“The Mystic”– Bronson Alcott in Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England (1876)

Octavius Brooks Frothingham

This history of New England Transcendentalism by Octavius Brooks Frothingham first appeared in 1876, the year that Thomas Moore Johnson visited Concord to get better acquainted with Bronson Alcott and his associates.  It provides a uniquely intimate view of the founders of this literary and spiritual movement and is available in multiple free online editions. Here is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of Frothingham’s chapter on Alcott.

THE MYSTIC.

If among the representatives of spiritual philosophy the first place belongs to Mr. Emerson, the second must be assigned to Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott,—older than Mr. Emerson by four years (he was born in 1779), a contemporary in thought, a companion, for years a fellow townsman, and, if that were possible, more purely and exclusively a devotee of spiritual ideas. Mr. Alcott may justly be called a mystic—one of the very small class of persons who accept without qualification, and constantly teach the doctrine of the soul’s primacy and pre-eminence. He is not a learned man, in the ordinary sense of the term; not a man of versatile mind or various tastes; not a man of general information in worldly or even literary affairs; not a man of extensive commerce with books. Though a reader, and a constant and faithful one, his reading has been limited to books of poetry—chiefly of the meditative and interior sort—and works of spiritual philosophy. Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, Jamblichus, Pythagoras, Boehme, Swedenborg, Fludd, Pordage, Henry More, Law, Crashaw, Selden, are the names oftener than any on his pages and lips. He early made acquaintance with Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and[Pg 250] never ceased to hold it exceedingly precious, at one period making it a rule to read the volume once a year…

Mr. Alcott is a thinker, interior, solitary, deeply conversant with the secrets of his own mind, like thinkers of his order, clear, earnest, but not otherwise than monotonous from the reiteration of his primitive ideas. We have called him a mystic. Bearing in mind the derivations of the word— μυειν—to brood, to meditate, to shut one’s self up in the recesses of consciousness, to sink into the depths of one’s own being for the purpose of exploring the world which that being contains; of discovering how deep and boundless it is, of meeting in its retreats the form of the Infinite Being who walks there in the evening, and makes his voice audible in the[Pg 251] mysterious whispers that breathe over its plains,—it well describes him. He is a philosopher of that school; instead of seeking wisdom by intellectual processes, using induction and deduction, and creeping step by step towards his goal,—he appeals at once to the testimony of consciousness, claims immediate insight, and instead of hazarding a doctrine which he has argued, announces a truth which he has seen; he studies the mystery of being in its inward disclosures, contemplates ultimate laws and fundamental data in his own soul.

While Mr. Emerson’s idealism was nourished—so far as it was supplied with nourishment from foreign sources—by the genius of India, Mr. Alcott’s was fed by the speculation of Greece. Kant was not his master, neither was Fichte nor Schelling, but Pythagoras rather; Pythagoras more than Plato, with whom, notwithstanding his great admiration, he is less intimately allied. He talks about Plato, he talks Pythagoras.

 

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