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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The history of Oriental ideas in America in the nine-
teenth century is largely a story of discovery and ex-
ploration. In 1800 Oriental thought was almost totally


unknown, a largely unexplored region in the world of
the mind. In 1900 Oriental thought was still a mystery
to most Americans, perhaps, but many of its secrets
had been revealed and its territory roughly mapped.
Though the Eastern exploration never attained the
proportions of a major intellectual movement—the
thought was both too rich and too alien for rapid
assimilation—nevertheless, its impact reached more
widely and more deeply than has been appreciated.
And unlike many nineteenth-century movements, it has
continued to stimulate and influence Americans of the
twentieth century: the modern interest in Oriental
philosophy, Zen Buddhism, yoga, and Oriental art may
all be traced back to nineteenth-century beginnings.

In the following survey we have sought to delineate
the high points in the American discovery. This has
necessitated certain limitations which may be indicated
at the outset. Though the term “Oriental” is vague,
it is used here, first, because it was the common generic
term used in the nineteenth century, perhaps more
suitable here exactly because it suggests the vagueness
of the nineteenth-century concept of the East; and
second, because no better term has been widely
accepted that embraces the diversity of the Eastern
cultures. In this survey the term will be confined almost
entirely to India, China, and Japan. The ideas traced
will be mainly religious ideas. The political, economic,
and social ideas of the Eastern cultures were noticed
in the nineteenth century, but the major focus was
consistently on moral and religious thought. The treat-
ment will be selective: only a few key individuals and
movements connected with discovery have been
closely analyzed, assuming that a more detailed exami-
nation of the most important cases would be more
instructive than a comprehensive but superficial listing
of all.

Finally, it is to be noted that if the Orient and its
thought were practically unknown in America at the
beginning of the nineteenth century, the situation was
different elsewhere in the West. In Europe, Oriental
ideas were already enjoying a vogue in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries: intellectual leaders such as
Quesnay, Voltaire, Leibniz, and Christian Wolff were
acclaiming Chinese thought; chinoiserie and the cult
of Confucius the Sage were stylish among certain ele-
ments of European high society; and the first transla-
tions of the Oriental classics were appearing from the
hands of scholars such as Anquetil Duperron and Sir
William Jones. Oriental thought continued to have
impact in Europe after 1800; and the European impact
in turn influenced the American reaction. While aware
of its significance, we shall pass over the European role
in the transmission of Oriental ideas to America.

EARLY 1800'S

The absence of American interest in Oriental ideas
before the nineteenth century is understandable. Dur-
ing the seventeenth century America was still a very
primitive society already overburdened by the task of
establishing the rudiments of Western civilization; and
eighteenth-century America was preoccupied with the
pressures of war and revolution. There was neither
energy nor time for Oriental explorations. The Oriental
tale did, indeed, enjoy a certain popularity in eight-
eenth-century American periodicals, but it was of only
minor significance as the channel of authentic Oriental
ideas. The stirrings of change came with a shift in
America's economic position in the last decades of the
eighteenth century. The Revolutionary War had forced
the new American nation to look beyond England for
the trade upon which her survival depended; the con-
sequent opening of commercial relations with India
and China in the 1780's and 1790's first directed Amer-
ican attention upon the Orient. Though the focus was
economic, there were intangible cultural ramifications.
In addition to Oriental goods, the Eastern trade stimu-
lated the dispatching of missionaries, interest in the
curious customs of distant peoples, and the importation
of increasing numbers of books about the Far East. The
Oriental bric-a-brac that American sailors brought
back from the East undoubtedly quickened the intel-
lectual curiosity of more sedentary Americans. As the
major port of the Far Eastern trade, Salem (Massa-
chusetts) figured most prominently in the budding
American interest in the East. The “Salem East India
Marine Society” was established in 1799, and there the
first American collection of Oriental objects was
housed. It is significant that both Samuel Johnson, one
of the first American students of Oriental religion, and
Ernest Fenollosa, the great nineteenth-century Ameri-
can advocate of Oriental art, grew to maturity in

The Eastern trade undoubtedly quickened general
interest in the Orient, but it must be doubted that the
American sailors and traders who carried on this com-
merce concerned themselves deeply with Oriental
thought and culture. The first Americans to become
interested in Oriental thought had to look elsewhere
for information: fortunately, there was a source near
at hand. Periodicals, both English and American, seem
to have supplied the earliest American knowledge of
Oriental ideas. The Edinburgh Review, perhaps the
most notable in this respect, provided a surprisingly
extensive treatment of Oriental affairs and of Oriental
ideas in the early 1800's. Of early American periodi-
cals, the most significant was the North American Re


view. From its inception in 1815, this distinguished
American periodical published a steady series of arti-
cles, extracts, reviews, and travel accounts dealing with
the Orient. The second number of the new journal
incorporated a brief report of the pioneering work of
the French Orientalist, Anquetil Duperron, followed
by an account of the criticisms of Duperron made by
Sir William Jones, the famous British Oriental scholar.
Between 1817 and 1828 the North American Review
offered its readers such major articles as Edward Tyrrel
Channing's “Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance”;
William Tudor's “Theology of the Hindoos, as Taught
by Ram Mohun Roy”; Theophilus Parsons' “Manners
and Customs of India”; Alexander Hill Everett's
“Remusat's Chinese Grammar” and his “Chinese Man-
ners”; John Chipman Gray's “Cochin China”; and
Edward Everett's “Hindu Drama.” The first accounts
were mainly devoted to description and exposition,
with little attempt at analysis; but information was
needed before evaluation and assimilation could occur.
They did serve to naturalize the strange and alien ideas
of the East.


The transcendentalist awakening to Oriental thought
in the late 1830's was a decisive event. For the first
time Americans representing a major movement turned
seriously to the East. And unlike earlier explorers they
incorporated and assimilated certain strains of Oriental
thought into their intellectual views. The key figures
were Emerson and Thoreau, of course; but several of
the lesser transcendentalists—including James Freeman
Clarke, Samuel Johnson, Moncure Conway, Thomas
Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Longfellow, William
Henry Channing, and Octavius Brooks Frothingham—
were also significant. (Others on the periphery of
transcendentalism—in close contact with and influ-
enced by the New England movement, and who also
indicated some interest in Oriental ideas—included
Francis Ellingwood Abbot, Lydia Maria Child, William
Torrey Harris, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Chadwick,
Charles De Berard Mills, and Lewis George Janes.)
If Oriental thought was not a dominant preoccupation
in any of the transcendentalists, it was a factor in all
the individuals mentioned. The major interest was in
Hinduism, and to a lesser extent Confucianism;
Buddhism, which tended to dominate interest in the
later nineteenth century, was at first ignored.

A combination of factors contributed to the favora-
ble transcendentalist response to Oriental thought.
Intellectually, its spokesmen were ripe for new ideas.
In rebellion against the Calvinistic Christianity,
rationalistic Unitarianism, and materialistic Lockean
ism that then dominated New England intellectual life,
leading members of the movement were receptive to
the new currents of idealism they found in the Orient.
What they sought they could have found, and often did
find, in certain strains of Western thought—in Neo-
Platonism and in Western mysticism, for example—
but they also tapped the East. The deeply spiritual and
intuitive quality of Oriental thought struck a responsive
chord. The eclecticism of transcendentalism was a
second factor. As eclectics, the transcendentalists found
little difficulty in incorporating selected Oriental ideas
into their view. Had they been more rigorous and
consistent in approach, the possibilities of assimilating
Oriental thought would have been correspondingly
lessened. The method, as much as the trend of their
thought, was conducive to a favorable response to the
Orient. Again, by the late 1830's the Orient was more
accessible than it had been at the beginning of the
century. By the late 1830's it became possible for the
first time to go beyond the usual English and American
periodicals to the fountainhead of Eastern thought.
Owing to the labors of the great English Orientalists—
Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkins, Horace Wilson,
and Brian Hodgson—the first English translations of
the classical Oriental works were making their way
into America. The timely appearance of the Laws of
(also called Manu), the Vedas, the Bhagavad-
the Sakuntala, and the Ramayana in authorita-
tive translation made it possible to approach the Orient
more directly and more confidently than before.

1. Emerson. Emerson was the pioneer who scouted
the trail that the others were to follow. The major
studies agree upon the earliness of his first acquaintance
with the Orient: both through his youthful reading in
the Edinburgh Review and Christian Register and
through the stimulus of his aunt, Mary Moody
Emerson, who drew his attention to the brilliant Indian
reformer Rammohun Roy. (The movement Roy
created, the Brahmo Samaj, exercised a magnetic
attraction upon American and English Unitarians
throughout the century. The movement's emphasis
upon rationalism, social reform, and a “unitarian” con-
ception of God encouraged Western Unitarians to look
upon the Samaj as the Indian expression of a world
Unitarianism. American and English Unitarians ac-
claimed the later Western visits of Roy's succes-
sors—first, of Keshub Chunder Sen to England in the
1860's and subsequently of Protap Chunder Mozoom-
dar to the United States and England in the 1880's
and again in the 1890's. The Brahmo Samaj played a
significant role in encouraging American Unitarian
interest in the Orient.)

Emerson's first reaction was a critical one: his re-


cently rediscovered poem, “Indian Superstition”
(1821), written as a senior at Harvard, indicates his
many reservations. Indeed, he did not express a positive
attitude toward Oriental thought until the later 1830's,
after the publication of his first book Nature (1836)
in which he crystallized the ideas that he would main-
tain for the rest of his life. His Oriental interest blos-
somed rapidly after 1837 as indicated by his expanding
reading in Oriental literature. By 1845 references to
the Orient were everywhere in his journals; henceforth,
Oriental quotations would sprinkle his writings until
his death. The fruits of this enthusiasm were such major
poems as “Brahma” and “Hamatreya”; the “Ethnical
Scriptures,” which he and Thoreau selected from the
Oriental classics and published in The Dial (1842-43);
and such major essays as “Over-Soul,” “Illusions,” and
“Fate.” All pointed to his assimilation of Oriental

Indian thought drew Emerson's deepest apprecia-
tion. An idealist with profound admiration for Plato
and the Neo-Platonists, he was naturally most drawn
among the Oriental systems to Hindu philosophy, es-
pecially to the nondualistic Advaita Vedanta system.
The close resemblances of his concept of the “Over-
Soul” to the Hindu concept of Brahman, of his “Com-
pensation” to karma, and of his “Illusions” to maya
are striking. Of course, he had already arrived at these
concepts before developing a wide and sympathetic
interest in the Orient, but it is evident that he quickly
assimilated the Hindu formulations into his thought.
Hindu philosophy widened and deepened his thought
rather than formed it. In his later writings it is practi-
cally impossible to separate the Eastern and Western
components; Indian monism and Western idealism, the
Hindu atman and the Western self, Oriental mysticism
and Neo-Platonism transmuted into Emersonian tran-

After philosophical Hinduism, Emerson was most
attracted to Persian poetry and Chinese ethical
thought. Coming upon the Persian poets after his other
Oriental discoveries, he enthusiastically responded to
them, as seen in his essay “Persian Poetry” and his
“Preface” for the first American edition of Saadi's
Gulistan (1865). The beauty and joyfulness of Saadi
and Hafiz apparently inspired his approval. He was
somewhat more reserved toward Chinese thought,
repelled by its materialistic tendencies (he did not
know Taoism, which he might have found more attrac-
tive); but he often quoted from Confucius and the
classic Chinese books. The ethical concern, activism,
and common sense of the Chinese thinkers won his
admiration. Unlike his Hindu and Persian reading, his
reading in the Chinese failed to stimulate major essays
or poetry. If a rather curious combination, Emerson's
Oriental enthusiasms corresponded to the several facets
of his creative life: as an idealist, he was drawn to
Hindu philosophy; as artist, to Persian poetry; and as
moralist, to Chinese thought.

There was, at the same time, much that Emerson
rejected from the Orient. And what he accepted, he
altered to suit his own preconceptions. An excellent
example of rejection was his hostility to Buddhism, the
one major Oriental system that never enjoyed his favor.
(In part, this stemmed from nonacquaintance. Like the
other early transcendentalists, he had only the haziest
idea of Buddhism's teachings: on one occasion, for
example, he referred to the Bhagavad-Gita as “the
much renowned book of Buddhism” [Letters, III, 290].
The difficult enterprise of translating and explicating
Buddhism to Western audiences was largely carried
through in the latter decades of the nineteenth cen-
tury.) Apparently identifying the concept of an inevi-
table and irresistible fate with Buddhism, he rejected
its implied quietism and pessimism. Though drawn to
mysticism, of both the Eastern and Western varieties,
Emerson was too much the Yankee to look favorably
on any form of withdrawal from the world. It was
characteristic that the essay on “Fate” in his Conduct
of Life
(1860) was followed by “Power,” and that in
both essays he urged the role of freedom in man's life.
He frequently expressed critical reservations about the
excessive formalism, cruelty, and primitivism of some
phases of Oriental thought.

2. Thoreau. Thoreau was for a time as excited by
Oriental thought as Emerson. Soon after reading the
Laws of Menu in 1841 he wrote: “When my imagina-
tion travels eastward and backward to those remote
years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation
of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place.”
He confided: “I cannot read a sentence in the book
of the Hindoos without being elevated as upon the
table-land of the Ghauts. It has such a rhythm as the
winds of the desert, such a tide as the Ganges, and
seems as superior to criticism as the Himmaleh
Mounts” (Journal, 83, 85). He apparently developed
his first serious Oriental interest after a period of resi-
dence in the Emerson home in 1841. Though he had
some prior acquaintance with the East—revealed by
references to Persian writings in one of his college
essays and by an 1838 reference to Confucius—his
access to Emerson's Oriental library and the simulta-
neous stimulation of his friend's enthusiasm appear to
have been the decisive factors. After 1841 his Journal
indicates a wide reading in and strong attraction to
Oriental thought. Like Emerson, he sprinkled his writ-
ings with quotes and references from Eastern sources.
He collaborated with Emerson in presenting the
“Ethnical Scriptures” in The Dial, editing the selections


published as the “Laws of Menu,” the “Sayings of
Confucius,” the “Chinese Four Books,” and the
“Teachings of Buddha.” Through the generosity of an
English friend, Thomas Cholmondeley, he was, after
1855, the proud owner of one of the finest private
Oriental libraries in mid-nineteenth-century America:
a collection of forty-four of the Oriental classics
embracing the work of a generation of Western schol-
arship. Appropriately, the collection passed on to
Emerson after his premature death.

Thoreau's response to Oriental thought differed in
important ways from Emerson's. Both, it is true, were
attracted to Hindu thought; they both showed appre-
ciation for Persian and Chinese thought. Both ap-
proached the Orient eclectically, drawing off those
passages and ideas that best suited their literary and
intellectual needs. Neither assented unqualifiedly to the
message of the Orient. But beyond such agreement
their responses diverged. Thoreau's involvement with
the Orient was briefer, developing later and closing
sooner than Emerson's. Greatly taken with the Eastern
writings in the 1840's, his reading and extracting from
them had largely ceased by the early 1850's. Emerson
reacted to specific doctrines—Brahman, karma, and
maya—which he analyzed and discoursed upon philo-
sophically. Thoreau's response was more general and
less intellectual. His attraction was to the mystical
sweetness and the strange resonance of Oriental
thought, to Oriental symbols and images more than
to Oriental ideas. The concept of an all-embracing
Godhead or of a self-punishing justice, which won
Emerson's intellectual appreciation, were largely lost
on his younger friend. Thoreau perhaps dived more
deeply than Emerson into the waters of Oriental
thought, but he revealed less interest in exploring its
secrets and surfaced more quickly.

Characteristically, the Oriental concepts of self-
discipline and detachment embodied in what Indian
philosophy terms “yoga” seemed most to influence
Thoreau; here as elsewhere he tended not to the ab-
stract but to the practical dimension. In a tantalizing
passage written in 1849, he remarked: “Depend upon
it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice
the yoga faithfully.... To some extent, and at rare
intervals, even I am a yogi” (Writings, VI, 175).
Accepting Thoreau at his word, Arthur Christy has
commented (in his Orient in American Transcenden-
pp. 199ff.) that perhaps Thoreau undertook his
experiment at Walden in the spirit of Indian asceticism.
It may be objected that if Thoreau was drawn
toward self-discipline and detachment, he was also the
proponent of activism, as he demonstrated in his sup-
port of John Brown and in his famous essay on civil
disobedience. Further, the question arises: Need one
appeal to the Orient for explanation, when tempera-
mental proclivities and reading in such Western sources
as the Stoics provide explanation? There is, however,
strong evidence of an Indian influence. In Thoreau's
readings of the Eastern classics his most enthusiastic
effusions were reserved for the Laws of Menu and the
Bhagavad-Gita—where yogic self-discipline and de-
tachment are emphasized. He repeatedly expressed
admiration for the emphasis of Hinduism upon medi-
tation and nonattachment. The yoga he admired was
of the philosophical variety that sought the “yoking”
of the mind, what Hindus speak of as jnana yoga, not
the lower form caricatured in the West as the practice
of lying upon a bed of spiked nails or gazing steadfastly
at the sun. Recent studies by William B. Stein, Winfield
E. Nagley, and Sreekrishna Sarma all agree in recog-
nizing Thoreau's acquaintance with and assimilation
of yoga; passages both in Walden and A Week on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers,
they argue, are ex-
plicable only by reference to the Indian discipline.

If the impact of Oriental ideas upon Emerson and
Thoreau was important, it does not follow that their
writings contributed significantly to the broader impact
of the Orient upon nineteenth-century American cul-
ture. Such an implication is unfortunately conveyed
in most of the twentieth-century writing that deals with
their Oriental interest. Thoreau's literary reputation,
of course, was already in eclipse even before he died;
thus, the nineteenth century largely escaped the im-
press of his thought and writings. Emerson's fame never
dimmed, but his Oriental interest was until recently
neither widely appreciated nor fully understood. Much
of his transaction with the Orient was a private one,
confided to the secrecy of journals which were not
published until after his death. And his response, like
Thoreau's was so personal that it did not easily com-
municate itself to others. None of his writings offered
either a systematic or a popular presentation of
Oriental thought, and the Oriental concepts he drew
upon were so fully integrated into his own modes of
thinking that few contemporary readers could have
suspected the degree to which he was indebted to the
East. Contemporary critics ignored or else dismissed
his interest as an idiosyncrasy that flawed his larger


1. James Freeman Clarke. The credit for first suc-
cessfully adapting and presenting Oriental ideas for
popular American consumption belongs not to
Emerson and Thoreau, but to such lesser transcenden-
talists as James Freeman Clarke, Samuel Johnson,
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Moncure Conway.
Though stimulated by Emerson to look East, each was


to move out along paths of his own. Clarke was most
influential; his Ten Great Religions stands out as one
of the most popular presentations of Oriental thought
to appear in nineteenth-century America. An out-
standing leader of Boston Unitarianism for nearly fifty
years, a fervid worker in the cause of temperance,
women's suffrage, and the abolition of slavery, Clarke
was also an early transcendentalist. Unlike Emerson,
he never found it necessary to abandon the Unitarian
ministry; instead he sought the reconciliation of tran-
scendentalism and Christian Unitarianism. Though not
a trained Orientalist, he was one of the earliest Ameri-
cans to achieve some familiarity with the best Euro-
pean Oriental scholarship; his writings on the Oriental
religions were consequently more solidly based and
more authoritative than earlier American works.

Clarke had arrived much earlier at the views
elucidated in his Ten Great Religions (1871), as indi-
cated by his article “Comparative Theology of Hea-
then Religions,” published in the Unitarian journal, the
Christian Examiner, in 1857. An appointment in 1867
as lecturer on non-Christian religions at Harvard
apparently enabled him to expand his examination. The
Ten Great Religions appeared in 1871; in 1883 he
further elaborated his ideas in a separate volume
entitled Ten Great Religions, Part II. The 1871 work
achieved immediate acclaim. The chapters on the
Western religions were undoubtedly useful and in-
formative, but the chapters on the Eastern religions
must have been a revelation—opening as they did a
largely unknown world of belief that in age, following,
and subtlety challenged comparison with the most
highly developed Occidental systems. The clear,
readable manner in which Clarke presented the
Oriental religions and the evidence he revealed of wide
reading in the best English, French, and German
Oriental scholarship made his work precisely the one
that interested Americans had awaited. Clarke's
acceptance of the final superiority of Christianity and
his affirmation of its role as the harmonizer of the “ten
great religions” guaranteed its favorable reception
among all but the most intransigeant Christians. Some
nineteen editions of the work were subsequently

One of the major novelties of Clarke's study was its
sympathetic attitude toward the Oriental religions. He
lamented the fact that earlier writers had always shown
the “heathen” religions in their worst aspect, reflecting
less concern with a fair presentation of their doctrines
than anxiety to bolster the claims of Judaism and
Christianity. Such writers, he complained, had “insisted
that, while the Jewish and Christian religions were
revealed, all other religions were invented; that while
these were from God, those were the work of man;
that, while in the true religions there was nothing false,
in the false religions there was nothing true” (Ten Great
p. 4). He insisted not only that there was
more truth than error in the non-Christian religions,
but that there were areas in which the Orient might
even instruct the West: he cited Buddhist toleration
as one example, contrasting it with the Christian In-
quisition. While quick to note the limitations of the
Eastern religions, he accorded them a respect that had
been largely missing in earlier accounts.

Clarke's approach in the Ten Great Religions was
rather self-consciously modeled on that of the scientist,
thus reflecting the rising authority of science in nine-
teenth-century America. In his “Introduction” he
announced that he would treat his subject from the
perspective of “comparative theology,” pursuing his
analysis impartially and in the spirit of a “positive
science.” The comparative approach that was being
widely adopted in the natural sciences would now
provide a religious science. His division of the religions
of the world into “ethnic” religions and “catholic”
religions was meant to convey his use of a scientific,
nonnormative approach. He classified the various
world religions as a botanist might have classified
plants: “ethnic” religions were the nonmissionary reli-
gions restricted to a distinct people and a delimited
geography; “catholic” religions were those religions
that engaged in active missionary labors and that tran-
scended racial and geographical limits. In Clarke's
judgment only Christianity qualified as a “catholic”
religion; all others were “ethnic” religions. Each of the
great Oriental systems was judged to be one-sided: thus
Hinduism (he referred to it as “Brahmanism”) was
“complete on the side of spirit, defective on the side
of matter; full as regards the infinite, empty of the
finite; recognizing eternity but not time, God but not
nature.” Buddhism, on the other hand, had “exactly
the opposite truths and the opposite defects.... It
recognizes man, not God; the soul, not the all; the
finite, not the infinite; morality, not piety” (Ten Great
pp. 21-22). Hinduism was idealistic and
pantheistic; Buddhism rationalistic and humanistic.
Though not without the usual reservations, Clarke
seemed especially appreciative of Buddhism. He
compared its revolt against the excessive ritualism,
hierarchy, and ecclesiasticism of early Hinduism to that
of Protestantism's rebellion against Roman Catholi-
cism; he entitled his chapter, “Buddhism, or the
Protestantism of the East.” Buddha, it appeared, had
been an Oriental Martin Luther. The rationalism and
humanism that he discovered in Buddhism were un-
doubtedly attractions. Clarke's striking but oversimpli-


fied formulations quickly won acceptance as the con-
ventional terms for the popular discussion of Oriental

Whatever its improvement over earlier studies, the
Ten Great Religions was no work of science. Like
Emerson and Thoreau, Clarke approached the Orient
selectively and normatively. His conclusion that
Christianity was the only “catholic” religion was most
revealing in this regard. No less than the Christian
writers whose special pleading he criticized, he was
ultimately an apologist for Christianity, who indeed
insisted on the merits of Oriental thought only so that
they could be contrasted with the still greater merits
of Unitarian Christianity. In his view Christianity had
all the positive elements of the Oriental religions and
none of their limitations; it offered a “pleroma” or
fulfillment of all the other religions. Clarke differed
from earlier Christian writers only in advocating
Christianity as an “inclusive” rather than an “exclu-
sive” system. Thus, a place was made for the Oriental

2. Samuel Johnson. In 1872, just a year after the
publication of Clarke's work, the first volume of
Samuel Johnson's Oriental Religions and their Relation
to Universal Religion
appeared. The first of three rather
massive volumes on the Oriental religions, Johnson's
effort offers an interesting contrast to that of Clarke.
Like Clarke, Johnson's roots were in Unitarianism; he
also identified himself as a transcendentalist. Unlike
Clarke, he gave up the Unitarian ministry after one
year, preaching henceforth in a nondenominational
church. Departing from Christianity he championed
what he called “Universal Religion,” which embraced
all religions. His approach to the Oriental religions was
both more sympathetic and more transcendental than
Clarke's. He apparently became a serious student of
Oriental thought as early as the 1850's, for he delivered
a series of lectures on the Oriental religions in the
winter of 1852-53. He commented, in the Introduction
of his 1872 volume on India, that the work was the
outgrowth of studies pursued for “more than twenty
years.” Retiring from the ministry after 1870 he dedi-
cated the remaining twelve years of his life to the
Oriental Religions. The first volume (on India)
appeared in 1872 and the second (on China) in 1877.
The last volume (on Persia) was nearly finished when
he died in 1882; it was subsequently edited by his friend
Octavius Frothingham and published in 1884. Though
he engaged in a variety of enterprises, writing regularly
for the Free Religious Association journals, the Oriental
was the major work of his creative life.

Johnson's treatment of Oriental thought was insepa-
rable from his transcendental religious philosophy. In
this respect he, much more than Clarke, carried on
the legacy of Emerson and Thoreau. As a transcenden-
talist he refused the usual distinctions between the
sacred and the profane, between the spiritual and
material, or between the divine and the human. God
was immanent in nature and man: all creation revealed
the presence of an “infinite Mind.” Religion was not
a matter of creed or organization but the spirit that
flowed through such externalities. If a transcenden-
talist, Johnson was also an evolutionist. He envisioned
the history of religion as a process of growth from
primitive myth toward “Universal Religion.” He re-
jected the materialistic interpretation of evolution for
an evolution of spirit through matter. The culmination
of the evolution of spirit would be “Universal Reli-
gion”—embodying the essential elements in all past
religious development. By combining transcendental-
ism with evolutionism, Johnson could claim to incor-
porate both the permanence and the transcience of
religion, both its universality and particularity.

Johnson's Oriental Religions and their Relation to
Universal Religion
embodied an enormously detailed
demonstration of his transcendental evolutionism. Each
of the great religions manifested the evolution of the
divine. What distinguished Hinduism or Confucianism
from Christianity was not the falsehood of the one or
the truth of the other, but the differences in race and
environment within which the “infinite Mind” had
channeled. Thus the peculiarities of Aryan intellectu-
alism and the enervating climate of the Indian conti-
nent had given the Indian religious mind its distinctive
mystical dreaminess and antimaterial qualities. Simi-
larly, the utilitarianism of China's thinkers and the
geographical isolation of her vast population, locked
in by water and mountain barriers, had given the
Chinese mind its distinctive Confucian stamp. Each of
the great world religions embodied universal elements;
but none was free of nonessential and corrupted ele-
ments. Johnson envisioned a growing progress in the
gradual elimination of the nonessential until the great
religions had coalesced into the “Universal Religion.”
Defining the relationship of the Oriental religions to
this ultimate religion, he declared: “Universal Religion,
then, cannot be any one, exclusively, of the great posi-
tive religions of the world. Yet it is really what is best
in each and every one of them; purified from baser
intermixture and developed in freedom and power.
Being the purport of nature, it has been germinating
in every vital energy of man; so that its elements exist,
at some stage of evolution, in every great religion of
mankind” (Oriental Religions: India, p. 6).

The virtues of Johnson's approach to Oriental
thought were its broad universality and freedom from


sectarianism. Having rejected Christianity as his angle
of vision, he was prepared to see the Eastern religions
empathetically, from the inside. Even the most con-
demned features of Oriental social and religious life
were treated as understandable and logical outgrowths
of the peculiarities of their environments. Point by
point he sought to explain how such practices as
widow-burning, ancestor-worship, or the caste system
had arisen. Polytheism, which nineteenth-century
Americans seemed to hold in peculiar horror, he ex-
plained as the natural expression of the spiritual ele-
ment in primitive form. However unsatisfactorily—
and often his explanations were patently fanciful—he
sought to relate religious ideas to the social customs
and political and economic systems within which they

The major weakness of Johnson's work was its a
priorism: all data were pressed into support of his
transcendental evolutionism. His formulations, like
Clarke's, were frequently gross oversimplifications.
Thus, he characterized the Hindu mind as cerebral and
introspective, the Chinese mind as muscular and plod-
ding, and the Persian mind as nervous and mediating.
The problems created by such a classification can be
seen in the difficulty with which he explained how
Buddhism, a product of Indian cerebrality, could have
rooted itself in a muscular China. Taoism, he had to
claim, was not so mystical as had been believed, but
merely another expression of Chinese practicality and
concreteness. The immensity of the three volumes, a
certain heaviness in style, and an indulgence in fre-
quent anti-Christian barbs prevented Johnson's work
from ever enjoying the wide popularity gained by
Clarke's book. Nevertheless, his discussion was fre-
quently referred to in writings of the period.

3. Free Religious Association. Clarke and Johnson
were not the only lesser transcendentalists to focus on
Oriental thought; indeed, practically all the later
transcendentalists favored the East with some atten-
tion. Many of these were in the disaffected group who
broke away from the main body of Unitarianism in
1867 to form the Free Religious Association. A diverse
and very independent movement, the Association nev-
ertheless strongly reflected transcendental influence,
not least by its attitude toward the Orient. Opposing
the residual Christianity espoused by Unitarianism's
more conservative members, the Association's members
joined Johnson in championing a universal religion.
The Oriental religions were granted an importance
equal to, if not above, that of Christianity. A perusal
of the two major journals of the schismatic group, the
Radical and Index, reveals a steady concern with
Oriental thought. Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
Moncure Conway, Samuel Longfellow, Charles De
Berard Mills, Lewis George Janes, Francis Ellingwood
Abbot, William James Potter, Octavius Brooks
Frothingham, and Benjamin Franklin Underwood were
among those who contributed articles on the Orient.
Seeking to dramatize the universality of religion, the
Association sponsored several meetings in which
spokesmen were invited to present the various world
religions. At their annual meeting in 1870, the Associa-
tion held a miniature congress of religions at which
Samuel Johnson spoke up for “The Natural Sympathy
of Religions,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson for Islam,
William Henry Channing for the religions of China,
and William James Potter for the religions of India.
Free Religion could claim with some justification to
have pioneered the concept of a congress of religions
that was later publicized in the Parliament of Religions
in 1893.

By the 1870's the transcendentalist stimulus to
Oriental discovery had largely ceased. Its leaders had
completed their work, died, or else turned their
energies to other things. Meanwhile, new currents had
arisen which were to dominate the last three decades
of the century. The emergence of an American school
of Oriental scholarship, the growth of a movement for
the comparative and historical study of religion, and
the efflorescence of popular and intellectual interest
in Buddhism were the most important of these.


The beginnings of serious Oriental scholarship in
America may be dated from the founding of the Amer-
ican Oriental Society in 1842 and the publication of
the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 1843.
At first dominated by missionaries and biblical scholars,
the Society concentrated in its early years upon Middle
Eastern and Old Testament research. By the 1870's,
however, it had increasingly shifted its investigations
to include the Far East. William Dwight Whitney, who
had been made Professor of Sanskrit at Yale in 1854,
emerged as America's first great Orientalist. Though
the long dependence upon European Orientalists did
not end—as seen by the influence during the later
nineteenth century of scholars such as F. Max Müller,
T. W. Rhys Davids, Cornelius Tiele, Paul Deussen, and
Hermann Oldenberg—Americans began to make im-
portant contributions to scholarship for the first time.
Whitney's Sanskrit Grammar (1879), Charles Rockwell
Lanman's Beginnings of Hindu Pantheism (1890),
Henry Clarke Warren's Buddhism in Translations
(1896), and Edward Washburn Hopkins' Religions of
(1895) were among the significant volumes now
to appear. In 1891 Lanman and Warren commenced
the Harvard Oriental Series, which grew over the next


forty years to provide popular but authoritative edi-
tions of the texts of many formerly obscure Oriental
classics. Lanman's stated objective in presenting the
Series suggests how much the religious question con-
tinued to dominate even the most scholarly American
writings on the Orient. “It aims,” he declared in the
preface to the Series, “to make available for us people
of the West the incomparable lessons which (if we be
wise enough to maintain the teachable habit of mind)
the Wise Men of the East can teach us—lessons that
concern the simple life, moderation of our desires,
repose of the spirit, and above all, the search after God
and the realization of the divine immanence.” Most
of the books and articles produced by the early Ameri-
can Orientalists were too technical, too concerned with
questions of linguistics and details of scholarship to win
a wide audience; nevertheless, the appearance of a
school of Oriental scholarship was an important step
in the ripening of Oriental thought in America.


The rise in the 1880's and 1890's of a movement
for the comparative and historical study of religions
helped transfer consideration of Oriental thought out
of the scholar's study and into the university and semi-
nary. Joining the findings of biblical scholarship,
Higher Criticism, Darwinistic evolutionism, and
Oriental scholarship to the insights of archaeology,
anthropology, psychology, and linguistics, the propo-
nents of the new movement sought a “science of reli-
gion.” Those drawn to historical study concentrated
upon the genesis and evolution of religion; the com-
parative religionists, on the other hand, were more
concerned with the similarities and differences in the
concepts and forms of the living world religions. In
practice, there was a close working alliance between
the two groups; both reflected the trend away from
the theological and toward the scientific study of reli-
gion. Citing Goethe's remark that “He who knows one
language knows none,” the spokesmen of the move-
ment liked to point out that it was equally true that
one who knew only one religion actually knew none.
The leaders chiefly centered within departments of
religion at the universities and among theologians
interested in a modern, more comprehensive founda-
tion for foreign missions. James Freeman Clarke and
Samuel Johnson had already pioneered the approach.

The new movement's rapid spread in America in
the last decades of the nineteenth century may be
traced through the establishment of chairs, lecture-
ships, and journals, partly or wholly, devoted to com-
parative and historical religious study. As early as 1867
James Freeman Clarke had held a brief appointment
as lecturer on the non-Christian religions at Harvard,
but the first chair of “Comparative Theology and the
History and Philosophy of Religion” was created in
1873 at Boston University with William Fairfield
Warren as occupant. By 1900 many colleges and
universities had established similar positions, led by the
Princeton Theological Seminary, New York University,
Cornell University, and the University of Chicago.
Louis Henry Jordan, an early student of the movement,
commented upon this phenomenon in 1905; “...
There is no country whose Universities and The-
ological Schools have done more of late, in providing
students with the means of securing a competent
acquaintance with Comparative Religion, than have
some of the foremost Colleges in the United States”
(Comparative Religion, p. 383). Paralleling the estab-
lishment of chairs in the universities and seminaries,
international lectureships were also created. England
led the way with the Hibbert Lectures, inaugurated
in 1878, and the Gifford Lectures, commenced in 1888;
but America followed closely behind with the inaugu-
ration of the American Lectures on the History of
Religions in 1891 and the Haskell Lectures in Com-
parative Religion in 1894. Journals such as the Biblical
World, American Journal of Theology, New World,
Journal of Speculative Philosophy devoted much of
their space in the 1880's and 1890's to articles and
reports in the field. The Atlantic Monthly, North
American Review, Harper's Weekly,
and Arena pro-
vided more popular outlets. The writings of Charles
Carroll Everett, Crawford Howell Toy, Frank Field
Ellinwood, Samuel Henry Kellogg, John Henry
Barrows, Charles Cuthbert Hall, Edmund Buckley, and
William Torrey Harris were deeply permeated with
the new approach. Much of the impetus underlying
the comparative-historical movement undoubtedly
derived from the search for a new Christian apolo-
getics, newly dressed in the garb of scientific method-
ology; nevertheless, the Oriental religions were bene-
ficiaries. They received both intensive and sympathetic
attention. Since the spokesmen for the movement
commanded the best periodicals and lecterns in the
land, Oriental ideas were disseminated to a wider and
more influential audience than ever before.

1. Paul Carus. The activities of Paul Carus indicate
how concern for a more comparative, more scientific
conception of religion promoted the impact of Oriental
thought. Though hardly a typical figure, his approach
was very similar to that of the American school of
comparative-historical studies. Carus was born and
educated in Germany; he immigrated to the United
States soon after completing studies in philosophy,
philology, and natural science that culminated in the
Ph.D. in 1876. It is probable that he gained his first


exposure to Oriental ideas in Germany, for Oriental
studies were then enjoying a considerable vogue in its
universities. Hermann Grassman, the German mathe-
matician whose ideas most influenced Carus' philo-
sophical views, was highly regarded as an Indologist
and as a translator of the Rig-Veda. In America Carus
briefly edited a German-language journal; wrote sev-
eral articles for the Index, the Free Religious Associa-
tion organ; and finally in 1887 undertook the editorship
of the Open Court, which would continue under his
active direction until his death in 1919. In 1890 he
added the Monist to his editorial duties.

The Open Court and Monist centered on philosophy,
science, and religion; their contributors included some
of America's and Europe's best-known thinkers and
scholars. Beginning in late 1893 Carus increasingly
featured Oriental thought, with occasional articles
from such eminent authorities as Max Müller, Hermann
Oldenberg, and Richard Garbe. In 1897 Daisetz Teitaro
Suzuki, subsequently a noted proponent of Zen
Buddhism and a major figure in the twentieth-century
Western impact of Oriental ideas, came to America
to serve as his editorial assistant; he worked closely
with Carus until his return to Japan in 1908. The two
men collaborated on several Chinese translations, and
Suzuki published a number of articles and book reviews
in the Open Court and Monist. In the decade after 1893
practically every issue of the Open Court included
some piece dealing with the Orient: an article on
Indian philosophy; a book review of a new volume
on Oriental mythology; or again an essay comparing
the origins and doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity.
No important American journal at the end of the cen-
tury devoted so much attention to the Orient.

Carus' interest in the Orient was more than an
academic one. Many of the journal articles on the East
came from his pen. He was especially drawn to
Buddhism, contributing a series of articles in the Open
to an analysis of its doctrines and similarities
to Western scientific thought. He also wrote or edited
a number of books bearing on the subject, including:
The Gospel of Buddha (1894), a compilation from
various translations of the life of Buddha; Buddhism
and its Christian Critics
(1897), an examination of
Buddhism's major teachings; Chinese Thought (1907),
an outline of the major features of intellectual life in
China; and several Oriental tales built around key
Buddhist doctrines. While criticized by scholars, sev-
eral of the books, especially The Gospel of Buddha,
won favor with the public, going through several edi-
tions. Beyond his writing, Carus also worked actively
for direct contacts between East and West. Greatly
impressed by the meeting of Eastern and Western
religious leaders at the Parliament of Religions in 1893,
he led in several organized ventures during the late
1890's which sought to increase exchanges between the
spokesmen of Oriental religions and American religious
leaders. He cultivated friendships with many of the
Oriental religious leaders and lecturers who came to
America in increasing numbers.

Carus approached Oriental thought from a position
he identified philosophically as “Monism.” He was
strongly convinced that Western thought had fallen
into error early in its development when it had
accepted distinctions between body and mind and the
material and the spiritual. Kant had formalized this
dualism in Western philosophy when he had divided
the field of knowledge between the phenomenal and
the noumenal realms; and Christianity had rooted it
in the Western religious viewpoint when it had differ-
entiated between the soul and the body, and the natural
and the supernatural. Rejecting such dualisms, Carus
looked to science to reestablish the unity of knowledge.
The philosophical result he labeled “Monism.” He
showed special concern at the growing split between
science and religion, advocating a scientific religion as
the need of the age. Such a religion must combine the
highest ethical teachings with the most rigorous
empirical procedures; it must, he declared, be both a
“Science of Religion” and a “Religion of Science.”
Drawing upon the increasing evidence of historical and
comparative religious studies, he came to believe that
Buddhism offered the best hope of reconciliation.

Carus developed the case for Buddhism in a series
of articles which he published in the Open Court in
early 1896. These contained the crux of the argument
that he developed in his various books on Buddhism.
As a scientific religion, Buddhism merited approval on
several grounds. First, it was empirical, approaching
the religious question factually and morally rather than
abstractly. Both Hinduism and Christianity failed at
just this point because they placed theory before facts:
“In Buddhism,” he asserted, “theory is nothing, and
facts are everything” (Open Court, X, 4853). He
emphasized that unlike the other great religions
Buddhism required no belief in miracles or authority.
Second, Buddhism was monistic, as was to be seen in
its treatment of the body-soul question. While
Hinduism and Christianity abstracted the soul from the
body, Buddhism, through its doctrine of anatman,
avoided such separation. Carus rejected the widespread
interpretation that Buddha had denied the existence
of the soul in his anatman doctrine; rather Buddha had
denied the separateness of soul or consciousness from
its physical vessel. Soul, atman, self, or consciousness—
which were merely different names for the same thing
—were one with the body. He maintained, therefore,
that Buddhism was a “consistent Monism.” Finally,


Buddhism was universal. It provided a positive faith
capable of bringing religious consolation to one and
all, as a scientific religion must. It could provide both
intellectual satisfaction for the philosophers and com-
fort for the lowly and afflicted; it offered “the skeleton
key which in its abstract simplicity fits all locks”
(Buddhism and Its Christian Critics, p. 83).

Obviously, insofar as Carus accepted Buddhism—and
he advocated it only up to a point—it was a Buddhism
made over to his own needs. Critics were quick to point
out Carus' error of confusing the age-old Buddhist
doctrines with the fundamentals of scientific thought.
However, his Buddhism was a “scientific Buddhism”
that owed as much to Western thought as to Eastern;
he sought not the total assimilation of Oriental thought,
but the combination of the best in the Western and
Eastern traditions.


Carus was not the only American of his time to
discover the charms of Buddhism. In the last two dec-
ades of the century the religion of Buddha enjoyed a
brief but rather widespread vogue, stimulated by the
American publication in 1879 of the Light of Asia by
Sir Edwin Arnold. A poetic presentation of Buddha's
life, the work placed Buddhism in a most attractive
light that did not fail to appeal to Western readers.
One of the most popular books ever written on
Buddhism, it went through some sixty English and some
eighty American editions and sold between one-half
and one million copies in Great Britain and the United
States. The book was sponsored in America by Franklin
B. Sanborn, George Ripley, and Oliver Wendell
Holmes, who gave it enthusiastic reviews. Eventually,
Arnold exploited the sensation the book created by
coming to the United States in 1891 to lecture on
Buddhism and to read from the Light of Asia before
enthusiastic audiences. He made fifty appearances in
various American cities and had agreed to one hundred
more when the failure of his health forced a halt.
Sparked by Arnold's book and lectures, as well as by
the rising interest in the comparative and historical
study of religion, a spate of articles on Buddhism
appeared in contemporary American periodicals.

Paralleling the popular interest, a number of
America's writers and intellectuals responded to the
appeal of Buddhism. The most noteworthy, besides
Carus, were Lafcadio Hearn, Ernest Fenollosa, Sturgis
Bigelow, Percival Lowell, and Henry Adams. A diverse
group, their responses varied so much that generaliza-
tion is difficult. Each in his own way was attracted
to the religion of Buddha, though the element of inter-
est and degree of impact differed in every case. Perhaps
Lafcadio Hearn will serve to suggest just how deep
in some instances Buddhist influence reached. Indeed,
his passionate response may be considered the outer
limit of the American nineteenth-century cultural
interaction with the Orient.

1. Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was an immigrant, com-
ing to the United States from Great Britain in 1869.
During the two decades he resided in America, he
engaged in newspaper work in Cincinnati, New
Orleans, and the West Indies and wrote several books
that established him as one of the country's more
promising young writers. His interest in Oriental
thought was apparently first stimulated by his reading
of Arnold's Light of Asia in 1879; he subsequently
became interested in Japan through observation of the
Japanese exhibit at the New Orleans World Industrial
Exposition in 1884. He wrote occasional newspaper
articles on Oriental themes during the 1880's; then,
in 1890, rather suddenly, he departed for Japan where
he was to spend the remainder of his life. In the fol-
lowing years he went far in his effort to blend into
his new environment: he traveled extensively through-
out the islands, married a Japanese woman, changed
his name for a Japanese one, and eventually was buried
in his new homeland. No Westerner had gone further
toward a full acceptance of Oriental life and belief.

Hearn's discovery of the Orient may be traced in
the volumes that now flowed from his pen: Glimpses
of Unfamiliar Japan
(1894); Out of the East: Reveries
and Studies in New Japan
(1895); Kokoro: Hints and
Echoes of Japanese Inner Life
(1896); Gleanings in
Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far
(1897); Exotics and Retrospectives (1898); In
Ghostly Japan
(1899); Shadowings (1900); A Japanese
(1901); Kotto (1902); and, finally, Japan: An
Attempt at Interpretation
(1904). The titles of the books
suggest his intense effort to get behind the externals
of Japanese life to its inner soul; their contents reflect
an often romantic, idyllic view of their subject. Largely
collections of separate essays and stories written for
publication in American periodicals, the books were
loosely structured and impressionistic. They dealt with
nearly every aspect of Japanese culture from folk reli-
gion and the life of silkworm cultivation to industriali-
zation and military training. Hearn tended to prefer
Japanese ideals to Western norms throughout, though
the later works were more qualified because of his
rising disillusionment with the modernization of Japan.
In time he became the champion of Old Japan against
the new. Though he never mastered the Japanese lan-
guage, the profound sympathy and intimacy he re-
vealed in his treatment of his subject won an authority
for his writings that has endured into the twentieth
century. The novelty of his report of Japanese life,


conveyed in a finely wrought literary style, contributed
to his books' wide contemporary appeal in America.

Appreciation for Buddhism pervaded Hearn's writ-
ings. In time he came to believe that its force underlay
practically every facet of Japanese life and culture. As
his own commitment to its doctrines grew, he became
convinced that it offered a religious system compatible
with the modern scientific view that had much to teach
the West. (There were striking parallels with Paul
Carus, but some important differences chiefly due to
Carus' scientific philosophy in contrast to Hearn's more
mystical intuitionism.) The growth of his admiration
may be traced in such successive essays as “The Stone
Buddha” in Out of the East, “The Idea of Pre-
existence” in Kokoro, and “Nirvana” in Gleanings in
—culminating in “The Higher Bud-
dhism,” his final, most revealing, testament in his last
book, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904).
Though always sympathetic to the peculiarities of
Japanese Buddhism, he came to prefer a nonsectarian,
philosophical Buddhism, the “Higher Buddhism” of his
last essay. In his view philosophical Buddhism was
distinguished by its combination of monism and evolu-
tionism. Hearn wrote: “The higher Buddhism is a kind
of Monism,” noting that “it includes doctrines that
accord, in the most surprising manner, with the scien-
tific theories of the German and the English monists”
(Japan, p. 232). Buddhism was monistic because it held
that the only reality was the Absolute; mind and mat-
ter, the “I” and the “Not-I” were ultimately unreal.
But, he continued, Buddhism “is also a theory of evolu-
tion....” Karma was the key to Buddhist evolution.
The universe as well as consciousness, Hearn explained,
were “aggregates of Karma” undergoing constant
evolution through an enormous past. There were, of
course, critical differences between Western and
Buddhist evolution: where the former was mechanical
and materialistic, explaining development as the result
of heredity, Buddhism offered a moral and spiritual
evolution that explained development as the result of
willed action and introspective meditation.

But how could Buddhism be both a monism and an
evolutionism? The monistic Absolute suggests stasis,
rest, perfection; evolution, on the other hand, move-
ment and incompletion. If the Absolute were truly the
only reality, what remained to evolve? How could
reality be both an undifferentiated unity and at the
same time an unfolding differentiated plurality?
Hearn's explanation hinged on the distinction between
unconditioned reality and conditioned phenomena,
what in his “Higher Buddhism” essay he termed
“permanence” and “actuality.” “Buddhism,” he ex-
plained, “does not deny the actuality of phenomena
as phenomena, but denies their permanence and the
truth of the appearances which they present to our
imperfect senses” (Japan, p. 235). Buddhism clearly
insisted that the sole reality was the Absolute, but
refused to dismiss the phenomenal world as illusion.
From the perspective of final, unconditioned reality
the “Higher Buddhism” was a monism; but from the
phenomenal perspective of conditioned actuality it was
an evolutionism. The tension between reality and
actuality, between monism and evolutionism, was
finally resolved in nirvana, at the point where the
evolving ego penetrated beyond phenomenal con-
sciousness into the Absolute.

No Western seeker has fully succeeded in abandon-
ing his Western cultural heritage, not even Lafcadio
Hearn. One of the most interesting aspects of Hearn's
distant, transoceanic pilgrimage to Buddhism was that
he remained a Spencerian evolutionist throughout. He
had been an ardent Spencerian in America and he
continued to champion the English thinker's views in
his books from Japan. In his last word on Buddhism
he wrote: “I venture to call myself a student of Herbert
Spencer; and it was because of my acquaintance with
the Synthetic Philosophy that I came to find in
Buddhist philosophy a more than romantic interest”
(Japan, p. 232). For Hearn there was no incongruity
in simultaneously following the doctrines of Buddha
and Spencer, however dissimilar the ideas might ap-
pear. Both were monistic and evolutionary; one rein-
forced the other. Much of the argument in the “Higher
Buddhism” essay focused on demonstrating the paral-
lels between them. On the other hand, there were some
key differences. In Hearn's judgment the most basic
was that while Spencer steadily denied that human
consciousness would ever succeed in penetrating what
the English philosopher termed the “Unknown Real-
ity,” Buddhism claimed that through nirvana that real-
ity could be known. Spencer's system remained an
“agnosticism,” while Buddhism advanced to “gnosti-
cism.” If the doctrine of nirvana made it possible to
move beyond Spencer, Hearn insisted that the two
systems still remained remarkably alike. To him
Buddhism was merely a spiritualization of Spencer's
Synthetic Philosophy.


The following generalizations seem warranted. Most
important, Americans first discovered Oriental thought
during the course of the nineteenth century. Where
Oriental ideas were practically unknown at the cen-
tury's opening, by its close the world of Eastern
thought had been thrown open. The existence of
English translations of most of the Oriental classics and


of popular explications of the Oriental doctrines
brought a general acquaintance with Oriental thought
within the reach of the educated reader. Second, the
emphasis during the nineteenth century was on the
religious thought of the Orient. This was under-
standable in view of the strong religious preoccupation
of Americans during the century. As awareness of
Oriental religious thought dawned, Americans were
astonished at the size, complexity, and richness of
religious life and thought in the Orient. Hinduism and
Buddhism were granted the greatest attention, with the
interest in Buddhism largely confined to the later dec-
ades of the century.

Third, the transcendentalist movement, especially its
later followers, played the most decisive role in the
introduction of Oriental ideas into American culture.
Emerson led the way, but the later, lesser transcenden-
talists such as James Freeman Clarke and Samuel
Johnson were most instrumental in the first popular
explanation and discussion of Oriental thought in
America. Fourth, while the growth in general Ameri-
can awareness of Oriental thought was appreciable
during the century, the visible impact of Oriental ideas
was largely limited to individual writers and intellec-
tuals. The thought was too alien for quick public
assimilation. Nevertheless, the individuals influenced by
it were significant figures in American culture.

Fifth, the impact varied with the individual and
served to reinforce rather than replace already-held
Western conceptions. Emerson, the idealist, was most
influenced by philosophical Hinduism; Thoreau, the
practical exponent of transcendentalism, by yoga; Paul
Carus, the scientific monist, by “philosophically scien-
tific” Buddhism; and Lafcadio Hearn, the Spencerian
evolutionist, by “higher,” philosophically mystical
Buddhism. Oriental thought was accommodated to
both the religious and the positivistic mood. Finally,
the nineteenth-century cultural impact of Oriental
thought was carried out almost entirely through books
and the written word. Knowledge gained was largely
second-hand. In the twentieth century communication
would become more direct through the increased
facilities of travel and commerce; the much expanded
contacts between America and the Orient have yielded
a growing appreciation and understanding of the cul-
tural and intellectual contributions that East and West
may make to one another.


Van Wyck Brooks, Fenollosa and his Circle (New York,
1962), 1-68. Frederic I. Carpenter, Emerson and Asia
(Cambridge, Mass., 1930). Paul Carus, Buddhism and Its
Christian Critics
(Chicago, 1897). K. R. Chandrasekharan,
“Emerson's Brahma: An Indian Interpretation,” New
England Quarterly,
33 (Dec. 1960), 506-12. Edward Tyrrel
Channing, “Lalla Rookh,” North American Review, 6 (Nov.
1817), 1-25. Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa: The Far East
and American Culture
(New Haven, 1963). Arthur Christy,
ed., The Asian Legacy and American Life (New York, 1942);
idem, The Orient in American Transcendentalism (New York,
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[See also Buddhism; China; Christianity; Civil Disobedi-
Class; Dualism; Evolutionism; Gnosticism; God; Lan-
guage; Neo-Platonism; Peace; Positivism; Unity of Science.]