Transcendental Individualism

During the second semester of my junior year, my English class’ curriculum revolved around the teachings of American Transcendentalist writers. This period of literature focused on philosophical and religious ideas related to transcendental thought. First practiced in the United States in the early 1800s, transcendentalism was started by a small group of progressive writers and poets who sought to redefine notions of individualism and government. These writers strongly believed that societal institutions and social contracts perverted the purity of individuality. They felt that isolation from society (interpreted differently by each author) was the only true way to carry out singular self-expression. With that in mind, our assignment was to build a project from the ground up that was in some way inspired and reflective of one of prominent authors of this period. I chose Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Above, a picture of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was one of the many prominent transcendental authors of the early 1800s.
Above, a picture of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was one of the many prominent transcendental authors of the early 1800s.

Emerson’s work held a strong emphasis on instinct and personal challenge. In his 1836 essay titled “Self-Reliance,” Emerson laid out the foundation of his minimalistic, self-reliant focus. He said, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” This notion made clear that clarity of mind can only be achieved when a person exercises individualistic thought. His words taught me that people should live for themselves, and themselves only—any distraction from reaching a truly independent mind should be viewed as a deterrent. On a similar note, he explained that wherever you go, “there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” In considering how I would approach creating a project based on his teachings, this concept became the primary driving factor.

After speaking with my teacher, I arrived at the conclusion that I would model his insistence of self-reliance on a physically challenging journey of my own. I settled on an idea that involved creating a three-week work out plan that would culminate with a 60 mile bike ride along the historic C&O Canal from Washington, D.C. (my hometown) to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. In practicing total self-reliance, I restricted myself from the advice of outside resources. That meant that I couldn’t search the Internet for advice on biking, or speak to trainers at my gym; I was forced to rely solely on my limited biking knowledge.

Above, a painting of the C&O Canal.
Above, a painting of the C&O Canal.

The day I set out on my trip to Harpers Ferry, I anticipated nothing but personal failure and regret. I felt as though the time I put in at the gym was entirely ineffective for reasons related to utter athletic incompetence. Regardless, I decided that I had to get on my bike and begin pedaling or my future as a Michigan Wolverine would be on the line. 10 miles in, I already hated myself. Although tired, I kept peddling, and to my surprise, the speed at which I was progressing increased. Nearly 5 hours later—and an innumerable amount of breaks (and a nap) later—I read a sign noting my near proximity to West Virginia. At that moment, I realized failure was no longer an option. It occurred to me that I had successfully relied on my own mental and physical ability to conquer a feat I considered impossible. The value of truly self-reliant thought in nature came as a surprise.

Looking back, arguably the most important fuel I had was that with which I acquired in preparing for the ride. If I had just simply decided one day to jump on my bike and ride 60 miles, no way would I have been able to do it. Although at seemingly hopeless moments during the trip, I felt entirely expended of energy, it was my subconscious personal trust and individualism that motivated me to keep peddling.

To that end, I couldn’t help but notice the many similarities between John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s teachings. Like Emerson, Mill was a passionate proponent of achieving freedom through individualism. He felt that variety of self-expression was essential to a constantly improving society. “But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed,” he says in “On Liberty.” While often those who stray from the path of conformity are regarded as outcasts, it is the individualists who initiate change. Dissimilarly however, Mill believed there exists a fine line between effective individualism and ineffective individualism. Those who carryout excessively distinctive thought can interfere with the general productivity of society. Mill advocated for maintaining a healthy balance between self-thought and conformism.

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