The Core Ideas Of Transcendentalism In “Dead Poets Society” And “Self-Reliance” Movies

Transcendentalists had an abundance of key values that made up their movement. Some among them being, self-exploration, intuition, personal identity, non-conformity, and spirituality. These values made up the transcendentalism movement that occurred in the 1830-40s. During this time many rejected social norms and attempted to be their true selves in numerous fashions, and often based large decisions concerning their lives on said values. These ideas were expressed through key figures such as Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller. Some ideas expressed during the transcendentalism movement are still reminiscent of today's society and can be witnessed through various forms of media.

Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, follows a group of young men in an all-boys school entitled Welton Academy. Their teacher demonstrates some of these key beliefs in his lessons through a unique style of teaching. The boys learn to embrace some of the teachings and use them in their everyday lives to break out of the conformity society pressures us into. In “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the speaker is a transcendentalist himself and tries to convey to the readers why he lives his life in such a way. He goes on to explain why relying on only oneself is of the utmost importance. Throughout both works, the importance of exploring oneself while simultaneously listening to one’s own intuition is displayed as the means to live a satisfied life in which one truly understands and values oneself. In order to live a fulfilling life, individuals must practice meaningful self-exploration. Without which, one may never truly know oneself.

In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating, an English teacher who makes use of unorthodox teaching methods, explains the idea of carpe diem, or seize the day, to his students. He encourages everyone to live in the present and fulfill their every dream. This causes many students to explore themselves and try to discover who they are and what they want in an attempt to seize the day. Neil Perry discovers his love for acting and decides to sign up for the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream against his fathers will. This results in him landing the lead role and deepening his love for acting. When Neil realizes his father will never let him be himself and pursue acting, as his father is forcing him to go to Harvard Medical School, he decides to take his own life.

Because of Mr. Keating’s teaching, Neil had to courage to pursue his dream and discover who he wants to be. Without which, he would have never known just how unfulfilling and unsatisfying his life would have been without it. Though the decision for Neil to take his own life was truly tragic, if Neil had continued to live the life under the rule of his father, he would have never been truly satisfied with the life he was living. He recognized that if he continued living, he would be experiencing his life without ever truly being himself, and not living a life where one is oneself is not living at all. Emerson would likely agree with Neil and believes that, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule... may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.

Emerson displays the importance of discovering and taking actions for oneself and not being influenced by other’s opinions. Neil’s life was being controlled by his father, and he was not given an opportunity to truly live. When taking into account Emerson’s words, the actions Neil takes are justified. Choosing for oneself and discovering who one is “may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.” Discovering who an individual truly is, what that individual wants, and further pursuing that goal is, in essence, the main idea of self-exploration, and the key to a life filled with satisfaction. In the words of Emerson, “imitation is suicide,” moreover it is vital to understand oneself in order to have a fulfilling life.

While practicing self-exploration is important, it must be paired with following one’s own intuition. It is key to valuing oneself, therefore living life with more satisfaction. Mr. Keating has a very unconventional way of teaching that causes much disapproval. He continues to teach the way he sees fit despite teachers and faculty denouncing his actions. Even after Mr. McAllister comes into his classroom and scolds his methods, Mr. Keating sticks to his own intuition and teaches the students’ what he believes are valuable and essential lessons.

The importance of following one's own intuition is clear. If Mr. Keating has succumbed to the faculty, the students would have never formed the Dead Poets Society and would have missed out on information that shapes their lives. All students take Mr. Keating’s teachings to heart and seize the day in any means possible, leading to vital self-discovery. This was all the result of Mr. Keating following his own intuition, and not being influenced by the pressures of society to conform to the conventional methods of traditional teachers. Emerson would likely support Mr. Keating’s supposed unusual ways when he writes, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine provenance has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events”. He emphasizes the importance of trusting what the individual thinks and points out that everyone has been placed into society accordingly, hence it is vital to put trust in one's intuition. This directly relates to the position of Mr. Keating. He put trust in himself, and that will, in turn, lead to a life of fulfillment. It is important to put trust in oneself and know that being true to oneself will always lead to the most satisfying life in the long term. When Emerson wrote to “trust thyself,” it is a concept of the utmost importance that is still relevant today.

The importance of relying on one's own abilities and intuition is made more clear when Emerson claims, “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till”. Nothing of substance will come from an individual’s life if he/she does not follow one’s intuition and put trust in one’s abilities and competence. If everyone can learn to be reliant of themselves and trust their own intuition, their life as a whole will be more complete.

Despite the vast difference of the time periods their works were produced, both Dead Poets Society and “Self-Reliance” display the immense importance of the core ideas of transcendentalism. Both the significance of self-exploration and trusting one’s intuition are displayed throughout the works, revolve around the idea that it will result in a more satisfying life in which one truly understands and deeply values oneself. Without the large impact made by some of the first transcendentalists such as Ralph Emerson, the movie Dead Poets Society directed by Peter Weir would not have demonstrated the core ideas that it does. Both works have the overall consensus that an individual must live life to its every potential by first exploring oneself, then trusting in who that is and following one’s intuition in life. In both pieces, this is a lesson that is demonstrated and understood. It may be hard to not be influenced by society, but the end result is a life lived to its fullest potential.

11 February 2020
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