Thoughts for Thursday: Individualism vs. Collectivism (Part 2)

Summary of Last Week’s Post

If you’re too lazy to go back and read the setup in last week’s post, first of all, shame on you. Second, it’s okay. I got you. Last week we discussed the differences between individualism (the idea that the individual and his/her liberty is more important than the collective good) vs. collectivism (the converse idea that the needs of the collective always outweigh the rights/needs of the individual, and that individual actions reflect more upon the collective than they do upon the individual).

We discussed things on the western front and on the eastern front though the philosophies I mentioned were separated by millennia… literally. I talked about Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau – leading Transcendentalists for whom it is usually thought that individualism was king. However, Emerson was actually very close to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in his thought that the way to actually effect change in the world around you was to make yourself the best you could be.

Emerson and Lao Tzu, were all about self-cultivation, rather than their respective counterparts, Henry David Thoreau and Confucius. For the former, change in society could only be made through change in individual hearts and behavior. For the latter, changed had to be imposed by outside action.

This Week: Why Do I Need Your Collective?

I couldn’t give you a thousand words for this picture. It would have to be more.

I guess the next step in this philosophical ramble/exercise/exorcism/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, is to figure out why we need each other at all. I mean… I’ve read Walden. You probably had to read at least a little bit of it in high school, too. Why can’t we all just live like Henry – simply, in a hand-built cabin in the woods with nothing but the barest of necessities and the squirrels to keep us company?

Well, first of all, that’s not exactly how Henry lived, is it? I mean, he built his cabin on land he didn’t own (Waldo owned it) – so you can get those Republican/Libertarian ideas out of your head right now. Second, he had people come and visit him all the time. He wasn’t alone the whole time. Finally, he only did it for a couple of years. Thoreau is held up as some kind of folk hero by tramps and adventurers from Robert M. Pirsig to Chris McCandless, but should we really admire him – or either of those two for that matter?

Let’s Talk About McCandless For a Bit…

The last known photograph of Christopher McCandless, in front of his Volkswagen bus in Alaska.
The last known photograph of McCandless, in front of his “magic bus” in Alaska.

If you’ve never read Jon Krakauer’s novel, or seen Sean Penn’s film inspired by the same, I encourage you to do both or either, really. I saw the movie before having to read the book for an English class early on in my undergraduate years. I was fascinated by the film, and I think it may have really taken me on a giant leap forward in my study of this dichotomy between the individual and the collective that I’ve been concerned with for so long.

When we had to read the book for English 102 at Spokane Falls Community College (Sasquatch Represent!), we were given the prompt of writing a paper about whether McCandless – the story’s real-life protagonist – was a hero or an idiot.

The synopsis of the story (and I’m sorry for any spoilers here, but they’re necessary for the point I’m trying to make, so really – watch the movie or read the book if you’re that worried about it before you read any further) is that a young man – McCandless, graduated from college with everything going for him – materially, that is. He had $25,000 in trust for him. His parents had given him a new car for a graduation present, and he theoretically had a “bright future” ahead of him. If you believe the book/movie version of the story, he was also subject to a lot of neglect and borderline abuse in his household.

So instead of graciously accepting what his parents had given him, McCandless refused the car as a gift. He gave every cent of his trust fund to charity, took his old beater car across the country with only a few hundred dollars to his name, and when he got to the southwestern desert, he burned his money, abandoned his car, and began living the life of a tramp.

McCandless and Alexander Supertramp

In fact, McCandless took on the moniker of “Alexander Supertramp” during his travels across the western portion of the country. McCandless was heavily influenced by Thoreau and other big-name individualist thinkers. He abandoned his family – not only his mother and father, with whom he had obvious grievances (no matter whose side of the story you’re on), but also his younger sister – and set off to realize his dream of living as Thoreau did: beholden to nobody, and as he saw it, completely free.

After floundering around the southwest for a while, McCandless decides that his ultimate goal is to hitchhike to Alaska, walk out into the wild, and live completely off the land – all on his own.

I know. It’s an individualist’s wet dream, right? You can bet I was rooting for that son of a bitch.

Unfortunately, McCandless discovers – as Marsellus Wallace says in Pulp Fiction, “…a hard motherfuckin fact of life” – that is, people need one another. As much as it might seem like it’s a great idea to just walk out into the woods, find an abandoned VW van, try to shoot your food, and live off the land to learn some valuable lesson of enlightenment, eventually you’re going to want to share with someone. Thoreau wrote, knowing that someone would read it eventually – as did McCandless. In fact, one of the enduring messages of McCandless’ story is that in the end he missed people and wished he could have seen his sister again – to share with her all of the wonderful stories he’d collected – because otherwise, in the end, they’d just die with him.

McCandless, in his journal, it seems, learned that final lesson as he was dying of food poisoning. He wrote about missing his family, and all of the things he’d learned on his journey being worth nothing if he couldn’t share them with others.

So What Does That Mean For Us Individualists?

Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Journalism logo - a double-thumbed fist raised in the air.
Keeping the Gonzo Spirt…?

Well, I think the lesson we must learn is that even with those we hold up as idols, like Thoreau and McCandless, we need to temper our idolization of them. Neither of them was an island (to use the chicken-shit idiom because I can’t think of anything better right now) unto himself. Thoreau lived on someone else’s land and had regular visitors, many of whom brought him supplies, provisions, and company on a consistent basis.

McCandless died because he misread a book about plants and because he didn’t have the skills to butcher and preserve moose meat by himself (as if such creatures actually exist) before the flies got to it. He also didn’t account for the rising of the river during the spring months, so he couldn’t get out of where he was on his own. Theoretically, had he had a partner, any one of his problems could have been avoided and he would have survived.

That’s What We Face…

If we don’t have people around us that we can count on, all we’re left with is our own judgment, and unfortunately, that’s not always trustworthy. McCandless was a smart guy, but when hunger started affecting his cognitive ability, he couldn’t realize that he should look at the next page of the book before he ate the poisonous version of the plant that killed him.

Not all of us face life-or-death decisions every day, but we do face decisions that affect the rest of our lives. If we can’t count on those around us to help us to make those decisions and to share in the consequences of them, then how much better off are we than McCandless?

Finishing Up for This Week…

I’m not through with this topic by a long-shot, but we have to leave it there for this week. I think next week we’ll look at it from more of a “macro” point-of-view, or a more Confucian point-of-view (if you will). We’ll extend the lens to U.S. and wold politics and try and figure out what the world is coming to and what it’s going to take to make it work.

It’s a tall order, I know, and we’ll only scratch the surface, I’m sure, but it’s important that we talk about these things, so if you’re into it, please check back next week, and leave your comments below. I always love hearing from you guys, and you never know, you’re idea or comment might spark next week’s Thought’s for Thursday. Please don’t hold back. If you have something to contribute to the conversation, put it in the comments.


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  1. Pingback: Fearless Friday: How to Have Faith in Yourself | Brandonia

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