Emerson - A Man Before the Verge

I recently finished reading through , and it wasn't exactly a romp, let me tell you. I bought it while visiting the homes of American literary figures in New England a few years back. Frost at one of Robert Frost's houses. Dickinson, in Amherst. Longfellow in Cambridge. And Emerson - at his home in Concord. And once having bought, I had to read.

I call him a "man before the verge" because he seems to be writing just before so many very important changes came about in how we see the world. He was, I suppose, the epitome, the pinnacle perhaps, of pre-industrial, pre-scientfic American thought. And yet his writing resonates still across our intellectual landscape. Reading his essays, one can spot forerunners of the cults of rugged individualism and that of the counterculture.

From "Self Reliance":

  • Travelling is a fool's paradise.
  • Insist on yourself; never imitate.
  • Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.
  • The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.
  • There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk.
  • Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.
  • And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on government which protects it, is the want of self-reliance.

A time travel book I would love to read would follow Ralph Waldo Emerson through the 20th Century. What would he think of Darwin? Of Freud? Of Marx. Of war, he wrote, War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man. What would he think of the First World War? The Second? How would he have responded to the 20's, the 30's? To television, and space? How would he have responded to President Barack Obama?

Here is Emerson, writing on "Race" in 1856:

We anticipate in the doctrine of race something like that law of physiology that whatever bone, muscle, or essential organ is found in one healthy individual, the same part or organ may be found in or near the same place in its congener; and we look to find in the son every mental and moral property that existed in the ancestor. In race, it is not the broad shoulders, or litheness, or stature that give advantage, but a symmetry that reaches as far as to wit...

It is race, is it not, that puts the hundred millions of India under the dominion of a remote island in the north of Europe? Race avails much, if that be true which is alleged, that all Celts are Catholics and all Saxons are Protestants; that Celts love unity of power, and Saxons the representative principle. Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments. Race in the negro is of appalling importance.

Appalling importance. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an abolitionist, a supporter of John Brown. He gave an oration in 1858 for the relief of John Brown's family, two weeks before Brown was hanged for the raid at Harper's Ferry. His admiration for Brown stems from Brown's willingness to stand for and die for something in which he believed. But he says nothing about the people for whose freedom John Brown lived and died.

Emerson, in spite of his principled stand for the independence of the mind, for "self-reliance" in all things, could not divorce himself from the accepted validity of the theory of race which predominated European/American thinking at the time and which, thanks in part to the preeminence of Emerson in intellectual circles, continued to predominate for generations after the Civil War. I didn't find this quote among the essays I read, but I wonder if and when he ever changed his mind on his initial presumption that Africans "did not exceed the sagacity of an elephant."