Democracy, Aesthetics, Individualism: Emerson as Public Intellectual

By Michael, John | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Democracy, Aesthetics, Individualism: Emerson as Public Intellectual


Michael, John, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The most interesting recent criticisms of Emerson's political activism in the cause of abolition have focused on three linked failures: his elitism and his failure to become an organic representative of the American people; his association of ethics and aesthetics and his failure to find a more truly oppositional position; his commitment to a transcendent lawfulness to which both individuals and communities must submit and his failure to embrace more radical forms of liberation. Each of Emerson's failures--his elitism, his aesthetics, his transcendentalism involves the overarching problem of Emerson's notorious individualism. Yet these criticisms do not address the structural and historical difficulties of mounting a political appeal in a liberal democracy without appealing to individualism and to the individual's judgment, allegiances, actions,

and identity. By addressing these difficulties, this essay hopes to move our critical discourse from thinking about Emerson (to attack or defend him) to thinking with Emerson (to use him as a representative figure in developing and clarifying the intellectual's dilemma). This is, of course, an Emersonian distinction with implications for public intellectuals today.

**********

Paradise is under the shadow of swords.

--attributed to Mohammed by Emerson in "Heroism"

It is not possible to extricate oneself from the questions in which your age is involved.

Emerson, "The Fugitive Slave Law"

Amateur Hour

On August 1, 1844 Emerson, with some reluctance, gave "An Address ... on ... the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies," making his first public statement in support of the unpopular cause of abolition. Emerson's lecture and his speeches against slavery over the next fifteen years make him an early and representative public intellectual in America. The public intellectual plays a distinct and difficult part, distinguishable from the part played by professional abolitionists like William Garrison, Wendell Phillips, or Lydia Maria Child for whom opposition to slavery was a true vocation; different from the interventions of a Channing or a Parker for whom pronouncements on contemporary issues formed part of their ministerial portfolio; and different as well from the platform performances of Frederick Douglass or Soujourner Truth for whom the lived experience of slavery furnished something akin to a credentializing expertise. (1) Emerson had no such profession to authorize his position and no experience of oppression to represent for his public. As he himself put it in his 1854 address on "The Fugitive Slave Law," "I have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American slavery. I never saw it; never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action...." (2) As a public intellectual, he could only speak as a citizen to other citizens and he could only represent the voice of moral repugnance that he hoped would become the voice of the American people. Such hopeful appeals to a shared sense of moral outrage by one private citizen to others in his or her community is the intellectual's task in a democratic society, and it is by definition an amateur's affair. The work public intellectuals do is never quite their own. (3) But what does that mean and what can we learn about intellectuals in democratic societies from Emerson's assumption of the intellectual's paradoxical place?

Habermas remarks that since the time of Dreyfus, intellectuals in the public sphere have enjoyed and suffered the liberties and stigmas of their amateur status, hovering between "the irresponsibility of the political dilettante" and "responsibility for the whole without official jurisdiction" (73-74). (4) To be simultaneously an irresponsible political dilettante and to presume to speak for the whole without official jurisdiction is precisely the difficult position in which Emerson as public intellectual finds himself. …

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