Society and Collectivism
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s experiences in life create a pathway that guides the development of his morals and values. Through his journey, he establishes a unique interpretation towards life that he culminates in “Self Reliance.” By understanding Emerson’s philosophy, John Steinbeck accomplishes his desire to spread collectivism though The Grapes of Wrath. Realizing the superfluous amount of conformity and consistency in society, Steinbeck utilizes his characters to stress the importance of self-reliance because it broadcasts the benefits of collectivism while igniting the development of original ideas that could change society.
The notion of self-reliance invokes change in Jim Casy’s life. Throughout his life, the preacher relies on religion to dictate his life and his decisions because society stresses devoutness, thus influencing his decision to preach. Along with the desire to create happiness for the people that he encounters, conformity hinders Casy from reflecting on his own morals. His inability to act on his own opinion causes religion to consume his life. Emerson argues, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”(24). Since mankind “are loath to disappoint,” Casy constantly preaches “somepin [he] thought would make ‘em happy” because he could not develop alternative ways to live life while making people happy. Consistently relying on religion harms the preacher’s ability to form novel ideas without outside influence because “with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do” (24). Although Jesus dominates the community, Casy finally senses the need for change because “‘[he] know a bunch of stories [about Jesus], but [he] only love people’” (23). He understands his failure in allowing an unknown person to control his life, accepts his mistakes, and pledges to act on his opinion and morals so that his and other people’s lives change for the good. Through his spiritual journey, Casy escapes society’s religious prison and achieves self-reliance. He “can’t say no grace” because he “ain’t got the call” due to his rejection of society’s ideals and morals, such as religion. He values that “there’s love here” more that he values the “sperit” and a person named “Jesus,” thus influencing his decision to stop preaching. Although he doesn’t quite reach self-reliance due to his reliance on religion, he still develops the basis of “a lot of sinful idears [that] seem kinda sensible” (20). Fueling his spiritual journey, these ideas develop a foundation for Casy’s collectivist ideology.
Throughout his migration with the Joad family, Casy fully realizes the meaning of community and life from the lens of cooperation and desires to share his message with civilization. Even though Jim Casy completes his evolution from a conformist preacher to an innovative philosopher, he must broadcast his new ideology and operate within the walls of in justice, thus fully achieving self-reliance. As Emerson portrays, “It is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crow keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (23). Jim Casy understands that his spiritual journey becomes worthless if he neglects the opportunity to work with his collectivist ideals around civilization. Although people “don’ know what [they’re] a doin,” Casy’s spiritual and metamorphosis succeeds because “to be great is to be misunderstood” (25). Realizing the importance of his message, Casy “[dodges] down into the swing” and becomes a martyr because he concludes that tragic and unjust death would spread his communal ideology. Jim Casy’s voluntary death steers Tom Joad towards the path of self-reliance because it lays the final tracks for Tom’s philosophical evolution. Discovering he importance of self reliance, Jim Casy informs Tom of his mission: “Maybe I can’t tell you…Maybe you got to find out” (382).
Throughout the novel, Tom learns from Jim Casy’s actions, speech, and spiritual journey, but he never quite figures out the true meaning of collectivism because one must achieve self-reliance so that new ideas develop. If Jim Casy attempts to inform Tom about his take on society and collectivism, then Tom’s actions for society would simulate “an apology or extenuation of their living in the world” (22). Tom must undergo a separate process to achieve self-reliance, develop an original meaning towards life and collectivism, and act on his realization. Jim Casy’s death and Tom’s experiences in California paves the road for Tom’s transformation. After he explores life to the greatest extent in the cave, Tom pledges to help people “wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat…wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy,” thus establishing his presence as a fully realize and self-reliance prophet. Quite similar to Jim Casy, Ma Joad completes an individual journey and alters her ideology and view on life that pertains to family and community. Throughout her life, Ma stress the importance of family: “‘ What we got lef’ in the world’? Nothin’ but us. Nothin’ but the folks’” (169). The farm in Oklahoma creates symbolic walls that surround the family and isolate other members of society, thus explaining Ma’s dedication towards family.
The family’s migration to California dissolves the traditional sense of family, thus infiltrating Ma’s mind and spinning the wheels of evolution. Encounters with the cops and impoverished people foreshadow her journey’s conclusion because it forces Ma to realize that “these folks is our folks” and “they’re the only ones that’ll help” (376). Upon parting with Tom, Ma understands this new perspective on life, but remains hesitant to accept it and implement collectivism into her life, thus failing to finish her journey self-reliantly. Nevertheless, Ma’s rebirth occurs after exiting the womb-like cave and battling the her daughter’s birth because she accepts that “use’ta be the family was fust. It ain’t so now”(445). As her journey concludes, she implements her fresh interpretation of collectivism into her life because she understands that “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all man – that is genius” (19), thus achieving self reliance.
Achieving self-reliance, Steinbeck publishes his novel The Grapes of Wrath in spite of being ostracized by a majority of his readers for acting like a communist. His portrayal of Jim Casy, Tom, and Ma publicizes the benefits of self-reliance and collectivism. Through his philosophy, Emerson teaches Steinbeck and society that consistency and conformity plague individualism, creativity, and the mind, thus evoking realizations about life among humanity.
Comments on “Civil Disobedience”
At the beginning of “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau expresses agreement with the idea “that government is best which governs least”. When carried to its logical conclusion, this concept leads to the realization “that government is best which governs not at all”. Thoreau believes government is the mode people have chosen to affect their will and is apt to be exploited before the people can act through it. Whatever the government assumes or promises, Thoreau argues, it does not keep a country free and it does not educate. He claims that all good that has been accomplished in America has been done not by the government, but by the people. He also argues that further accomplishments may have been reached if the government had not interfered. Thoreau states that as a reasonable citizen, he does not ask for no government at all, but an improved government. The first step in improving a government is for the people to identify what kind of government would earn their respect and loyalty. The problem is that not every individual has a say in how the government should perform, and many do not have the respect or even acknowledgement from the government. The majority can rule simply because it is more physically powerful, and the minority has essentially no say in shaping law. To Thoreau, a government based on majority rule is not based on justice. He asks, “Should an individual citizen have to resign his conscience to the legislator?” If this is so, why would a person even have a conscience? Thoreau states that we should be men first and subjects later. It is not desirable to develop a high opinion of the law, so much as for justice and right. For an individual to do what he thinks is right is the only duty which one has the right to assume. Thoreau makes a good argument; a group on its own has no conscience. However, a group of conscientious people is a conscientious group. Thoreau claims that when the people have respect for an undeserving government, the only natural result is that the people will be following the law against their wills, against their common sense, and against their conscience. So, Thoreau asks, are these people men at all? He states, “A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be clay”. Thoreau states that most men do recognize the right of revolution when a government’s tyranny or inefficiency are sufficiently great and unendurable. When most of a country is unjustly overrun, then this is the time for honest individuals to rebel and revolt. Thoreau refers to voting as “a game”. He states that a person votes as he thinks is right, but that he is not necessarily bothered by whether or not his belief – his vote – is successful. The people, he believes, seem to be willing to leave this to the majority. Thoreau argues that a real wise man would not take the risk of what is right not prevailing and would also realize that there is not much virtue in the action of the mass. But as far as real men go, Thoreau believes that they are few and rare. He makes this clear in this essay; “How many men are there to a square thousand miles in the country? Hardly one.” Thoreau believes that there are few real people, it seems, because we are hypocritical, inconsistent, and weak in our beliefs. He claims that many disapprove of the nature of the government but continue to support it. Such people, he argues, should be resisting the government. An individual cannot genuinely be content when he knows he is consciously being cheated or deceived. Thoreau believes that instead of obeying rules one knows to be unjust, the individual should attempt to alter those laws. He suggests that the power of governmental control is what causes people to perceive resistance as worse than obedience. The government and the mass do not seem to be aware of or appreciate the wise minority who would push for reform, and those who choose to resist are punished and humiliated. Most people would rather wait until the majority agrees that laws should be revised via traditional process than to resist. Thoreau argues that if a government expects an individual to follow and carry out injustice, then that government is not one that should be followed. He makes a very good claim by saying that when one is under a government which unjustly imprisons people, then prison would be the appropriate place for a true, just individual. Thoreau evidently believes that an individual should not follow laws which he or she believes to be unjust. He states, “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not joined.” He declares that a real man would find it less confining to be locked up in a prison cell knowing that he was doing what is right, rather than living “free” in a society while obeying laws he believes to be wrong. Thoreau tries to make it clear at the end of the essay that he does not hate the idea of government, but that it is in dire need of major improvement, and that it should only be followed if it is just and if it has the consent of those who it governs. He states that the state will never be progressive and free until it recognizes the individuals, rather than the mass, and respects them accordingly.
Democracy in Question
America has long been recognized as a democratic nation, a nation operating under the will of the people. The forefathers of America fought incessantly against British tyranny to start anew in a land of freedom and opportunity. Because America revived the ancient Greek ideology of democracy, the nation was set apart from the rest of the world and was revered for the freedom and justice it provided its people. However, not everyone thinks that American democracy means freedom and liberty. On the contrary, writers such as Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” along with Herman Melville in “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” suggest that democracy can actually oppress and restrict the individual.In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau criticizes the American government for its democratic nature, namely, the idea of majority ruling. Like earlier transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau believes in the importance of the individual. In a society where there are many individuals with conflicting perceptions and beliefs, Emerson chooses passivity and isolation to avoid conflict with others. However, unlike Emerson, Thoreau rejects passivity and challenges his readers to stand up against the government that focuses on majorities over individuals. Thoreau argues that when power is in the hands of the people, the majority rules, “not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest” (Thoreau 64). Thoreau portrays this very fundamental element of democracy, where power belongs to the majority, as a brutish fight where the strongest wins. In later passages, Thoreau describes the majority in a democracy as men who “serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies,” where “in most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense” (66). He feels that those who belong to a democracy are essentially machines controlled by the majority, lacking in ability to make choices for themselves. He then goes farther to compare the majority to slaves, saying, “When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished . . . . They will then be the only slaves” (Thoreau 70). Thoreau repeatedly condemns the democratic system for its lack of morality and tendency to disempower the individual.In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau offers an analogy that seems convincing, but proves to be inadequate. He argues that in a democracy, “if the majority vote the devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly, and obey the successful candidate, trusting that sometime or other . . . they may reinstate God” (Thoreau 103). Thoreau clearly neglects the converse scenario. What if the minority votes the devil to be God and the majority live accordingly? Which is more just? These questions seem to be better addressed by a less outspoken writer, Herman Melville.In “Benito Cereno,” Melville presents several symbolic images of democracy. Amasa Delano, the American ship captain, seems to be the representative democratic figure. The narrator depicts him as being good-hearted, optimistic, and an able captain who runs an orderly ship. However, at the end of the novella, the reader finds that Amasa does not realize the San Dominick has been overthrown by the captive slaves because he is so grossly naÔve and ignorant. Ironically, Amasa, the representative of American freedom and democracy, comes to the rescue of the San Dominick to aid in the recapturing of slaves. Amasa’s American ship is interestingly named Bachelor’s Delight, which is a historical reference to a ship owned by a Northerner that avoided the subject of slavery. But perhaps Melville named the American ship as such because he thought that Americans were actually behaving like delightful bachelors in a land where people of other ethnicities are very much a part of the social make-up. America is a partnership, or in a sense, a marriage of the various ethnicities that reside within the nation. By enslaving the Blacks, Melville might be insinuating that Americans have inappropriately acted as bachelors, neglecting and even abusing those whom they live with simply because they have become the majority. The San Dominick is also a microcosm of democracy. Just as Thoreau suggests, the majority overpowers the few, however, in this case, the majority is fighting for a benign cause, which is their own freedom. Yet, when the story reveals the atrocious acts committed by the captives during the takeover, Melville shows just how barbarous a majority rule can be. The captives use brute strength to gain power and have no regard for authority, as evident in the vicious killings of Don Alexandro Aranda, the slave owner, and Raneds, one of the ship’s mates. In the end, the slaves are recaptured by Amasa and his men; once again, a demonstration of the majority ruling, “not because they are most likely to be in the right . . . but because they are physically the strongest” (Thoreau 64). When Amasa boards the San Dominick for the first time, he finds the ship in a deplorable state. Because it is a slave ship, Melville uses the ship’s decrepit condition to convey the moral corruption of slavery. Some may argue that it is because the slaves took over the ship that the ship becomes disorderly, but how are the slaves to know how a ship is run? Like so many other skills that their masters withheld from them, the slaves were most likely never taught how to run a ship. The majority, in their efforts to suppress the minority, has denied the slaves of this knowledge.Melville also comments on democracy in “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The story reveals at the end that Bartleby was fired from his employment at the Dead Letter Office at Washington. Despite the insignificance of his subordinate clerk position at the Dead Letter Office, he was part of the nation’s democratic government, but as a result of a change in administration, he was unexpectedly fired. While having feelings of betrayal and hopelessness looming over him, he becomes a scrivener. There, he continues to suffer from the oppression of the majority. In the scrivener’s office, Bartleby is clearly the minority against the majority of Nippers, Turkey, Ginger, and their boss. When Bartleby begins to refuse to do what he is told, his co-workers threaten him physically, just as Thoreau predicts a majority would do in “Civil Disobedience.” In many aspects, Bartleby is Thoreau’s ideal man. Bartleby does exactly what Thoreau urges people to do, which is to stand up against the oppression of a democracy. He does not back down from his co-worker’s threats and practices “Civil Disobedience,” which Bartleby literally does by politely repeating, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 19). However, Bartleby is never able to assert his will, but only say what he prefers not to do. When his boss asks him, “‘Will you, or will you not, quit me?'”, Bartleby answers, “‘I would prefer not to quit you'” (Melville 24). Bartleby stands firmly against the powers of democracy, yet, does not gain anything from it. Bartleby only begins to further realize the futility of his existence and his will turns into mere preferences under the oppression of democracy. According to Melville, Thoreau’s radical suggestions will only lead to disorder and destitution. The slaves aboard the San Dominick rise up against the oppressive majority, and as a result, there is bloodshed and chaos. The slaves revolt, and in the end, they find themselves in the same, or even worse, situation than prior to their uprising. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby chooses to protest against both the democratic government that fired him and the domineering majority at the scrivener’s office by refusing to do anything that is asked of him. He does not know what he wants, for his will had already been crushed by democracy, all he knows is that he does not want to do what others tell him to do. His rebellion finally leaves him huddled up in a corner between two prison walls, famished and dead. It seems that Thoreau and Melville both agree that democracy, where the majority rules, is restrictive to the individual. Yet, they differ in that Thoreau provides a definite answer to deal with the oppression of democracy, while Melville offers no apparent solutions. Thoreau urges people to rebel against the tyrannical majority and take whatever measures necessary, but Melville simply exposes the repressive nature of democracy and leaves it at that. However, Melville does point out, through “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” that simply rebelling against democracy, as Thoreau proposes, is not the answer. Perhaps Melville does not have a solution, just as Bartleby did not. Nonetheless, to both writers, democracy continues to be a despotic institution.