Minimalists in History: Transcendentalists

© 2014 Christy King

“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not, rich. . . .”

– William Henry Channing

Transcendentalism, which developed during the first half of the 19th century, combined romantic naturalism with Puritan moralism and emphasized simple living in a whole new way.

This movement differed from earlier simplicity movements I’ve discussed, such as those led by the Puritans and early republicans. Transcendentalists believed simplicity is something to be personally chosen rather than societally imposed.

They felt people should have inner self-control and that conservator reformers relied too much on external controls such as legislation and institutions. In fact, instead of demanding conformity to their version of simple living, transcendentalists encouraged nonconformity.

If you don’t recognize the term transcendentalism, you’ll recognize some of the names associated with this movement, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In fact, I’ll devote future posts to some of the individual transcendentalists, because they’re so important to the modern simplicity movement.

“Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live. ”

– Margaret Fuller

Transcendentalists sought a more enlightened and spiritual approach to getting and spending money. They believed life is too precious to waste on the pursuit and enjoyment of things.

They wanted to live in a way that reduced their material needs, which feed only the outer self, so they would have time to pursue spirituality, morals and aesthetics, which feed the inner self.

Transcendentalists were not, however, anti-technology or anti-business. Rather, they felt technology and money should be valued for what they can contribute to the noble pursuits of the mind and spirit.

 “Transcendentalists believed that ‘knowing yourself’ and ‘studying nature’ is the same activity.”

– Paul P. Reuben

Naturally, there’s a lot more to transcendentalism than promoting simple living. This movement began as a reform movement in the Unitarian church, flowering into a philosophical, literary, social, and theological movement.

Transcendentalists felt that intuitive truths are more meaningful than empirical facts. They also believed God, or the universal spirit, can be found in nature as well as in all humans.

Thus, they believed, humans should be treated equally, and many transcendentalists were active in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements.

Transcendentalists saw nature as the source of aesthetic pleasure, moral goodness and spiritual inspiration. They felt that spending time in nature helped create inner harmony and moral strength.

To learn more about transcendentalists and simple living, read The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture.


4 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Transcendentalists

  1. Hi Christy, Just want to mention Fruitlands in my home state of Massachusetts. It’s a wonderful place to visit, should you get the chance!

    American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide

    Alcott’s Fruitlands
    “Here we prosecute our effort to initiate a Family in harmony with the primitive instincts in man.”
    ~A. Bronson Alcott & Charles Lane, co-founders of Fruitlands
    In June 1843, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, both reformers involved in the Transcendentalist movement, founded Fruitlands in an attempt to strengthen their spirituality through self-reliant, simple living. Although the experiment failed, the seeds of communal living planted by this attempt (and others similar to it) are still growing in the American landscape today. The site of Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, is preserved today as a museum. Prepare to visit this literary landmark by taking a tour of the history, philosophy, and impact of its founding.
    Right: Fruitlands Farmhouse (Image courtesy of Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, MA).

    • Fruitlands is actually on my list for a future post, but I haven’t read much about it yet and didn’t realize it was open to visit. Thanks for the info!

    • I find it fascinating to read about the past minimalist movements. It’s interesting to me that none have stuck. I wonder why people (on the whole) find it so much more difficult to live simply?

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.