the Concord Magazine March/April 2001
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America's Socrates in Concord: Amos Bronson Alcott


By David O'Donaghue, a clinical psychologist completing a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina. He is specializing in German Idealism and American Transcendentalism. He is starting a school of interdisciplinary studies in Brevard, North Carolina where he now lives. E-mail him at druben2@hotmail.com.

The man whom Emerson called "one of the most thoughtful men of America; more nearly resembling Confucius or Socrates in his devotion to wisdom than any of his contemporaries," and whom Thoreau claimed to be the sanest man he ever knew and a true geometer of visions, is known today -- if at all -- merely as the father of the author of "Little Women."

Amos Bronson AlcottAmos Bronson Alcott was a major force in educational reform in this country in the early nineteenth century as well as being a transcendental philosopher in his own right. He was also a sort of Concordian hero, bringing enriching activities to the local residents during his long and productive life. Hints at the reason for his obscurity today can be gleaned from some comments made by Emerson as to his friend's weaknesses: this "Bonaparte of speculation" was at times a "tedious archangel" who "never seemed to be able to finish a sentence but revolved in spirals until he was lost in the air," and whose "gift for expression was solely limited to his speech, for from the perusal of his writing one derived less pleasure than pain." Thoreau likewise had a mixed evaluation of Bronson: "He is broad and genial, but indefinite; some would say feeble; forever feeling about vainly in his speech and touching nothing."

I came up to Concord from North Carolina recently to research this complex man and found him to be one of the most fascinating thinkers I have yet come across. I hope to convey some of the many facets of this American mystic in this article.

Amos Bronson Alcott was born in Wolcott, Connecticut in the last year of the seventeenth century. His mother insured that he received the best education opportunities available in that small village. As soon as he was old enough, however, Bronson left his provincial setting and became a "Yankee peddler" in the south. This adventure concluded with him penniless and in debt to his father. He returned home and spent a good deal of time with his cousin, William, who was a teacher. Through William's influence, Bronson decided to go into education himself, but not just as a teacher: as an educational innovator. His goal was "to establish the reign of truth and reason and arrange society -- our system of education -- in accordance with the laws of our nature as we find it in its incipient state." Not too ambitious, that!

A few words could be said at this point concerning the background of this grand aim. American intellectuals at the time were critiquing the ideas of John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher and physician, who maintained that philosophy should be approached according to the natural capacities of human beings. Philosophy should arise out of the physiological source of thinking and ideas, which, for Locke, was solely the senses. He initiated a movement in Britain known as Empiricism. Empiricism arose as a reaction to the view of the Continental Rationalism of Descartes (1596-1650), Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) that maintained that the ideas arise not from sense data but from innate ideas such as truth, justice, harmony, God, love. These innate ideas are necessary to organize the chaotic flow of perceptions into concepts. The rationalists denied the possibility that perceptions alone can organize themselves into concepts without the aid of these innate ideas. Bronson very much affirmed Locke's commitment to viewing the attainment of knowledge through the capacities of the human learning process, but he disagreed that the sole source of this learning was through the senses.

Bronson's educational theory is perhaps best characterized as a form of practical Platonism. Plato (428-354 BCE), in his dialogue called the Meno, demonstrates to his students that a slave boy, with no prior training in mathematics, has the innate understanding of the geometrical ideas necessary to perform complex operations. He tries thereby to prove that innate ideas exist in the mind prior to any education. He, further, explains that the educational process itself is a sort of birthing in which the teacher is a midwife of ideas that are already latent within each person. Bronson heartily affirmed this view. He set up his teaching strategies and schools on this principle.

Over the next few decades, Bronson began a number of schools in which he and the other teachers who shared his vision would actually try to prevent the world of the senses from interfering too much with the natural wisdom children carried within themselves. This innate wisdom, Bronson thought, came from the spiritual world that they inhabited prior to birth. He believed that coming into this world of sensual reality was a fall from a pre-existence of pure spiritual thought. If children can be subtly reminded of what they faintly recognize as Truth (with a capital 'T') at an early age then they can have a bulwark against all erroneous thinking later in life. They will have a secure core of understanding about themselves, the good and God from which they can build a firm foundation of knowledge.

Without this core, Bronson believed that knowledge could be swayed and corrupted by idle opinion, skepticism, or the seduction of desire and the sensual life. In his Conversations with Children on the Gospels, Bronson demonstrates his method of eliciting from children their own knowledge about the truths of the Gospels, without forcing them to recite or memorize stories or dogma. This was very radical for the time, since most parents would not trust that their children could know religious truths innately. The usual religious training at the time involved rigorous memorization and recital, not reasoning and conversation.

Though his theories of education were based in strong religious principles, they were met by severe criticism from the social environment of New England at the time. This reaction can be largely attributed to the still prevailing Calvinist attitudes of these descendants of the Puritans. Calvinism maintains that humankind, in its natural state, is corrupt and misguided due to the legacy of Adam. Individuals, therefore, could not trust their inner wisdom for moral improvement, but must rely on special grace from God.

The kind of humanistic optimism of the Transcendentalists was in stark contrast to the Puritan legacy. In the 1830's the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, Parker and Fuller was just beginning to assert an influence on the intellectual life of New England. In this view, humankind was endowed with practically the capacity for self-perfection due to a Divine spark within. This spiritual identity allowed individuals a deeper connection to each other, nature and God. Bronson felt a great deal of affinity with the other Transcendentalists. He was not the student of Emerson or Thoreau, but was more their colleague and friend. Bronson was four years older than Emerson and, though the latter was ultimately better known as the exemplar of American Transcendentalism, Bronson's ideas fertilized the intellectual ground and bore the fruits of much of the literary legacy we call the transcendental tradition. As shown in Emerson and Thoreau's opinion of Bronson, cited at the beginning of this article, he could be tedious and disorganized in his presentation and wrote in a way that was not hospitable to the average reader. Compare the fine lucidity and poetic beauty of Thoreau's A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers or Emerson's Divinity School Address to Bronson's enigmatic Tablets or his Orphic Sayings and one can easily see how this opinion could be justified.

Transcendentalism, as a movement, arose both as a reaction against the dour view of human capacities inherited from the Puritans and the over-intellectualization of spirit in the Unitarianism of Harvard University at the time. The 1960's proclaimed a very similar reaction to an over-technocratic, militaristic and capitalistic America with its call "back to nature and simple living." This was likewise the call in much of transcendental literature. Concord was decidedly not Boston and the people who gathered in Concord valued its strong ties to the farms and countryside within easy reach of all its townspeople and also its simpler lifestyle that afforded time for relationships with neighbors and friends. This, in turn, provided possibilities for the cross-pollination of creative ideas in philosophy, education, literature and religion. Bronson was an active participant in the exchange of ideas and loved, more than anything else, conversation.

In my next article of this series I will describe the nature of Bronson's public Conversations, which, with his attention and deliberate efforts, deserve the capitalization.


Photo: Courtesy of ArtToday
Artwork: The Rhymster


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