Introduction to the text
Margaret Fuller is fairly well-known as an American Transcendentalist thinker who was the friend and contemporary of both Emerson and Thoreau. In some ways she was the necessary philosophical mediatrix between these two men, and in a larger sense, she served to close an essential link in the chain of American artistic and spiritual heritage itself. To speak particularly of Emerson and Thoreau as the figureheads of the Transcendental movement: the former’s lofty, high-cultured spiritual humanism all to easily repelled the latter’s more rustic and Romantic naturalism. Indeed, at times these outlooks related almost as two adverse magnetic poles and a reconciling force appeared necessary to effect their synthesis. “Across the pond,” so to speak, S. T. Coleridge had suggested that:
Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. I don’t think it is possible that any one born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist, and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian.
Perhaps this difference accounts for the frequent divergence of Emerson and Thoreau. In any case, I have found Coleridge’s statement to be correct as a generalization and two exceptions prove the rule. The first is Goethe, whose work has appeared on Theoria-press on other occasions and whose scientific method was a primary subject in my doctoral thesis. The second exception to the “Coleridge maxim” is Margaret Fuller. These two individualities share more affinity than the mere fact that they transcend the Platonist-Aristotelian dichotomy. Fuller, in fact, regarded Goethe as such a kindred spirit that she taught herself German for the sake of reading Goethe’s work in its original language and she never flagged in her efforts to intensify her experience of the work and also to share its treasures with her contemporaries.
Below is reproduced a text that Fuller originally composed as a statement of belief, or credo, in the form of a letter to a dear friend. It is not widely available despite offering, in my estimation, a unique and supremely rich insight into the mind of one of the greatest souls of America’s spiritual and intellectual history. It offers a stunning and somewhat heterodox Christology whose closest affinity can be found, in my mind, in the likes of thinkers like Vladimir Solovyov and Rudolf Steiner. To both of these great thinkers, it was impossible to forge a true relation to Christ except in perfect freedom. Fuller writes, for instance:
For myself, I believe in Christ because I can do without him; because the truth he announces I see elsewhere intimated, because it is foreshadowed in the very nature of my own being. But I do not wish to do without him.
I have not spoken of men clinging to [Jesus] from the same weakness that makes them so dependent on a priesthood, or makes idols of the objects of affection. In him, hearts seek the Friend, minds the Guide. But this is weakness, in religion as elsewhere. No prop will do. The soul must do its own immortal work and books lovers friends meditations fly from us only to return when we can do without them. But when we can use and learn from them, yet feel able to do without them, they will depart no more. If I were to preach on this subject, I would take for a text the words of Jesus: ‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart I will send him unto you.’
In a similar spirit, Solovyov asserts
The law of God’s being is no longer manifested a pure arbitrariness (in Himself) and external, compulsory necessity (for humanity); it is manifested now as the internal necessity of true freedom.
Steiner, likewise, emphasizes the state of inner freedom from which any connection to Christ must spring:
Now a man might look upon the fact that he’s supposed to join this victorious Christ force as an incursion upon his freedom. But the Christ leaves us so free with respect to the acceptance of his being, that he can’t be found with anything earthly, not even with the intellect or reason, because they’re something compulsive for men.https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/Dates/19111216e01.html
This is the reason, for instance, that the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts must always remain inconclusive: any definitive verdict on the matter would subvert our ability to offer an assent that should spring from the ground of freedom. Similarly, Jesus always conveyed his teachings in parables to the effect that anyone wishing to grasp their meaning would be obliged to call forth an inner effort of understanding, which everyone is, at the same time, free not to bother with. As tempting as it might be to continue my attempts at exegesis, I have already likely over-indulged the reader’s patience with my introduction hitherto so now I will leave it to Margaret Fuller to express her credo.
One brief acknowledgement before I present the document: I am related to Margaret Fuller through my paternal grandmother, whose maiden name is “Fuller” and to whom I am very grateful for having supplied me with the book by Frederick Augustus Braun, titled Margaret Fuller and Goethe and published in 1910, from which I copied this document.
Margaret Fuller’s “A Credo,” composed as a letter to a friend in 1842
There is a spirit uncontainable and uncontained.—Within it all manifestation is contained whether of good (accomplishment) or evil (obstruction). To itself its depths are unknown. By living it seeks to know itself, thus evolving plants, animals, men, suns, stars, angels, and, it is to be presumed, an infinity of forms not yet in the horizon of this being who now writes.
Its modes of operation are twofold. First, as genius inspires genius, love love, angel-mother brings forth angelchild. This is the uninterrupted generation, or publication, of spirit taking upon itself congenial forms. Second, conquering obstruction, finding the like in the unlike. This is a secondary generation, a new dynasty, as virtue for simplicity, faith for oneness, charity for pure love.
Then begins the genesis of man, as through his consciousness he attests the laws which regulated the divine genesis The Father is justified in the Son.
The mind of man asks ‘Why was this second development?—Why seeks the divine to exchange best for better, bliss for hope, domesticity for knowledge?’ We reject the plan in the universe which the Spirit permitted as the condition of conscious life. We reject it in the childhood of the soul’s life. The cry of infancy is why should we seek God when He is always there, why seek what is ours as soul’s through indefinite pilgrimages, and burdensome cultures.
The intellect has no answer to this question, yet as we through faith and purity of deed enter into the nature of the Divine it is answered from our own experience. We understand, though we cannot explain the mystery of something gained where all already is.
God, we say, is Love. If we believe this we must trust Him. Whatever has been permitted by the law of being must be for good and only in time not good. We do trust Him and are led forward by experience. Sight gives experience of outward life, faith of inward. We then discern however faintly the necessary harmony of the two lives. The moment we have broken through an obstruction not accidentally, but by the aid of faith, we begin to realize why any was permitted. We begin to interpret the universe and deeper depths are opened with each soul that is convinced. For it would seem that the Divine expressed His meaning to Himself more distinctly in man than in the other forms of our sphere, and through him uttered distinctly the Hallelujah which the other forms of nature only intimate.
Wherever man remains imbedded in nature, whether from sensuality or because he is not yet awakened to consciousness, the purpose of the whole remains unfulfilled, hence our displeasure when man is not in a sense above nature. Yet when he is not bound so closely with all other manifestations, as duly to express their spirit, we are also displeased. He must be at once the highest form of nature and conscious of the meaning she has been striving successively to unfold through those below him.
Centuries pass,—whole races of men are expended in the effort to produce one that shall realize this idea and publish spirit in the human form. But here and there there is a degree of success. Life enough is lived through a man to justify the great difficulties and obstructions attendant on the existence of mankind.
Then, through all the realms of thought vibrates the affirmation ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,’ and many souls encouraged and instructed offer themselves to the baptism whether of water, whether of fire.
I do not mean to lay an undue stress upon the position and office of man, merely because I am of his race and understand best the scope of his destiny. The history of the earth, the motions of the heavenly bodies suggest already modes of being higher than his and which fulfill more deeply this office of interpretation. But I do suppose his life to be the rivet in one series of links in the great chain, and that all these higher existences are analogous to his. Music suggests them, and when carried on these strong wings through realms which on the ground we discern but dimly, we foresee how the next step in the soul’s upward course shall interpret man to the universe as he now interprets those forms beneath himself; for there is ever evolving a consciousness of consciousness, and a soul of the soul. To know is to bring to light somewhat yet to be known. And as we elucidate the previous workings of spirit, we ourselves become a new material for its development.
Man is himself one tree in the garden of the spirit. From his trunk grow many branches, social contracts, art, literature, religion, etc. The trunk gives the history of the human race. It has grown up higher into the heavens, but its several acorns, though each expressed the all, did not ripen beyond certain contours and a certain size.
In the history of matter, however, laws have been more and more clearly discerned and so in the history of spirit many features of the God-man have put forth; several limbs, disengaged themselves. One is what men call revelation, different from other kinds only in being made through the acts and words of men. Its law is identical whether displaying itself as genius or piety, but its modes of expression are distinct dialects though of similar structure.
The way it is done is this. As the Oak desires to plant its acorns so do souls become the fathers of souls. Some do this through the body, others through the intellect. The first class are citizens; the second artists, philosophers, lawgivers, poets, saints. All these are anointed, all Immanuel, all Messiah, so far as they are true to the law of their incorruptible existence; brutes and devils so far as they are subjected to that of their corruptible existence.
But yet further, as wherever there is a tendency, a form is gradually evolved as its type; as the rose represents the flower world and is its queen, as the lion and eagle compress within themselves the noblest that is expressed in the animal kingdom, as the telescope and microscope express the high and searching desires of man; and the organ [of the heart a symbol of] his completeness, so has each tribe of thoughts and lives its law upon it to produce a king, a form which shall stand before it a visible representation of the aim of its strivings. It gave laws with Confucius and Moses, it tried them with Brahma, it lived its life of eloquence in the Apollo, it wandered with Osiris. It lived one life as Plato, another as Michael Angelo, or Luther. It has made Gods, it has developed men. Seeking, making it produce ideals of the developments of which humanity is capable, and one of the highest, nay in some respects the very highest it has yet known was the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
I suppose few are so much believers in his history as myself. I believe (in my own way) in the long preparation of ages and the truth of the prophecy. I see a necessity in the character of Jesus why Abraham should be the founder of his nation, Moses its lawgiver, and David its king and poet. I believe in the genesis as given in the Old Testament. I believe in the prophets, and that they foreknew not only what their nation required, but what the development of universal man required, a Redeemer, an Atoner, one to make at the due crisis, voluntarily the sacrifice Abraham would have made of the child of his old age, a lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world. I believe Jesus came when the time was ripe, that he was peculiarly a messenger and son of God. I have nothing to say in denial of the story of his birth. Whatever the true circumstances were, in time he was born of a virgin, and the tale expresses a truth of the soul. I have no objection to the miracles except where they do not happen to please me. Why should not a soul so consecrate and intent develop new laws and make matter plastic I can imagine him walking the waves and raising the dead without any violation of my usual habits of thought. He would not remain in the tomb, they say surely not; death is impossible to such a being. He remained upon earth and all who have met him since on the way have felt their souls burn within them. He ascended to Heaven, surely, it could not be otherwise.
But when I say to you, also, that though I think all this really happened, it is of no consequence to me whether it did or not, that the ideal truth such illustrations present to me, is enough, and that if the mind of St. John, for instance, had conceived the whole and offered it to us as a poem, to me, as far as I know, it would be just as real. You see how wide the gulf that separates me from the Christian Church.
Yet you also see that I believe in the history of the Jewish nation and its denouement in Christ, as presenting one great type of spiritual existence. It is very dear to me and occupies a large portion of my thoughts. I have no trouble, so far from the sacrifice required of Abraham, for instance, striking me as it does Mr Parker, I it as prefiguring a thought to be fully expressed by the death of Christ (yet forget not that they who passed their children through the fire to Moloch were pious also and not more superstitious than an exclusive devotion to Christ has made many of his followers). Do you not place Christ then in a higher place than Socrates, for instance, or Michael Angelo? Yes! Because if his life not truer, it was deeper, and he is a representative of ages. But then I consider the Greek Apollo as one also!
Have men erred in following Christ as a leader? Perhaps rarely. So great a soul must make its mark for many centuries. Yet only when men are freed from him and interpret him by the freedom of their own souls open to visits of the Great Spirit from every side can be known as he is.
‘With your view, do you not think He placed undue emphasis on his own position?”
In expression he did so, but this is not in my way either, I should like to treat of this separately in another letter.
Where he was human, not humanly divine, and where men so received him there was failure, and is mist and sect,—but never where he brought them to the Father. But they knew not what they did with him then and do not now.
For myself, I believe in Christ because I can do without him; because the truth he announces I see elsewhere intimated, because it is foreshadowed in the very nature of my own being. But I do not wish to do without him. He is constantly aiding and answering me. Only I will not lay any undue and exclusive emphasis on him. When he comes to me, I will receive him; when I feel inclined to go by myself, I will. I do not reject the church either. Let men who can with sincerity live in it. I would not—for I believe far more widely than any body of men I know. And as nowhere I worship less than in the places set apart for that purpose, I will not seem to do so. The blue sky seen above the opposite roof preaches better than any brother, because at present, a freer, simpler medium of religion. When great souls arise again that dare to be entirely free, yet are humble, gentle, and patient, I will listen, if they wish to speak. But that time is not nigh; these I see around me here, and in Europe, are mostly weak and young.
Would I could myself say with some depth what I feel as to religion in my very soul. It would be a clear note of calm security. But for the present I think you will see how it is with me as to Christ.
I am grateful here, as everywhere, where spirit bears fruit in fulness. It attests the justice of my desires; it kindles my faith; it rebukes my sloth; it enlightens my resolve. But so does the Apollo, and the beautiful infant, and the summer’s earliest rose. It is only one modification of the same harmony. Jesus breaks through the soil of the world’s life like some great river through the else inaccessible plains and valleys. I bless its course. I follow it. But it is a part of the All. There is nothing peculiar about it but its form.
I will not loathe sects, persuasions, systems, though I cannot abide in them one moment. I see most men are still in need of them. To them their banners, their tents, let them be Platonists; Fire-worshippers; Christians; let them live in the shadow of the past revelations. But Oh Father of our souls, I seek thee. I seek thee in these forms and in proportion as they reveal thee more, they lead me beyond themselves. I would learn from them all looking to thee. I set no limits from the past to my soul or any soul Countless ages may not produce another worthy to loose the shoes of Jesus of Nazareth; yet there will surely come another manifestation of that Word that was in the beginning. For it is not dead, but sleepeth, and if it lives, must declare itself.
All future manifestations will come like this,—not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill. But as an Abraham called for a Moses, a Moses for a David, so does Christ for another ideal. We want a life more complete and various than that of Christ. We have had the Messiah to reconcile and teach, let us have another to live out all the symbolical forms of human life with the calm beauty and physical fulness of a Greek god, with the deep consciousness of a Moses, with the holy love and purity of Jesus. Amen.
I have not shown with any distinctness how the very greatness of the manifestation in Jesus calls for a greater. But this as the extreme emphasis given by himself to his office, should be treated of separately in a letter or essay on the processes of genius in declaring itself.
I have not shown my deep feeling of his life as a genuine growth, so that his words are all living and they come exactly to memory with all the tone and gesture of the moment, true runes of a divine oracle. It is the same with Shakespeare, and in a less degree, with Dante. I have not spoken of men clinging to him from the same weakness that makes them so dependent on a priesthood, or makes idols of the objects of affection. In him, hearts seek the Friend, minds the Guide. But this is weakness, in religion as elsewhere. No prop will do. ‘The soul must do its own immortal work,’ and books, lovers, friends, meditations fly from us only to return when we can do without them. But when we can use and learn from them, yet feel able to do without them, they will depart no more. If I were to preach on this subject, I would take for a text the words of Jesus: ‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart I will send him unto you.’
*Illegible in manuscript.
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One might add Emily Dickinson to the mix to round out the picture of Transcendentalism in America. Question of the day is: what do we mean by “transcendent?”
“Trans-[fill-in-the-blank]” abounds today. Alas! Many of us confuse this sense of “transcendence” with a strict, ideological Newtonianism, for some ill-begotten reason.
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It’s a great point about Dickinson as an eminent figure in the Transcendentalist movement, though as I understand it, she was not so active in the philosophical discussions of the time. I thought of a comparison between Fuller and Coleridge in that they each introduced their contemporaries to the German thought at the time, which must be seen as the “Ursprung” of the Romantic movement. I am tempted to compare Dickinson to Blake because of the quality that I don’t know what else to call but “innocence.” Maybe you can add something here.
As to the meaning of “transcendent” and “transcendental”: I am confused about the connection to Newtonianism. In some ways, Transcendentalism seems to repudiate Newtonianism insofar as the latter conceives of uniform physical forces extending through the entire cosmos while Transcendentalism imagines “Nature are the final issue of Spirit,” to quote Emerson. Perhaps you could say more of what you have in mind.
A few thoughts I have: as with all terms, both “transcendent” and “transcendental” can be inflected by their context so it is chimerical to imagine they could be pinned down to a strict definition. It can be said that both stem from the Latin “scandere” so they are related to “climbing.” “Ascend” is in the same family. The “trans” prefix suggests that a threshold or boundary is being traversed in the ascent. Often the boundary is conceived metaphysically or as a state of consciousness.
“Transcendental” is sometimes distinguished from “transcendent” in that the latter may refer to inferred conditions of experience or knowledge. As far as I know, this is due to the legacy of Kant. He calls his philosophy “the transcendental method.” It seems to me that the Transcendentalists got their name from the basic gesture of the word—”traversing a boundary in an ascent”—and not from any Kantian inflection of it.
Maybe this goes without saying but Transcendentalism was the American response to the call of the Romantic movement from Europe.
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Of course not, and forgive me if I implied that it was. I compared her to Blake in that respect; they both seemed to receive their inspiration out of an ingenuity and childlikeness that was almost naïve (i.e. not critical or “transcendental” in the Kantian sense, though both were transcendental in the non-Kantian sense).
I’m just as confused about the connection to Newtonianism. Why anyone would connect the two is beyond me, but I suspect that this is due to the fact that “ascend” is in the same family as “transcend.” In many respects, we’ve ‘ascended’ to the heavens in both thought and deed as a species and, frankly, forgotten to make our way back home to Earth in our meditations, if that makes sense. Some of us are apparently even planning to leave Earth, when and if that should become possible, rather than treasure and protect her in the here and now. Nonetheless, it would seem we are in the process of doing just that: making our way back home to Earth, as evidenced by the movement toward an “ecological” spirituality.
I’m personally disheartened, however, that there appears to be no room in this “ecological spirituality” for the cosmologically-oriented. The word, cosmological, itself is overly associated with that very Newtonianism, but the word means something very different to me than most. As I’ve put it in the past, my lifetime has been spent with my head in the “Cosmos” and my feet planted firmly on the ground. I’m now having to come to grips with the fact that there is not another soul on the face of the planet who understands what I mean by that. 🙂
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