Friday, February 11, 2011 • 2:17 PM Comments ()

Reading and Thinking Emerson in 2011: Part II

posted by Martin Newhouse

“The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in it own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it clarifies.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (from “The Transcendentalist”)

Writing in 1903, the American philosopher John Dewey entitled a famous essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Philosopher of Democracy.” Almost a century later, another eminent American philosopher, Stanley Cavell concurred in this characterization, noting his agreement with another noted student of Emerson, George Kateb, that Emerson remains a “figure of democratic inspiration and aspiration.”[1] For Dewey, Cavell, and Kateb, it is Emerson’s emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the community, that makes him the champion of democracy. And Cavell quotes Ketab: “Emerson’s guiding sense is that society exists for individuals, not the other way round. Only democracy among societies is devoted to this precept.” And Cavell puts his own, characteristic gloss on Emerson’s individualism: “Emersonian perfectionism. . .is not an elitist call to subject oneself to great individuals . . .but to the greatness, the thing Emerson calls by the ancient name of the genius, in each of us; it is the quest he calls ‘becoming what one is’. . . .”[2]

Emerson’s eloquent celebration of the “sovereignty of the living individual” and, concomitantly, the infinite possibilities open to every individual’s genius once it has been freed from the constraints of society and social convention can readily be found throughout his work, especially (not surprisingly) in his essay Self-Reliance. However, because some have taken unbridled individuality to be the “soul of his message,”[3] it has caused them to question the relevance of Emerson for our times. For example, even as sympathetic a reader as the late Unitarian minister and writer Forrest Church ultimately saw Emerson’s philosophy as befitting the adolescent stage of our nation’s history, but not of much use in an age calling for interdependence. Church observed: “Emerson would recoil at the tyranny of modern American individualism. At the inertia and conformity we witness today, he would bridle with a rebellion appropriate to the sins of a new age. He might even cast down the idol of sovereign individualism.”[4]

I agree with Church’s view of what Emerson’s reaction to our own times might be, but disagree that it would amount to a repudiation of the individualism that Emerson celebrated in his best writing. To the contrary: it is precisely through self-reliance, as I believe Emerson meant it, that Emerson or we can find a platform on which to attack the wrongs we see in our world and work to set them right. This is because the self-reliant individual for Emerson is not a detached human ego focused solely on its selfish desires, but a fully aware human who, automatically accepting neither received wisdom nor mindless conformity, relies upon his or her own intuitive judgment to connect with the moral sentiment that Emerson believed we all shared. In other words, for Emerson, the self-reliant human being is a moral being and, as such, is called upon to act for the good of others as well as for her or his own good.

A powerful example of this concept of Emersonian self-reliance in action is provided by Emerson himself, most notably in the steps he took and the public speeches he made against slavery in this country. Of particular importance, in my view, are the two talks in which he spoke out in the strongest terms against the Fugitive Slave Law that had been passed by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850. This law strengthened an earlier 1793 statute and contained truly onerous terms (to our everlasting shame, both versions of the law were based on Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which provided for the return of runaway slaves, albeit without using the word “slave”). Among its many repugnant provisions, the Fugitive Slave Law contained financial incentives biasing its enforcement in favor of slaveholders, e.g., the commissioner who would decide whether an alleged fugitive in the North should be sent back to the South received $10 if he decided for the so-called slave-catcher, but only $5 if he released the alleged fugitive; alleged fugitives were not permitted any procedural rights, not even the right to speak, in the hearings that determined their fate; and, I believe for the first time, the law authorized the forced deputization of ordinary citizens (such as the abolitionist citizens of Concord) into a posse to track down an alleged runaway.

Although the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed (to a large extent due to Daniel Webster’s support) as a part of an intricate compromise aimed at preserving the Union in the face of secessionist pressure from the slave-holding South, reaction in the North against it was tremendous. And there was no more eloquent critic of the law than Emerson. He spoke out against the law publicly at least two times, first in an address to the citizens of Concord in 1851 and again in a lecture delivered in New York City in 1854. In both addresses, he denounced the law as immoral and, marshaling authorities both ancient and modern, argued that no one was required to obey an immoral law. In unforgettable terms, he also denounced Daniel Webster (Webster’s reputation has probably never recovered), then a senator from Massachusetts, for his perfidy in “decid[ing] for slavery.” (The text of Emerson’s 1851 address may be found here and the 1854 address may be found here.) For Emerson, the fact that Webster and the Congress could pass such a monstrous statute was not an argument against self-reliance, but a proof that self-reliance was, in fact, the only unshakeable bulwark of liberty:

“These things show that no forms, neither constitutions, nor laws, nor covenants, nor churches, nor bibles, are of any use in themselves. The Devil nestles comfortably into them all. There is no help but in the head and heart and hamstring of a man . . . . To make good the cause of Freedom, you must draw off from all foolish trust in others. You must be citadel and warrior yourselves, declarations of Independence, the charter, the battle, and the victory.”

For Emerson, the individual’s role and responsibility sprang from his or her very existence: “[This] I understand to be the end for which a soul exists in this world,--to be himself the counterbalance of all falsehood and all wrong.”

Emerson would make much the same point, although in a very different way, in 1860 in his speech on John Brown, delivered in Salem: “For the arch-abolitionist, older than Brown and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before slavery, and will be after it.”

It is important to note, as well, that according to Emerson’s most recent biographer, Robert Richardson, Emerson did not merely talk against slavery. He and his wife Lidian became active members of the Underground Railroad beginning in 1850. For Richardson, “Emerson’s long campaign against slavery is a practical validation and concrete result of his even longer habit of affirming freedom of will and action in opposition to determinism.”[5] I believe Emerson’s involvement in the issue, which required him against his own normal inclinations to quit his study and take a public stand on a burning political and moral question, also vindicates Emerson’s faith in self-reliance, which calls upon all of us individually to confront the world and do what we, not someone else, considers right.

But what is right? Richardson quotes a line from one of Emerson's notebooks that I believe can guide us in answering that question: "America is the idea of emancipation." [6] To come full circle, this is, I believe, the “idea” of America that Emerson embodied and expressed, and it explains I think why he remains our philosopher par excellence, the one to whom we need to return time and again for sustenance and inspiration.


[1] Stanley Cavell, “What is the Emersonian Event? A comment on Ketab’s Emerson,” in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (Stanford, 2003), p. 184.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William James, “Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord,” in Emerson, A Collection of Critical Essays (Konvitz & Whichler, eds.), 1962.

[4] Forrest Church, Emerson’s Shadow, UU World, XVII:2 (March/April 2003), 29-31.

[5] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1996), p. 499.

[6] Id.

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