Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Course No. 2598
Professor Ashton Nichols, Ph.D.
Dickinson College
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Course No. 2598
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Course Overview

Where did the America we know today—so different in its fundamental views about almost every aspect of life as to be unrecognizable to our countrymen of two centuries ago—really come from?

How, for example, did the colonial idea of the classroom as a place devoted to "breaking the will" and "subduing the spirit" of students, change to that of a vibrant, even pleasurable experience—including innovations such as kindergarten and recess—with children encouraged to participate actively in their own education?

What forces eventually enabled our nation to see slavery as morally abhorrent and unequivocally wrong , when we had once passed a law permitting the capture and return of escaped slaves who managed to make their way to the "free" North?

How did the struggle for women's rights—not just for the right to vote but also to have control over their own aspirations and destinies—gain the momentum to unleash changes still felt today?

Why did the once-unassailable power wielded from the pulpit begin to weaken in the 1800s? Why did certain theologies become more liberal and increasing numbers of people choose less dogmatic expressions of faith—or even no faith at all?

What are the roots of our love for nature, of the near-spiritual experience so many of us now find in the ripple of a stream in the morning sun or the thunderous roar of ocean waves?

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, what is the source of our distinctly American way of experiencing ourselves—confident in our value as individuals, certain of our ability to discover personal truths in the natural world, self-reliant in the face of uncertainty and change?

Answers to questions like these are found in and around Boston and the town of Concord, Massachusetts, which became, little more than five decades after the American Revolution, the epicenter of a profoundly influential movement that would reshape many beliefs and make possible the America we know today.

That movement is Transcendentalism. Drawing on an array of influences from Europe and the non-Western world, it also offered uniquely American perspectives of thought: an emphasis on the divine in nature, on the value of the individual and intuition, and on belief in a spirituality that might "transcend" one's own sensory experience to provide a more useful guide for daily living than is possible from empirical and logical reasoning.

A Movement that Transformed America

The extraordinary members of this informal movement provided intellectual and moral leadership for many social transformations: the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, freedom of religious thought and practice, educational reform, and more. The influence of their ideas continues today in many aspects of our culture, from efforts to preserve large tracts of wild nature to civil disobedience around the world.

But although the ideas that contributed to New England Transcendentalism had many roots, the strength of its impact came from the intellectual energy of two remarkable individuals: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important figure behind Transcendentalism in America, and Henry David Thoreau, his most influential disciple.

The Power of the Individual

"Without Emerson and Thoreau," notes Professor Ashton Nichols, "the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become. We would not believe in the power of the individual to the extent that we do, nor would we see nature at the center of one view of the American psyche. ... If Emerson gave us a new view of America and American thinking, Thoreau gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each individual."

In Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement, Professor Nichols introduces us to these two remarkable thinkers and a diverse group of intellectual activists, literary figures, and social reformers whose ideas, often considered radical in the decades before and after the Civil War, would remake American society.

Among those you'll meet:

  • Liberal theologian Theodore Parker. He made the pulpit a forum for social activism and, as a staunch opponent of slavery, would sometimes preach with a pistol in the pulpit, knowing that the fugitive slaves who often attended his massive rallies of 2,000 or more were likely to attract slave-catchers.
  • Educator Amos Bronson Alcott. A self-taught teacher and educational reformer, he did away with corporal punishment and even extended his own hand for students to hit to demonstrate his position that classroom confusion was likely to be the teacher's fault.
  • Writer Margaret Fuller. The brilliant writer, editor, and voice for women's rights was also the most influential of the female Transcendentalists and one of the first female foreign correspondents. She was onboard a ship that sank within sight of Fire Island, New York, and a saddened Emerson dispatched Thoreau in hopes of at least recovering Fuller's manuscripts from the wreckage. Thoreau reported finding only unidentifiable human remains on the desolate beach.

Explore the Lives of Emerson and Thoreau

Many courses relate the principles of Transcendentalism and discuss the crucial contributions of these two extraordinary men, Emerson and Thoreau. But what motivated them? Who and what were their chief influences?

You'll learn, for example, of the profound impact on Emerson of the death of his first wife. You'll learn that he was influenced by a deep understanding of classical texts. He read Buddhist and Hindu sacred writings at a time when most Americans were not aware of their existence, and he translated Dante. You'll also see how this thoroughly well-read person never lost contact with those who were less well educated. Professor Nichols tells a story of a washerwoman who was fond of attending Emerson's lectures, even though, she said, she could not understand his ideas. Why did she attend? Because she liked "to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is."

And you will see a Thoreau who, though often thought of as the "hermit" of Walden Pond, was also a profoundly dedicated abolitionist—like so many other Transcendentalists. When John Brown led the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was captured, and subsequently executed, it was Thoreau who delivered a stirring eulogy, citing Brown as a "Transcendentalist above all" who "did not recognize unjust human laws but resisted them as he was bid. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature," he said, concluding that Brown was "the most American of us all."

The Impact of Transcendentalism

Yet as important as the dynamic figures you'll meet is Professor Nichols's own multifaceted approach—essential in a course examining Transcendentalism. Rather than focusing on a handful of well-known figures, or on a single issue such as slavery, religion, philosophy, or literature, he has created a course meant to instill a new appreciation of the individuals who made up the movement and of the movement's impact on America. You come away not with an arid list of abstract ideas, but with a real understanding of aspects of American life before the Transcendentalists' ideas took hold, of the contemporary reactions provoked by those ideas, and of the long-lasting changes they inspired, many of which are still with us today.

Professor Nichols's rich background—he worked as a journalist before going on to study, teach, and write about poetry, fiction, history, and nature writing—makes him an ideal teacher for a course that extends across so many subjects and so many remarkable individuals.

His wide-ranging approach links directly to the themes of the course; the path of lifelong self-education is yet another legacy left to us by Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism
    An introduction to the two remarkable individuals whose lives and ideas form the basis of all that follows in this course, and without whom the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become. x
  • 2
    The Roots of American Transcendentalism
    Though American Transcendentalism would inaugurate a uniquely American way of thinking, it drew on many sources, with roots in both European and non-Western systems of thought. x
  • 3
    Emerson and the Idea of America
    We look at Emerson's remarkable life and times, and how they contributed to the works that would help produce a philosophical vision of America. x
  • 4
    Emerson and Transcendentalism
    More than any other figure, Emerson is the intellectual father and emotional godfather of American Transcendentalism. Though many other thinkers would contribute, it was Emerson's lectures and published essays that would give form to this sometimes amorphous range of ideas. x
  • 5
    Emerson’s Influence
    Emerson was a visionary thinker whose thoughts were adopted by others almost immediately. But his ideas also continued to influence educational theory, theological and religious practice, and political debate over time. x
  • 6
    Thoreau—An American Original
    Emerson's foremost disciple gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each American individual; he put Emerson's central ideas into play in ways that continue to shape American politics, populism, and popular culture. Thoreau also had an incalculable impact on nature writing and environmentalism. x
  • 7
    Thoreau at Walden and Beyond
    We look at the so-called "hermit" of Walden Pond in biographic detail, striving also to reveal the continuing effects of his thinking and writing on students, teachers, naturalists, and political theorists. x
  • 8
    Thoreau's Politics
    Thoreau's politics—central to an evolving view of democracy, freedom, and the role of the individual—are ultimately about conscience: the right to answer to a higher law than the rules of any social, religious, or political system. x
  • 9
    William Ellery Channing and Unitarianism
    We step back in time to consider a theologian and minister whose ideas would change the history of his denomination and were crucial forerunners of concepts that Emerson and others would later adopt. x
  • 10
    Theodore Parker—Social Reform in the Pulpit
    This lecture considers one of the most practical and active members of the Transcendentalist group; Parker was an influential voice and leader in causes ranging from the reform of parish ministry to widespread social activism. x
  • 11
    Amos Bronson Alcott
    Though his daughter, Louisa May, became far better known by subsequent generations, Amos Bronson Alcott deeply influenced not only his own era, but ours as well, leaving an educational legacy still with us today. x
  • 12
    Louisa May Alcott
    We think of her primarily as the author of Little Women, but Louisa May Alcott was also an influential member of the Transcendentalist circle as a thinker, writer, and social activist. x
  • 13
    Margaret Fuller and Rights for Women
    We meet a soaring intellect, effective voice for women's rights, and energetic achiever—successful as a writer, editor, and foreign correspondent before her tragic death at age 40. x
  • 14
    Transcendental Women
    This lecture explores a group of women who had a direct and powerful impact on Transcendentalist thought, from the three remarkable Peabody sisters to less well-known women, including radical abolitionist Lydia Child and indefatigable social activist Caroline Dall. x
  • 15
    Moncure Conway—Southern Transcendentalist
    We look at a figure whose life represented the complex history of Transcendentalism and who also reveals why it was primarily a Northern movement. x
  • 16
    Transcendental Eccentrics
    Transcendentalism produced more than its share of eccentrics; some of their viewpoints have helped to create a uniquely American version of eccentricity. x
  • 17
    Transcendental Utopias—Living Experiments
    Transcendentalism was not simply about those major and minor figures that developed and promulgated its doctrines. It was also about a series of attempts at new ways of living that had a powerful impact on 19th-century thinking. x
  • 18
    Transcendentalism and Education
    The link between Transcendentalism and education was a close one. Many leading Transcendentalists served as teachers or educators, either briefly or for most of their careers, and others, like Emerson, had a direct influence on important educational reformers. x
  • 19
    Thoreau, Abolition, and John Brown
    The trial and execution of John Brown produced extensive commentary and debate in abolitionist and Transcendentalist circles about violent versus nonviolent action, the power of the individual, and the historical reality of change that might not always occur gradually. x
  • 20
    Frederick Douglass
    He was not strictly a member of the Transcendentalist Circle, Frederick Douglass—fugitive slave, abolitionist, freethinker, self-educated writer, lecturer, activist, and advisor to presidents—lived a life that was seen by many as an embodiment of Transcendentalist ideals. x
  • 21
    Emily Dickinson
    Though she, too, might not have called herself a Transcendentalist, Emily Dickinson's work cannot be fully understood without reference to the people who surrounded her in Transcendentalist circles in Massachusetts. x
  • 22
    Walt Whitman
    Seeing himself as the embodiment of "The Poet" Emerson sought for America, Whitman wrote poems that reveal direct links to the powerful ideas that were circulating throughout America, especially in New England. x
  • 23
    Transcendentalism's 19th-Century Legacy
    Transcendentalism reached a much wider audience than contemporary literary figures. Its abstract ideas often translated directly into practical solutions to social problems ranging from religious institutions to school classrooms. x
  • 24
    The Legacy in the 20th Century and Beyond
    Although few, if any, would claim to be Transcendentalists today, the movement has directly influenced literary, social, and political movements. Modern America still owes a significant debt to Transcendentalism's greatest figures, remarkable voices whose ideas have lasted far beyond their own lives. x

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Your professor

Ashton Nichols

About Your Professor

Ashton Nichols, Ph.D.
Dickinson College
Dr. Ashton Nichols is Professor of English Language and Literature and Walter E. Beach '56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he was both a DuPont Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Professor Nichols spent three years as an award-winning journalist before returning to the university for his M.A. and Ph.D. in...
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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 73.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from needs graphics I've watched 2 lectures so far and while I can say the material is interesting I also have to say that the professor is boring with a monotone voice and stylized hand gestures that are repetitive. This material needs more graphics - like pics of the people being discussed, etc.
Date published: 2019-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalist Very interesting. I have learned a lot. The professor teaching this class is doing an awesome job.
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview Excellent overview of Transcendentalist philosophy and spirituality, as well as its origins, influences, and chief proponents. This course met my expectations. I appreciate Professor Nichols's wide-ranging knowledge and his even-handed treatment of the subject.
Date published: 2019-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More Than Transcendentalism And this is both good and extraneous. Professor Nichols appears to be a true fan of the Transcendentalists and therein lies a problem. Even though he acknowledges that some of the personages he examines are in point of fact not a part of the transcendentalist movement, he nonetheless ties them in. Some like Walt Whitman almost make the mark, but others such as Frederick Douglass seem to me to be not even close. And to lump Branson Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May in with them just because she was related just does not hold water. At least for me, her writings and views are not reflective of the movement, other than providing money for her father and his many failed works. Dr. Nichols does a credible joy when he sticks to the theme of the course: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Margaret Fuller and also when ties in Unitarianism with the movement. (As for Fuller, I was please to see her included, but note that the reason she left Branson's school was because she was not paid.) It almost seems that there is not enough material to cover 24 lectures, so he was forced to add ancillary figures to the course. I did enjoy and appreciate his final two lectures as he summarized the movement’s influence and legacy on current American society. And even though Dr. Nichols clearly loves his subject, he includes quite a bit of the contemporaneous criticism (Melville for example) in the course. For me, his presentation was adequate, but not riveting. Professor Nichols does a good job on the subject, but adds too much unrelated material.
Date published: 2019-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The titled thinkers are only a few of the thinkers I found the presentation of the people discussed was well thoughtout and done in depth. Although I have read Thoreau I was only peripherally aware of Emerson. I have since gotten an anthology of his writings and expanding on what I became enamoured with in the course.
Date published: 2019-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting lectures on remarkable U.S. thinkers. I listened to these lectures several times while commuting. And although I was acquainted with key writings of the major figures, I learned a great deal from the lectures and found them very stimulating. The lecturer spoke clearly, the pace was good and the organization logical. I just sent them to my sister as a gift I am sure she will enjoy.
Date published: 2018-11-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Captivating and Informative This is a fine TC course on an elusive topic. Professor Nichols does an excellent job in making comprehensible a movement which “…emphasized the divine in nature, the value of the individual and of human intuition, and an ideal spiritual reality that “transcends” sensory experience…provid[ing] a better guide for life than narrowly empirical or logical reasoning.” Rather than a systematic philosophy, Transcendentalism is a “… cluster of concepts set forth by a number of individuals…” (Course Guidebook, Page 146). Most prominent among the Transcendentalists, naturally, are Emerson and Thoreau, but Professor Nichols brings a great number of other contemporaries to the fore to show the variety and impact of Transcendentalism on mid-nineteenth century America and beyond. To his credit, Professor Nichols spends time on a number of the Transcendentalism’s critics, notably Herman Melville (who satirized them for their overly optimistic outlook) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (who pointed out their impracticality and lack of a sense of evil), and discusses some of the movement’s true eccentrics. Nevertheless, we are treated to a wide range of individuals and ideas that fall under the Transcendentalist rubric, all done is an easy to follow manner and set in historical and cultural contexts. Though I thought I knew a fair amount about the movement already, I not only got an excellent refresher, but also gained a better understanding of Transcendentalism. This includes tracing its roots in the Unitarian Church’s liberal theology, to the inclusion of such seemingly unlikely figures as former slave Frederick Douglass (focused on the movement’s commitment to abolition) and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (whose preoccupation with death balances with Emerson’s exuberant optimism). Professor Nichols’ treatment of such movement concerns and path-breaking activities in education, women’s rights, abolitionism and many other topics are excellent. Noteworthy as well is Professor Nichols’ final two lectures on how Transcendentalism affected the wider American society and culture over time. Many of those concerns have truly modern cast to them. Bringing the story into the twentieth century, for instance, we see the direct and acknowledged influence of Thoreau on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and how Transcendentalism has a continuing influence into the twenty-first century. This 2006 TC course has a very helpful 160-page guidebook with not only fine lecture summaries but also a glossary, timeline, biographical notes, and annotated bibliography.
Date published: 2018-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic lecturer, well presented narrative I am a doctoral candidate in the Humanities, focusing on the National Guard of the United States and moral duty as a citizen of a democratic republic. Who better than Ermerson and Thoreau to review?! Thanks for the lectures -- fascinating to hear about the Alcotts and the others, too.
Date published: 2018-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from enlightening I wasn't expecting to like this course as much as I did. I was in particular interested in all the women associated with the movement and some of the educational innovations born from Alcott's experiments.
Date published: 2017-10-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Where is the Context? Professor Nichols clearly knows this material and his enthusiasm for the subject is commendable, but there is really no context for a student today. He states that Trancendenatlism/ Emerson and Thoreau were reacting against the religion of the day i.e Calvinism and Unitarianism? But what was Calvinism or Unitarianism in 1840/New England/America? The professor never defines the ruling orthodoxy so it becomes impossible to see the uniqueness or rebelliousness of Emerson. Thoreau's writings although considered poetic, descriptive,insightful about himself still leaves me with the overall question of "so what"? Where Professor Nichols in explaining Walden Pond, he uses words like non conclusive and I wonder incoherent, contradictory. Thoreau experiences a reverie that lasts all day. Is this detachment an indicator of a spiritual meditation? A 19th century mindfulness? Why do I care Thoreau daydreamed all day, because he wrote beautifully about it? He read the Vedas, really? Are there Thoreau writings reflecting an influence of the Vedas? Did he even understand the Vedas other than they were non-christian? The Transcendental movement in the 19th century is considered a Philosphical era. I just don't really get why.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More to Transcendentalism than I thought Before this course when I thought of Transcendentalism I thought of Thoreau. Maybe Emerson would come to mind if I was pressed, but even then mostly because he inspired Thoreau. I surely thought of civil disobedience and of Thoreau's influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Having spent my young adulthood during the hippie era in eastern Massachusetts I remember all to well the alternative lifestyles some of my peers viewed as justified by Transcendentalism. There you have it. That's what Transcendentalism meant to me. This course has greatly enriched my view. According to Professor Nichols Transcendentalism has touched and changed nearly every aspect of our modern lives. It played a crucial role in the anti-slavery movement. The men and women discussed in this course influenced education, religion, politics, women's rights, and all that in addition to their contributions to the literary arts. The professor's view is so expansive as to include John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry among the profound influences of Transcendentalism. That is not to say Professor Nichols exaggerates Transcendentalism's influences. He is very meticulous in providing details of the people and the acts that support his view. On the down side I did not find Professor Nichols style compelling. At first I was not sure I would like it. As the lectures progressed however, I realized how much I was learning. This course greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation for Transcendentalism. That's my review but I can't resist adding one more rambling thought. According to Professor Nichols, Transcendentalism is not a philosophy. I agree, but that begs the question, what is a philosophy? If I may dare a simple definition tuned to the present purpose: a philosophy captures a world-view that is comprehensive, logically coherent, and responsive to criticism. I am thinking of Emanuel Kant when I give that definition. According to these lectures, Emerson leaned on Kant's strict philosophical arguments to build his world-view. Kant was probably the most disciplined philosopher of all time. That seems like a strong foundation. Transcendentalism tries to be a comprehensive view of how to live a good life. That's further credence for it being a philosophy. However, individual Transcendentalist are free to form their own world-view within the general framework that loosely characterizes Transcendentalism without the need to subject those views to the formal logic and coherence critique from other philosophers. That, at least, implies that it falls short of being a philosophy. Not meeting the standard does not mean you aren't doing philosophy. I do not think Existentialism nor Nietzsche's world-view would truly meet that standard but they are still considered philosophies. Then I listened as Professor Nichols quoted Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." Professor Nichols is right. Emerson was not a philosopher. Transcendentalism is not a philosophy.
Date published: 2016-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Look at America's Bloomsbury Group This course far surpassed my expectations. I purchased this (audio) course primarily for perspective on Thoreau, a hero of mine. But I found it fascinating to learn also about his extended circle, which seems to me a counterpart of Britain's Bloomsbury Group, albeit in an earlier century. Both groups had central figures and peripheral ones, included eccentric individualists, and shared some central concerns that spanned literature, philosophy, politics or economics, and social criticism. It took me a while to get used to the professor's speaking style, as he has slightly exaggerated elocution and projects his voice as if to reach the back room of the lecture hall. However, his narration was very clear and easy to follow, with next to no distracting stumbles. Two things I especially appreciated in this course were 1)the ideal balance struck among biographical information, discussion of the thinker's ideas, analysis of his/her style and thoughts on his/her impact; and 2)the professor's ability to quote a short passage from a thinker, which gave a taste of his/her literary style, and then tease important implications from that passage. I recommend this course to anyone interested in distinctly American strains of thought and literature, as well as people wanting to understand more about the impact of Emerson and Thoreau from their time to today.
Date published: 2016-09-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mislead Title of Course I have purchased 20 Great Courses DVDs and this product was not titled correctly. The majority of this course concerns the Unitarians and the anti-slavery movement in the United States. The professor's hatred for slavery is very apparent even to the point of being emotional. I agree with his sentiment but it doesn't belong at the lectern given the title of the course.
Date published: 2016-06-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview, important content Full disclosure, I am a Unitarian Universalist and we owe a lot to the Transcendentalists. But then, so does America. This was a great introduction to who's who and what's what. Unitarian and Transcendental biographies are a hobby of mine, so I may know the material too well to fairly judge a survey course. I agreed with everything and I learned some nuances. Professor Nichols speaks well, 3 1/2 or 4 stars. He is not a 5 because he stresses clarity above naturalness of expression - he's speaking in my ear buds, with his voice pitched to reach the last row of a classroom.
Date published: 2016-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening and Enjoyable After recently stumbling across some Thoreau that I found particularly resonating, I looked to this course for further context. I had thought that I was fairly familiar with American Transcendentalism and the directions of thought attributed to this movement, and some of its proponents. Little did I know … … of the intellectual heavyweights who would later be identified as Transcendentalists and their passionate devotion to the ideas, causes and actions which would exemplify their movement, while espousing appreciation of individuality and, for many, a close link between spirituality and nature. … of the tremendous impact that these 19th Century heroes and heroines would have on the society of their time and for future generations … in the areas of education, religion, politics and social changes … battling mightily, through ongoing lectures and conversation and through journalism, on behalf of the oppressed … becoming a real force in the cause of equality … especially concerning civil rights and women’s suffrage. I found Professor Nichols to be quite pleasant, and I liked his presentation and the content of the lectures, enjoying those on some of the minor figures as well as the better known in this Massachusetts-based group of influentials. The guide book was one of the best that I've seen. Every lecture was valuable to me. I spent more time with this course than usual, however, as, with each lecture, I read the works recommended or other work I found relevant – which consisted of some of Emerson, all of Thoreau’s books and some of his essays, all three of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies (the last one would probably have sufficed, as it contains most of the material in the first two before adding quite a lot to update to his last years) and other writings, and then, further exploration and enjoyment of the works of Walt Whitman and of Emily Dickinson – They’ve both lost their places on my bookshelves for a good while. For the additional time spent in reading and studying, I was well rewarded. I am delighted with what I have learned in this course and because of this course. Thank you, Professor Nichols. Before ending, I’d like to quote something from Emerson (in this course) that I found especially appealing: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” Finally, Professor Nichols’ closing statements: “Even a series of lectures like this one links us back to the Transcendentalists’ belief in the value of lifelong self-education. The growth of each human mind expands a self-reliant person who is of value to the entire universe."
Date published: 2015-09-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Survey of a Challenging Topic As an English Lit major in college and as a later reader of New England's writers, I've struggled to get a handle on transcendentalism. The focus of 24 lectures on just this topic helped me sort our what it was and what it wasn't. I would think this would helpful to any American who may misunderstand or misuse the terms "self-reliance" and "civil disobedience" among other American mythologies. The professor did well to explain how this movement fell short of a philosophy in the academic sense but how the ideas of this group of writers went on to influence much of America's core ideas about itself. Be warned: this is a lot of detail about one literary movement. Might be boring for someone looking for a larger survey of early-American Lit. I enjoyed it.
Date published: 2015-08-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mostly disappointed I've listened to 20-25 of the Great Courses. Some were fantastic, some were just pretty good, but this is the first one I had to make myself finish. (It cost too much not to finish it.) The content was somewhat interesting, but I thought it was way too much of a catalog of the various transcendentalists with too little discussion of their ideas. The presentation was painful to listen to. In particular, the lecturer has a habit, whenever a sentence has two clauses in it, of going way up in pitch at the end of the first clause, as if asking a question under duress. It was so annoying that whenever I recognized that I was hearing a dependent clause that was going to be followed by an independent one, I started wincing in anticipation of the upspeak.
Date published: 2015-07-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Overview of Transcentalism Nichols is an excellent lecturer. He does a good job of presenting the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and those transcendentalists who came into contact with Emerson and Thoreau. The lectures on Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker were particularly good. Nichols puts things in good perspective for people, such as myself, who are generally familiar with Emerson and Thoreau and not as familiar with many other transcendentalists. It's too bad that Nichols did not cover other writers influenced by the transcendentalists, such as Adin Ballou. In many ways, Ballou's ideas on non-violence were more influential than Thoreau's and Ballou's Hopedale community thrived for many years.
Date published: 2015-04-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Could be better with a good editor On average I enjoyed this course and learned a fair amount about the intellectual environment from which Thoreau and Emerson sprang. I agree with the reviews that wish less attention was paid to the minor characters but I think the problem is not that they were minor but with Nichols presentation of them. He does not delve deeply into the thought or writings of Allcott or any of the other minor figures, for example, which is a disappointment. Additionally he has this extremely irritating habit of repeating things he just said in the lecture before. Does he really think anyone listening needs to be reminded that Louisa May Allcott was Branson's daughter and supported him (as he could not make a living), after we have just had an entire lecture on the father? If we had unlimited time who would care, but in a 30 minute constraint there are more interesting and useful fact to impart, rather than repeat yourself. Despite this I enjoyed th course and learned a great deal about people I thought I knew well.
Date published: 2015-03-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from American 19th Century self-help DVD review. As the title implies, Dr. Nichols' EMERSON, THOREAU, AND THE TRANSCENDENTALIST MOVEMENT, is as much the story of a movement than it is an account of its two key founders: Emerson and Thoreau. Think of it as an initial intellectual explosion creating concentric ripples that weaken as they spread to influence a widening range of people — artists, activists, journalists and politicians — many of whom felt no allegiance to the founders. "Founders" is misleading in this case. Emerson and Thoreau were not systematic thinkers and often disagreed with each other. They created no association or headquarters. Nor did they select successors. What they did was recast old concepts they felt were outdated in new, more "fertile" directions. Intellectuals are like that. Some create highly coherent systems that merely systematize inherited concepts. Others express new sensibilities that "solve" old conundrums in ways that feel like an epiphany, at least for a while. Emerson and Thoreau fit this second type. ____________________ Both distrusted dualistic thinking. But for my purposes, 4 opposing concepts serve best to explain the ideas explored in MOVEMENT. SCIENCE v. RELIGION: Emerson felt that Puritan-style Calvinism had boxed itself into irrelevancy through dogmatic thinking. Somehow the new insights offered by science had to be incorporated into spirituality, and spirituality into science. To complicate matters further, Emerson had a mystical streak. He respected intuitive leaps arising from a close relationship with nature. NATURE v. SOCIETY: Following the romantics, Emerson saw sparks of the divine in nature, in children and in our innermost selves, uncontaminated by education. The primary concern of society through its educational system is the creation of wealth and status by means of conformity. Recapturing our connection with the divine requires an ability to step back and trust our intuitions. CHRISTIANITY v. UNIVERSAL SPIRITUALITY: After reading Hindu and Buddhist classics in translation, Emerson could not accept the traditional view that all non-Christians were dammed. A God that thought like that could not be divine. Emerson's focus instead was on points religions shared in common, stripped of tribal ignorance. Of course, his god, permeating everything like water in a wet sponge, seemed too abstract and indifferent to mainstream listeners. No miracles, no intercessions, just being — nature by another name. SELF-RELIANCE v. TRADITION: Because our innermost nature is good, individuals who trust their intuitive morality and their spontaneous connection with nature will naturally oppose unjust social institutions that oppress specific groups, be they women or other races. We must first achieve the autonomy needed to reconnect with your true self, then share your beliefs with others. __________________ Presented as philosophy, none of this is very rigorous or systematic. And it only gets worse through lectures 9 - 24 as the "movement" meanders across a string of writers, preachers, activists, and borderline crackpots. But as a record of changing sensibilities, Transcendentalism was a momentous signpost. I'm thinking of this course in connection with another TTC product — Dr. Allitt's AMERICAN RELIGIOUS HISTORY. In that course, a central theme is America's lack of state-supported religion. As a result, every new generation of preachers must reinterpret Christianity to fit the shifting values of their flock. Fail to change with the times or properly "sell" your version of God, and your followers gradually disperse. The same goes for all brands of American self-help or therapy. Emerson was something new — an independent intellectual who made a living through his books and lectures. In a sense, he was the Tony Robbins of his time, except that the self-help vocabulary then was still largely Christian. Nevertheless, the trend towards more secular, more here-and-now redemptive answers is evident. This need to sell God or self-help at every step made the U.S. a great laboratory for "human growth" philosophies. Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese or European ideas were imported, stripped of their fatalistic and "boring" parts, recast in a very optimistic light, and sold as age-old wisdom straight from the mystic past. And there is nothing wrong with that. The Christian message has been going through the same process for ages. Except that in America, it happened more quickly. There was no state support for a single interpretation, no Inquisition, no Christian headquarters. ______________ To sum up, as philosophy this course is not very interesting. But things improve greatly if you think of it as the history of a particular self-help ideology in a country vitally interested in new forms of personal growth. PRESENTATION was OK; relatively academic without being weighed down by jargon. However, this is not passive entertainment. Lectures 9 - 24, in particular, demand patience unless intellectual history fascinates you. Audio versions are sufficient. The guidebook was good. For the strongly motivated
Date published: 2014-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great first half but then bogs down in detail This course is worth reviewing for its treatment of Emerson and Thoreau. However, it quickly bogs down in a treatment of what most would consider to be minor figures and players afterwards. There are some exceptions to this, however: the lectures on Dickinson and Whitman are very interesting. Lectures 1 through 8 were very well done and worth completing. Lectures 9 through 18-19 covered much more minor details and characters that have had less of a direct legacy to philosophical thought. If this is your first foray into Transcendentalism, you will leave this course with a much better understanding of the unifying tenets and principles that help construe transcendalist philosophy--I know that I did. However, the middle of the course bogs down in a treatment of the application of transcendental ideas to social and educational reforms and the resultant effects on these institutions. This was much less compelling. Overall, the course would have been stronger if it were a 12 lecture course, or if more attention and lectures were devoted to Thoreau and Emerson and less to the minor figures, but I still completed the course with a much enhanced understanding of Transcendentalism.
Date published: 2013-05-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent overview This course is a delightful and informative introduction to the world of transcendentalism. The presentation is very good, although not outstanding. Content is not a rigorous philosophical tour of transcendentalism; it is an overview best suited to interested non-philosophers. The historical context and the historical consequences are a major part of the content. Thus it is comprehensive in its coverage of transcendentalism. It is well worth the time and money for anyone interested in a basic understanding of this important American philosophical movement. The video version of the course was nice, but it would work just fine in audio only.
Date published: 2013-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am writing this review to counter one that mentioned that the lectures were, I believe he/she said, "unlistenable." I found myself delighted each time I started the engine of my car. I confess it has been some 6 months since I listened to the course, but I enjoyed the approach of the professor immensely: he painted a good picture of the philosophy of the Transcendentalists, and he personalized each lecture with anecdotes about each of the major players. I thought at the time that it was one of the most enjoyable of the two dozen courses I have (Daniel Robinson Tyler Roberts, and Allen Guelzo are also among my favorites). I take the time to write this just to contradict the other reviewer. I imagine the professor's voice may have been part of the complaint. But not everyone is blessed with a voice like Bob Dylan!
Date published: 2012-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Recommended ~~ with some concerns Transcendentalism can be a bewildering subject, loaded with statements such as "This world we live in is but thickened light". Professor Nichols explains the movement with practised ease, in considerable detail, in these enjoyable talks. Through this course, you will assuredly gain a sound basic knowledge of the background and "founding" of this philosophical, ethical movement: where it came from, what it stands for, who were the movers & shakers, and why. Emerson made a lot of people think; despite detractors, he attracted strong support from many significant sources which helped him significantly to propagate his thoughts and propel the movement. The lecturer relates Emerson's story in an engrossing way, explaining carefully the tricky points. I never studied transcendentalism before, so this course was fascinating for me, as well as entertaining. Thoreau, inspired by Emerson's "Nature", produced his major work "Walden", tackling the philosophical question of living in the world, using narrative prose at times resembling poetry, and comes across as somewhat of an anarchist in search of spirituality. Some of the other persons featured in the lectures struck me as rather unhappy lost souls, two probably mad: a strange crew. The great Frederick Douglass, while embodying and living many of the ideals and beliefs of transcendentalism, was NOT a member of this movement, though he met Emerson, Thoreau and others of this conviction. I consider it improper and wrong to claim Douglass (or Louisa May Alcott whose parents were transcendentalists) for transcendentalism. Also, I feel very uncomfortable indeed that Thoreau referred to John Brown (of the horrific Harper's Ferry incident) as “a transcendentalist above all”. While it is clear that Walt Whitman was heavily influenced by Emerson, I am not convinced that Whitman could or should be considered a transcendentalist. A friend of mine was a Unitarian minister, wrote about that religion, but I see no direct correlation between Unitarianism and Transcendentalism; the latter is too ethereal which I believe may be inferred from the course. Transcendentalism appears to scud around the subject of religion, to grasp at concepts without actually coming to terms with them ~~ all very interesting, but rather insubstantive and, by choice, ever at odds with Christianity. I loved the expressions "organic metaphor" and "figuratively true", by the way. Some other reviewers didn't like Dr Nichols' speaking style. His delivery did not give me a problem, though it is slightly monotone. The only oddity I encountered was his pronunciation of the name ALCOTT: he abbreviated the second syllable to omit the letter O. I'd never heard that before, must be a regional variant. Reference URL: http://www.pronouncenames.com/pronounce/Alcott I can easily recommend the course but I don't feel my life has been changed or enhanced in any way through viewing it.
Date published: 2012-10-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Unlistenable Unfortunately, the professor's presentation-tone and delivery-is so bad that I cannot listen to this course. Other professors sound like they are really lecturing to an aoudience; this one sounds as if he is reading his lecture to a recording device.
Date published: 2012-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Uplifting Thoughts and Words for Our Own Time I know that I am not the only person 'out there' who finds the current state of our political discourse dismal and depressing. I was a young man in the '60s, and I so yearn for the idealism and dreams of true equality and freedom for all which we took for granted in those days. To what depths we seem to have sunk! So it is that I came across this wonderful course just in time! Yes, there have been American giants of decency, prophecy, and insight in the past and, amazingly, their central ideas continue to inspire and challenge us today. Professor Nichols' thorough knowledge of his subject matter, combined with his respect and enthusiasm for the men and women involved, makes for a most stimulating and inspirational course. Because of these lectures, I am re-reading Thoreau, Emerson and the great Frederick Douglas, and look forward to getting to know both Margaret Fuller and Moncure Conway. This is the perfect course for those hungering for the best of human nature as exemplified in the words and deeds of some wonderful human beings! It is a privilege to belong to the same 'family.'
Date published: 2012-08-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Monotone... I love the Transadentalists, and I think the professor does, too. But, I can't tell from the tone of his voice. He has no inflection, no emotion. I'm not sure I'll be able to finish this course, his voice is so boring.
Date published: 2012-06-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Recommended, But Some Caveats While I enjoyed professor Nichol’s course, and would recommend it, I have the following caveats: 1. Anyone looking for philosophical depth is going to be disappointed. We are informed that transcendentalism had its roots in European thought, particularly German idealism. But we are never provided with any real elaboration of this idea. 2. The professor is an enthusiastic fan of transcendentalism. While generally this makes the lectures more enjoyable, it became annoying at some point. A more neutral perspective would have been appreciated. It does not take too much imagination to see that much of the self-absorption and silliness of modern American culture seems to have its roots in transcendentalism.
Date published: 2012-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep & Profound This is a deep, profound and meaningful course of lectures. Anticipate having to go through it twice before you get to grips with these great thoughts. It will certainly jiggle the "gray-matter"--- but that after all, is to be encouraged. If you're looking for easy listening/watching, pass this one by, but if you want to learn and improve yourself, hit the buy-button.
Date published: 2012-05-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thorough and comprehensive This is a thorough and comprehensive review of the origins, masters, and long term effects of Transcendentalism. At times it drags a bit over several topics of lesser interest, at least to me, but in general is engaging and enlightening about the many varied characters involved in the movement and their effects on the world around them and since.
Date published: 2011-10-29
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