Plain Living, High Thinking: Transcendental Ways of Seeing

“The eye reads omens where it goes.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

“Now, perspective centers everything on the eye of the beholder. It’s like a beam from a lighthouse, only instead of traveling outward, appearances travel in. Our tradition of art called those appearances reality.”

—John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Although a single definition cannot grasp the heart of Transcendentalism, it’s rather evident that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Sermon CLXII (“The Lord’s Supper”) with a certain ethos in mind: “I appeal, brethren, to your individual experience” (75). Surely, there’s a lot to be said for the notion of individual experience in discussions about Transcendentalism. In fact, the perspective of the individual is crucial in understanding how Transcendentalists like Emerson approached weighty concepts such as religion, philosophy, and humanity’s communion with the universe at large; Joel Myerson worded this another way, figuring that overarching topics related to vision, interpretation, and perception formed the most basic questions that spurred on the Transcendentalist project (xxvi). In Emerson’s reflection on the Lord’s Supper especially, a sharp dichotomy between lived experience and almost platonic abstraction arises; at the conclusion of Emerson’s sermon, the former minister acknowledges, “What I revere and obey in [Christianity] is its reality” (76). The physical demonstrations of charity, the feeling of tranquility that accompanies faith, and the opportunity for self-reflection are the realest aspects of Christianity for Emerson. Indeed, Emerson has witnessed these things in a way that he cannot purport to have witnessed the empty “saving ordinances” that Christians are traditionally obligated to profess. He instead believes that spirituality is something tangible to be found in the here and now.

Emerson’s analysis of the Christian Eucharist would have shocked any dogmatically minded readers. Without a doubt, he was prompting the people of his time to engage in a radical thought experiment—that is, he was asking them to transcend the limits of their experience in order to perceive reality with true clarity. In this way, Emerson’s challenge reminds me of John Berger, one of my favorite contemporary philosophers (who very recently passed away). In the fantastic BBC series Ways of Seeing, Berger presented his viewers with similar challenges, all of which required them to take a step back from their traditional assumptions about art. For instance, Berger demonstrates how the emotional magnitude of a Vincent van Gogh image changes after he informs the audience that this painting was van Gogh’s final creation before his suicide. Berger then emphasizes this contextual shift as somber orchestral music begins playing in the image’s background. As Berger insinuates in this case, the reality of the artwork’s meaning begins with the viewer’s perspective—an assertion that I think would have pleased Emerson if he could have heard it. Like Berger, Emerson demanded that we acknowledge the immediate context of our experiences: Those environmental influences that importantly shape our perceptions of art and life alike. Indeed, the significance that we gleam from things as disparate as art and nature—things conventionally held as complete opposites—begins with the question of who we are.

While Emerson and Berger were born in jarringly different eras, together their provocative theories about the individual’s perspective reflect the uniquely American value of individualism. As a society firmly anchored in the power of the individual, Americans today are still compelled to self-analyze in Emerson’s vein. As I understand, the violent events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia are a timely example. For many people living in the South, ideology has surpassed reality; to them, a statue of a Confederate general embodies the concept of Southern pride rather than the historical fact of the Civil War’s cause—slavery. Possibly now more than ever, the American culture cannot lose sight of what Transcendentalists like Emerson aimed to reveal: The potent nexus of experience, perception, and reality.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC, 1972.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, et al. Emerson’s Prose and Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Norton, 2001.

Myerson, Joel. Transcendentalism: a Reader. Oxford University Press, 2001.