Shackles of Society: the revival of transcendentalist ideals

By Erin Lynch

As the world becomes increasingly extra, the doctrines of simplicity and individuality that guided the great thinkers of the mid-19th century have all but disappeared. Transcendentalist ideologies are at odds with many modern societal changes that have been widely accepted as progress. The motif of adventure that has been threaded into the history of the human race has nearly disappeared as the human race succumbed to materialistic and technocratic tendencies. The societal expectations of today’s world are bringing about the downfall of great philosophy, and ultimately the demise of the human condition. Now more than ever, it is important that the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau are preserved in the face of a changing climate, awed institutional leadership, and a loss of meaningful human passion.

The human population at its most fundamental level has become extra. Population growth has skyrocketed in the past century, and the United Nations projects that the human population will surpass the 11 billion mark by the year 2100. A large number of people inevitably necessitate a large amount of resources. Further, developed countries have established a self-destructive precedent of overconsumption, resulting in an unequal distribution of earth’s finite resources. In a startling statistic released by BBC, humanity would require an estimated five earths in order to provide the resources necessary for every person on earth to sustain a lifestyle similar to that of the average American. In response to overconsumption, the earth’s climate and feedback systems have adopted their own extra, and decidedly dangerous, positive-feedback loops; greenhouse gases and chlorofluorocarbons in our atmosphere have reached a level that even the most innovative carbon sequestration methods will not be able to resolve for over a century. Additionally, modern society is centered around a consumer culture in which production pushes the limits of earth’s carrying capacity and possessions are equated to happiness. The great transcendentalist thinker Henry David Thoreau once advised his followers, “We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” Although material goods drive forward the economy, they do not sustain the human spirit. Simplicity, a founding tenet of the transcendentalist movement, must be integrated into societal norms in order to slow the progression of climate change and revive the planet that has provided us with the resources necessary for life.

Gaela Transcendentalism.png
Art by Angaelica LaPasta

Currently, man is the corrupting agent whose carelessness is infringing on the innate sanctity of the natural world. Jack Kerouac, a leader of the Beat generation, a group of vagabonds and poets who adopted some transcendentalist ideals, envisioned a radical societal shift: “All of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad.” A movement like this would require a massive upheaval of current convention and a commitment by all members of the human race to rid themselves of their ties to earthly goods and venture into the possibilities of a life lived unattached. A simplistic lifestyle is simultaneously uncomfortable and liberating, allowing the soul to rid itself of burdens as it breaks free from the shackles of society to discover the dangers and rewards of a life untethered. Without the distractions of material belongings, humanity is able to foster deeper connections with the natural world and develop well-founded empathy for others. Humanity must humble itself in the presence of rushing rivers and towering mountains rather than debasing itself at the mercy of institutionalized consumerism. A commitment to large-scale sustainable living would allow for a healthier earth, as well as a healthier individual.

Transcendentalists have strived to make education and political activism accessible for people from every walk of life in an attempt to guarantee that all humans are given the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. In recent years, however, the progress toward this goal seems to have reached a plateau. New policies have established a cycle of lawmaking that favors trickle-down economics over the contributions of the individual, many of whom are working to reach success from the ground up. The lower-class experiences systematic discrimination due to lawmaker’s inability (or unwillingness) to implement policy that will break the cycle of poverty and facilitate the ability to achieve the education necessary to reverse these trends. A radical change must be made on this front to ensure that humanity as a whole is maximizing its assets and thriving off of the contributions of a diverse set of minds. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau calls on fellow transcendentalists to fight to end the injustice integrated into the structure of the current system: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

Oftentimes, social influence is not earned, but rather results from wealth obtained at the cost of those living in poverty due to systematic discrimination. According to transcendentalist theory, it is the duty of those born into privilege to utilize their influence in the fight for universal equality for all of humanity. In his essay “Politics,” Ralph Waldo Emerson offered hope for a changing society: “The old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centers; but any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it.” These relatively isolated calls for deep-seated societal change two hundred years ago have festered into a desperate plea for justice resounding from every country. We should be outraged at the binds of poverty that remain on a majority of the human race, especially in a time when humanity has developed the means to correct the problem. And, more than outrage, we should feel obligation. There must be implementation of new priorities that favor the uplift of lower classes oppressed by a corrupt system through a radical reframing of the ductile tenants that ground modern politics. Before these tangible changes can be made, however, we must relearn empathy, an emotion that is all but extinct in the age of big business and technology.

An acute dependence on technology has infiltrated society and replaced the meaningful human connections that are vital to the preservation of the human spirit. Technology has undeniably benefitted humanity, providing us with everything from medical advancements to long-distance communication. But with these advantages come drawbacks. Texting has replaced face-to-face conversation, and emojis serve the purpose of conveying complex emotions. With this decline in human interaction comes a lack of understanding for the challenges endured by people living in different circumstances than our own. There is a popular saying that, “it is hard to hate someone once you understand them.” Rediscovering emotion is essential in igniting the revolution that will bring us closer to an equal world. The human soul thrives on passion, and passion is not attained through  a keyboard, but rather through the wholehearted embrace of adventure and the essence of life itself.

Further, in the modern world we have access to a vast library of information available at the touch of a button, easing the process of learning and providing answers to complex chemistry problems with nothing more than a $15 Chegg subscription. However, this accessibility goes hand in hand with a lack of motivation to retain information and the illusion of contentment that accompanies naiveté. The transcendentalist movement stressed the pursuit of knowledge through exploration and firsthand experience with the real world rather than through a Wikipedia article. The modern transcendentalist Christopher McCandless, subject of the critically acclaimed book Into the Wild, once said, “I read somewhere… how important it is in life to measure yourself at least once. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Societal normalcy does not allow for deviation from a life lived in front of a computer screen driven by the necessity of acquiring money, which encourages a suffocating conformity that suppresses the freedom of the individual. Opportunities to test the perseverance of the human soul are few and far between, requiring an active decision to escape the monotonous drone of an existence void of meaning. Danger is an integral part of the human experience, and fear can be manipulated into motivation in the search for meaning. The world was meant to be explored, and the endless mysteries waiting around each corner yield greater fruits than any information that can be found in an online textbook. A man has not truly lived until he has thrown himself at closed gates only to find the powerful truth waiting behind the boundaries of the impossible. The world is engaged in an intricate dance of constantly changing cycles that reach far beyond the bounds of the human mind. Technology is urging humanity to seek a life of comfort in which little work is required to “suck the marrow out of life.” But an individual’s self-fulfillment is directly correlated to their willingness to delve into the unknown. Exploration is necessary to progress society in a way that will simultaneously benefit both the earth and humanity, and thus must be promoted as a means of reaching one’s full potential.

The preservation of the human race as we know it depends on redefining innovation so that the intrinsic value of transcendental principles is translated into practice. A shift in ideology is vital in the reversal of current destructive societal norms, as human beings have an innate call to live more deeply than the superficial tendencies allowed by the modern world. The tapestry of history is unwinding as the fabric of adventure disintegrates in a society based on routine and conformity. There is a necessity to devolve towards old tendencies for humanity to evolve. By merging the doctrines of the past with modern intellect, there is a chance of reviving the world we call home and detaching society’s inherent extra-ness from the driving forces of progress.

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