Seeking real freedom, no matter what the era

Each age has a spirit or attitude that dominates over and competes with other worldviews.

Definition of “zeitgeist” is the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era (Merriam-Webster).

Each age has a spirit or attitude that dominates over and competes with other worldviews. In other words, what is called the “Spirit of the Times” is an English translation of the German word “zeitgeist.”

Before we examine our own era’s Spirit of the Times, let’s return to the zeitgeist of the 19th century.

The belief in human perfectibility was a dominant theme then. There were many utopian communities that popped up across the nation: One of the more famous ones was called the Oneida Community, also known as the Perfectionists, or the Bible Communists. This community, in Oneida, New York, was founded in 1841 by John Humphrey Noyes.

Noyes had been converted in the religious revivals of the 1820s and 1830s. He believed that, because of his conversion to Christianity, he and others like him were free from sin. They believed Christ had already returned within a generation of his first century ministry. The spirit of Christ was now dwelling in the Oneida Community, according to Noyes.

What made Noyes’ views notorious was his belief that monogamous marriages were outdated. He believed in what he called “complex marriages.” All married men were married to all married women and all married women were married to all married men. Any children born belonged to the entire community. Acting in this way would lead to an end to conflict and the rise of perfection.

Eventually, disapproval from their neighbors grew. As a result, Oneida Community broke up in 1879. But from it came a company that still makes Oneida cutlery (Encyclopedia Britannica.com).

A second dominant belief of the 19th century was the belief in freedom, also tied to perfectionism. This freedom, however, didn’t mean you could do whatever you want. For this Temperance Movement, the concept of freedom was to act with self-control –freedom from lusts and addictions would be the result. The attitude was that not only should individuals be self-controlled, but it was the job of all Christians to regulate the drinking of others in order to attain national perfection.

Drinking then was much worse than it is today. The average per capita consumption of alcohol in 1830 was seven gallons of liquor a year, twice what is consumed today. That didn’t include wine or beer.

Out of this movement came Prohibition, where alcohol would be banned by the 18th Amendment in 1919. Eventually, sanity returned to the nation in 1933 with Prohibition’s repeal with the passage of the 21st Amendment.

Today, the Spirit of the Times actually has similarities to the 19th century, but with major differences. I’ve dealt with them in several previous columns: “The Era of Post-Truth,” “the Second Gilded Age” and the “Post-Modern World.”

To summarize:

• Post Truth means “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Reading the newspaper each day or watching news feeds provides ample examples of “fake news.”

• The Second Gilded Age: “It was meant to describe an American society with a glittering surface of gold that concealed a corrupt core” (Joseph P. Ellis, “American Dialogue”). According to Ellis, we are now living in America’s Second Gilded Age where income inequality is at a higher level than during the first Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

• The Post Modern World: World Wars I and II profoundly shattered the belief in human perfectibility and rationality. The post-modern worldview began to take shape beginning in the 1950s and continues to develop into the 21st century. The key components of this perspective reject the belief in absolute truth in the field of ethics and religion, but not so much in science or technology. Truth becomes relative to ones’ culture.

Kurt Struckmeyer in his blog called, “The Post Modern World,” described it this way: “If I can feel it, if I can touch it, then it must be true.”

In both the 19th century and in our times, human beings gravitate toward extremes. Only in the light of reflection and the rise of a new zeitgeist, usually an overreaction to the previous Spirit of the Times, does a level of sanity arise, until the cycle repeats itself, again and again. The best solution to these tendencies is to seek the Buddha’s Middle Way, or Socrates’ Golden Mean, or Solomon’s advice to avoid extremes.

The 19th century got it right about freedom meaning self- control. Add to self-control self-awareness and you are truly on the road to real freedom in any era.

Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@rentonreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.rentonreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Opinion

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Republican’s write-in campaign highlights post-primary intrigue | Roegner

Can former Bothell mayor beat two Democrats for lieutenant governor post?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Race relations and your local police department | Roegner

The jury is our citizens, and they are divided.

Rico Thomas, left, has been a clerk in the Fuel Center/Mini Mart at Safeway in Federal Way for the past 5 years. Kyong Barry, right, has been with Albertsons for 18 years and is a front end supervisor in Auburn. Both are active members of UFCW 21. Courtesy photos
Grocery store workers deserve respect and hazard pay | Guest column

As grocery store workers in King County, we experience the hard, cold… Continue reading

Courtesy photo
Editorial: Make certain you count in 2020 census

The Census Bureau has been told to cut its work short, making your response even more important.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
The police department of the future | Roegner

Based on comments from elected officials and police, the Black Lives Matter… Continue reading

Face masks save lives and jobs across Washington

Wearing a mask saves lives and saves jobs. And all across the… Continue reading

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Editorial: Reopen schools in fall, but do it safely

Don’t bully schools into reopening. Protect our students.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Points of contention on police inquests in King County

Inquests frequently unfold against a backdrop of sadness and drama: Family members’… Continue reading

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Editorial: Stopping COVID is now up to each of us

With a resurgence threatening, we need to take greater responsibility to keep the virus in check.

Armondo Pavone is the Mayor of Renton.
Renton needs a defined timetable for homeless shelter | Guest editorial

By Armondo Pavone and Ruth Pérez, Special to the Renton Reporter The… Continue reading

Doreen Davis, left in mask, waves at parade participants on May 2. Olivia Sullivan/staff photo
Wear your face-hugging, ever-loving mask | Editorial

“Don’t make me come down there.” — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo,… Continue reading

Valley police chiefs of King County release unified message in response to death of George Floyd

Police chiefs of Des Moines, Tukwila, Renton, Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, Algona, Pacific, Black Diamond and the Port of Seattle pledge to stand with communities.