The Unabomber, a domestic terrorist who sought to bring about “a revolution against the industrial system” through a 17-year bombing campaign, was once known to all as the mathematical prodigy and Harvard student Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski, who took a teaching position at the University of Berkeley, left the school in 1969 to live in a secluded plot of land in Montana, where he developed a disdain for technology. He then began a bombing campaign, attacking everywhere from universities to airplanes, offering to end his terror given that a major newspaper published his manifesto, *Industrial Society and Its Future*.
Startling similarities can be drawn, though, between The Unabomber and the transcendentalists of the nineteenth century. Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement, was centered the criticism of contemporary society, along with an emphasis placed upon solitude amidst nature. The ideas of transcendentalist individualism are valuable, but taken to extremes, and they can be very dangerous. In his speech *The American Scholar*, Ralph Waldo Emerson acknowledges the nuances between nonconformity and anarchy, warning against a divided social state that “has been so distributed to multitudes… that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered… in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk and strut about so many walking monsters… but never a man” (American Scholar, par. 5). Although this discordance with society can inspire original thought and advance society, both technologically and intellectually, perhaps constricting to keep order in society takes importance.
Enter terrorist Ted Kaczynski and esteemed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, typically associated with the term "civil disobedience", sought a deeper understanding of life through the natural world, and disregarded government to do so, refusing to pay a tax as he did not “recognize the authority of the State… [he] had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and… constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society” (Walden, 111). Consider: did the Unabomber not sit behind the same ideology? Both neglected their duties towards society to pursue their own strains of intellectual thought - the difference was that Kaczynski took it to a slightly more extreme level.
This raises a question - should the transcendentalists truly be regarded as highly as they are? Alternatively, was the Unabomber onto something?
For starters, the transcendentalists were arrogant snobs (and this is put nicely). They were rich, privileged, and a tad didactic in their writing. They typically had the money and the time to be able to "live deliberately", but preached as if they didn't. And the teachings themselves? They looked to radicalize and destroy order in society, claiming that nothing was as important as individual thought. Kaczynski seemed to be an epitome of this - one who gave up balancing their duty to society, personal desire, and morality to admonish modern technology. Perhaps the transcendentalists were merely bored - they were able to stop worrying about the contraints of society because they had never struggled to meet them.
The idea of transcendentalism itself, though, to pursue non-conformist thought, isn't all that bad. And sure, I believe Kaczynski was right in some aspects (please don't start a bombing campaign because of this article). His disdain for contemporary society and technology was understandable, as was his manifesto. His issue, though, was that he took to extremes to get his ideas out. Consider: what if Kaczynski never went and bombed airlines, and instead took to the local newspaper to publish his ideas (or become a columnist at Humble)? Wouldn't it be plausible that today, we all would have been following the same ideology?
Kaczynski was undeniably a transcendentalist extremist. And, while I believe that his approach to individualism was wrong, I don't believe that the transcendentalists of the nineteenth century were any more right than he was. It's the balance of non-conformity and one's duty to society truly is the right way to tackle transcendentalism.