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What made Noyes’ views notorious was his belief that monogamous marriages were outdated.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.”
• 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.