Transcendentalism: A Belief in Spirit was written in tribute to Thoreau Scholar, Bradley P. Dean, Ph.D., upon his sudden passing in January 2006. It was published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 255, Summer 2006, and it appears here by permission of the Thoreau Society. For more information on the Thoreau Society or to obtain copies of past issues of the Bulletin, please go to: www.thoreausociety.org
Transcendentalism: A Belief in Spirit
by Cathryn McIntyre
It is at times of the greatest adversity in our lives that we most question our beliefs about life and death. As members of the Thoreau Society, we must now come to terms with the sudden passing of Bradley P. Dean, Thoreau Scholar, Independent Researcher, Editor of Thoreau's unfinished manuscripts and since 1991, editor of this bulletin.
When someone dies whom we love as family or friend, whom we respect and admire, or whose work has been as important to us as Brad's was to so many and whose promise of future work is now left unfulfilled, how do we reconcile the loss? And what does transcendentalism offer us as we face this most difficult of life's realities?
At the 2005 annual gathering, there was a presentation entitled: "Transcendentalism: Emerson to Thoreau." I arrived at the event excited to hear what this society that dedicates itself to Henry David Thoreau would have to say about the philosophy that he devoted his life to, but much to my disappointment neither of the distinguished presenters at the event that day were able to define transcendentalism in any kind of meaningful way. One spoke of Thoreau's decision to change his name from David Henry to Henry David, as if a name change itself was something transcendental, and the other spoke only in the most general terms about transcendentalism, and admitted to being unable to answer a question posed by a student who wanted to know the definition of transcendental meditation.
From my seat along the side wall overlooking the crowd of people gathered in the Masonic Temple in Concord on that hot July day, I wondered if I was the only one there who wanted to stand up and point out the obvious missing ingredient in each of the lectures presented. While my ongoing social reticence prevented me from raising my hand and speaking out, particularly to such a large and learned crowd, I was relieved when one gentleman did. He raised a tentative hand, took to his feet and asked "What about the spiritual side of transcendentalism?" and that is what I most wanted to know. How can one talk about transcendentalism without talking about spirit? And more importantly, how can one understand transcendentalism, without first understanding its core belief, that we are spiritual beings who are part of a divine energy source that permeates all aspects of the universe, and that upon death our spirit simply returns to that source?
That is the basis for transcendentalism and it is the very thing that so many people seem to have the most difficult time understanding. There have been many books and papers written by fine scholars who carefully define every nuance of this belief system and in doing so often take us too far away from this fundamental belief, the belief that we are infinite. This revelation that life is eternal, that within each of us is the spark of that whole (what Emerson called the "Over-Soul") that ignites and illuminates our every expression, and that the very light that is within all of us will always be, is the most important aspect of transcendentalism, and it is this belief that can help us most as we face life's most difficult times.
The transcendentalists of nineteenth-century Concord rejected as rationalist and materialistic, the views of English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), who declared that all ideas capable of conscious understanding were derived through interaction with the physical senses, and instead embraced the views of German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who believed that there were areas of knowledge that could be interpreted without the aid of human physiology. These areas were innate and intuitively understood by man, and the understanding of such ideas transcended sensation and reason.
The transcendentalists believed in what Emerson called "The Over-Soul"—a spiritual presence that pervades all aspects of man and nature. Emerson referred to it as: "that great nature in which we rest—that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other —- We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE."
Thoreau was first introduced to Emerson's transcendental beliefs upon reading his essay, Nature while a student at Harvard, but Thoreau had long understood that there was a spiritual presence in all things and a direct relationship between spirit and nature. He spent the greatest part of his life outdoors, examining and chronicling the nature that surrounded him, and by doing so, established a deeper connection to the divine spirit through that nature.
On a trip to Mt. Katahdin in 1846, Thoreau experienced what was perhaps his most profoundly transcendental moment. He recorded the event later, while back at his house on Walden Pond.
As he stood on Mt. Katahdin, Thoreau observed himself existing separate and apart from his body. He wrote: "I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, that my body might, but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! This of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?"
In his introduction to Thoreau's manuscript, Wild Fruits, Brad describes this passage as Thoreau's "attempt to articulate the ineffable, for Thoreau on Mount Katahdin, like Moses on Mount Sinai, had beheld God (spirit) and nature (matter) face to face." And he points to a sentence in Walden that again illuminates Thoreau's understanding of the spiritual. In Walden, Thoreau states: "Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."
In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, a work that both Emerson and Thoreau turned to for wisdom: "Never the spirit was born, the spirit shall cease to be never. Never was time it was not, end and beginning are dreams."
And in a journal entry Emerson stated: "It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not dead: he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul. nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could easily tell the names under which they go."
Although neither Emerson nor Thoreau supported the idea of explorations into the spiritual realm such as those practiced by many spiritualist groups in the nineteenth century and today, (Thoreau's statement "One world at a time," says it best), they each recognized the perpetual existence of the soul. For my own life. I have chosen a path that includes investigation of such things as the near death experience, reincarnation, clairvoyance and astrology, yet in all my years of research into these metaphysical areas I have found no one who more clearly understands and defines spiritual reality than Emerson or Thoreau.
In a February 28, 1840 journal entry, Thoreau wrote: "On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world."
Brad fulfilled the promise of his friend Henry David Thoreau's life by honoring him and completing for him, the work he had-left undone, and the rewards are for everyone and always.
In an email Brad sent to me one day during the time when he acted as advisor to me during my short-lived graduate program at Lesley University, he expressed to me what must have been a passing moment of doubt in what was otherwise his sheer unyielding dedication to publishing Thoreau's works. Brad had put so much of his life energy into these projects, had spent so much time combing over Thoreau's every word, and working to perfect their presentation. He remarked in particular on the amount of work that had gone into Wild Fruits, the preparation of the manuscript, and the incorporation of the illustrations. I assured him as quickly as I could by return email that Wild Fruits was a beautiful book and that every moment of time and every ounce of energy expended to bring that book to publication had indeed been worthwhile. Brad's mission, as editor of Thoreau's unfinished works, was truly a remarkable and noteworthy one and it was clear to me then just how tightly his legacy was intertwined with Thoreau's.
So, what do we do now, those of us who seek to honor Brad and to continue to cultivate his vision? Brad remarked to me more than once that he hoped to one day write a biography like the one I was writing, one that incorporated facts with vivid images that brought Thoreau and the other transcendentalists to life. As I move forward I will endeavor to fulfill this shared vision.
The last time I heard Brad speak on Thoreau was at a lecture he gave on his recently published book, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. It was part of the Thoreau Society's 2005 Annual Gathering, and was held at Bronson Alcott's School of Philosophy. Those of us who gathered there that day were fortunate to experience Brad at his most enthusiastic and entertaining. He was full of the passion he had always had for Thoreau, and he gave what was one of the most interesting and amusing lectures I have ever heard. I will always remember Brad as he was that day, and his passion for Thoreau will forever inspire me.
Copyright 2006 Cathryn McIntyre. Not to be copied or reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.
This marker was placed at the site of Thoreau's Bean-Field at Walden Pond in memoriam to Bradley P. Dean, Ph.D. who was credited with having located the site of the bean-field.