Reading and Thinking Emerson in 2011–Part I

“The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today, as we look back on our history, we are awed by that miraculous confluence of character and brains that coalesced in the Constitutional Convention, yielding the written Constitution that, since its ratification in 1788, has governed this country. The Framers, all agree, were an extraordinary group of individuals. Of all their accomplishments, perhaps the most important is their ability to capture and embody the idea of America in the sense that they established a system of government that, despite ups and downs and various crises, somehow suits what Americans think is right. If we were to search American history for another such group of extraordinary individuals who expressed, and in so doing, shaped the American idea, I think there is really only one other: the circle of inspired, sometimes brilliant and always quirky individuals who coalesced around Ralph Waldo Emerson’s presence in Concord.

Emerson may not be the greatest American philosopher or thinker (William James, for example, or John Dewey, or even Reinhold Niebuhr might be contenders for that honor), but in my view he is, par excellence, the philosopher of America. This is the reason why, like his friend Thoreau and unlike most of the other members of his Concord circle, Emerson is still widely read today. Emerson’s essays and addresses—written in a 19th century style that often challenges the modern reader—still inspire and move us. The powerful, elusive, sometimes frustrating, often amazingly radical ideas they convey defeat the intervening years: above all, as I will propose in the second part of this post, Emerson’s work speaks to the common habits of mind that we Americans today all share, however much we may today, as in Emerson’s time, differ over specifics. To the extent there is an American “idea,” I believe that Emerson’s work best embodies it for us today as it did for his original readers over 100 years ago.

Emerson’s importance in his own time as the embodiment of the thinking American was quite remarkable. Of all the philosophers and writers that this country has produced, no other has yet had an impact beyond our national borders comparable to Emerson’s. Many of the leading thinkers in Europe in the 19th century to whom we still turn today were great readers of Emerson. And, reading Emerson, one realizes that, with respect to his European readers Emerson’s ideas (which themselves owed much to the American and European influences that worked upon him) presaged and doubtless influenced some of the key concepts we now think of as having originated with many of those Europeans. Like an art historian tracing iconographic influences, a student of Emerson can trace patterns in Emerson’s thought reflected and ramified in the thinking and writing of some of the greatest European thinkers, writers, and critics.

For example, what could express more clearly or vividly Marx’s and Ruskin’s idea of the alienation and objectification of human beings in modern society than these words from The American Scholar, Emerson’s 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard (Emerson was 31 years old at the time), in which he observes that:

The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter. . . . sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. . . . The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

Like Marx and Ruskin (and also their precursor Rousseau), Emerson was not naïve: he understood that for a complex society to function different duties and responsibilities must be delegated to different members of society. But like Ruskin and Marx, he decried what this social division of labor has done to each person’s humanity—to each person’s connection to the whole of his or her nature—in modern, degenerate society. Here is Emerson, again, from The American Scholar, speaking of the situation of the scholar in the United States in the 1830s:

In this distribution of functions the scholar is delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. [Emphasis in the original.] In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

Reading Emerson one even finds precursors of the hard and radical viewpoint of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy. Thus, Emerson writes in Self-Reliance: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And: “Your goodness must have some edge to it,–else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines.” Nietzsche, it turns out, was an avid reader of Emerson, whose work he loved, and this fact ought to lay forever to rest forever the claim by some that Emerson was a sort of intellectual Pollyanna. Nietzsche could not have loved a mere sunny optimist. (To the extent Emerson urges a positive outlook, its power and meaning increase when we realize that it grew out of his own encounters with personal troubles and tragedy: the early death of his father, his early poverty, the death of his first wife, the deaths of his brothers and his first son, his own dissatisfaction with his accomplishments.)

Indeed, who but an unblinking realist could write these words (again from Self-Reliance):

All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves. Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is no amelioration. For everything that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.

The quotation above illustrates one difficulty that some modern readers have with Emerson—namely that he seems full of contradiction. In Self-Reliance an essay that at points seems devoted to the urgent need for self-improvement, he includes this pessimistic assessment that such improvement is impossible! And less consequential contradictions appear to surface in Emerson’s work. Thus, for example, in The American Scholar, Emerson, on the one hand, warns against too much reading and bookishness (“Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.”) while on the other he encourages a “right way of reading” and writes a beautiful paean to the love of books (“It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books.”) In Self-Reliance, in famous phrases, he warns against the false god of travel (“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places.”), yet Emerson himself was a great traveller, owing much to his trips to England and the Continent, where he seems to have met all the leading thinkers and writers of the day. (He didn’t just meet writers: it appears that in England in 1848 he met Chopin and may have heard him play.)

But these seeming contradictions are, I think, easily cleared up when we understand the perspective from which Emerson was writing—which was the perspective of one of best informed minds in America in the first part of the 19th century. Thus, if Emerson warns us against reading, it is because he himself has read so much—indeed, there doesn’t seem to have been a subject of study that he did not embrace—and wants us not to love books qua books, but rather what it is in the books we read that resonates with our own truths. Similarly concerning travel—he is not opposed to travel when it is undertaken for the right reason, e.g., study, but thinks that travel qua travel is a form of escapism that is pernicious. Finally, if, as we have seen, in Self-Reliance Emerson observes that “[a]ll men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves,” his point is that, by focusing on society at large, we lose sight of (or perhaps escape) our own need for self-improvement, and that the real work he believes needs to be done is the work of individuals, not social groups. Emerson is the great believer that the individual can improve, if he or she seeks improvement in the right way.

What is this right way? Like Nietzsche later in the century (in, for example, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1876)), Emerson urges us to find the difficult balance which will allow us to take from what the world offers those things that are useful to us, while not being seduced by those offerings that will end up paralyzing us. I believe that in aiming for this balance, Emerson articulated and also, himself, influenced the contours of what I have referred to above as the American idea. Why I think this and what, in my view, that American idea is, I will try to explain in the next installment of this post.

Author: Martin Newhouse

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