way to New England, and helped to confirm the disposition to seek the springs of inspiration in the human mind, whence all poetry proceeded. The writer of the book, by applying to Hebrew poetry the rules of critical appreciation by which all poetic creations are judged, abolished so far the distinction between sacred and secular, and transferred to the credit of human genius the products commonly ascribed to divine. In the persons of the great bards of Israel all bards were glorified; the soul’s creative power was recognized, and with it the heart of the transcendental faith.

  The influence of Schleiermacher was even more distinct than that of Herder. One book of his, in particular, made a deep impression,—the “Reden über Religion,” published in 1799. The book is thus described by Mr. George Ripley, in a controversial letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, who had assailed Schleiermacher as an atheist. “The ‘Discourses on Religion’ were not intended to present a system of theology. They are highly rhetorical in manner, filled with bursts of impassioned eloquence, always intense, and sometimes extravagant; addressed to the feelings, not to speculation; and expressly disclaiming all pretensions to an exposition of doctrine. They were published at a time when hostility to religion, and especially to Christianity as a divine revelation, was deemed a proof of talent and refinement. The influence of the church was nearly exhausted; the highest efforts of thought were of a destructive character; a frivolous spirit pervaded society; religion was deprived of its supremacy; and a ‘starveling theology’ was exalted in place of the living word. Schleiermacher could not contemplate the wretched meagreness and degradation of his age without being moved as by ‘a heavenly impulse.’ His spirit was stirred within him as he saw men turning from the true God to base idols. He felt himself impelled to go forth with the power of a fresh and youthful enthusiasm, for the restoration of religion; to present it in its most sublime aspect, free from its perversions, disentangled from human speculation, as founded in the essential nature of man, and indispensable to the complete unfolding of his inward being. In order to recognize everything which is really religious among men, and to admit even the lowest degree of it into the idea of religion, he wishes to make this as broad and comprehensive in its character as possible.” In illustration of this purpose Mr. Ripley quotes the author as follows: “I maintain that piety is the necessary and spontaneous product of the depths of every elevated nature; that it possesses a rightful claim to a peculiar province in the soul, over which it may exercise an unlimited sovereignty; that it if worthy, by its intrinsic power, to be a source of life to the most noble and exalted minds; and that from its essential character it deserves to be known and received by them. These are the points which I defend, and which I would fain establish.”

  From this it will appear that Schleiermacher gave countenance to the spiritual aspect of transcendentalism, and co-operated with the general movement it represented. His position that religion was not a system of dogmas, but an inward experience; that it was not a speculation, but a feeling; that its primal verities rested not on miracle or tradition, not on the Bible letter or on ecclesiastical institution, but on the soul’s own sense of things divine; that this sense belonged by nature to the human race, and gave to all forms of religion such genuineness as they had; that all affirmation was partial, and all definition deceptive; proved to be practically the same with that taken by Jacobi, and was so received by the disciples of the new philosophy.

  But Schleiermacher was an Evangelical Lutheran, a believer in supernatural religion, in Christ, in Christianity as a special dispensation, in the miracles of the New Testament. So far from being a “rationalist,” he was the most formidable opponent that “rationalism” had; for his efforts were directed against the critical and theological method, and in support of the spiritual method of dealing with religious truths. In explaining religion as being in its primitive character a sense of divine things in the soul, and as having its seat, not in knowledge, nor yet in action, neither in theology nor in morality, but in feeling, in aspiration, longing, love, veneration, conscious dependence, filial trust, he deprived “rationalism” of its strength. Hence his attraction for liberal orthodox believers in America. Schleiermacher had as many disciples among the Congregationalists as among their antagonists of the opposite school. Professors Edwards and Park included thoughts of his in their “Selections from German Literature.” The pulpit transcendentalists acknowledged their indebtedness to him, and the debt they acknowledged was sentimental rather than intellectual. They thanked him for the spirit of fervent piety, deep, cordial, human, unlimited in generosity, untrammelled by logical distinctions, rather than for new light on philosophical problems. His bursts of eloquent enthusiasm over men whom the church outlawed—Spinoza for example—made amends with them for the absence of doctrinal exactness. A warm sympathy with those who detached religion from dogma, and recognized the religious sentiment under its most diverse forms, was characteristic of the new spirit that burned in New England. Schleiermacher was one of the first and foremost to encourage such sympathy: he based it on the idea that man was by nature religious, endowed with spiritual faculties, and that was welcome tidings; and though he retained the essence of the evangelical system, he retained it in a form that could be dropped without injury to the principle by which it was justified. Thus Schleiermacher strengthened the very positions he assailed, and gave aid and comfort to the enemy he would overthrow. The transcendentalists, it is true, employed against the “rationalists” the weapons that he put into their hands. At the same time they left as unimportant the theological system which his weapons were manufactured to support.

  But it was through the literature of Germany that the transcendental philosophy chiefly communicated itself. Goethe, Richter and Novalis were more persuasive teachers than Kant, Jacobi or Fichte. To those who could not read German these authors were interpreted by Thomas Carlyle, who took up the cause of German philosophy and literature, and wrote about them with passionate power in the English reviews; not contenting himself with giving surface accounts of them, but plunging boldly into the depths, and carrying his readers with him through discussions that, but for his persuasive eloquence, would have had little charm to ordinary minds. Goethe and Richter were his heroes: their methods and opinions are of the greatest account with him; and he leaves nothing unexplained of the intellectual foundations on which they builded. Consequently, in the remarkable, papers that Carlyle wrote about them and their books, full report is given of the place held by the Kantean philosophy in their culture. The article on Novalis, in the “Foreign Review” of 1829, No. 7, presents with a master hand the peculiarities of the new metaphysics that were regenerating the German mind. Regenerating is not too strong a word for the influence that he ascribes to it. Thus in 1827 he wrote in the “Edinburgh Review:”

  “The critical philosophy has been regarded by persons of approved judgment, and nowise directly implicated in, the furthering of it, as distinctly the greatest intellectual achievement of the century in which it came to light. August Wilhelm Schlegel has stated in plain terms his belief that in respect of its probable influence on the moral culture of Europe, it stands on a line with the Reformation. We mention Schlegel as a man whose opinion has a known value among ourselves. But the worth of Kant’s philosophy is not to be gathered from votes alone. The noble system of morality, the purer theology, the lofty views of man’s nature derived from it; nay, perhaps the very discussion of such matters, to which it gave so strong an impetus, have told with ‘ remarkable and beneficial influence on the whole spiritual character of Germany. No writer of any importance in that country, be he acquainted or not with the critical philosophy, but breathes a spirit of devoutness and elevation more or less directly drawn from it. Such men as Goethe and Schiller cannot exist without effect in any literature or any century; but if one circumstance more than another has contributed to forward their endeavors and introduce _that higher tone into the literature of Germany, it has been this philosophical system, to which, in wisely believing its results, or even in wisely denying them, all that was lofty and pure in the genius of poetry or the reason of man so readily allied itself.”

  After quoting from “Meister’s Apprenticeship” a noble passage on the spiritual function of art, Carlyle comments thus: “To adopt such sentiments int6 his sober practical persuasion; in any measure to feel and believe that such was still and must always be, the high vocation of the poet; on this ground of universal humanity, of ancient and now almost forgotten nobleness, to take his stand, even in these trivial, jeering, withered, unbelieving days, and through all their complex, dispiriting, mean, yet tumultuous influences, to ·make his light shine before men that it might beautify even our rag-gathering age with some beams of that mild divine splendor which had long left us, the very possibility of which was denied; heartily and in earnest to meditate all this was no common proceeding; to bring it into practice, especially in such a life as his has been, was among the highest and hardest enterprises which any man whatever could engage in.”

  From Schiller’s correspondence with Goethe, Carlyle quotes the following tribute to the Kantean philosophy: “From the opponents of the new philosophy I expect not that tolerance which is shown to every other system no better seen into than this; for Kant’s philosophy itself, in its leading points, practises no tolerance, and bears much too rigorous a character to leave any room for accommodation. But in my eyes this does it honor, proving how little it can endure to have truth tampered with. Such a philosophy will not be shaken to pieces by a mere shake of the head. In the open, clear, accessible field of inquiry it builds up its system, seeks no shade, makes no reservation, but even as it treats its neighbors, so it requires to be treated, and may be forgiven for lightly esteeming everything but proofs. Nor am I terrified to think that the law of change, from which no human and no divine work finds grace, will operate on this philosophy as on every other, and one day its form will be destroyed, but its foundations will not have this fate to fear, for ever since mankind has existed, and any reason among mankind, these same first principles have been admitted, and on the whole, acted on.”

  Of Richter he writes: “Richter’s philosophy, a matter of no ordinary interest, both as it agrees with the common philosophy of Germany, and disagrees with it, must not be touched on for the present. One only observation we shall make: it is not mechanical or skeptical; it springs not from the forum or the laboratory, but from the depths of the human spirit, and yields as its fairest product a noble system of morality and the firmest conviction of religion. An intense and continual faith in man’s immortality and native grandeur accompanies him; from amid the vortices of life he looks up to a heavenly loadstar; the solution of what is visible and transient, he finds in what is invisible and eternal. He has doubted, he denies, yet he believes.”

  Of Novalis, scarcely more than a name to Americans, the same oracle speaks thus: “The aim of Novalis’ whole philosophy is to preach and establish the majesty of reason, in the strict philosophical sense; to conquer for it all provinces of human thought, and everywhere resolve its vassal understanding into fealty, the right and only useful relation for it. How deeply these and the like principles (those of the Kantean philosophy) had impressed themselves on Novalis, we see more and more the further we study his writings. Naturally a deep, religious, contemplative spirit, purified also by harsh affliction, and familiar in the ‘Sanctuary of Sorrow,’ he comes before us as the most ideal of all idealists. For him the material creation is but an appearance, a typical shadow in which the Deity manifests himself to man. Not only has the unseen world a reality, but the only reality; the rest being not metaphorically, but literally and in scientific strictness, ‘a show;’ in the words of the poet:

‘Sound and smoke overclouding the splendor of heaven!’

The invisible world is near us; or rather, it is here, in us and about us; were the fleshly coil removed from our soul, the glories of the unseen were even now around us, as the ancients fabled of the spheral music. Thus, not in word only, but in truth and sober belief he feels himself encompassed by the Godhead; feels in every thought that in Him he lives, moves, and has his being.’”

  These declarations from a man who was becoming “prominent in the world of literature, and whose papers were widely and enthusiastically read, had great weight with people to whom the German was an unknown tongue. But it was not an unknown tongue to all, and they who had mastered it were active communicators of its treasures. Carlyle’s efforts at interesting English readers through his remarkable translation of Wilhelm Meister, and the “Specimens of German Romance,” which contained piece:; by Tieck, Jean Paul, Hoffmann, and Musæus, published in 1827, were seconded here by F. H. Hedge, C. T. Brooks, J. S. Dwight, and others, who made familiar to the American public the choicest poems of the most famous German bards. Richter became well known by his “Autobiography,” “Quintus Fixlein,” “Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces,” “Hesperus,” “Titan,” “The Campaner Thal,” the writings and versions of Madame de Staël. The third volume of the “Dial,” July, 1841, opened with a remarkable paper on Goethe, by Margaret Fuller. The pages of the “Dial” abounded in references to Goethe’s ideas and writings. No author occupied the cultivated New England mind as much as he did. None of these writers taught formally the doctrines of the transcendental philosophy, but they reflected one or another aspect of it. They assumed its cardinal principles in historical and literary criticism, in dramatic art, in poetry and romance. They conveyed its spirit of aspiration after ideal standards of perfection. They caught from it their judgments on society and religion. They communicated its aroma, and so imparted the quickening breath of its soul to people who would have started back in alarm from its doctrines.

  The influence of the transcendental philosophy on German literature was fully conceded by Menzel, who, however, found little trace of it in Goethe. Of the author of the philosophy he wrote: “Kant was very far from assenting to French infidelity and its immoral consequences. He directed man to himself, to the moral law in his own bosom; and the fresh breath of life of the old Grecian dignity of man penetrates the whole of his luminous philosophy.” Of Goethe he wrote: “If he ever acknowledged allegiance to a good spirit, to great ideas, to virtue, he did it only because they had become the order of the day, for, on the other hand, he has, again, served every weakness, vanity and folly, if they were but looked on with favor at the time; in short, like a good player, he has gone through all the parts.” Menzel’s book was translated by a man who had no sympathy with Transcendentalism-Prof. C. C. Felton; was admired by people of his own school, and was sharply criticised, especially in the portions relating to Goethe, by the transcendentalists, who accepted Carlyle’s view. He and they put the most generous interpretations on the masterpieces of the poet, passed by as incidental, did not see, or in their own mind transfigured, the objectionable features that Menzel seized on. Too little was ascribed to the foreign French element that reached the literature of Germany through Prussia-to Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot-whose ideas fell in with the unworthier sceptical tendencies of the Kantean system, and polluted the waters of that clear, cold stream; too much was ascribed to the noble idealism that was credited with power to glorify all it touched, and redeem even low things from degradation. If therefore they apologized for what the sensational moralists blamed, they did it in good faith, not as excusing the indecency, but as surmounting it. What they admired was the art, and the aspiration it expressed. The devotees of the French spirit, in its frivolity and meretricious beauty, they turned away from with disdain. There was enough of the nobler kind to engage them. When they went to France they went for what France had in common with Germany—an idealism of the wholesome, ethical and spiritual type, which, whether German, French or English, bore always the same characteristics of beauty and nobleness. Much that was unspiritual, all that was merely speculative, they passed by. With an appetite for the generous and inspiring only, they sought the really earnest teachers, of whom in France there were a few. The influence of those few was great in proportion to their fewness probably, quite as much as to their merit as philosophers.

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