Hippies, Hindus, and Trancendentalists

by Arthur Paul Patterson

The title I have chosen for a discussion of Emerson's essay, The Transcendentalist, comes from a similar title by Bob Larsen: Hippies, Hindus and Rock and Roll. In his book, Larsen tries to set up nefarious connections between the occultic and pagan world of deepest darkest Africa and India. His thesis is that because rock and roll has a connection to these cultures of paganism it participates in their demonic underpinnings. The reason I chose to parody his title is not only to get some secret revenge on Larsen, who is so obviously racist and simplistic, but also because the underpinnings of my spirituality find their roots in the counterculture and in the Western synthesis of Eastern thought through the New Age Movement.

Demonizing what you don't understand, or rather, won't understand because you haven't taken the time to listen is nothing new. Ralph Waldo Emerson encountered a 19th century Bostonian public that would not understand what Transcendentalists were about. His attempt to outline the basic tenets and attitudes of spiritual seekers of his day may well be considered a manifesto for spiritual radicalism in perpetuity.

What Waldo says about the Transcendentalists of his time warmed my '60s-formed heart and suggested that the East had moved West long before our modern multimedia gurus took up residence on the West Coast in the '70s. I believe that a careful reading of Emerson's broader works as well as his treatment of spiritual radicalism in the essay The Transcendentalist provides a deeper, more homegrown, perspective on spirituality than the often shallow perspective of the New Age or the essentially exotic nature of Eastern spirituality.

I remember being intrigued by the clever question, "Do you have an invisible means of support?" In our materialist culture we are used to asking about our visible means of support. Emerson believed that our foundations were built on what could not be readily seen. He configures the duality between the materialist and the idealist as the central typology which defines how we will configure our world. This, of course, is parallel to the divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality in their broad lines. The East is convinced that physical reality is illusion and only a mirror reflection of a vaster more permanent reality beyond sense perception. The West is the home of empirical science which has until only recently brought into question the existence of anything beyond the physical.

Emerson says that the Transcendentalist is someone who refuses to be tyrannized by the blatancy of the "facts". They find the source of spiritual certainty in the subtle intuition of the beyond.

Emerson says that the Transcendentalist is someone who refuses to be tyrannized by the blatancy of the "facts". They find the source of spiritual certainty in the subtle intuition of the beyond. This notwithstanding, the Transcendentalist did not go the whole route with the East but honoured Nature and its Beauty, convinced that they mediated the Oversoul or God. They were not Nature worshippers but they were Nature admirers finding more hope in the observation of a pond and its life than in the society they withdrew from. The Materialists, for all their credal orthodoxy, are really idolaters of nature itself. Emerson contrasts the starting points of the two paths:


The materialist takes his departure from the external world and esteems a man as a product of that. The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness and reckons the world as appearance... His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to the aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. (The Transcendentalist in Selected Writings, p. 82-83.)


Years ago while studying the integration of psychology and spirituality I met the professional scientist Arthur Glass. His prime research was in the physiology of the brain. Arthur impressed me as he delineated the exact placement of cognition within the various centerss of that strange organ of consciousness. I admired him and he seemed to have a stability about him that I could not find in myself. At coffee break, I said to Arthur that I marvelled at the faith he showed toward his methods and procedures. From the discipline of his research, he exuded a certainty about the reliability of the "brick solid" universe. Somewhat ashamed, I told him that my faith in what I experience in life was not solid like his but was like a onion skin that was ready to tear at any moment. I can't remember his response but it was something along the line that I was an existentialist and that I needed to discipline my mind to learn the hard sciences so that I could be assured. I never did gain the discipline or the resultant certitude concerning the world we inhabit but I have come to admire Arthur's approach less over the intervening years. His science based on the empirical method was rooted in a view of the world that the most modern scientists have come to question. The most advanced scientists have concluded that the laws of nature are not fixed, that chaos is by far the most common feature of our universe and that predictability is more rarer than we ever imagined. So much for the certainty of Arthur's universe.

In the intervening years I have learned that when I attempt to approach life as something "objective" and outside of myself, I become not more certain but more a victim of the external. When I hand over the authority of my inner experience to the material world view I am acted upon by impersonal forces that operate like a juggernaut crushing out my direct perception and replacing that with "the assured results of scholarship".

My idealistic onion-skinned approach to certainty has ironically lead me part way to the place where Emerson says to the Materialist, "You think me the child of my circumstances: I make my circumstances. Let any thought or motive of mine be different from what they are, the difference will transform my condition and economy." (The Transcendentalist, p. 83.)

This is the approach of miracle, of union with Nature and of contemplation. It make me responsible as a co-Creator and not just a creature. I am morally obligated to overcome the purely physical conditions of my existence and in doing so help to create a world freer than the one we live in. This Hindu-come-West attitude leads me to question what kind of personal character does such a perspective spawn. Emerson himself admits that the Transcendentalists were the "drop-outs" of Nineteenth Century America.

But their solitary and fastidious manners not only withdraw them from the conversation, but from the labours of the world; they are not good citizens, not good members of society; unwillingly they bear their part of the public and private burdens they do not willingly share in public charities, in public religious rites, in the enterprises of education, of missions foreign and domestic, in the abolition of the slave trade, or in the temperance society. They do not even like to vote. The philanthropists inquire whether Transcendentalism does not mean sloth; they had rather hear that their friend is dead, as that he is a Transcendentalist; for then he is paralysed, and can never do anything for humanity. (The Transcendentalist, p. 90)

On the surface at least, there is a connection between these Transcendentalists and the hippies of the sixties who as Timothy Leary said, "Drop out and tune in."

On the surface at least, there is a connection between these Transcendentalists and the hippies of the sixties who as Timothy Leary said, "Drop out and tune in." They have in common a rebellion against the culture they depend on. They will not accept to live on anything but an authentic level. Emerson describes the roots of their discontent,

As to the general course of living, the daily employments of men, they cannot see much virtue in these , since they are parts of this vicious circle; and as no great ends are answered in the men, there is nothing noble in the arts by which they are maintained . Nay they have made the experiment and found that from the liberal professions to the coarsest labour, and from the courtesies of the academy and the college to the conventions of the cotillon-room and the morning call, there is a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without aim.

They contradict not only collective belief and opinion but values and ethics as well. Emerson says that the Transcendentalist easily incurs the charge of anti-nominism. (The Transcendentalist, p. 84) Transcendentalists and hippies seem never to be satisfied with what society has to offer as a reason for existence but instead strive for intangible idealism. Emerson describes this as having an excess of faith. This of course limits the recruits of both movements to the young.

As a youth movement it by necessity has an uneven membership. Like weekend hippies, there were weekend Transcendentalists and many eccentric, broken and not be repaired individuals in the group. On the other hand, both movements contained those whose intellects was nearly as grand as their spirit such as Thoreau and Emerson, or more recently - Bob Dylan. Emerson sees the motley crew in such a way that they are first fruits of a new humanity not quite developed: But all these of whom I speak are not proficients; they are novices; they only show the road in which man should travel, when the soul has greater health and prowess. (The Transcendentalist, p. 94).

For all the protest and discontent both movements betray an inner joy and love. Hippies and Transcendentalists alike were worshippers of Beauty. It was ratified and peculiar at times but creative striving to capture the beautiful was the vocation of many within each movement. The more natural a thing the more beautiful they considered it. Artistically they would contort the current standards of beauty and use them as a channel of meaningfulness.

There is one area that I wonder about the correspondence between the Transcendentalist and the Hippy and that is in the area of sensitive self reflection and critique. The Transcendentalist were quick to dispose of the superficial criticisms of their culture but they could not dispose of their own self criticism. Emerson quotes a Transcendentalist soliloquy,

Well in the space of an hour probably, I was let down from this height (of illumination) I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world... I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightening faith for continuous day-light, this fever glow for a benign climate. (TheTranscendentalist, p 92.)

Here we see an admission, less common among Hippies, of genuine weakness and a recognition of solidarity with society in their ability to transform their character.

The rebel persona of both groups is cracked by an underlying sentiment. Rebels, of all people, speak of their need to be loved, they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. (The Transcendentalist, p. 86.) I understand this, for it is the love that they wish they could show but cannot within a cynical world of pragmaticism that they themselves yearn for and sometimes find among themselves and in unexpected co-belligerents.

In the closing statements of The Transcendentalist, Emerson offered the better part of wisdom for those who encountered this strange breed of seeker. He is in effect saying what Dylan later did, that you either join them or at least support them since they are what our race will be like in the future - they are the history makers. Our society needs the Transcendentalists, as it needed the Monastics and Desert Fathers and Mothers before them, and the Hippies after them. The oldest and best among them appeals to Boston for mercy and understanding,

There must be a few persons of purer fire kept specially as gauges and meters of character; persona of a find, detecting intellect, who note the smallest accumulations of with and feeling in the standerby. Perhaps there might be room for the exciters and the monitors; collectors of the heavenly spark, with power to convey electricity to others. Or, as the storm-tossed vessel at sea speaks the frigate or "line packet" to learn its longitude, so it may not be without its advantage that we should, now and then encounter rare and gifted men, to compare the points of our spiritual compass, and verify our bearings from superior chronometers. (The Transcendentalist, p. 95)

back to emerson section            comments            next