In all its forms, American philosophy emphasizes freedom and the supreme importance of the individual. Indeed, an examination of four major American writers shows these concepts in all four main schools of American thought– Epicureanism, Transcendentalism, Pragmatism, and Protestantism. Epicureanism is the pursuit of pleasure in order to avoid pain. This philosophy is very American. One of the most famous American-Epicureans is Walt Whitman. Whitman is, perhaps, America’s greatest poet. He was an ardent supporter of freedom and democracy.
His poetry not only reflected his love and respect for America, but also the importance and the needs of the individual. Whitman’s love for America stems from the fact that, in America, the individual has the right to pursue whatever makes him or her happy. This concept is the basis for Epicureanism. Just as the United States is associated with liberation and freedom, so is Walt Whitman. Whitman wanted to liberate Americans from their sexual conduct and exercise their freedom. Whitman expressed that through the freedom granted to Americans, individuals are able to have freedom of their senses, in particular sexual senses.
Many of Whitman’s poems contain graphic sex scenes. By describing his own feelings, Whitman hoped to encourage other Americans to pursue their own feelings in a country that allowed it. Transcendentalism is another American philosophy that also deals heavily with the individual. Transcendentalists believed formalized society oppressed the individual. Thus, they strove to create a doctrine that stressed the importance of the individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested this idea in his book Nature. Emerson maintains that man is one with Nature and Nature is one with God, therefore giving the ordinary individual validity and worth.
These two qualities are attributes that every American is familiar with and has a desire for. Another Transcendental concept is the phrase “Trust Thyself. ” Transcendentalists believed that human nature is essentially good; thus, an individual should rely on his or her intuition. This concept may be the reason for Americans hating to admit that they are wrong. Pragmatism is also a philosophy that is deeply embedded in American culture. Pragmatism is a doctrine which tests truth by its practical consequences. William James was the most influential American-pragmatic philosopher.
James used pragmatism to solve the problems that interfered with the individuals “feeling at home in the universe. ” James concluded that philosophy was only useful if one could use it to better his or her life. Americans today think the same way James did. If something is not useful, it is not necessary. James also added another point to pragmatism. He stated that struggle and effort are necessary in the individual’s life to keep it exciting and passionate. This struggle and effort are the root of the American dream to become successful.
Protestantism is the final American philosophy. Like Epicureanism, Transcendentalism, and Pragmatism, Protestantism deals with the individual, however it also encompasses the individual’s relationship with God. Unlike the Transcendentalists, the Protestants reject man being the ultimate authority in spiritual matters. They also reject any belief which implies the possibility of self-justification before God. In 1734, Jonathan Edwards stated “justification by Faith alone,” implying that justification may only come through faith in God.
The ultimate goal of the individual Protestant is to go to “heaven” when they die. In order to obtain this goal one must accept God as his or her savior and live a life pleasing to God. These standards have set many morals for Americans that are still evident in American society today. Epicureanism, Transcendentalism, Pragmatism, and Protestantism are all vital parts of our current society. They set forth many ideals that Americans still pursue and follow. Whitman, Emerson, James, and the Protestants all contributed greatly to the formation of what is known as American Philosophy.