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Natural Supernaturalism and Transcendentalism, Gotten Backwards

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In our strange world today, there is a lot of anti-Enlightenment sentiment. When we talk about the Age of Enlightenment, the focus is generally on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when ideas such as the scientific method, secular government, representative government, individual rights, and the rule of law became popular topics among educated Europeans.

To complicate the picture, it was also the era of the murderous expansion of European colonialism and of racialized slavery.

There are lots of things to respect and lots of things to criticize about Enlightenment thought. But one thing that often gets forgotten in our contemporary dismissal of the Enlightenment is that criticism of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment is nothing new. I would even argue that there has been far more ink spilled criticizing the Enlightenment than in furthering its aims.

The European artistic matrix nowadays called Romanticism was an early reaction against the increased focus on reason and science. If you’ve ever taken European history, you memorized the standard periods: Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism . . . etc.

The Romantic movement started in Germany, spread across Europe, and eventually came to the United States in a movement among Unitarians that we call Transcendentalism.

The essence of all the movements — and the center of criticism today — is that scientific thought and reason is reductive.

Where’s the mystery?

Where’s the art?

Where’s the sturm und drang?

Where’s the spirituality?

Where’s the room for strangeness?

Where’s the wonder and awe in a naturalistic/materialistic view of the cosmos?

. . .

One person who took the question of reductivism extremely seriously was a Scottish writer of the nineteenth century named Thomas Carlyle. Not much known today outside of universities except perhaps for his admiration of “big men” in government, Carlyle was the single most important influence on many young American writers from the 1830s through the American Civil War.

Carlyle’s thought was so important to artistic young Americans, that the young and then unknown Ralph Waldo Emerson took ship to Scotland and showed up unannounced on Thomas Carlyle’s doorstep. Thus began a bromance that lasted throughout most of the nineteenth century, since both writers had long lives.

(At the end of his life, deep in dementia, Emerson still recognized and commented on photos of Carlyle.)

The book that inspired an entire generation of American writers and created the movement we call Transcendentalism was a novel by Carlyle from 1831 titled Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh.

“Sartor Resartus” is Latin, meaning “The Tailor Re-Tailored.”

In the novel, Carlyle creates a character named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, meaning something along the lines of ”God-born Devil’s-dung.” Teufelsdröckh is a troubled young German Romantic scholar who has written a book titled Clothes: Their Origin and Influence.

(By the way, Carlyle is credited with creating the field of study concerning clothing, which did not exist when he made it up, apparently thinking such a subject was a total joke.)

So, what was Carlyle saying that was so new and exciting to young Americans of the time?

For one thing, Carlyle was fluent in German, and so read the German Romantic poets and philosophers in the original, before those works had been widely translated into English. Carlyle was communicating something brand new to many in the English-speaking world.

What did Carlyle say? He titles one chapter of his book “Natural Supernaturalism” and says this, for example:

. . . existence itself is miraculous . . . life contains elements of wonder that can never be defined or eradicated by physical science.

You can see how this idea summarizes what young Americans were looking for: a way to transcend the senses and materialism, therefore evading the reductive, while at the same time respecting advances in reason and science. That was the program. Carlyle said this in a letter from the time:

That the Supernatural differs not from the Natural is a great truth, which the last century (especially in France) has been engaged in demonstrating. The Philosophes (i.e., the French Enlightenment philosophers) went far wrong, however, in this, that instead of raising the Natural to the Supernatural, they strove to sink the Supernatural to the Natural. The gist of my whole way of thought is to do not the latter but the former.

“Instead of raising the Natural to the Supernatural, they strove to sink the Supernatural to the Natural.”

His use of the word “sink” says it all.

Carlyle’s project, which become the project of the Unitarian Transcendentalists in the US and other American writers such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, became an effort to “raise” the natural world to the level of the supernatural world . . . “

To enchant the world that reductionist science and materialism damage.

As Emily Dickinson wrote — scandalously for the time:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

. . .

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along. (#236)

Carlyle praised writing by the American Transcendentalists for “the recognition . . . by these Transcendentalists . . . of a higher faculty . . . than Understanding; of Reason (Vernunft), the pure, ultimate light of our nature.” (Works, 27: 27)

This, by the way, points out a common mistake concerning what people such as Dickinson, Emerson, and Thoreau were attempting to do. They were not searching for ways to exist on pink clouds of imagination in a fantasy world. They were looking for ways to express that real clouds — clouds that can be seen and painted and photographed — are the actual wonders of our existence on this planet, revealing to us “the pure, ultimate light of our nature.”

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along. (#236)

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