Jonathan Livingston Seagull is, at its core, a story of how innovation, progress, and self-discovery all require what can often be a painful or difficult break with tradition. Longing to free himself from his Flock’s rigid, boring routines, and convinced that there is more to life than just hunting for food, Jonathan practices increasingly difficult and dangerous flight maneuvers, edging away from not only the Flock’s comfort zone, but also from his own. As he studies and practices flying—a metaphor throughout the book for experimentation and liberation—he realizes that, although breaking with tradition draws the ire of the Flock and renders him an exiled Outcast, these sacrifices are necessary in order to change and grow. Through Jonathan, Bach allegorizes humanity’s tendency to seek comfort in the familiar, or in easy answers, and argues that this impulse is directly at odds with the sacrifice and courage required for genuine innovation.
Jonathan Seagull longs to break boundaries, change the status quo, go where no gull has gone before and do what no gull has ever done. Speed, for Jonathan, is the means to such innovation. What’s more, it is a road to “power,” “joy,” “and pure beauty.” To this end, Jonathan practices complicated, groundbreaking aerodynamics—high speeds, complicated rolls, and the manipulation of his own wings to achieve the form and velocity he desires. He is disappointed, however, when such moves are seen as offensive to his fellow gulls. In lieu of glory, recognition, and the ability to pass on his knowledge to his Flock, Jonathan is publicly shamed and then Outcast from the Flock altogether. Jonathan fears that he will never be able to share his innovations with others—until he is taken to another realm, a new plane of existence where he is able to practice his flight in peace. Jonathan surprises himself as he achieves even newer, more impressive goals, and grows determined to bring the advancements he has made back to the Flock he loved and left. In allowing Jonathan to achieve transcendence of seagull knowledge only when he travels to another plane (and gets as far away from his Flock as possible), Bach highlights the oppressive, stifling reality of excessive adherence to tradition, and argues that overcoming that oppression requires a courageous if frightening step into the unknown.
Back on earth, though, Jonathan finds that it is still difficult to get through to the other gulls, and must focus instead on improving the lives and flying techniques of only a few devoted, disciple-like pupils. Some other members of the Flock watch as his pupils study and train, but Jonathan is met with questions and doubt just as often as he is met with interest and idolatry. Though Jonathan reaches only a small group of students during his lifetime, he has still managed to achieve his goal of bringing innovation to earth. With this accomplished, Jonathan disappears and ascends to an unknown place, leaving his star pupil Fletcher in charge of keeping his legacy alive. Jonathan has changed his Flock, albeit in a small way, proving that truly devoted innovators can influence even the most staunchly traditional community.
By the end of the novel, however, the innovations Jonathan pioneered—the ideals and practices that were so odious and foreign to his original Flock—have become the status quo, and a tradition in and of themselves. The narrative flashes forward into the future, revealing the world of the gulls to have been completely transformed by Jonathan Seagull’s influence. A kind of religion has even cropped up, dedicated to the “Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” As the years have gone by though, devotees of the “idol” Jonathan are less interested in practicing his innovative flight methods than they are in hearing bits of “trivia” about the figurehead himself. Even further into the future, a veritable cult has taken the place of the movement, which once simply inspired gulls to fly and experiment with aerodynamics. Eventually, “no flying [is] ever done by anybody,” and all of the movement’s teachings become obsessive glorifications of Jonathan’s—or the “Divine One’s”—every word and movement during his time on earth. In exploring how Jonathan’s innovative nature brought change to his community, but then wound up as the genesis for yet another staunch tradition—perhaps even more obsessive and inflexible than the gulls’ original way of life—Bach suggests that society longs to seek comfort in familiarity and simplicity, and will always fall back on answers and paths that are easy.
Jonathan’s story is a cautionary tale of sorts meant to demonstrate how the line between beneficial innovation and radical overhaul of society is a fine one, and that the stronger a society adheres to the concept of tradition, the more difficult it will be to gently and intuitively fold innovation into a staunchly-ordered, conservative ecosystem. Through Jonathan’s allegorical tale, Bach argues that growth and innovation are a continuous process: one spark of innovation can create a wave of change, but the match that formed the spark in the first place must continually be relit, or society will fall back into its lazy, easy ways.
Innovation vs. Tradition ThemeTracker
Innovation vs. Tradition Quotes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Most gulls don't bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.
[Jonathan] felt better for his decision to be just another one of the flock. There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn, there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty, just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the lights above the beach.
The wind was a monster roar at his head. Seventy miles per hour, ninety, a hundred and twenty and faster still. The wing-strain now at a hundred and forty miles per hour wasn’t nearly as hard as it had been before at seventy, and with the faintest twist of his wingtips he eased out of the dive and shot above the waves, a gray cannonball under the moon. He closed his eyes to slits against the wind and rejoiced. A hundred forty miles per hour! And under control! If I dive from five thousand feet instead of two thousand, I wonder how fast […] His vows of a moment before were forgotten, swept away in that great swift wind. Yet he felt guiltless, breaking the promises he had made himself. Such promises are only for the gulls that accept the ordinary. One who has touched excellence in his learning has no need of that kind of promise.
He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his forewings, extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged directly toward the sea. By the time he passed four thousand feet he had reached terminal velocity, the wind was a solid beating wall of sound against which he could move no faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per hour. He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he'd be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull! Stand to Center!" The Elder's words sounded in a voice of highest ceremony. Stand to Center meant only great shame or great honor. Stand to Center for Honor was the way the gulls' foremost leaders were marked. Of course, he thought, the Breakfast Flock this morning; they saw the Breakthrough! But I want no honors. I have no wish to be leader. I want only to share what I've found, to show those horizons out ahead for us all. He stepped forward.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull," said the Elder, "Stand to Center for Shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!"
It felt like being hit with a board. His knees went weak, his feathers sagged, there was roaring in his ears. Centered for shame? Impossible! The Breakthrough! They can't understand! They're wrong, they're wrong!
Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but he flew way out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see. He learned more each day. He learned that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find the rare and tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean: he no longer needed fishing boats and stale bread for survival. He learned to sleep in the air, setting a course at night across the offshore wind, covering a hundred miles from sunset to sunrise. With the same inner control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into dazzling clear skies […] in the very times when every other gull stood on the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain. He learned to ride the high winds far inland, to dine there on delicate insects. What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.
“Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. The same rule holds for us now, of course: we choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome."
"I want to learn to fly like that," Jonathan said, and a strange light glowed in his eyes. "Tell me what to do."
Chiang spoke slowly and watched the younger gull ever so carefully. "To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is," he said, "you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived." The trick, according to Chiang, was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body that had a forty-two-inch wingspan and performance that could be plotted on a chart. The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.
Jonathan kept at it, fiercely, day after day, from before sunrise till past midnight. And for all his effort he moved not a feather-width from his spot.
"Forget about faith!" Chiang said it time and again. "You didn't need faith to fly, you needed to understand flying. This is just the same. Now try again. […]"
Then one day Jonathan, standing on the shore, closing his eyes, concentrating, all in a flash knew what Chiang had been telling him. "Why, that's true! I am a perfect, unlimited gull!" He felt a great shock of joy.
"Good!" said Chiang, and there was victory in his voice. Jonathan opened his eyes. He stood alone with the Elder on a totally different seashore—trees down to the water's edge, twin yellow suns turning overhead.
Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn't help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!
“Sully, I must go back," [Jonathan] said at last. "Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along."
Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. "l think I'll miss you, Jonathan," was all he said.
"Sully, for shame!" Jonathan said in reproach, "and don't be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? lf our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we've destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think that we might see each other once or twice?"
Fletcher Lynd Seagull was still quite young, but already he knew that no bird had ever been so harshly treated by any Flock, or with so much injustice.
"l don't care what they say," he thought fiercely, and his vision blurred as he flew out toward the Far Cliffs. "There's so much more to flying than just flapping around from place to place! A... a ... mosquito does that! One little barrel-roll around the Elder Gull, just for fun, and I’m Outcast! Are they blind? Can't they see? Can't they think of the glory that it'll be when we really learn to fly?
"l don't care what they think. I'll show them what flying is! I'll be pure Outlaw, if that's the way they want it. And I'll make them so sorry […]."
The voice came inside his own head, and though it was very gentle, it startled him so much that he faltered and stumbled in the air.
"Don't be harsh on them, Fletcher Seagull. ln casting you out, the other gulls have only hurt themselves, and one day they will know this, and one day they will see what you see. Forgive them, and help them to understand."
An inch from his right wingtip flew the most brilliant white gull in all the world, gliding effortlessly along, not moving a feather, at what was very nearly Fletcher's top speed.
There was a moment of chaos in the young bird.
"What's going on? Am I mad? Am I dead? What is this?"
Low and calm, the voice went on within his thought, demanding an answer. "Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?"
"YES, I WANT TO FLY!"
It was only a month later that Jonathan said the time had come to return to the Flock.
"We're not ready!" said Henry Calvin Gull. "We're not welcome! We're Outcast! We can't force ourselves to go where we're not welcome, can we?"
"We're free to go where we wish and to be what we are," Jonathan answered, and he lifted from the sand and turned east, toward the home grounds of the Flock.
"To begin with," he said heavily, "you've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself."
The young gulls looked at him quizzically. Hey, man, they thought, this doesn't sound like a rule for a loop.
Fletcher sighed and started over. "Hm. Ah […] very well," he said, and eyed them critically. "Let's begin with Level Flight." And saying that, he understood all at once that his friend had quite honestly been no more divine than Fletcher himself.
ln time, the rites and ceremonies that were planted around the name of Jonathan Seagull became obsessive. Any thinking gull altered course in the air so as not to even fly in sight of the cairns, built as they were on the ceremony and superstition of those who preferred excuses for failure instead of hard work and greatness. The thinking gulls, paradoxically, closed their minds at the sound of certain words: "Flight," "Cairn," "Great Gull," "Jonathan." On all other matters they were the most lucid, honest birds since Jonathan himself, but at the mention of his name, or any of the other terms so badly mauled by the Official Local Students, their minds snapped shut with the sound of trap doors closing.
Because they were curious, they began experimenting with flight, though they never used that word. "It's not flight," they'd assure themselves over and again, "It's just a way of finding what's true." So, in rejecting the "students" they became students themselves. ln rejecting the name of Jonathan Seagull, they practiced the message he had brought to the Flock.
“Now look," [Anthony] had told his official Local Student, "the birds who come to hear you every Tuesday come for three reasons, don't they? Because they think they're learning something; because they think that putting another pebble on the Cairn is going to make them holy; or because everybody else expects them to be there. Right?"
“And you have nothing to learn, my nestling?"
"No. There's something to learn, but I don't know what it is. A million pebbles can't make me holy if I don't deserve it, and I don't care what the other gulls think about me."
"And what is your answer, nestling?" ever so slightly shaken by this heresy. "How do you call the miracle of life? The Great-Gull-Jonathan-Holy-Be-His-Name said that flight […]."
"Life isn't a miracle, Official, it's a bore. Your Great Gull Jonathan is a myth somebody made up a long time ago, a fairy tale that the weak believe because they can't stand to face the world as it is. Imagine! A seagull who could fly two hundred miles per hour! I’ve tried it, and the fastest I can go is fifty, diving, and even then I'm mostly out of control. There are laws of flight that cannot be broken, and if you don't think so, you go out there and try it! Do you honestly believe—truly, now—that your great Jonathan Seagull flew two hundred miles per hour?"