Charles Manson and Transcendentalism

     In studying the transcendentalists as part of my American Literature class, I have been tasked with discussing a “modern transcendentalist.” Though the philosophy of transcendentalism may seem to be limited in its scope in the modern world, it still holds sway among certain individuals, despite the fact that they may not even know of the transcendentalist movement. Figures such as Chris McCandless of Into the Wild stand out as examples of good people emulating the transcendentalists. Though the intent of the original transcendentalists was to create positive changes, one person stands out as a great example of how applying a semi-transcendentalist lifestyle to the modern world can have a negative outcome: Charles Manson.

      In old age, Charles Manson espouses a philosophy of environmentalism, anti-authoritarianism, and rejection of society as a whole. The ideas he and his remaining cultists preach developed out of the hippie movement and the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco in 1967. He was already a disturbed individual when he arrived in San Francisco, and his mental status blended well with the darker underbelly of the atmosphere of social upheaval, peace demonstrations, and free-love there. The ideals of the hippie movement and the “Summer of Love” are very closely related to the transcendental philosophy, and they mirror many of Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience and resistance to established social conventions. These ideas were integral to Manson’s final crusade of insanity before being put in prison one final time.

      One could say that the hippie movement was the 20th century iteration of the transcendentalist movement, and in the same way that certain individuals such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller championed the transcendentalists, major figures symbolized the hippies. Charles Manson is the pinnacle of the anti-cultural aspect of the late hippie of movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Whereas early hippies and other counter cultural groups had been supporters of the creation of new ways of being a society, the changes undergone after the introduction of harder drugs into the movements in the late ’60s gave them a distinctly anti-society bent that would develop into a heavier sound in music, as well as adding a more cult-like nature to the groups. Cocaine is a hell of drug.

      Manson used the atmosphere in which he found himself to carry out the spread of his “philosophy” which is something like a distorted, dark version of transcendentalism. They were (and are) environmentally conscious, they see society as the root of people’s problems, and they advocate peace. After he drew people into belief in his ideas, he used that power to act out on his mental problems through violent acts in direct contradiction to the ideas he preached. This doesn’t, however, remove him from consideration as a modern transcendentalist since he and his “family” continue to insist that no one was killed, and that they are peaceful dissidents in favor of the ideal of free-love. Manson considers himself a political prisoner after all that he did.

      As many people probably know, Charles Manson, a convicted murderer, founded and leads a group called Air, Trees, Water, Animals, or ATWA. They are an environmentalist group, and they advocate living in balance of nature, and in awe of the natural order. They desire a world without engineering of the environment by people in order to build up a society which Manson and his cultists feel is the root of evil. Manson’s ideas could even be considered “radical” transcendentalism in that they bring ideas that echo Thoreau and Emerson to an extreme. They believe so fervently in peace and nature that they will kill to protect them. For a time they were racists, and they believed that a race war would place them as the white leaders of the world after black people killed all the other whites (helter-skelter), but surrounding that period are their more pleasant-looking, nonviolent, hippie-inspired moments.

      Transcendentalism was a cultural movement with the intent to break down many of the barriers society had put in place to achieving the state of existence which they saw as perfect; that being the absolute freedom of the individual. Individualism, along with a deep love of nature and civil disobedience, was one of the defining traits of the original movement. The hippie movement as a whole built on this, and they emphasized individual creativity and freedom. Though in reality he brainwashed his followers to think the way he does, Manson’s written (and ranted) ideas promote the same individualistic ideas as the hippies and the transcendentalists before them.

      Though it would be a terrible thing to suggest that someone as deranged as Charles Manson should be supported, or his actions condoned, the parallels between the ideas he has expressed and the ideas of the transcendentalists are quite striking when the two are compared. The connection between the hippies and the transcendentalists is quite often cited by people studying these movements, and so it seems that to ignore the impact that transcendental thought had on Charles Manson would be to ignore an important figure in the development of counter-cultural philosophy and the negative aspects of it. No matter how nice and friendly a philosophy seems, it may be far more dangerous than its leaders are letting on. In the same way, some of the “scarier” groups that we face in the modern day may actually just be minding their own business. Perhaps the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” could be put to good use in taking a neutral stance to ideas, no matter what their PR looks like.

Works Cited

“Charles Manson and the Manson Family.” — Murder! — Crime Library on N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <;.

“Charles Manson’s Basic Philosophy as given at This 1986 Parole Hearing | The Manson “Family” Blog.” The Manson Family Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <;.

“Youth: The Hippies.” N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <,9171,899555-1,00.html&gt;.


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