Thoreau & Beyond


Theodore Parker



“It shall be my pride

That I have dared to tread this holy ground.

Speaking no dream, but things oracular,

Matter not lightly to be heard by those,

Who to the letter of the outward promise,

Do read the invisible soul.


I have been a dreamer of dreams for nearly fourscore years, Mr. Reader, and now see visions like a young man. The first thing I can remember is a sleep; and the next, in point of age, is a dream. What is remarkable, my visions almost always prove true. I relate this to my friends, who usually laugh at my odd conceit, as they call it; but the event always fulfils the prediction. “Coming events cast their shadows before”; or their splendors, as the case may be. I dreamed of the battle of Lexington (just sixty five years ago yesterday) thirteen days before it happened; of the Declaration of Independence; and the treaty of Peace, and various other matters all came just as I had dreamed them. I have even learned when the greatest event in modern history is to take place, and General Jackson is to die. These things I state, to show you that “old men dream dreams” as the prophet foretold — another proof that we have fallen on good times. Now one of my most remarkable visions occurred after this wise.

I was sitting after dinner, in the great oaken arm-chair, — which was brought over from Devonshire by my ancestors in the time of the Long-Parliament, and in which three generations of them have dreamed their sermons after dinner, and I read that remarkable tract lately edited by “A.N.” which relates to Transcendentalism. It was the first time I had ever seen the word in print, and I never yet have heard it pronounced except by myself, with the accent on the second syllable, Trans-cend-ent-al-ism. (Is that right?) and I wondered what it meant. I thought of Trans-sylvanian, and Transsubstantiation, but found no light, though I consulted my Dictionary, which did not contain it; so I resolved to read the Pamphlet. Then to my great surprise I learned that Trans-cendentalism, was a very naughty thing. I was very much surprised, to hear there were such men as we find there; and such men even in America, and some of them near Cambridge it seemed. I never closed the book till I read the last word, “Hegel.” Then while I was resolving to go to Cambridge, and consult with my old friends there, as to this great evil, about to fall on the churches I fell into a profound sleep, and was visited with a dream so remarkable that I will write it down for the edification of the churches.

I thought I stood on the extreme point of Cape Cod, and the ocean lay before me, rolling like a great giant in his sleep. The waves rolled in upon the beach, with that sweet sound so soothing to the ear of an old man. I looked out on the porpoises tumbling heavily along, in their uncooth gambols, and the distant sails moving swiftly or slowly, as the wind favored or opposed them. Far away in the East, while I looked, I saw a little misty speck, on the ocean, no bigger than a man”s hand. It increased rapidly in size, and seemed to approach. Then it became a large cloud, extending for many miles in breadth, and with a depth that I could not measure.

It came nearer and nearer, and seemed larger and larger. At last I observed it was divided into several clouds. There was a large division into two bodies, the Right and Left; each of which was again parted in two smaller bodies, the Centre and Extreme. On the cloud came, and when within a mile of the shore, for old men are far-sighted, I saw each of these divisions was composed of countless smaller parties, which, as they came still nearer I found were men, flying swiftly along, who made up this immense cloud. They spoke to one another, and seemed to laugh, and chatter, and I could now and then catch the word “Begriff,” which I took to be Hebrew (Be Geriff, i.e. in sweeping away). What it meant I could not devise. Presently the men all alighted on the shore and sat down, some on great Books, which they brought under their arms, some on nothing that I could see, others on kegs, wine-skins, and fifteen-gallon jugs, — still keeping their relative position, of Right and Left, Centre and Extreme. They kept chatting, and I could now and then catch the words, “Menschhiet,” “Idee,” “Vorstellang,” “Gegensatz,” but knew not what they meant. One of them often repeated the Greek word “To-Hori,” another said “Kehabilitation” continually. Presently they all fell a smoking, with large tobacco pipes, but kept talking as fiercely as before. But they did not seem to agree, for the Centres, often made insulting gestures towards the Extremes, and which were very promptly returned.

While I wondered what these things should mean, one of them, the only one who saw me, stepped up, and relieved my wonder, by telling me in good English, “These are the Transcendentalists.” I asked him to go on and tell me all about them, and inform me if he was one of them. He said he was not, but was a good Christian; a deacon, who kept a green and white grocery in Munchon, and had been sent by Mr. Hengstenberg, as a spy upon their actions. He affected to be a Transcendentalist and repeated “Begriff,” as often as the others, and passed for a very profound Philosopher. But he heard all he could, and should write it home to his master. He then told me the names of the men in that great army. I will mention only a few. Some had been taken from the tombs; some from Pulpits, or professorial chairs; some from Parlors, others from Beer-shops, and some from places still worse. Among these were Plato, and Proclus, Plotinus, Ammonius with his old bag, Stilpo, Strato, Zeno, Camedes, Basilides, and Bardesanes; Pelagius, Bœthius, Rabanus-Maurus, Erigena; the St. Victors, Dyonisius the Areopagite, Albertus Magnus, Thomas a Kempis; Ficinus and Picus; Cardanus, Agrippa and Roger Bacon. There was Melancthon and Jordano Bruno, Savonarola, Campanella, Dr. Faustus, Scotus and Ramus; Behme, and Helmont, Grotius and Leclerc, Kepler and Spinoza, Bayle, Berkeley, Samuel Clarke, and Cudworth and Parker and More; Leibnitz and Wolff, Kant, Jacobi, Schleiermacher, Reinhold, Fichte, Schelling, Tiedeman, Krause, Hegel, de Wette, Fries, Eichhorn, Gesenius, Strauss, Weisse, Schiller, the Schlegels, Heine, Borne, Schafer, Gœthe, Richter, Rosenkrantz, Ammon, Herbart and Vatke, Paulus and Rohr, and Ullmann, Lucke and Tholuck.

All these men and countless others were thrown together in the greatest confusion, without any regard to age, opinion or character. My deacon of Munchon, told me that Mr. Hengstenberg had been making a great stir in Germany; had “harried the land,” and rendered it too hot for these men, dead or alive, so that he had driven them clean across the ocean.

“Alas” said I, “alas for the churches in New England. We be all dead men, for the Transcendentalists have come! They say there is no Christ; no God; no soul; only “an absolute nothing,” and Hegel is the Holy Ghost. Our churches will be pulled down; there will be no Sabbath; our wives will wear the breeches, and the Transcendentalists will ride over us rough shod. How shall we be delivered, from these desperate fellows; this “mixed multitude of devils?” “Fear not,” said he, “they will work desolation only for a time. I have come to save the Faith of the Land, and Mr. Hengstenberg will soon be here.”

Again I looked, and far away in the East, I saw a giant figure, like a man, approaching. It was Mr. Hengstenberg himself, mounted on a monstrous broom, alike his weapon, and his chariot. He looked worn with toil, and eager haste, and devoured by self-consuming fires. Wonderful to tell, he grew smaller, and smaller as he came near us, till at last he was an homunculus, “no bigger than a tobacco-seed,” still he made a great cry. But soon he recovered his original size, and seemed a mere mortal like ourselves. I asked “what help, oh mighty man!”

He told us, “we must go back, to the thirteenth century; must take the whole of the Old Testament, letter for letter, and believe it; must admit that a special Revelation was made to Balaam”s ass; and to Jonah”s whale. That Joshua really stopped the sun a whole day, and Elisha”s bones raised up a dead man; that Samson drank water out of the jaw bone of an ass. That we must never consult Reason, but bow to the letter, and reckon a doubt as the sin not to be pardoned, — instigated by the Devil. Least of all should we make the slightest attempt to reconcile Faith and Reason, Religion and Philosophy, for this would be like marrying Christ and Belial.” “We will do it all,” said I, “illustrious sage, or angel if such thou art!” Thereupon I awoke, and there was nothing before me but the “pamphlet of 100 pages” and my pipe, broken at my feet.


* Senex [Theodore Parker]. “Transcendentalism,” Christian Register, April 25, 1840, pp. 66-67.


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