By Huck Fairman
In happening upon a book review of a new history of the American Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Thoreau, I was awakened, as these two thinkers hoped their contemporaries would be, by issues of how we and our community should live.
The book, “The Transcendentalists and Their World,” by Robert A. Gross, re-introduces us to the ideas and issues that swirled through Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1820s to the 1840s.
Most simply, Emerson and Thoreau, to some degree mentor and friend, hoped to awaken their neighbors from lives burdened by “stuff” or material possessions. They urged, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” This would allow residents to awaken themselves and each other in order to re-establish “social cohesion,” a quality the two observers felt had been lost.
Today, do we face something of the same? Does our nation, the United Kingdom, and other countries face constrictions accompanying “stuff,” unbounded development, and also incursions from the tech giants, controlling the flow of information and “things.” Do the strategies by those giants to limit their taxation on burgeoning profits from new internet technologies and information monopolies unbalance and corrupt our democracies? This is probably a world that Emerson and Thoreau could hardly have imagined but which they most likely would have levied jeremiads against, to awaken the citizenry.
Are we in need of those warnings?
Today’s Princeton is a very much more complex town than was Concord in the first half of the 19th century. The university, the array of schools, businesses, environmental, residential, and cultural establishments present a many-faceted community. But still Thoreau’s question needs to be considered: should the people be awakened and join in mutual support? Does a breakdown in social interdependency surreptitiously threat us?
While we are largely aware of the benefits the town provides, are we aware of the trends, commercial and developmental, that could be taking the town in other, and perhaps less desirable directions?
For example, the physical, downtown area of Princeton has never remained locked in size or design, and there have been different views debated through the decades. Back in the middle of the last century, some residents opposed the increase in size and height (the urbanization) of the Nassau Inn to its current 3-storied configuration. Now several expansions are scheduled to bring a new hotel to Chambers Street, another building to the parking lot across from the public library, and an apartment complex, erected by a business with a questionable history in Princeton and elsewhere, to the Shopping Center and Thanet Drive.
Will these additions be improvements for the town, or simply added commercial and living spaces? Will they result in crowding and increased traffic? Should the town accept these changes in order to become more available to visitors, businesses, and residents? And how should these decisions be weighed and made?
The mayor and town council members are elected, but what percentage of voters participate in those elections? Some recent town governing decisions have dismissed or avoided popular opposition. What Emerson and Thoreau would have urged was for all residents to awaken and participate.
But while many do, is the level of participation, and awareness, adequate? Our two 19th century thinkers most likely would have called for greater participation, greater debate, and an increase in social cohesion.
While many, if not most of us, feel that modern life is often filled beyond what can be meaningfully attended to, is it reasonable to expect even greater participation? Do we have the time and energy? Should we, as Emerson and Thoreau called for, awaken from the sleep about our eyes and simplify our lives, not add further burdens, materialism, and responsibilities? Our former mayor was exemplary in reaching out to the community. It remains to be seen if her successor follows her example, and if many residents even notice.
How then do we balance individualism, democracy, and social cohesion? What social adaptations might lead to more participation? At the same time, how do we avoid the tenets of individualism leading to unrestrained capitalism? Does the reach of the mega-corporations reduce the functioning of our democracy, in ways that Emerson and Thoreau warned of?
These are just some of the issues that citizens and their representatives need to ponder and debate. Emerson and Thoreau spoke out about them long ago. Now as then, not doing so can lead to changes in our town, and indeed nation, that unbalance the views, powers, and structures that our communities have mostly enjoyed. Participation will be the essential basis for organizing, balancing, and governing our societies, and would seem to promise the greatest potential for well-being and cohesion.
Reviewing the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and others can remind us of both the threats and our responsibilities.