What is the Zeitgeist?
It is something everyone breathes. Something everyone is in . . . like a fog it obscures our vision. Until we are awakened we live with the delusion that we are immune to it. We think we are in control. We think we are autonomous. But this is only because we have forgotten. We have forgotten history and have forgotten to listen to the wisdom of the past . . . to our ancestors. They too were in it. And yet some enlightened souls saw through the veil.
Ever since humans began to think beyond immediate needs, we have tried to transcend the Zeitgeist. For better or for worse, it can cause us to believe and act in certain ways. Sadly, we forget that each individual has power. Everyone has a choice. We can choose to follow the Zeitgeist blindly or we can choose to transcend it. We can go about living in our semi-conscious state by allowing others to think for us and be myopic and apathetic OR we can choose to transcend the Zeitgeist. WHAT IS THE ZEITGEIST?
Every era, like every person, has its own personality. This is the Zeitgeist. It is not an esoteric concept. It is a simple word yet a very descriptive word that anyone can understand. The German word Zeitgeist (often capitalized and italicized) is comprised of two German words: zeit meaning "time" and geist meaning "spirit". The word denotes the spirit of a particular age . . . the milieu of a society or era.
With hindsight we can understand the personality of any given era . . . what it did right . . . where it went wrong . . . and the people (influencers) who shaped it, for better or for worse. Whether it was the Zeitgeist of the 1960’s, the Renaissance or the Zeitgeist of pre-Nazi Germany, behind every era are people of influence who affect the masses and thereby define the personality of any era (e.g., musicians, poets, novelists, authors, philosophers, essayists, movie directors, etc.).
Consider your own personality. It was partly shaped by your genetic makeup but also by your parents. What parents are to children, influencers are to the Zeitgeist. Not only is every person shaped and moulded by their parents but also by their culture, by the Zeitgeist.
We are a product of our times, that is to say, we are a product of the Zeitgeist. Just as our parents can affect the way we think so too does the Zeitgeist affect the way we think and act. Our parents instil in us certain values and ideas and these ideas become part of our belief system, likewise with the Zeitgeist. The problem is, when we are IN the Zeitgeist we are often not fully aware of its manifestations; how it affects us and how it directs the future . . . sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Consider, for example, how one particular Zeitgeist in North America promoted the ‘idea’ that woman were inferior to men. In fact, the Zeitgeist went so far as to say that woman were not "persons". To affect the Zeitgeist all it takes is one person to act as a catalyst. A Canadian woman, for example, by the name of Emily Murphy sought to be a Senator; however, she was unable to. Why? Because she was a woman.
Recall the words of America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson: “The appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I.” (The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, par. 735)
Remember, the Zeitgeist of that time said (according to the British North American Act) women were not allowed to vote because they were legally not "persons" therefore a woman could not be Senator. Murphy’s motion to overturn this ‘idea’ – to overturn this one facet of the Zeitgeist – became known as the "Person’s Case". The most important constitutional case in Canadian history. Her motion was denied by the Canadian Supreme Court. In deviance, she courageously sailed to England in 1929 to appear before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of the British Empire, which at that time was Canada’s final court of appeal.
Emily Murphy did not, like most of us, resign herself to the Zeitgeist. She saw through its veil and awoke. As a result, she challenged it and won. Five years later the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, appointed the first female Senator. Unfortunately, it was not Emily Murphy. It should be noted, however, that Murphy was the first female magistrate in the British Empire. Ideas have consequences. Ideas are created by people. And ideas, for better or worse, shape the Zeitgeist.
It was people of influence who moulded the Zeitgeist of Emily Murphy’s era and because most people are followers they uncritically accepted that woman were inferior. We should not be so foolish or arrogant to believe that today we are so much wiser than the past. Everyone, from time to time, needs to be awakened from his or her ideological slumber.
Sometimes when influencers communicate their ideas they become ideologies. Ideologies affect how we think and as a result how we behave. For this reason, influencers have grave responsibilities. Their ideas will live on long after they die and potentially affect future generations. Consider, for example, people like Aristotle, Darwin, Marx, Gandhi, Hitler, and Martin Luther King, etc. These are people who, in one way or another, affected the masses and moulded the Zeitgeist (the ethos and milieu) of their era.
With hindsight, it is easy to understand past Zeitgeists like the 1960’s, for instance. Because we have hindsight we can see how certain people’s ideas, namely, influencers, affected the masses and thereby defined the Zeitgeist of the 1960’s. Ideas can be very powerful. And because ideas can change how people think, ideas can affect how people act. If we were to closely examine the 1960’s we could connect the dots, as it were, of those people who ‘created’ what we now call the Zeitgeist of the 1960’s. For example Michael Lang, the co-creator of Woodstock; Musicians like The Beatles, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, & Jodi Mitchell; Intellectuals like Isaac Asimov, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Jean-Paul Sartre, & Alan Watts; Activists like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mario Savio, Gloria Steinem, & Abbie Hoffman; Directors/Producers like Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Michelangelo Antonioni, & Dennis Hopper; Artists like Peter Blake, Bridget Riley, Sol LeWitt, & James Rosenquist; Poets like Robert Frost and Basil Bunting; Authors like William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Jules Ralph Feiffer, Louise Fitzhugh; John Steinbeck, & Betty Friedan; Playwrights like Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, &; Tom Stoppard; Religious Leaders like Pope John XXIII, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Billy Graham, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Irina Tweedie, Sri Aurobindo, & Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
This list of course is not exhaustive, but it at least illustrates how people’s ideas influence the masses and create what is known at the Zeitgeist. In short, ideas have consequences and actions are born from ideas and ideas/ideologies are generated by influencers. If we are aware of the current Zeitgeist then we can, with foresight, predict how the future will unfold. If we can operate with foresight then we could curb noxious ideologies. That is to say, harmful ideas of TODAY that can have negative ripple effects into the future.
Since every particular age is cultivated by people of influence such people dictate the Zeitgeist and yet it is the masses who give power to influencers. For this reason, every person, like Emily Murphy, has power. Every person is like a drop of water and contributes to the vast ocean of our existence. And every person is like a word on a page . . . carefully placed by the dictates of grammar . . . the unforeseen laws of nature. As each page of history is turned by the wind of change it bears the weight of humanity’s theme. Although the plot of every era is different, the fine balance between life and death remains the same.
Every person, one way or another, is framed by the Zeitgeist. We are all IN it. The question is, are we able to transcend it? Are we able to see it with our own eyes? Do we want to be preventive so that the future is one of hope and not destructive? Will we redeem our short existence by striving for what the ancient Greeks called arete (i.e., the drive for excellence/virtue) and attempt to reach our potential?
It is everyone’s desire that as we get older we become wiser and learn from our mistakes (hindsight) in hope that we may operate with foresight. Reaching our potential and knowing ourself is not easy and yet this effort far exceeds the rewards of becoming whole and living in harmony. Just as it is difficult to know yourself, it is also difficult to grasp the Zeitgeist when you are in it.
When we reflect on our personal history we often say, "I wish I knew then what I know now." This is the advantage of hindsight. What if we could apply hindsight to the future? This is foresight.
If we are wise and prudent, then foresight operates like hindsight but of course foresight looks forward.
Foresight allows us to live with less regrets because we are able to ‘see’ the future if were to continue on our current path. Unfortunately, all too often we want short term solutions to problems plaguing society. If we truly want societal transformation; if we truly desire a future that is defined by hope, then should we not give heed to the reigning Zeitgeist? Understand it? Listen to it? And wonder, given the current Zeitgeist, what will the future Zeitgeist look like? The future is ours to write. We cannot erase the past. We only have today. What we do today will define the future. And although the plot may change, the theme is always the same.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
~ T. S Eliot, Four Quartets
For additional information about the word Zeitgeist click here.