The Right Philosophy for Our Times
How Transcendentalism can revitalize our society’s love for the environment
Breathing in the crisp autumn air and staring out over what has been his home, neighborhood, close friend, and therapist, for the past two years, Henry David Thoreau lightly closed the fragile cedar-wooded door of his cabin for the last time.
In 1845, wishing to leave his life as a lecturer and educator in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and become self-reliant, Thoreau built a 3 x 5 meter cabin on the wooded shores of Walden Pond.
There, in between morning nature walks down muddy paths, and weekly supply refills, he wrote vigorously, and, under the influence of monumental American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, developed a novel philosophy — transcendentalism.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Transcendentalism places an emphasis on self-reliance, natural romanticism, and individuality, and I propose a modern reincarnation of this very philosophy can serve as an antidote to nearly all the major maladies of present-day society.
Individualism and Nonconformity
Emerson’s Self Reliance (1841), a seminal Transcendentalist text, preaches the importance of individuality and nonconformity. It is a scathing criticism of how we choose our actions, observing that a majority of what we do is not done with individual intention or purpose.
These remind us of the words of 20th century psychologist Viktor E. Frankl — [man] either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism).”
Transcendentalism vehemently opposes this. Emerson and Thoreau believed in the sacrosanctity of individual thought and belief. Do what is true to you and nobody else. Trust thyself.
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature . . . the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Trusting thyself also comes with the realization that consistency does not trump change, in fact, just the opposite. Trusting oneself and how one feels from day to day is ought to create inconsistency, but this is not naïve or childish — if anything, a man or woman who allows herself to be guided by her curiosity, delightfully aware by how much they do not know, becomes more noble, more well-rounded, than one guided by tradition or consistency, who is plagued to conform to what he was raised to think, philosophically anchored to their own history.
An irrational yearning for consistency blocks one from actively seeking progress, and is one of the reasons why Emerson took an alternate view to religion in contrast with the rigid English puritanism than what his forbearers preached.
He stated, famously, that:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Transcendentalism preaches a philosophy of self reliance, the ability to be completely comfortable in solitude. This covers both physically, but more notably, mentally. One of the most empowering things someone can do is be truly alone with herself, undistracted, viewing a clear, undistorted, view, of herself and all of the flaws that come with their existence.
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Emerson valued a certain type of intentional solitude. He believed that although friendship could be a joyful commodity, too often did see people use friendship as a way to avoid thinking and improving upon their own shortcomings. That is exactly why Thoreau’s Walden experiment is so significant — it exhibited this exact comfortability with oneself, Thoreau, becoming, for a short period of time, a human incarnation of Emerson’s teachings.
Our Place in Nature
Transcendentalism speaks of the sublime — an emotion so far beyond our reaches and comprehension that it surpasses rationality. The only way to access this sublimity is to see the nature within us, and to realize that we are, in a way, not the players of a game of chess but the pawns; we are not man looking at nature, but nature looking at itself.
He argues that we must see nature through eyes that are not reflective but absorbent, to not use human metaphors to explain what we see but natural metaphors to explain ourselves.
Emerson’s moment of sublimity and natural awareness came on a walk near his home on a cloudy day. In this sudden moment of clarity, he remarked:
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Sublimity and realizing our place in the world comes with remarkable humility, which Emerson believed was much-needed for many at his time.
The feeling of oneness, unity, and even meekness that comes with standing before a vast mountain range, walking amongst Sequoias, or for Emerson, walking in a neighborhood park near his home, is the sublimity that we should be searching for.
Why We Need Transcendentalism Now
A modern reincarnation of Transcendentalism is much needed in the 21st century.
In an increasingly connected, and constantly entertained, world, it is becoming easier to live a modest life without ever being reflective on ourselves or our choices, too distracted by the monotonous day-to-day white noise of tasks, errands, and 24-hour streaming to have the chance to fully reflect on our choices and ourselves.
I’ll be outlining a slightly modernized version of transcendentalism as a remedy to two of the biggest problems of our time: the environment, and mental health.
Self-reliance and Mental Health
I was inspired to add this part in due to a conversation with comment by Gustavo Wiering.
You might be wondering that: If as Homo sapiens, we have achieved success through remarkably efficient communication and collaboration, why should we focus on the individual?
Simultaneously, as we live in a time of increased polarization and distrust (writing just days after the invasion of the US Capitol by domestic terrorists), why do we need individualism right now?
Therefore, this modern interpretation of the individualism of classic Transcendentalism anchors itself in self-reliance.
The new individualist isn’t openly isolationist or scornful of society, but strives to be comfortable by herself, and to be present with herself, without distractions. This novel individualism above all promotes the capability to be independent, an ability to deal with problems by yourself if you must, and at times, to overcome the overwhelming pressure to give up.
This of course is easier said than done, but most significantly must start at a young age — toddlers must be taught to approach more problems on their own . Life must become more self-directed at an early age. Schooling must be more self-governed, and students must be trained to take responsibility for their own learning, with self-play and educational exploration at an early age.
Returning to communal strength vs. individual strength — the strength of a network of nodes (society) directly depends on the strength of all the individual nodes (individual persons). Although society is often resilient enough to withstand personal obstacles each individual may have, the mental health epidemic we are currently facing is beginning to take a serious toll on society as a whole.
Promoting and nurturing this self-reliance can build mental resilience at the individual level of our society, and increase the strength of our network and the potency of our collaboration.
This individualism and environmentalism is highly intertwined — although we must find a shared goal as a society (i.e, curbing climate change), the way we motivate ourselves to care about this goal can differ from person to person.
Modern Transcendentalism and Environmentalism
Simultaneously, we are degrading the environment at such an unsustainable rate that this opportunity to experience the sublime might not just be unrealized, but impossible.
This destructive cycle is self-propagating — an unawareness of natural beauty breeds ambivalence about environmental destruction, and this destruction in part makes it harder to realize the beauty of nature.
Transcendentalism can be our antidote to this. Emphasizing not just the practical, economical, and ecological importance of nature, but the spiritual significance it plays in giving context to our existence, can encourage humility and environmental sustainability.
We can find a shared goal of environmental sustainability through individual experiences with nature — we can all find our reasons why we value wilderness, whether it be practical (i.e ecological stability) or spiritual (a sense of being). They just need to find it. Only after we [as individuals] find this reason to care will we truly fight for environmental sustainability.
A human embodiment of this environmental enlightenment, passion, and Transcendentalism, viewing the philosophy from a more environmental and conservationist point of view, can be seen in late 19th and early 20th century naturalist John Muir.
Environmentalist John Muir (1838–1914) is best known for founding the Sierra Club, helping establish Yosemite National Park, and leading what would become a new generation of environmentalists in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Most famously, he took then-president Theodore Roosevelt on a three day camping trip to Yosemite.
After reading a book by Muir, Roosevelt asked him to be his guide to the Sierra Nevada, stating: “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you”.
Three days camping together amongst the Sequoias prompted Roosevelt to enact several environmental policies and create Yosemite National Park, in what has been described as “the most important moment in the history of conservation”.
John Muir was a naturalist, writer, and biologist, but before all of that, he was an ardent protector of the environment, for it had enchanted him — he had peeked above the clouds and enveloped himself in the sublimity of nature, and wished to give others to experience what he felt.
Before gaining notoriety, Muir, by chance, in 1871, ran into an aging Ralph Waldo Emerson on a train crossing the newly built Continental Railroad heading west towards California. Although Muir and Emerson both wanted to spend more time together, plans kept them apart and they never properly met. They were quite fond of each other, Emerson purportedly even saying that Muir was “more wonderful than Thoreau”.
Before meeting Emerson, Muir was already an avid reader of his works, and meeting him reinforced his passion in environmentalism. By reading the works of Thoreau, Fuller, and Emerson, he turned Transcendentalism’s romanticism into a force for environmental conservation and sustainability.
In an era of ecological turmoil, climate change, and unprecedented biodiversity loss, we, like Muir and Carson, must let ourselves be inspired by, and fully consumed by, nature itself. Only after truly realizing the beauty of our natural world and by opening our eyes to the sublimity that it can entrust within us can we be galvanized to protect it.
Adam Dhalla is a high school student out of Vancouver, British Columbia. He is fascinated with the outdoor world, and is currently learning about emerging technologies for an environmental purpose. Visit his website at adamdhalla.com.