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What is American Transcendentalism?

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Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works












The Moral Wrongs of Obamacare. Part 1. Entrenching the Medical-Industrial Compex

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I believe it is important to set down, in as methodical and systematic way as possible, the ways in which Obamacare is not only risky or potentially harmful, but actually something morally wrong.  Several times I’ve begun to write an article that does this, and each time had to quit as the task became simply overwhelming in scope.  It is a big issue, a huge one.  We’re talking about something that may constitute, both in what it is and what it may lead to, a fundamental restructuring of the system of American government and the nature of our society.  Yet, as many times as I give up and put the project aside, I feel dissatisfied for having done so and return to it again.

In part, what I face is what every person faces when, in a debate, they encounter the big lie.  The big lie is the tactic by which a party presents a falsehood so enormous, so outrageous, so utterly beyond the realm of plausibility, that it literally overwhelms the ability of the other party to refute it.  The opponent is simply flummoxed, bewildered by the sheer audacity.  The big lie changes the ground rules of a debate, transforming what should be an earnest attempt by two agents of good-will to find the truth, into something of bad-will.  The big lie is a power play, a trick, which seeks to win  by deceit and  subterfuge.

The big lie tactic therefore, is not used, or should not be, by decent people, either in debates between two people, or between groups of individuals in a social or political context.  However in the present case we are not debating an individual, nor groups of individuals.  We are ‘debating’ – in a broad sense of that term – a vast system, something intrinsically amoral.  It is a system like or analogous to the military-industrial complex, but something much greater; a system that includes our government, our political parties, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and our news and entertainment media.  Moreover, each of us is, to varying extents, consciously or unconsciously, part of this system.  Anyone who has a mutual fund or retirement plan with dividends linked to Wall Street profits, is, to some extent, part of this system.  This system is our opponent.  That it resorts to the big lie to sway public opinion is the least of our problems.

One reason the big lie tactic is so effective is that an opponent faced with the prospect of refuting it envisions how hard a task it will be, and simply gives up before trying.  Much as I might like to do that, I simply don’t see it at as an option.  The only alternative, therefore, is to try to make this daunting task more manageable by breaking into several smaller ones.  The present, then, will be the first of several installments dedicated to this.

Preliminary Remarks

Some preliminary remarks are in order.  First I wish the reader to know that I am most certainly committed to the principle of social justice – both in general, and in the particular matter of health care.  I *am* a health professional, and I chose that profession not to make money, but because helping people with health and psychological problems is in my nature.  It is my vocation (or, at least, one of my vocations).  In fact, it is precisely *because* I care about people’s health that I am opposed to Obamacare, which I see as ultimately harmful to public health. I have major political and economic concerns, also; but, frankly, I would be willing to overlook these were it not for the disastrous effects on public health.

Second, I should make clear that it is not Obamacare in particular that I am concerned about, but rather any attempt to place the healthcare system further under the management and direction of the federal government.  If a plan of universal health care administered at the level of local or county governments could be developed, I would have much less reason to object.  In any case, it is certainly not because the new plan is associated with President Obama that I object.  For me that is simply a term.

Third, I wish to clarify what I mean by “moral wrong.”  I mean this in the strictly technical sense of moral philosophy.  That is by “moral wrong” I mean (1) what is opposite or opposed to moral good; and (2) that which we therefore have a moral responsibility to prevent, change, or oppose.

Finally, it should be pointed out that I am not writing this out of any need or wish on my part to merely complain or criticize.  There is already too much emotionalism, antagonism, and partisan strife in society today.  I know better than to be part of that.  I am writing because I should.  I have many years’ experience in diverse facets of the health field, an insider’s perspective (including positions at
Duke University, Wake Forest University, and the RAND Corporation) and, it could honestly be said, a uniquely informed one.  Much as I might like to evade it, I have a civic responsibility to write about this.

These clarifications made, let’s proceed to the analysis.

Reason 1.  Industrial Medicine

The first and greatest reason why I see Obamacare as morally wrong is that it will consolidate and entrench the paradigm of modern industrial medicine in our society.

By consolidate I mean it will strengthen and make more prominent the model of industrial medicine, and those organizations and institutions that promote it, and it will drive out competing, non-industrial health paradigms.  By entrench I mean that, once consolidated, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible, at least for many years, to change that paradigm.  We will watch in anger and disgust as public health and healthcare deteriorate, and be powerless to change it.

By modern industrial medicine I mean the prevailing system by which medicine is practiced today, which emphasizes (1) domination of healthcare and policy by large corporations, (2) treatment rather than prevention; and (3) expensive rather than moderately or low-priced alternatives.

The modern paradigm of industrial medicine is inextricably linked with profit motivation.  The innovations in healthcare, the new products that emerge, are those which deliver the most profit to corporations.  The nature of the system is that there is every incentive to develop expensive, invasive interventions, and virtually none to produce less expensive and less invasive treatments.  The paradoxical nature of “health for profit” can be illustrated with a hypothetical example: if we had the technology to develop a pill that cured the common cold that cost .1 cent per dose, we wouldn’t do so.  There’d be no profit in it.  But if the same pill could be sold for $10, companies would be fighting tooth and nail to develop and market it.

Similarly, it is well within our technological ability to wipe out a global scourge like malaria; but this receives comparatively little attention, because it isn’t seen as profitable.  I don’t know the actual statistics, but wouldn’t surprise me if more money is spent in the US developing new versions of Viagra and Cialis than goes into anti-malaria research.

Malaria doesn’t affect public health in the US, but obesity does.  So do the effects of alcohol and tobacco use.  The effects of this deadly trio alone probably account for at least half of all hospital admissions in the US.  We have virtually an unlimited ability to prevent these problems.  Anybody can stop smoking.  Most obesity can be prevented by intervening in childhood.  But, again, it’s much more profitable to treat the outcomes of these problems than to concentrate on prevention.

This problem affects the very foundation of medicine, the culture of it.  It affects how physicians, nurses, and medical researchers are trained.  It affects undergraduate education.  By the time someone gets an MD or a research PhD, they are fully indoctrinated in this model.  It becomes difficult to think of health in any other terms.

As long as the federal government stays out of healthcare there is some hope for change.  We always have the potential for new ideas and innovators to arise at the grass-roots level, to demonstrate new paradigms, which catch on and influence others.  But the danger of Obamacare is that, in centralizing healthcare delivery, planning, and policy to an unprecedented degree, and laying the foundation for still further centralization, we make it much harder for the grass-roots kind of innovation to occur.  Instead, will have a massively top-down model of dissemination of technology and practice.  Centralized boards will review and approve only certain medical procedures, and will pressure all players to use these methods.  Further, it is the large corporations who will have the most influence in choosing these methods and designing policies.  Naturally these policies will lean towards  practices and a basic philosophy of medicine that produces the most profits.

It is not just the actual dangers outlined above that concern me.  Beyond these is the fact that we will be placing literally our lives under the control of a vast, amoral, non-human system.  We have already seen, over the last 50 or 60 years, what happens when we place national defense in the hands of such a system: instead of peace, which is the natural desire of every human being, we have perpetual war.  Our collective policy becomes utterly dehumanized, and inimical to each individual.  I do not see how we can expect anything different when we hand over control of our health to the federal government and profit-driven corporate system.

The Occupy Movement, Agrarianism, and Land Reform

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ALTHOUGH the Occupy Movement is voicing many important social and economic concerns, one has thus far escaped attention:  land reform. Here we outline arguments in favor of its inclusion.

The well-known monetary disparity, such that 10% of Americans have 90% of the wealth, is paralleled in land ownership.  Media baron Ted Turner, for example, alone owns more than 2.2 million acres — an area larger than Delaware!

Moreover, the federal government owns vast expanses of habitable land, including military bases, National Forests, and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  In administering public lands, federal agencies, especially the BLM, are frequently accused of being overly responsive to corporate special interests.

We should consider the reorganization of land to produce a more just, happy and harmonious social system.  This may seem an unconventional and unrealistic proposal, but the truth is that reallocation of land to improve social justice has been done throughout history.

Legislation to allocate small parcels of public land to private homesteaders is easily accomplished.  Though no longer in force, the Homestead Act nevertheless established a precedent we may follow

With respect to vast private lands, we must first forestall the obvious objection:  that private parties have an inalienable right to retain lands to which they currently hold title.  This is definitely not so. Ownership of real estate — save, perhaps, that on which ones house and garden sit — is not a  natural (and hence inalienable) right.  We can allow that people have a natural right to own the property on which their domicile sits; or perhaps a few acres with which they ‘mingle their hands with the soil’ for sustenance.  But private ownership of larger parcels of land is an arbitrary social convention — something created by legislation, and removable by legislation.   Society may change such conventions according to the will of the majority and for good of society.  To be clear: this does not dispute that private parties have, in our society, a right to own land  — only that this is a legislated right, not a natural one.  That is, we could envision a society in which all the people got together and decided to disallow the owning of large tracts of land.  Certainly we can find indigenous societies where such is the case.

The idea of legally limiting public land ownership is not utterly foreign to European and American political theory.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, advocated the usufruct principle.  This holds that private citizens have a right to use the land and enjoy it’s fruits — but not to own it.  If you plant an orchard, you might own the apples, not the land itself.


What concerns us is not just land redistribution, but, more broadly, effecting a transition to a more sustainable, natural, agrarian society.  Agrarianism, in a historical sense, can be defined as:  “the doctrine of an equal division of landed property and the advancement of agricultural groups.”  Today we may extend the definition by envisioning a migration of a certain number of modern urban dwellers to the country, where they may live sustainably in individual homesteads and/or intentional communities.

Sustainability would imply emphasis on self-sufficiency, including cultivating gardens or crops for food, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and like things.

Advantages of a More Agrarian Society

It seems self-evident that much would be gained by redistributing land to give more people the ability to leave the large cities and start self-sustaining, rural homesteads.  Certainly this is appealing to the sensibilities of many.  Specific advantages include these:

  • Gets  people out of crowded urban areas
    • reduces pollution
    • reduces stress, anxiety, and confusion associated with modern urban life
    • reduces water and energy problems
  • Eliminates commuting lifestyle
  • Healthy country living and natural food would promote good health and reduce health-care costs for society.
  • People can live in harmony with nature: the earth is made for man, and man for the earth.
  • 5000 homesteads = 5000 experiments in sustainable living and crop innovation
  • With the option to leave and migrate to the country, urban workers gain better bargaining position; can demand better wages and working conditions
  • Agrarian happiness doesn’t require a $100k college education
  • Committed individuals living on land can help preserve it (stewardship)

The last point is important because it counters the objection that National Forests or large conservancy land tracts should be left free from human habitation.  Responsible people can live within such areas in ways that enhance, not interfere with forest and wildlife preservation.


Is redistribution of land possible, or merely a pipe-dream?

It’s important here to refer to American history, in which a strong current of agrarianism has always operated. Indeed, the history of American economic ideology can be seen as a dynamic tension-of-opposites between agrarianism and commercialism.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the opposing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson, the Virginian farmer, wanted the country to follow an agrarian path.  He hated cities, in fact, and considered them breeding grounds for vice and unhappiness.  He believed that a nation of independent, citizen-farmers was the best way to achieve just and stable democracy.

In a draft constitution for Virginia, Jefferson proposed: “Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned 50 acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of 50 acres”.  This proposal did not eventuate, but Jefferson did succeed in abolishing primogeniture laws in Virginia. Primogeniture is the custom by which all land in a family is inherited by the oldest son; abolishing primogeniture had the effect of, over several generations, breaking down large land tracts and distributing land ownership more fairly.

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example…. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition…. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff…. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strenth of the human body.

Source:  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 19, 1787.

Jefferson was not the only advocate of agrarianism.  John Taylor of Caroline, for example — the American foil to free marketer Adam Smith — supplied a philosophical and economic foundation for agrarian principles.

In contrast, Alexander Hamilton (who, incidentally, was one of Wall Street’s founders), believed America must follow the path of commerce and industrialization; for this, centralized banking and a financial infrastructure to promote corporate investment was needed.   Hamilton’s party won the day, setting in motion a series of reactions and counter-reactions that have continued since.

Acquisition of new territory (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase), along with growing unemployment and immigration in cities, produced a gradual campaign of political agitation for land access.  A wave of agrarian fervor swept the nation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  And a few years later, a new phase of agrarian populism began, associated with such names as Horace Greeley, George Henry Evans, Henry George, and George Julian.

The movement gained steady ground.  In 1848, Martin Van Buren ran for president as the nominee of a newly formed Free Soil party.  Pamphlets circulated, and the phrase “Vote Yourself a Farm!” became a popular slogan.  Extracts from one such pamphlet are revealing:

Are you tired of slavery — of drudging for others — of poverty and its attendant miseries? Then, Vote yourself a farm.

Are you endowed with reason? Then you must know that your right to life hereby includes the right to a place to live in — the right to a home. Assert this right, so long denied mankind by feudal robbers and their attorneys. Vote yourself a farm.

Are you a man? Then assert the sacred rights of man — especially your right to stand upon God’s earth, and to till it for your own profit. Vote yourself a farm.

Would you free your country, and the sons of toil everywhere, from the heartless, irresponsible mastery of the aristocracy of avarice? Would you disarm this aristocracy of its chief weapon, the fearful power of banishment from God’s earth? Then join with your neighbors to form a true American party, having for its guidance the principles of the American revolution, and whose chief measures shall be — 1. To limit the quantity of land that any one man may henceforth monopolize or inherit; and 2. To make the public lands free to actual settlers only, each having the right to sell his improvements to any man not possessed of other land. (Reference: 1846 handbill.)

This activity culminated with the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Act, an applicant could receive up to 160 acres of undeveloped public land. Requirements were minimal:  applicants needed only (1) to be at least 21 years old, (2) to live on the land for five years, and (3) to show evidence of having ‘made improvements’ to the land.

Despite problems, including widespread fraud by middle-men brokers (and national theft of Native American lands), the Act was, to judge by the number of families who participated, a  spectacular success.  Another testimony to the program’s success was its longevity: the Act stayed in effect for over a century: until 1976 in the lower 48 states, and 1986 in Alaska.


This brings us to the present.  Clearly the tradition of agrarian reform is long and deep in American history.  It is eminently practical, and reflects the simple truth that it makes no sense to crowd people in cities when there are millions of acres of habitable land available.  It is, arguably, simply unnatural.  In 1850, 85% of Americans lived outside of cities.  By 1900, 60% of the population lived rurally.  Today the rate is perhaps 20%.  Perhaps we should reverse this trend.

This doesn’t mean scrapping cities.  Logically, what seems best is a balance between commerce and agrarianism, urban and rural living.  It seems, though, that we are today at a crest of a radically commercial phase, with urban areas falling apart and becoming increasingly aversive. A convergence of social and environmental problems suggests it may be time to shift towards agrarianism to restore balance.


Clawson, Marion. Uncle Sam’s Acres. Dodd, Mead, 1951 (repr. Greenwood Press, 1970). ISBN: 0837133564.

Commons, John R. (ed.) A Documentary History of American Industrial Society: Volume 7 and Volume 8. Labor movement (1840 – 1860, Parts 1 and 2). Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1910.

Dick, Everett. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands. University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Gates, Paul W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN: 0826316999.

Landau, Elaine. The Homestead Act (children’s book). Children’s Press, 2006. ISBN: 0516258702.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought (3 Volumes). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927 (repr. 1987). ISBN: 0806120819. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Porterfield, Jason. The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History. Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN: 1404201785.

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936. Peter Smith, 1950. ISBN: 0803208669.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth. Harvard, 1950.

Thompson, Paul B.  The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. University of Kentucky, 2010. ISBN: 0813125871.

Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy. Hill & Wang, 1935 (repr. 1960). ISBN: 0809000288.


Thoreau and Occupy Wall Street: Life Without Principle

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Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), American Transcendentalist philospher and writer.

Could American Transcendentalism serve as a philosophical foundation for the Occupy Wall Street movement? While this is perhaps worth exploring in some detail, here we shall be content to tread lightly – quoting from one of Henry David Thoreau’s (1817–1862) best works, his essay, Life Without Principle.

Reference: Thoreau, Henry D. ‘Life Without Principle’. In: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (11 Volumes), Vol. 10 (Miscellanies), pp. 263-287. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1894.

The following extracts are presented in the order as they appear in the work.

Part 1

This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

You may raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

You must get your living by loving.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

To be supported by the charity of friends, or a government pension, — provided you continue to breathe, — by whatever fine synonyms you describe these relations, is to go into the almshouse.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The ways in which most men get their living, that is, live, are mere makeshifts, and a shirking of the real business of life, — chiefly because they do not know, but partly because they do not mean, any better.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

God gave the righteous man a certificate entitling him to food and raiment, but the unrighteous man found a facsimile of the same in God’s coffers, and appropriated it, and obtained food and raiment like the former. It is one of the most extensive systems of counterfeiting that the world has seen. I did not know that mankind were suffering for want of gold. I have seen a little of it. I know that it is very malleable, but not so malleable as wit. A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily, though it were only the finest particles, — why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold within me, and work that mine.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Part 2

A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

We do not live for idle amusement. I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself,
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant,
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If we have thus desecrated ourselves, — as who has not? — the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice?
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

We are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The chief want [i.e., what is missing] , in every State that I have been into, was a high and earnest purpose in its inhabitants.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, — those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I have not got to answer for having read a single President’s Message.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves, — sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia…. Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)


Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

The Gaia Hypothesis and 9/11

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Last weekend I drove my elderly father somewhere and, while waiting for him, felt an impulse to check the trunk of his car.  While straightening out the messy trunk I noticed a road map and sensed it would be useful. When we got home, I placed the map in my own truck and didn’t think about it again.

That is, not until later, when I drove from Paso Robles (California) to Pleasanton, 200 miles north, where I consult.  On Interstate 101, just north of Salinas, there was a large traffic jam – unusual for a Sunday afternoon.  It  promised a long, nerve-wracking delay, so I pulled off the road, hoping to wait it out.  Then I remembered the map: maybe it would show a back-road to bypass the traffic.  As luck would have it, the map covered the Salinas area, and, what’s more, showed a back-road nearby.

I backed up on the roadside and headed to the alternate route – and a ramble through the hills north of Salinas, an area I’d never previously visited or knew existed, surrounded by oak trees and small farms.  This ended at the mission town of San Juan Bautista, a laid-back place where chickens still roam about.  From there I cut back over to Interstate 101, having bypassed the traffic.

Things jammed up again, however, a few miles further, past Gilroy, but Fortune relented a second time:  again the map showed a handy side road.  This time I was treated to a shady jaunt through a horse ranching area.

I picked up the interstate again south of San Jose.  At this point there was no traffic jam per se, just the ordinary ordeal of five lanes (each way) of congested, fast-moving traffic.  I’ve driven this stretch many times in recent months, but this time noticed it in a new way.  There was something palpably unpleasant, agitating about it — a kind of negative energy or ‘vibration’, one might say.  It was as though the collective angst and frustration of all the drivers was pooled together and could be felt.  What made me notice it so vividly this time was precisely that I had spent the previous hour on tranquil back roads.

It reminded me of a story I once read about a modern Arctic explorer – a man who kayaked from Greenland to Alaska.  He described how, after months in the wilderness, he returned to civilization and felt ill, disoriented, and out of place.  Even as early as arriving at Alaska’s North Shore oil fields – with no other person present, but merely the signs of modern civilization – he felt nauseous.

That’s something like how I felt, though on a lesser scale.  The abrupt change confronted me with something that I, and perhaps most other people, usually try to ignore or forget:  that modern urban life is radically out of balance and against our needs and wants as human beings.  If we weren’t habituated to it, we might see that it’s literally sickening.

Remember this commercial?

In 2001, when 9/11 occurred, I was living in Los Angeles. I was involved in the effort to save Ahmanson Ranch, one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts of land in LA Country and an important wildlife refuge.  This brought me into confrontation with the materialistic values of my native Southern California and with the “greedy corporate mentality” that was trying to develop Ahmanson Ranch over everybody’s objections.

When I saw the first images of the Twin Towers in flames, my first reaction (after initial disbelief, and natural concern for the victims) was something like, “Well, what else did people expect!”  I wasn’t consumed with hatred for the terrorists or a thirst for revenge.  Rather, it seemed apparent to me that American society had become so completely dissociated from Nature, and from human nature, that this result was almost predictable.

The Gaia Hypothesis

I’ve kept these thoughts mostly to myself these last 9 1/2 years.  But the experience last weekend somehow jogged my unconscious, and I saw how they could be expressed in terms of the Gaia hypothesis.  A short definition of the hypothesis is as follows:

The Gaia Hypothesis is the theory that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shape Earth’s biosphere, in Lynn Margulis’s words, a “super organismic system”  The earth is a self-regulating environment; a single, unified, cooperating and living system – a superorganism that regulates physical conditions to keep the environment hospitable for life.”  Source:

Flavors of the Gaia hypothesis range from a New Agey kind of metaphysical view (‘Gaism’ as a of religion), to a more scientific view based on ecology, biology, and systems theory.  In any case, the Gaia hypothesis comports with intuition, common sense, and experience alike in suggesting that, if you push Nature around enough, you can expect push-back.  (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”)

Consider an example.  Some suggest that a bee-hive is really a super-organism.  If one bee starts doing things against the good of the hive, it can expect, first, a few angry pokes from the others, and, if that doesn’t work, to get stung.  A superorganism has feedback and control mechanisms built-in. The only way a complex system can survive long is if it has such mechanisms.

By 2001, society had, in my view, already broken down in Los Angeles.  Traffic was horrendous.  There was no affordable housing in the city or nearby areas.  Many people were driving 60 miles to and from work because they couldn’t afford to live any closer.

Greed and Selfishness

Others responded with personal real estate speculation: the game was to buy the most expensive property one could afford, on the assumption that, with continued increase in house prices, one would build up a large equity within 5 years, to be taken as profit.  In short, people denied or ignored the unlivable lifestyle, hoping that, in a few years, they could cash in. Never mind that, besides literally betting the farm on the wrong assumption that real estate would appreciate indefinitely, this scheme only worked by passing on the burden of higher prices to the next buyer.  It was completely greedy:  “let the other poor sucker pony up an extra 50 grand for the house, even though its intrinsic value hasn’t changed, and put it in my pocket.”

Real estate developers and banks (and the federal government) were only too happy to accommodate this personal greed by building and financing bigger houses.  Families of 2 or 3 were buying 5 bedroom mansions (the bigger the house, the more money to be made on speculation.)  On every developable piece of land the largest possible house was built.  Cookie-cutter villas were packed into grids so densely that neighbors could reach out their windows and shake hands.

This also negatively affected the workplace.  Californians were now deeply in debt, stuck with large mortgage payments.  Because keeping ones job became essential, nobody would dare do or say anything to jeopardize their paycheck. Working in the pharmaceutical field, I witnessed a remarkable decline in the conditions and values of the industry.  What began as an earnest attempt of idealistic professionals to make medicine, cure disease, and reduce human suffering became an endless quest for yearly, double-digit corporate profits, to be achieved at any cost.  The industry was surviving more by endless mergers and restructuring than by producing anything.

This same pattern was being played out in other industries and regions of the United States.  We were clearly a culture in decline.  This had not happened suddenly.  Dire warnings about the environment and society had begun in the 1950’s.  In 1982, the remarkable movie, Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, supplied a vivid artistic portrayal of the problem.  But despite foreshadowings of what was to come, nobody took the warnings to heart. By 2001 things were at least twice as bad as in the 80’s.   Much more ominously, nobody was even talking about the problems any more, much less trying to address them.  All interest was on a series of political and pop-culture distractions:  Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, O. J….one media circus after another.

Note the uncanny and chillingly prophetic, almost subliminal scene at 1:43 in this clip.  That’s not one of the Twin Towers collapsing.  This was filmed 20 years before 9/11.

The Gaia hypothesis implies that, when things get too far out of balance, a correction is inevitable.  It seems reasonable to try looking at the 9/11 disaster in this way.  Some may object:  but it was Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, not Nature, that did this.  That’s almost irrelevant; maybe, in theory, ‘Gaia’ could have responded with a wholly natural event, like an earthquake or flood.  But if that had occurred, would we have paid attention, or would we have just written it off as a random event?  Instead, perhaps Nature chose to act by pushing some borderline terrorists over the edge in their disordered thinking. Stranger things have happened.

What should have ocurred soon after 9/11 – after looking after the survivors, caring for the affected families, and taking sensible security precautions — would have been to ask: “what have we done to make these people so mad at us?”   Possible answers aren’t hard to find.  It suffices to say that, not only have we done our best to destroy our country, but we’ve also managed to export our crass materialism to the rest of the world.  Can this be said out loud yet:  if we weren’t Americans, we’d be angry with America, too?  In fact, we were already blowing ourselves up – witness Timothy McVey and Ted Kaczynski.

Instead our leaders fell back on the most ridiculous response imaginable, claiming:  “they hate us because we’re free!”   Rather than engage in any kind of concerted self-examination, we externalized all blame and lashed out, throwing not one, but two hellish, trillion-dollar temper tantrums in Afghanistan and Iraq, unleashing new aggression and violence to further upset the planet.  As a consequence, we are, in 2010, much worse off.

Implications of the Gaia Hypothesis

Fortunately, the Gaia hypothesis has a positive aspect.  If the Earth is something like a superorganism, hopefully it still wants to keep us around; we do manage to do nice things now and then when we try.  Perhaps, like God, Gaia chastises those whom she loves: the point is not to destroy, but to improve us, and, ultimately, to place us back on the road to happiness.

Let’s get back on track, America.  Let’s, first of all, end this wretched war in Afghanistan, and not start any new wars.  Then let’s admit the problems that face us – environmental deterioration, urban sprawl, lack of planning and foresight, inane or nonexistent cultural values, a political climate of continual hostility and ill-will, domestic injustice, and indifference to the needs and suffering of the rest of the world.

The recent, interminable succession of crises and catastrophes was in a general sense, accurately predicted by the Harvard sociologist Pitirm A. Sorokin as early as 1937.  Based on an exhaustive analysis of world history, Sorokin saw that severe crises inevitably accompany a transition from one cultural epoch to another.  But he also recognized that, at the same time a culture becomes decadent, a contrary force emerges – and this force gathers strength rapidly.  We have already seen signs of this counter-force in the form of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and emerging ideas like the environmental movement, the 1960’s peace movement, holistic health, sustainable living, and more recently anti-globalization concerns.  The path forward is there – it’s just a matter of enough people disengaging from the mentality of the dying ultra-materialist culture.

I can think of no better way to end this post than with the words of the 1969 Joni Mitchell song, “Woodstock”:

We are stardust, we are golden,
Caught in the devil’s bargain.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.

The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

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The Social Contract, Thoreau, and the Individual Health Insurance Mandate

It used to be (and hopefully is still the case), that, if one really wanted to, one could go some place like Montana, build a cabin, and ‘live off the land’. Today people associate this with extremists, but traditionally in American history this was just called homesteading. (Until recently, this was still done in Alaska; maybe it still is.) With no income, a person wouldn’t have to pay income tax. If someone else owned the land and let the person live there, there would be no property taxes. This person could live like Thoreau, a totally free individual. And, like Thoreau, this person, by virtue of this independence, might be able to more fully realize the depths and potentials of the human soul better than those who merely live like cogs in a machine.

Now consider that our Constitution, and our country itself, is founded on the principle of the Social Contract. By this principle, consenting individuals freely choose to abrogate the exercise of certain rights in exchange for the benefits of living in a community. Although they abrogate the exercise of certain rights (it is not clear that a person ever surrenders rights per se, but only the exercise of rights), they retain their essential freedom because they have freely chosen to participate in the Social Contract. The possibility to ‘live off the land’, or whatever else one wants to call it, arguably preserves our essential freedom. Perhaps in all cases a person would be foolish or unrealistic to drop out like this; maybe it should never be done in practice. But even if nobody chooses it, the option to live off the land exists: this makes us essentially free, and makes participation in the Social Contract a free choice.

Contrarily, if participation in the Social Contract is forced, then not only are people not free, but the Social Contract is invalid: a fundamental, universally acknowledged principle governing contracts is that parties must freely agree to participate; any contract effected by coercion is automatically invalid.

The Constitution does not go into the details of the Social Contract, but it is evident in the writings of the founding fathers that such considerations guided them. The insurance mandate would remove the ability of a person to live entirely freely. In theory, a person would need to earn money to pay the required subscription premium. If this does not negate the Social Contract entirely, then it is at least a fundamental alteration of in the nature of that contract, which is something not to be taken lightly. A change in the relationship of the individual to society/government this major should only be made with broad citizen support, with careful deliberation, and, preferably, only by means of a constitutional amendment.

Further, as the connection with Thoreau helps make evident, the current debate does broach issues related to religious freedom. If we build a society where there can no longer be a hermitage at Walden Pond, then some would argue that government is attempting to limit and control the human soul.

John Uebersax PhD is a former faculty member of the Wake Forest Medical School and RAND Corporation policy analyst.

Written by John Uebersax

March 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm