Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Into the Wild and Individualism

A Quiz: Which of the following is significantly different from the others?

Chris McCandless
Gene Rossellini
John Waterman
Carl McCunn
Everett Ruess
5th Century Irish Monks (papar)

All of these are mentioned by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. The book is, of course, about Chris McCandless. All the others are people who attempted more or less similar adventures to McCandless, striking out into the wilderness in search of transcendence through a primitive life in nature. Krakauer tries to understand McCandless through the example of the others.

Now what strikes me is that the last item on the list differs from the others in two significant ways. The first is that it is the only pre-modern entry; the second is that it is the only example that is a group of people rather than an individual. I think these two facts are related.

Krakauer provides the following summary of the monks from Fridtjof Nansen: "these remarkable voyages were... undertaken chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world." This interpretation confuses the means with the end. The end of the monk's life is service to God through prayer and contemplation; the simple and secluded life is a means to that end. The monks were under no illusion that primitive living was in itself a state of bliss; it may lead to bliss to the extent that the monk opens himself to the grace of God through it. Ultimately, however, whether the monk experiences grace is a matter of the will of God, not his own will.

It is in the modern, death-of-God world that the "state of nature" has been taken from a means to an end to an end in itself. In effect, the original theocentric orientation of the monastic life was turned egocentric. Now the individual, instead of experiencing transcendence through the grace of God, experiences it (or attempts to experience it) through the determination of his own will. The individual is assumed to be competent in his own nature to experience transcendent truth; it is only society and its inhibiting conventions that prevent him from finding that truth. So the individual, in a supreme act of willful self-denial, sheds all the burdens placed on him by society. Superficially he may look like the medieval monk in his self-denial, but really he is the polar opposite of the monk. His quest is in every way an individual quest, which is why all the modern examples cited by Krakauer are individual men. The medieval monk's vocation, even that of the hermit, is at heart a social vocation, for he seeks communion with a personal God in the context of the authority of the Body of Christ as manifested in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the monks, even when seeking more isolated lands, seek as a community in boats rather than in their private canoes (as Chris McCandless did in Mexico at one point.)

4 comments:

Ed said...

Dave,
I thought your analysis on this topic was very insightful.

David said...

ed,

Thanks! I've been thinking about the relationship between wisdom and virtue and I'm going to post something on it soon... I'll wonder what you think about it.

D.

David said...

ed,

Thanks! I've been thinking about the relationship between wisdom and virtue and I'm going to post something on it soon... I'll wonder what you think about it.

D.

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