Seeking Shelter in Nature from The Oppression of Civilization

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For I’d rather be thy child
And pupil, in the forest wild,
Than be the king of men elsewhere,
And most sovereign slave of care:
To have one moment of thy dawn,
Than share the city’s year forlorn.[1]

Henry David Thoreau

The term socialization refers to the process of adjusting one’s thinking and behavior to the social requirements and necessities of society. Modern civilizations are built on this concept and, according to Freud, are “in the service of Eros, which aims at binding together single human individuals, then families, then tribes, races, nations, into one great unity, that of humanity”[2] This unification of humans into a body means the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of society, and limits the actions of individuals by means of economic, political, and even physical oppression.  This article will explore people’s instinct and need for freedom and how the effect of these types of oppression manifests itself in literature.

The sacrificing of the individual for the group is not something new or unique to modern civilizations.  In fact, the word itself commemorates Pagan traditions, where a person’s life is taken as an offering to Gods for various reasons. In today’s world, while nobody is expected to give up their physical existence for the benefit of society, they sacrifice themselves to a much greater extent that lasts through years. Eros’ plans to bind people “into one great unity” seems to be at work in so much that today it is almost impossible for individuals to go against the union.

Although freedom is claimed to be one of the biggest desires of human beings, and Malinowski sings its praises by calling it a “sublime yet ruthless ideal”[3], he also believes that a clear definition of freedom has not yet been made. Furthermore, the concept of freedom is so overused that it has become an empty term. Freedom as it is flagged by the colonist, capitalist West is not the freedom I will be referring to in this article. German philosopher Max Stirner pointed out that the notions of freedom were dependent on external conditions like states, societies, and he suggested the notion of “ownness” as an understanding of self-autonomy and self-ownership[4], which will be the notion that I will be referring to.

Just like the notion of freedom, oppression too, has various definitions and understandings. The oppression I mention in this article is created by the civilization with its mechanisms to control individuals, redirect and force them to renounce their instinctual needs.

During infant ages, individuals are driven with instinctual needs that require immediate satisfaction. While at this stage, the lack of the idea of long-term stability enables a focus on instinctual needs originated in the id, the infant’s inability to satisfy those needs without the help of others is not yet realized. And in time, as the person grows and realizes their co-dependence on others to satisfy their needs, they face a dilemma: Either accept the reality and become a part of the whole to satisfy immediate needs or take the highway.

As I have stated in the first paragraph, civilizations are based on various forms of oppression. The biggest oppression individuals face today is the economical one, that is, the ability to provide the basic needs depends on the person’s ability to take a place within society. If one does not renounce their id-driven needs, that person will have to risk being an outsider who cannot even satisfy their physiological needs. This economic dependence on society to provide oneself with food, shelter, security, etc. forces most individuals to sacrifice themselves and be a part of the group.

Growing up, or leaving infancy, most people realize their reliance on others and adjust. However, this is not always the case as some people may struggle to accept reality or be able to fulfill reality’s demands, as Freud suggests the substitution of reality principle for the pleasure principle. A great example of this struggle of accepting reality is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Pan’s flight from reality to Neverland is in fact a result of not acknowledging the external world. He refuses to grow up, become an adult, and renounce his freedom. Instead, he escapes. The inability to please the id realistically without sacrificing himself seems impossible in a civilization like this, and the conflict between ego and super-ego results in escaping as a defense mechanism.

American transcendentalists believed in the power of individuals over society as well. According to Emerson, society and its institutions corrupt the purity of the individual.[5] A direction towards Nature is one of the most important aspects of transcendentalism, besides self-reliance and individualism. In his essay “Nature”, Emerson points out his beliefs in nature as:

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. “[6]

 For them, Nature was a shelter from civilization and its corruptness. In Self-Reliance, Emerson emphasized the importance of freeing individuals from constraints of conformity and giving themselves back to Nature. At this suggestion, we see that conformity is situated opposite to Nature. Again, this reflects the conflict between ego and super-ego; ego’s desire to prioritize id, and super-ego’s desire to punish ego. Emerson believed that in order to achieve self-actualization, one must reject conformity and adapt an individualistic lifestyle, as he points out, “nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”[7]

German philosopher and poet Friedrich Schiller brings together childhood and nature, and claims that we perceive the “image of our infancy irrevocably past” in nature. In his essay named “On Naïve and

Sentimental Poetry”, Schiller compares the child and adult concepts, and emphasizes childish innocence:

“…We look up to the boundless determinability in the child and to his pure innocence, we fall into emotion, and our feeling in such a moment is too evidently mixed with a certain melancholy than that this source of the same were mistaken. In the child, the predisposition and determination is represented, in us the fulfillment, which always remains infinitely far behind the former. Hence, the child is to us a vivid representation of the ideal, not indeed of the fulfilled, but of the commissioned, and it is therefore by no means the conception of its poverty and limits, it is quite to the contrary the conception of its pure and free force, its integrity, its infinity, which moves us.”[8]

While Peter Pan chooses to escape from adulthood and seek shelter in the island of Neverland, Emerson preaches a return to nature to gain self-actualization. In fact, more and more people are escaping from civilization everyday and try to gain their independence through nature. This independence is of course not a solitary one but away from the civilized dictations and in line with earth’s and id’s desires. Since the id is primitive and gained at birth, it is only possible then to find the balance between reality and “primitive drives” of the id by making the reality primitive.


[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Nature, Poems of Nature, 1895

[2] Civilization and Its Discontents, Hitchens, Christopher (int); Strachey, James (edt); Freud, Sigmund; Gay, Peter (aft), (p82)

[3] Bronislaw Malinowski, Freedom and Civilization (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, [1944] 1947)

[4] Newman, S. (2017). “Ownness created a new freedom”: Max Stirner’s alternative concept of liberty. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1–21. doi:10.1080/13698230.2017.1282801

[5] Sacks, Kenneth S.; Sacks, Professor Kenneth S. (2003-03-30). Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-reliance. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691099828.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature”. American Transcendentalism Web

[7] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1841). Self-Reliance. Boston, Massachusetts. Project Gutenberg. November, 2019 from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16643

[8] Schiller, Friedrich. “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”. The Schiller Institute. Translated by William F. Wertz, Jr. Retrieved March 14, 2016 https://archive.schillerinstitute.com/transl/Schiller_essays/naive_sentimental-1.html