The Positives and Negatives of Transcendentalism

The Positives and Negatives of Transcendentalism

“The reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself” (Rita Mae Brown). Conformity is a way out, a way to avoid trusting oneself and one selves own instincts. Transcendentalism is about not doing what others wish, when meeting the requirements of other people it shows a lack of self-confidence. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were all transcendentalists, they all believed in nonconformity, and the strengths of the individual. Although they all had transcendental beliefs Emerson was more of a philosopher. He mostly preached about transcendentalism rather than taking action on these beliefs, while Thoreau and Whitman actually made transcendentalism a large part of their lives. Not only did they practice what they preached, but when it came time for the consequences of their actions they took responsibility. The movie Dead Poets Society is about a teacher named Mr. Keating who teaches at a very conservative all boys school on the East coast. Mr. Keating teaches his students to question the things people tell them to do as well as teaching them to make their own decisions. This causes conflict because the society is all about conformity and they look down on transcendentalism. Despite society’s belief in non conformity and the weaknesses of transcendentalist philosophies Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman concentrated on the strengths in the individual versus society and this is clearly demonstrated in Dead Poets Society.

Both Emerson and Thoreau emphasized greatly on forming decisions without the input of others as well as being able to adapt to surroundings based on what is best for one. Emerson insisted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do” (Emerson 366). A philosophy Emerson believes in is when realizing when one way does not work, one should approach the obstacle in a different way. When something does not work and someone is consistent with their mistake they are viewed as unintelligent. This may be because people question there own opinions in what they believe to be right or wrong. One cause of conformity is the lack of self-confidence in ones opinions. This is something Thoreau strongly believes, “Men generally, under such a government at this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil” (Thoreau 373).Thoreau states that men make decisions based on what other people think. This is the total opposite of what transcendentalism is about. Transcendentalists believe people must think with their own minds and trust their own decisions without questioning themselves.

In fact, Walt Whitman as well as Dead Poets Society had a lot of the same transcendental perspectives as Thoreau and Emerson. In the movie Dead Poets society a boy, Neil expresses his newly acquired thoughts on what he has learned from his teacher Mr. Keating. “Neil: For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do! And for the first time, I'm going to DO IT! Whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!” (Weir) Neil is always use to doing what everyone tells him to do, especially his father who expects only the best from Neil. By following what people tell him to do Neil is not living life the way it should be lived, which is free. Mr. Keating teaches the boys that people should be free to make their own decisions, this is how transcendentalists live. They live liberated, with no one but themselves telling them what to do. Whitman believes much of these same concepts, he believes in living free and doing what is right for oneself. “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, / I, now thirty seven years old in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death. I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every/ hazard, / nature without check with original energy” (Whitman 6-13). Transcendentalism is not about doing what is good or bad for the society, but to break away from what society expects and doing what one believes is right for themselves. When a person does what they believe is right for themselves, they are being confident. Confidence is an extremely vast quality in being a transcendentalist.

However, Transcendentalists focused on the strengths of the individual rather than society’s belief in conformity. Thoreau and Emerson were both firm believers in the fact that people should not believe things simply because people tell them to. A strong transcendental philosophy is not questioning ones own morals, but the principles others tell them to believe. Thoreau states, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the rights. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (Thoreau 732). Thoreau believes that one should not follow any rules people set unless one agrees with them, this is very transcendental. It is definitely a virtuous thing to think for one and do what is right for oneself and not other people. Transcendentalists believe one must look out for themselves first and foremost along with not conforming to society. Emerson emphasizes, “What I must do is that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness” (Emerson 365).The transcendental strength this quote symbolizes is that people should do what they think is right for them. Being transcendental truly depends on ones personality, if the person is confident in their decisions and does not question themselves they would agree with transcendentalism. On the contrary, if a person is reserved they would like conformity due to the fact that they will follow others decisions and not have to make their own. Although people should do what is right for them, and rely on themselves, it may not be right for everyone. This method might be right for one person, but it might not be right for someone else.

Society looked down upon philosophers like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman as well as their beliefs, they saw transcendentalism as a weakness. While transcendentalism does focus on living free with only the individual’s beliefs to live by this does not mean getting out of control. In Dead Poets society Mr. John Keating advises, “Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone” (Weir). Transcendentalism concentrates on seizing the day and living life to its fullest. Although this is true, it is not an excuse for getting out of control. This would mean that an individual is so in over their head with freedom that they are out of control and might be at the point of purposely hurting oneself or others. Another reason society frowns upon transcendentalism is because, if somebody does not believe in laws, then they might then tend to break them based on their beliefs. For instance, Thoreau admits, “I was put into jail once on this account, foe one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were more flesh and blood and bones to be locked up” (Thoreau 375). A down side to transcendentalism is the fact that transcendentalists believe they should do what is right for them even if it does means breaking the law. Going to jail or paying fines would not be a dire consequence to breaking the law if the individual truly believed in what they stood up for. Also, society along with some people might disagree with transcendentalism because some people might take it to an extreme. There is a fine line between living a transcendentalist life and just being uncontrollable.

Although society believes in conformity and the weaknesses of transcendentalist philosophies, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman focus on the strengths in the individual against society and this is clearly established in the plot developments in Dead Poets Society. These three transcendentalists had many philosophies. One of which being overcoming obstacles by realizing ones mistakes and changing accordingly. Thoreau and Emerson take action on their beliefs, which not all of them are legal, but they do take responsibility for their actions. Whitman is more of a preacher who writes about his beliefs rather than actually acting on them. Transcendentalism can be both a strength as well as a weakness in ones life. It could be a strength because believing in oneself and having self-confidence is an important quality in life. Nevertheless, it could also be a weakness, too much confidence might cause someone to “choke on the bone”, which is like overwhelming with freedom. Transcendentalism is like a buffet, there are so many great things but if your eyes are bigger than your stomach you will end up in trouble.