A Plain Discussion with a Transcendentalist

Mr. B.  Is there any prospect that the community will ever understand your new system of philosophy and faith? For years the inquiry has been “What is Transcendentalism?” and no intelligible answer has been given. The terms you use to express your ideas as new and hard to be understood. If you will drop your strange terminology and give your thoughts in plain, common sense language, you will do me a favor as an honest searcher after truth. If you have new things as well as new words and names, why can not you in a familiar way, communicate them?

Mr. A.   You can readily see that a person may have ideas which can not he conveyed with precision to those who have had neither the ideas nor the words by which they are expressed. It is so in all the sciences, and particularly in the science of thought. But the principal reason why we are not understood is, men think so superficially. Most minds skim over the surface of a thousand subjects, but few dive deep into the sea of thought, remain long enough for distinct vision, and seize and bring up the precious pearls. How often do you throw out thoughts which, to your own mind, are great and comprehensive, scarcely a gleam of which enters the brain of one in twenty of your hearers! How little original thinking is there among that numerous class of our citizens who are called educated.  Most of them dare not trust themselves with a idea which did not come from their text-books. If the guardian angel, genius, should suggest a new thought to their minds, they would crush it in the birth lest it should grow into an heresy. Look at the books which fly from the press like autumn leaves from the tree, without one new thought. An original mind, a genius, rarely appears, and is as rarely appreciated by his own age. The prophet is not in honor in his own country. This has been true in all time; it always will be true, for to be a genius is to be in advance of one’s own age. Human pride and self-sufficiency predispose men to be ungrateful for teachings more inspired than their own. “Dost thou teach us?” is their contemptuous reply to those who now attempt to open the eyes of the blind; and “they cast them out.”

Mr. B.    Well, granting that to your mind there is an extent and depth of meaning in the terms of your philosophy which I do not see, yet is it not possible to convey to my mind some true and definite idea of the thing called Transcendentalism? Dropping its scientific terms and all technicalities, can we not talk upon the real thing in plain English?

Mr. A.  I trust we may, to some extent at least; for the thing, as you call it, is more generally felt than you suppose. It has been said that every one is, in a sense, a poet; no one can read a poem well if not in a poetic mood. So I would say, every one is, in a sense, a transcendentalist; that is, all who allow their minds any latitude of thought, at times have thoughts and feelings which are properly called transcendental. Hence we have aimed to establish schools, that the mind even in childhood, before it becomes cramped by forms, and before the inner light of the soul becomes dimmed or totally extinguished by the senses, may receive a right direction; be made to think for itself, and be led to see—not the forms of things, but things themselves. All men, though in different degrees and varied forms, would be transcendentalists if they received a spiritual rather than a sensual culture.

Mr. B.    Let us here come directly to the point. I have long suspected myself of transcendentalism, and would gladly gather from you some clear idea of it, that I may know whether I am within or without the pale of discipleship.

Mr. A.  But you must remember that this is a very extensive subject. It would lead us a long way back, to Kant and even to Plato. The writings of many in Germany, of some in England and France, and a few in our own country, must be discussed, in order to get a clear view of the whole. And then there are all varieties and degrees of transcendentalism. Those in Germany who followed Kant and adopted much of his philosophy, differed from him in many important particulars. Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, had each his own system, though they have been called transcendentalists. What, in loose language, is termed transcendentalism, is variously modified in different countries by different individuals, who have embraced that system of metaphysics which, leaving the field of sensual knowledge, soars into the regions of pure thought. The transcendentalists of our country, influenced to a great extent by the writings of Carlyle, have made great advances upon the Kantean philosophy; we have not only gone farther in our search for spiritual truth, but we have applied our philosophy to different subjects, and made it bear more directly upon the duties and relations of life.

Mr. B.    We will leave, as far as possible, names and systems, as well as technicalities, out of view. I wish to talk with you upon your transcendentalism, and know whether it is possible for us to understand each other.

Mr. A.   I will comply with your request upon one condition. You shall not reproach me with nonsense and fog if you fail to apprehend my meaning. Your sensual school of philosophy—

Mr. B.   Stop, lest we raise bad blood in settling the preliminaries. I accept the condition, and propose that we commence with man. You claim that your views of man’s spiritual nature are altogether truer and nobler than those which generally prevail.

Mr. A.  Instead of considering man a mere creature of sense and intellect, but little superior to animal instinct, we view him a free, spiritual existence, of unlimited capacities, possessed of a soul truly god-like, and in every way qualified for knowing truth and duty. Locke has entirely misled the world in some of the most vital points. Making the soul a blank leaf, upon which, with the pen of the five senses, external objects wrote whatsoever they listed, he left man, like the brute, at the mercy of any thing that chanced to leave upon his brains the deepest impression. He left man no fixed pole-star by which to direct his course, but only the flickering taper of self-interest, in following which, he has been wrecked upon every sand-bar. He granted him reflection, but this was only a kind of ruminating upon the gross food furnished by the senses. This chewing of the cud only aided the digestion; it gave no new spiritual aliment to the system. Man was to ascertain truth and duty, not from listening to the clear response of the divine oracle within him, but from the prompting of the appetite; that was truth which was sweet, that a lie which was bitter to the palate. Duty, virtue, properly speaking, there were none. If a man, by balancing pains and pleasures, present or future, could find which end of the steelyards would probably preponderate, there lay his duty. Such has been the philosophy, for the most part, of the civilized world. In opposition to this sensual system, we maintain that man has other faculties than the bodily senses—a soul distinct from the stomach. He is endowed with reason and strong religious sentiments, which intuitively know and spontaneously feel truth and duty. That is true, not because of its greater profit or pleasure, but true because it is in agreement with the eternal nature of things. And God has gifted man with the faculty to discover this truth. Duty rests upon this discovered truth. Man has no arithmetical calculations to make to find his duty; it lies revealed to this faculty. The right is to be followed, come pleasure or pain; his obligation to do right is infinite, having all the weight of established and unchangeable truth. We give the soul a faculty which is wanting, or which is certainly overlooked in the common philosophy of the age. And this faculty is the chief quality belonging to man. It is this which, together with conscience, distinguishes him from the brute creation. This faculty is a divine, truth-seeing reason. Man appears to me in a new light, belonging to a higher order of beings, since I have studied him as he is. He is associated in my mind with celestial beings, rather than with creeping things. This view of man affects all his moral relations. It sets aside, or rather rises superior to all that endless calculation and argument about God, conscience, religion, which for centuries have occupied the church. Mr. B.    I can heartily respond to much which you say. And certainly man needs to have his attention turned more to those great facts relating to his spiritual nature. But you will pardon me if I call your attention more particularly to some things which you have stated. This higher faculty of reason which you claim as so great a discovery in mental science, and which you glory in as a distinguishing feature of your system, I believe to be important, but can not see to be new. Mr. A.  It is as old as Plato and Abraham. But for centuries men have lost sight of it. We claim only that we have found what had been lost. Practically it is a new discovery, though the time was when the great truths which this faculty reveals animated and inspired the greatest minds.

Mr. B.    But I can see nothing in this which has not been recognized, and which is not now recognized in some form by those whom you would hesitate to call disciples of your school. You have justly laid more stress upon this faculty, I will admit, than has been usually done; but how can you claim it to be a new discovery, even in the sense you have stated? Has not every enlightened moralist and Christian preacher advocated the idea that truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are, in their very nature, eternally separate? How can this have escaped you, when, for example, you have read the argument in favor of the Christian religion drawn from the nature of its doctrines? How repeatedly has it been asserted that the mind is such a thing that it sees and knows many of these doctrines to be true? — that man is compelled, from the nature God has given him, to assent to the rightfulness and the righteousness of the precepts of the gospel? It has ever been claimed that the fundamental precepts of moral conduct are so plain that the fool need not err, and the heathen are without excuse. When the spirit of infidelity, coursing up and down the page of revelation, has sought some weak point at which to commence its sacrilegious work, where has it alighted? Upon the fundamental doctrines and precepts of Christianity? By no means. And why? Because infidelity itself has been forced to acknowledge this citadel impregnable. The leading doctrines of the gospel mankind have felt to be true. They appeal directly to the soul, conscience, reason, the whole inner man, and, except in a strait of desperation, the infidel has not dared to lay his hands upon these truths, but has made his attacks upon some apparent discrepancies in the chronology of Moses, or points alike insignificant, knowing that the common sense and reason of the world would cry out against him, if he assailed the love, the benevolence, the humility, the charity, the forgiveness, the repentance, enjoined in the gospel. When infidelity has denied the validity of the evidence in favor of revelation, and inferred that man is under no obligation to practice the virtues there enjoined, what has been our reply? Why, that proof or no proof on this point, there was still another ground of obligation, one which it could not gainsay, viz. the testimony of man’s reason and conscience to the truthfulness of the practical doctrines contained in the Bible. Hence in various forms and relations we have always held to a truth-seeing and duty-knowing faculty in man.

Mr. A.  But you have confounded it with the understanding, which can never see either spiritual or universal truths, but has to do only with the senses. And thus you have subjected all classes of ideas to the scrutiny of the logic of the understanding, which has led to questioning and denying every thing, to throwing religious and sensual truths into the same category, producing endless confusion.

Mr. B.    Why not elucidate this matter of the reason and the understanding thus: — Looking upon the mind as a unit, and not a medley of separate faculties, we say, the mind, when acting in one capacity, judges; in another, remembers; in another, imagines; in another, wills, and so on. It is the whole mind, acting in its various directions and capacities, that gives rise to this distinction of faculties. Now when we speak of the understanding and reason as separate faculties, or as heading two different classes of mental operations, we mean no more than that the mind, as one active agent, occupied with one class of objects, or in one capacity, is called the understanding; in another capacity, or acting upon a different class of objects, is called reason. Take an example given by one of your own writers to illustrate this distinction: We draw a triangle, and by examination find its angles equal to two right angles. This is a discovery of the understanding. Now the understanding would never see that all triangles must have their angles equal to two right angles; but the reason sees this universal truth. Very well. It is the mind, dropping any particular triangle, which grasps a fact common to all such figures. It is the understanding, say you, which is occupied upon the natural sciences, in classifying men, animals, vegetables, minerals, &c. into genera and species; but it is the reason which sees those facts common to all of the same genus or species. But the whole mind is occupied in all this; and those who never heard of the distinction between the understanding and the reason, recognize both these powers of the mind.

Mr. A.  But what the reason does here is quite an unimportant part of its official work, compared with what it does in the higher sphere of spiritual truth. The understanding would indeed make blundering work anywhere, without some aid from the reason. It is only a kind of intellectual hopper, which the senses furnish with grain, and by means of a little grinding power of the reason, it is enabled to furnish flour well bolted, bagged, and ready for use. But while the reason assists the understanding in manufacturing these materials of the senses, its peculiar province is to know God, virtue and religion, and here it receives no aid, but is hindered in its operations by the senses and the understanding. You have tried to make the intellectual mill grind spiritual things as well as material. You have set the senses laboriously to work to fill the hopper with their coarse grains, — arguments for a God, a soul, a Christianity, a religion, — then hoisted the gate, and with deafening screakings and monotonous scrannel pipings, you have produced—  meal? the driest unsavory bran, and nothing more, say most, and then you fall to disputing with them whether it is bran or meal. Is it wonderful that none but dyspeptics will partake of such a questionable dish? Not only is there a radical distinction between these two faculties, but it is of the utmost importance to a spiritual religion that it be maintained.

Mr. B.    I have no objection to the distinction; I deem it important; but I can not sympathize with your objection to employing the mind, the whole mind, or any one of its faculties, in discussing religious topics. Religion, say you, is not the province of the understanding, but of the reason. Well, if of the reason, then of the mind in the exercise of reason.

Mr. A.  Yes! but man has a soul, and you would leave him nothing but a fragment of intellect, to be occupied indifferently, either upon a piece of carpentry, the different methods of cookery, or a system of religion. What faculty, in your metaphysics, is it, by which a man is thrown into raptures by the beauties of nature, the inspirations of the poet, or contemplations of the godlike? You would secularize every thing, and look cool as an icicle, upon the face of beauty, or the wonders of a wonder-working God! Your philosophy has so benumbed your spiritual nature, that you can not even talk upon this subject. You remind me of the clodpole who grunted out — “pshaw! what’s the use of those weeds,” as he saw a lovely damsel weaving a bouquet. Standing under the roar of Niagara, your only thought would be, whether the position were eligible for a sawmill. You must change your whole method of thinking, and look with a different eye upon the universe, before you can see all that is visible to man’s divine reason.

The reason is a faculty quite different from the logical power, by which one gets the better of an opponent in an argument. It directly sees, and at the same time feels the truth, and beauty, and goodness, of all things. True, mind is essentially the same in all men; yet upon almost every subject how varied are men’s opinions; and upon no subject do their speculations differ more widely than upon religion. And not their opinions only, but their feelings and whole spiritual nature differ entirely. Of the millions who cultivate the earth, or of the less numerous but more favored class of mere consumers, few, like Burns, are alive to the beauty and infinity of its forms. He saw more in the thistle at his door-stone, than others would see in traversing the whole of leafy India. The soul of one is thrilled with the music of the spheres, while thousands stare at the heavens with the stupidity of the ox. The language of devotion is uttered by every tree, flower, and running brook, but seldom is there an ear to hear, and a heart to feel. Yet the tympanum of all ears is of the same construction; dissect men, and you will find the heart, ventricles, veins, and arteries, the same in all. Why then, you may as well reason, is there such difference in the hearing and feeling of living men? Why this deafness, blindness, insensibility, in some — while others, in the same outward condition, see, hear, and feel sensitively? The only answer is, after abating much for different natural endowments, most men look at every thing through the eye of the understanding, rather than through the eye of reason. I maintain, that all possess the godlike faculty of discerning religious truth, but they neglect to use it. They must argue every point; call councils and diets to weigh evidence, and by a majority of votes, put the matter beyond dispute, decide what is orthodox, and what men shall believe upon due pains and penalties. Hence to-day, this is sound doctrine; to-morrow, the mail arrives bringing intelligence from some such ecclesiastical debating club, that if you continue to believe it, you shall be hung, and no mass said for your soul. The fact has been entirely overlooked, that the understanding is not adapted to the discovery of truth in things spiritual. Men have endeavored to settle points in religion, as they settle questions about railroads and banks, and thus the faith of the church has changed with every fresh breeze of ecclesiastical discussion. Notwithstanding the infallibility of popes and prelates, the orthodox and the heterodox have changed places some hundred times. And as long as men disregard or overlook the inner light of reason, and place religion and Christianity among the subjects of debate, so long will these shiftings of belief continue.

Mr. B.    Did it belong to the object of our present discussion, I would attempt quite a different solution of this change in religious belief. You seem to grant that reason has been recognized as a mental faculty. I claim, that appeals have ever been made to it in the search for truth, and particularly in the examination of scripture doctrines.

Mr. A.   Why then those volumes of arguments, a priori and a posteriori, to prove that there is a God, a Christianity, even a religion in the universe? Why have not your Christian philosophers pointed men directly to the facts of a religion as they exist, and can be known to exist in the bosom of every man, as they would point them to the existence of any objects of vision, and there leave them, taking it for granted that these facts were seen? Instead of this, they have debated all these points as problematical; God’s very existence has been left a peradveature, and all truth and duty disputable. So far from turning the mind in upon itself that it might see truth, and feel the infinite weight of duty, you have only led it to question whether they are realities. I am willing to concede that some minds have recognized a reason superior to the understanding. It is too obvious to be overlooked by those who think deeply. Still, this distinction has, to the infinite detriment of truth, been disregarded.

Mr. B.   These points have been discussed that the mind might be turned to them. Argument affects the mind in reference to a thousand things concerning which there is really no disbelief. When the sceptic, one starry night, was dealing out his atheistic notions to Napoleon, and Napoleon looked up and asked, “Who made all these then?” there was an argument, virtually the whole argument, for the existence of a God. Now I ask, where was the harm of such a reply? Every thinking mind has seasons of doubting almost every thing which has been considered matter of settled belief. As some of your own philosophers have said, no one has thought sufficiently to be a metaphysician, who has not thought to doubting. Now the mind rights itself at such times by evidence, internal or external, of the reason or of the understanding, I care not which, I approve of both.

Mr. A.  If men had been rightly educated, taught to look within rather than without, made acquainted with their own powers and the proper method of viewing subjects, they would escape those doubts.

Mr. B.    Will you then grant that, under existing circumstances, it is better to continue the discussion?

Mr. A.  By no means. Nothing is gained, while much is lost. The man who needs to be convinced of religious truth by the deductions of logic, though his language and outward conduct may be somewhat changed by such conviction, still remains the same at heart. He is no more spiritual. He is still destitute of genuine faith. His religion continues a mere matter of calculation, embodied in outward forms, and not in the rapt emotions of a spiritual life. Much is lost, for while we continue to argue upon those fundamental, intuitive truths, they will continue to be disputed. It is appalling to think to what a depth of spiritual degradation the sensual philosophy of our age has sunk us. We have been led to question whether we have souls even; the being of a God denied; faith, except in things which can be seen and handled, rooted from the heart, and duty reduced to a mere problem in the rule of loss and gain. Let us stop this low and false argumentation at once; for better have no metaphysics, than to continue in this way. Why, only reflect! How have you attempted to convince men that they should be religious? By showing that religion is useful! On your system, men are told they had better have religion, for reasons like those which induce them to buy an article of furniture, or a meal of victuals — it will do them good! Really, how such motives can consist with virtue, I can not see. Does not every thief, for the time being, reason that his theft will profit him? And is this same scoundrel a good man, when, convinced his gains will be greater, he ceases to steal and begins to pray? The possession of a Spanish galleon laden with Peruvian mines could not offer such rewards to the pirate, as Paley offers him if he will be religious. Strange that any one should have overt looked the self-evident truth, that, properly speaking, there can be no virtue in acting from such motives. Self must be annihilated, denied as the gospel of Christ hath it, and Right, Truth, Goodness, seen, felt, and followed for their own sake, in order that we may be holy. Turn the minds of men in upon themselves, make them see their divine nature and exercise their divine reason, and let them act in a manner worthy of happiness.

Mr. B.    This is the very thing we endeavor to do. We preach the doctrine — would we could do it in thunder tones, that men should obey the truth, and be virtuous because this is right. That duty should be done for duty’s sake “Justitia fiat, ruat cœlum” — let justice be done, though the heavens should fall. No danger, nor suffering, nor glory, nor gain, nor pleasure, should make us swerve a hair from the path of rectitude. And let me say, that a little more candor, or more of that deep thinking which you so highly recommend, would correct your idea of the true happiness-principle, as held by its intelligent advocates.

Mr. A.   I never will admit that as a principle in morals. Man, godlike man, is something more, or he is something less, than a mere motive grinder, or, as Carlyle calls it, a mere balance for weighing hay and thistles, pains and pleasures.

Mr. B.    Well, permit me to correct your conception of the principle; for I apprehend that if we look at things and not at terms only, we shall not be so wide apart here as you suppose. Follow truth and duty, we both say, without regard to consequences. We both say that the mind is such a thing, that it can see truth — that it does this, either by the faculty you call Reason, or by what some call the Inner Light, or by what others call Reflection — truth, moral, spiritual truth it can know. So far we are agreed. Here you stop, and protest “that farther than this we should not go in our inquiry; and can not with safety or advantage.” I too am willing to stop here — to leave entirely out of view the utility of virtue, and simply inculcate the duty. But I do not believe it hazardous or wrong to take one step more in our reasoning, and inquire — Why do we spontaneously feel that certain truths are truths? that is right? that is duty? Why do we feel, and intuitively see, the truthfulness, the beauty, the righteousness, the goodness of certain actions? You say, “Because we are so made!” Undoubtedly. And do we not find ourselves so made that these things would not so appear, were they not adapted to our spiritual nature? And do we not see this adaptation in their tendency so directly and so certainly to ennoble and bless us? Were they not thus adapted, did they not harmonize with the reality of things—  did they tend to pain, rather than to happiness, I have some doubt whether the happiness-principle would have received such unqualified condemnation by your philosophers. And when, in some connections, you so extol the noble qualities and tendencies of your own system, I have fancied I saw you expose the cloven foot of this same happiness-principle. It would not he a difficult matter to find the very thing in the works of your favorite Carlyle; his French Revolution and his Chartism are full of it, and it is impossible for him or any other man, to write upon such subjects and not tacitly recognize it. In his last work, “Past and Present,” p. 25, is the following: “They (quacks) are the one bane of the world. Once clear the world of them, it ceases to be a Devil’s-world, in all fibres of it wretched, accursed; and begins to be a God’s-world, blessed, and working hourly towards blessedness.” Also, p. 27, “When a Nation is unhappy, the old Prophet was right and not wrong in saying to it: ye have forgotten God, ye have quitted the ways of God, or ye would not have been unhappy.” And the same idea is conveyed more than fifty times in this same book. And if you call this “stomach-happiness,” inasmuch as it has reference to governing and feeding men; then let me ask, why will you, night after night, till the oil is gone from your lamp, sit reading with glistening eyes the works of your Carlyle? “O such thoughts, heaven-born, soul-inspired, they rivet a man to his chair!” exclaim you. Will you do yourself the kindness to think a little more deeply upon that answer? If the belief of this principle tends necessarily to selfishness, I have not yet discovered it. Moses, Paul, Christ himself, alluded to it approvingly. The more a man loves the true, and the good, and is stimulated by this love to pursue them, the better he is. To say of men, they delight in iniquity, is to rank them with fallen spirits. To say that they delight in holiness, is to rank them with celestial beings. But as you will not listen to any thing in favor of this principle, I propose another topic—your idea of a God. I grant you are peculiar in your views of the Divine existence, and also respecting several important subjects intimately connected with it Transcendentalism, if I comprehend it, is rather a religion than a philosophy. Your principal oracles often repeat the idea, that religion is the one chief fact in regard to man. And all your writings have a direct bearing upon this point.

Mr. A.  It is time some men raised their voice in its favor; for religion, except in what is outward and ceremonial, has well nigh been banished the civilized world. Your sensual systems of faith as well as philosophy, have left little hope, or belief, or spirituality in the soul. You have separated God from his works, seated him upon a throne somewhere in infinite space, at an immeasurable distance from man, and taking it for granted that He had retired from the business of inspiring the heart, working miracles, and controlling all things, you have taken the work of religion into your own hands. And truly you make noise enough about it. God’s voice in the soul is hushed; the earnest, rapt spirit is wanting. Your religion is empty and hollow-hearted, a product of the senses and not of the soul. It has not the silent strength of the river, but the rustling noise of the brook rushing over its stony bed. You take a false view of God, and consequently your worship is idolatry.

Mr. B.   Do favor me with a clear statement of your idea of God.

Mr. A.  God is Good, or Goodness; or the animating Principle of goodness, truth, beauty, every where operating in nature and in the soul of man. External nature is but the emblem or garment of the Deity, and serves to body Him forth to the eye. But it is the eye of reason which sees Him, and the soul that feels his presence, while conscience continually whispers his voice in our hearing. God is within us and around us. The truly pious soul feels his presence, hears his voice, and sees him working every moment. Men of genius, of true spiritual insight, have ever taken this view of God. They have seen through the dead matter of the world, and looked directly upon God. Poets, prophets, sages, and all the devout of every age and nation, have viewed all objects which we call material only as the symbol, or visible manifestation of the Eternal Spirit. Some have had a faith which saw every thing as a part of God, the keenness of their spiritual vision scarcely noticing such a thing as matter. Not only was God the animus mundi, and                               “All but parts of one stupendous whole,               Whose body Nature is, and God the soul,”                but all was God, and God was All. Pantheism, a word full of denial and scepticism to superficial minds, is one of the highest products of the devout spirit of man. It has been well said that Spinosa was God-intoxicated, transcending time and space, all forms and appearances, God to him was All and in All. Few have sufficiently disentangled themselves from flesh and sense, and from the influence of a wrong education, to rise to such a height in the spiritual world. Some of the ancients, and some at the present time in Germany, and possibly in other countries, have become thus spiritual. But while I admire their spirit, and long for their attainments, I confess I fall short of their faith. While I see God in all things, I do not, strictly speaking, see all things to be God. For example, I can see God in that rose, as the animating principle which gives it its exquisite and esthetic form and tint, yet I can not say, that rose is God. But I do say, God is to be loved and worshiped in the rose. If we have the inner eye to see the beauty of such objects, so far we love, admire, and therefore worship their Maker. Still more clearly do we feel God present in the human soul. Man’s conscience is God’s voice directly speaking to him. Yielding ourselves up to its clear and truthful notes, we are right. O that all would listen to it, and obey!

Mr. B.    As we are upon that feature of transcendentalism which gives coloring to your whole system, I wish you to be more explicit upon one point, viz. In your view, is God, in such a sense separate from men and nature, that, as a distinct being, He controls, governs, rewards and punishes his creatures? You know the prevailing idea of God in enlightened countries — a being distinct from his works; who exercises a providence over them; who takes cognizance of the moral conduct of men, pleased with all right affections and purposes of men, and displeased with their wrong conduct.

Mr. A.  If you insist upon a direct answer, I would say, No. The vulgar notion that God, as a person, after creating the world and the universe, and setting causes in operation, or establishing laws for the continuance of all things, retired from his works to watch their operation, and occasionally to interfere, particularly in his moral kingdom, to give a little instruction, or to correct some of the grosser wrongs of men, I do not believe. This view is practical atheism; it virtually excludes God from nature and from the soul. Whereas God, — for he is omnipresent, — is constantly operating every where and in every thing; growing the grass, the tree, the flower; animating and inspiring the soul; producing new forms of beauty; working, as he has eternally worked, works of wonder and goodness. If the sensual philosophy had not so benumbed the soul, men would see this. It is seen by those you call heathen. The wild Indian hears the whisper of the Great Spirit in every breeze; listens to it coming from every dell and cave of his mountains; sees God in the forest, acknowledges his hand in giving him his fishing brooks and hunting grounds. To the earnest Arab soul the star that shines upon his desert path is but the eye of God. As the sun warmed and fertilized the vine-yards of the ancient Persian, he worshiped the kindly influence — God. The Ganges fertilizes his rice-fields, and the inhabitant of Hindostan pays to it the homage of the heart. Those eastern people, situated in the garden of the world, have always been a devout people. Not mere dead matter, hut the spirit of beauty and goodness, which animated surrounding nature, has always been worshiped by them. In their simple way, with childlike and sincere emotions of wonder, they have bowed before the Eternal in these manifestations of himself.

Mr. B.   Really, you must have a transcendental eye, for it is something more than a poet’s, to see so much beauty and true piety in those eastern idolaters. You doubtless see the same in the Chinese, in their worship of those half dozen fat hogs kept as gods at Canton. The funeral pile, the hook-swinging, the infanticides, and the thousand disgusting and horrible rites of Bramah, all must come up to your mind with peculiar attractions, in as much as you think them sincere acts of devotion. But it was not my present design to ascertain your views of religious worship. I wished first to understand your idea of God. Mr. A.  I wish to say that I would not be understood to mean that the great mass of those nations are truly spiritual. But there is among them the recognition of an omnipresent Deity, and there are real worshipers. The great body of people in every country are idolaters. They worship the image or form rather than God, the living principle of goodness. But, to come back to the point, I believe God does mark the conduct of men. How can it be otherwise, when He is every where present in his works? And that the obedient are rewarded and the wicked punished, is a matter of consciousness to every one. Not a law of man’s nature can be violated without internal discord and misery, while all is harmony and sweet peace when man falls in with the eternal reality of things. The true prophet, poet and philosopher, — for they are the same, — have always represented the soul of man as a divinely constructed instrument, a true Æolian harp, which, rightly tuned, gives forth heavenly music; but, disordered by sin, its sounds are harsh and discordant.

Mr. B.   Wherein are your sentiments different from the doctrine that man receives the full punishment of his sins in this life? How often, contrary to all human experience, in the face of what every wicked man knows to be true in his own case, is it asserted that, by the remorse of conscience and the evil consequences of sin in this life, men are equitably and fully punished! If I understand your idea of God, you do not consider him a being distinct from man and nature, possessed of personal intelligence, susceptibility and will, but a kind of vivifying principle every where and at all times operating. I do not wonder that you object to producing evidence of God’s existence, for your God, or rather principle, must be seen intuitively, if seen at all, and this too by a faculty purely transcendental. You complain of the want of faith and of the universal prevalence of scepticism. At times you seem clothed in sackcloth, in view of the infidelity of the age. You profess the most ardent desire to revive belief and earnest spiritual life on the earth, and yet if the great mass of people could be made to understand and embrace your views, there would be nothing to restrain them from the worst of crimes. You remove from man the piercing eye of a conscious God; you place him under no government but certain natural laws, and if he will risk (as he most surely will) the natural consequences of vice in this life, there is no more for him to fear. In fact you discard all appeals to fear as a means of moral government, maintaining that man should be so educated that what you call his natural love of truth, beauty and holiness, will be sufficient. If you succeed in making this feature of transcendentalism believed, it needs no prophet to foresee that it will sweep every vestige of pure religion from the world. Not what you call religion, for there will always be minds alive to the beauties of nature and art, and hearts enraptured with the works of God, in which consist your religion and religious worship. But the mass of mankind are never sufficiently refined in their sentiments to appreciate your sentiments, and keep devout on your plan. They will enjoy the beauties of nature, but will never arrive, in their admiration of landscapes and beautiful thoughts, at what you would call earnest spiritual life. It is much to be desired to have the heart softened and ennobled in the contemplation of the works of God. There may be true worship in this; but how many, who, like Byron, feel exquisitely every form of poetic beauty, are hostile to religion, when she lays a restraint upon their passions! Much which you say in this connection is good and important to be said, but it never will be all that man needs. If we stop with mere poetic beauty, with the religion of romance, we shall soon be destitute even of this. There is no man who can not feel in some degree the beauty and grandeur of certain objects. So far you would call him religious: so far he worships your God. We might as well call him so far religious, as he loves a dish of turtle soup or a bottle of Madeira; for while the one may indicate a higher refinement than the other, both are equally involuntary, and both may exist in bad as well as in good men. David, Job and Isaiah, to whom you often refer, all saw God in his works, all “mused on nature with a poet’s eye;” but this was not all their religion. They had deep repentance for sin, — for sin committed against God as a being, and not a mere principle. There was faith in those men, but a faith widely differing from your faith. You appropriate the poetic beauty of the Bible and of nature to your system, and leave out of view those truths which are most necessary for man to believe.

Mr. A.   You must be aware that, owing to the difference in genius and education of men, we must always have both the exoteric and the esoteric doctrines. The inspired sages of Greece found this to be necessary. There must be a statute religion for the mass, certainly till they are elevated immeasurably above what they have ever been. Hence we never wish to controvert the common notions respecting the Bible, inspiration, religious forms, &c., since these are necessary for a season. But infidelity is chiefly among the educated. During the last century it prevailed in its worst forms in the higher circles of France, and even throughout Europe and America. The sensual philosophy led to this result. We wish to reach this class of men. Let the doctrines of Pythagoras and of the still more divine Plato be expounded and taught, with slight modifications, and we shall arrest the progress of doubt and denial.

Mr. B.   Here again I must call for explanation. You apply the epithets divine, inspired, and god-like, to men unknown to sacred history. But from your idea of God, of worship, of man’s reason, I suppose we are to understand that you call Plato, Shakspeare, and certain writers of our day in Europe and America, inspired, in the same sense in which Isaiah, David and Christ were inspired. That is, they have genius, true spiritual insight, and utter what the heart spontaneously responds to as truth. Mr. A.  Exactly so! Yet there are all degrees of inspiration. And we consider Christ much more inspired than any other man, and it is owing to this that his religion is superior to all others, and is received in the most enlightened countries. Much of it will doubtless live through all time. When the poet or sage utters true spiritual thoughts, we say he is inspired. His thoughts are the voice of God; they are beyond common ideas, and we know not what else to call them. We read them, they strike us as true, beautiful, good, and we spontaneously exclaim, “Surely this is the voice of God !“ Hence we can see by the light of reason, that David had more inspiration than Moses, John far more than the other apostles, and Christ so much more than all others, that they may well call him Master. I trust we have a few in our own day, some even in New England, who listen attentively to the eternal oracle within, and utter divine responses. The Dial is a clear indication that there is still faith, genius and inspiration among us.

Mr. B.   I give you credit for clearness and candor, whatever I may think of your common sense. This is no mysticism. To place the Dial and the Bible, as it respects their inspiration, on the same footing, is certainly intelligible, and in all other respects is truly transcendental. Pardon me, Mr. A., but I must ask you if you are serious in this?

Mr. A.  You infer too much. I did not design to consider the writers of the Dial on a par with Christ. I only mean that they have uttered the truest things which are uttered among us, — many things truly inspired, — though in their earnest zeal they have said much that I would not say. They do not deserve the contempt in which they are held by many. Every inspired teacher has been deemed by his formal age either a madman, a fool or a knave. It is the fate of genius to be persecuted. The Pharisee, wrapped in his forms, saw nothing true or good in the teachings of the divine Jesus; Socrates was persecuted to death; Kant was sneered at as a deluded dreamer, and Carlyle, after years of true spiritual endeavor, hardly begins to be appreciated at home, though we deem him one of the brightest stars in the constellation of genius. But such men count the cost of their devotion to truth. The world’s teachers have had little cause to be pleased with the world, yet they have loved and sought to bless their race. Truth, omnipotent truth, is their support. It is enough for them that they are right. They look to the distant future, when many will rise up and call them blessed.

Mr. B.   But you must be aware that your views undermine the foundation of all that is peculiar in Christianity. Here, y6u profess to be a Christian, and weep strange tears over the unbelief and idolatry of the age. You appear, at times, reverently to worship “God, manifest in the flesh;” but the very next act of your devotion is to kneel at the shrine of a favorite philosopher or poet, pagan or Christian. These you call as truly divine, as really inspired, and in every way as worthy of religious reverence, as Jesus, only in a less degree. You pay no more respect to Christ than a pagan emperor of Rome was willing to pay him,—give him a temple in common with a thousand other deities. Certain parts of the Bible you are ready to pronounce of heavenly origin, in the same sense in which you think the writings of many other men were divinely inspired. The only moral law ever given, your writers assert, is the voice of God in the heart. Your belief is this: Plato had his system of religious philosophy, Mohammed his, Confucius his, Kant his, and Christ his; and all these, so far as we perceive their truth by the light of reason, and no farther, are to us the oracles of God. Some of your sect are willing, but others are not, to give Christianity the preference. You use the language of Christians, with the addition of some buckram phraseology of your own, but with a meaning entirely different from its usual signification. I can not believe this honest. The Universalist, the Unitarian, the infidel, the atheist, frankly state what they believe, in plain terms. I have no desire to class you with them, though it is evident your whole system of religious philosophy may be found in the writings of these various schools. You throw around your transcendentalism such a devotional air, and so much of the language of evangelical piety, that your real meaning is not perceived. The obscurity of your system would vanish instantly if you expressed yourselves in plain language. Not to refer to points already discussed, take the published opinions of your school respecting miracles. You are aware that all this has been advanced a thousand times. You only hit the thing differently. You take the same course upon miracles as upon inspiration. As you inspire all men rather than deny the inspiration of the sacred penmen, so instead of denying miracles you make every thing miraculous.

Mr. A.  Carlyle has placed this subject in its true light in the chapter on “Natural Supernaturalism,” in his Sartor, which I would commend to your special attention.

Mr. B.   I have read it, and will give all the credit you can ask for the genius there displayed. Perhaps we could not take a better illustration of your method of treating subjects connected with religion. Instead of direct denial, backed with the usual arguments, you virtually deny the miracles of the Bible, by making all things so marvelous, and by clothing your expressions in such imagery, that one thing appears to be as miraculous as another. The rising of the sun would be a stupendous miracle to a man who should see it for the first time. The rising of a dead man would not appear to be a miracle if we should see dead men rise every day. The chemist could work miracles in the eyes of ignorant heathen. That is, all is miraculous to men which they are not familiar with. Had we an eye to see a little farther into the operation of natural laws, every miracle recorded in the Bible or any where else would appear a natural rather than a super-natural event. Therefore, whether any thing shall be miraculous or not, depends not upon the thing itself, but upon our degree of insight into the laws of nature. This is the leading idea of Carlyle’s chapter on Natural Supernaturalism, and the substance of all your writers have to say upon the subject of miracles. Granting that there is truth in this view of the subject, yet the most favorable construction I can put upon the argument is, to call it an evasion of the real point at issue. True, you exhort us with earnestness to think deeper, that we may see more of the miraculous with which we are constantly surrounded. But, believe in a miracle, in any proper sense of the word, you do not. Mr. A.  We are heartily weary of the endless debate upon such questions in the Christian system. It tends only to doubt and denial. The whole forensic discussion from the first century to this, upon the proofs of Christianity, have been fruitful in nothing but infidelity. A religion — any part of a religion—  which needs the logic of the understanding for its support, is not worth the argument. If men have not an eye to see and a soul to feel religious truth, argument will avail nothing. Religious men should take the high ground that religion is a native germ in the heart of man, and is to be cultivated by other means than disputes about the forms which Christianity has assumed. Let us leave the questions of plenary inspiration, miracles, trinity and unity, the humanity and divinity of the Savior, the sabbath and the church, all which are entirely foreign to religion itself, and retire within ourselves, to listen to God’s voice in the soul, and be religious.

Mr. B.   Ah! but there is a question to be answered—yes or no—upon which very much depends. If at the word of Christ the dead awoke to life, and the eyes of the blind were opened, did he not exercise a power superior to that of the chemist or man of genius; and so much superior that none can doubt it to be supernatural. And you need not be told that if the works attributed to Christ could be shown not to have been wrought by him, instead of being an inspired teacher sent from heaven, as you often term him, he was an impostor. One can hardly give you credit for sincerity, when you eulogize Christ and his religion, and upon the same page say, what, fairly interpreted into intelligible language, stigmatizes him as a deceiver. These inconsistencies need to be explained. You are ready enough to discuss other questions of history; why not those connected with the Christian religion?

Mr. A.  It is one of the first lessons of our religion not to use the sensual logic with men, but to turn their attention to the great truths that are written upon the tables of the heart. We expect like the great Master, to be reviled, but we shall not return reviling for reviling. You will yet see, and I hope in this life, that there is enough which is miraculous without going back eighteen hundred years. But at present I must leave you to gaze at God’s world, without seeing any thing wonderful in the thousand forms of beauty and goodness which lie in every direction; but only a little chemical matter to be analyzed, explained, and scientifically arranged. But it is painful to see man, standing in the midst of wonders, like the stupid ass, with his whole attention upon food for his stomach; or like an ambitious boy, beating his drum to arrest the eyes of the world, as if he were the only real prodigy to be admired. The secret of the universe is open, but only to those who have an eye to see it. Men must retire into the holy of holies, their own souls, and then the Shekinah will appear, and from the altar of the heart acceptable incense will ascend. Be silent, my brother, as you stand in this star-domed temple of God, and his presence shall overshadow you; and you shall feel that man — all that is in him and around him — is a miracle! Man is the high-priest of Nature beautifully emblemed in the priest of Jewry; he is the eye of the earth which should be turned towards heaven. He is the highest form of the godlike. “Be still and know that I am God,” is a text I beg of you to consider.

Mr. B.   And I would request you to preach your doctrine from any text in your numerous Bibles, to any uninitiated audience you can find, that you may be convinced of the impracticability of making mankind understand such a sublimated religion. You extol earnest, rapt emotions, whether in the Mussulman at the tomb of his prophet, or in the worshiper of the sun, the river, the star, or any other created object. Try your transcendentalism then, and see if the eye moistens, and the fire of devotion burns in the heart under its influence? You call attention to your new philosophy, and as hearers we have a claim on you to speak in a known tongue the very thing you mean. You attack almost every article of our belief, and we have a right to know just what you would have substituted in its place. Our views of God, of Christ, of the Bible, of Christianity, of worship, of man—his nature, his duties, and his destiny — our system of moral science, our literature, and even our civil institutions, are in your opinion defective. You call for a radical change. One of your writers says, “It is not to be denied that the principles of this system are those of reform in church, state, and society, and for this cause they are unpopular.” Thus we find ourselves attacked in a new and peculiar manner. We are exhorted in the phraseology of Christianity, to throw off all its present forms of belief and practice, and go on unto perfection! But before we strip naked in this style, we wish to know whether you have better garments for our covering.

Source: The New Englander (October 1843) pp. 502-516