“A Transcendentalist in Political Economy”

Reading through William B. Greene’s various essays on New England Transcendentalism, perhaps the most puzzling question is: “Why does he care? What’s the Big Deal?” Greene clearly looked up to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and just as clearly tried to make that respect clear, even as he ripped into transcendentalism. He was not intellectually slavish in his admirations. By 1845, when he published the first of the works on transcendentalism, Greene had already made at least one attempt to rectify what he saw as errors in Orestes Brownson’s formulation of the “doctrine of life” and its consequences. Later, his use of portions of Edward Kellogg’s Labor and Other Capital in his mutual banking writings amounts to a kind of gentle detournement. But the engagement with transcendentalism is more complicated, in part because he has almost nothing good to say about the “new school”—at least in the writings on transcendentalism themselves. That’s the main problem with “Transcendentalism” in its various forms: it skewers the transcendentalists, but also the pantheists and materialists, while its primary argument seems to be that these are the only three options. Knowing Greene’s affinity for balanced tripartite schemes, it’s not hard to guess what the proper resolution of the problem is, but we are forced to guess. Rather than dealing with the transcendentalist-pantheist-materialist scheme, the essays turn to the question of the immortality of the soul and the possibility of eternal life (a part of Greene’s theology I’ll take up another time.)

Fortunately, tucked away in the second section of Equality, among the pieces that Greene did not choose to incorporate into The Radical Deficiency Of The Existing Circulating Medium, And The Advantages Of A Mutual Currency (the 1857 version of Mutual Banking), or any of his subsequent writings, is a short essay entitled “COMMUNISM—CAPITALISM—SOCIALISM” (in Equality.) It begins with a familiar paragraph from the essays on transcendentalism, with just a few changes:

The three partial philosophical systems which manifest themselves in every age of the world, have been defined as follows:—

“Transcendentalism is that form of Philosophy which sinks God and Nature in man. Let us explain. God,—man (the laborer)—and nature (capital)—in their relations (if indeed the absolute God may be said ever to be in relations) are the objects of all philosophy; but, in different theories, greater or less prominence is given to one or the other of these three, and thus systems are formed. Pantheism sinks man and nature in God; Materialism sinks God and man in the universe; Transcendentalism sinks God and nature in man. In other words, some, in philosophising, take their point of departure in God alone, and are inevitably conducted to Pantheism;—others take their point of departure in nature alone, and are led to Materialism; others start with man alone, and end in Transcendentalism.”

And then proceeds with a section under the header:


Greene then provides the political equivalents of his three philosophical systems, damning them all pretty roundly, then ending with the affirmation that: “All these systems limit, modify and correct each other; and it is in their union and harmony that the truth is to be found.” Here is the formula for Mutualism (according to Greene): (transcendentalism + materialism + pantheism) = (communism + capitalism + socialism) = Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

Everything that Greene wrote about individual components of his scheme, such as his scathing comments about socialism elsewhere in Equality, probably has to be read in the context of this need for “union and harmony.” Certainly, the essays on transcendentalism must be read in that spirit.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.