Being Yourself…?

“That government is best which governs least” – Henry David Thoreau American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, leading Transcendentalist and author of the book Walden.

Junior year in high school, I discovered Transcendentalism. Its core beliefs center around the inherent goodness of both people and nature. Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. People are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. The concept of community can only come to full fruition when it is composed of such individuals. I soon became passionately interested in the inspiring and empowering messages of individuality that were promoted. Although Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 1830s, it still provides much insight into the continual tension between the individual and an established elected authority. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are some of the most important figures in philosophy that established and expanded on this tension. They did so by theorizing about the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual through social contracts. Through these, they expressed what they thought was the responsibility of government and the role of people within a society.

Meanwhile, all three, HobbesLocke and Rousseau, had differing points, especially when it concerned the advantages of state of nature versus the state under social contracts. Transcendentalists and these philosophers alike deal with the same central question:

How can you remain an autonomous individual while having to surrender some of your own will to govern yourself to an elected authority? The role of the individual and how to preserve that individuality and self-determination is always at war with the common good of society in a state governed by social contracts.

Henry David Thoreau echoes transcendentalist dogmas in his essay Civil Disobedience. This essay reveals the truths about the relationship between established authority, such as government, and its subjects, such as citizens. His main argument is that “… we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” Thoreau asserts that the government maintains its control over its subjects through physical superiority. He later explains, “[The government] is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” As has been established by Max Weber, the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and will use this force to, in turn, “force [us] to become like themselves.” Another empirical example of pressure to conform, Thoreau insists that subjects must realize this and change their attitude towards authority. He suggests to use the one aspect government does not have: control over your mind. Thoreau reasons, “[The government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” However, government’s right over property is a key aspect in the social contracts of both Hobbes and Locke, which they consider an obligation to give up your property for the greater good of society. Locke and Hobbes see it as a duty to entrust our property as a sign of loyalty and thus giving this tacit consent all property is under the same authoritative figure.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance is an essay that discusses transcendentalist beliefs. Known as the father of transcendentalism, Emerson derives some of his arguments from Puritan dogma.  His essay mainly explores how one “…should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across sacred-integrity[one’s] mind…” One must differentiate between one’s innermost feelings and thoughts and those that are imposed on us by society. Emerson argues that tradition and established authority discourage us from doing this. Consequently, we become ashamed of our thoughts that disagree with pre-established notions. Emerson believes this act of rejecting our thoughts is detrimental and dilutes one’s identity and manhood. It is only through this realization that one can be truly faithful to God and, thus, to ourselves. As John Locke presents in his social contracts, the duty of self- preservation is almost a sacred belief. Transcendentalism emphasizes that we are creation of God and thus we are perfect, divine beings. Accordingly, we owe it to God to do everything in our power to protect ourselves and our property.

“But government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.”  Thoreau‘s criticism of “majority rules” contrasts that of John Locke’s. Locke emphasizes the responsibility of society to go along with what the majority of the electorate dictates politically and socially. “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him and authorize all his action in like manner” but through this there is also a unity of individuals and thus the concept of community arises. Locke refers to a very similar idea, which he coins as a political society, which is “the consent of any number of freemen…to unite and incorporate into such a society.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau sees this shift, however, as detrimental to the state of nature. “The human race will eventually die of civilization”is a famous quote by Emerson that reflects some of Rousseau’s sentiments about the development of society.

Emerson’s beliefs about the relationship between the individual and society are very similar to that of Rousseau. Rousseau’s theory is put in context of the story of human anthropology; first, humans were solitary and in that solitude we were content. We were not reflective or rational. This is known as the state of nature. Then, with the beginning of civilization, or alternatively state governed by social contracts, we started comparing ourselves to each other, thus, becoming increasingly dependent upon others opinion. Rousseau considered the shift from the state of nature to civilization as a detrimental evolution in human history. Although society attempts to seize one’s manhood through conformity, one must overcome this and thus achieve greatness by staying true to one’s morals and convictions.  In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance, Emerson reveals the “…rude truth…” “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.” Emerson compares society to “…a joint-stock company…” in which the consumer’s liberty and culture is surrendered. 91284_600-3One’s manhood is defined by being a nonconformist, trusting oneself and valuing freedom. “…. The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Emerson thus states that the hardest challenge for mankind to overcome is maintaining one’s identity amidst society’s incessant influence.  The greatest accomplishment for a person is to balance two worlds: society and the mind.