I. Emerson and Us. (Bicentennial Essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882))

By Kalb, James | Modern Age, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

I. Emerson and Us. (Bicentennial Essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882))


Kalb, James, Modern Age


EMERSON TELLS US that truth is "such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light."' However things may be with truth, it is so with Emerson's thought. What he says is often wise or inspiring, but he has no coherent theory, and his commitment to what he writes is uncertain. He tells us what currently appears true to him, in penetrating, compressed, and sometimes shocking language, but his indifference to consistency makes his writings imply everything and nothing. What do we make of him, and why has he been so important to the life of the mind in America?

He believed in inspiration and followed every glimmering, accepting eternal goals in concept but never feeling bound by them in practice. He dreamed of a great public power, on which [the intellectual man] can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. (2)

A prophet's constancy was not his, however. He suspected that all is illusion, or at least that "[e]very act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it," (3) and that "[n]o sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie...." (4) In the end, he took as his authority not a "great public power" but the here-and-now self, and his efforts to connect the two failed.

The unity of Emerson's writings came more from his setting and who he was than from doctrine or vision. He was a contemplative, a moralist, and a citizen of a busy commercial democracy, a mystic and a practically-minded Yankee. He was less a thinker than an observer of his own thoughts, whose writings make visible the difficult relation between American life and man's need for the transcendent. The American individualism that suppressed objective spiritual order and drove him into mysticism also made him unable to surrender to anything greater than himself. The result was spiritual aspiration that led nowhere; in that he was representative of many of his countrymen.

Emerson came to maturity as the novus ordo seclorum established by the Founding Fathers was itself maturing, and became its most characteristic spiritual voice. Sprung from a line of clergymen, he felt called to restore soul to a world he saw as godless. The new society had freedom, equality, and progress, but no fit place for the divine. Public life had become a Lockean world in which knowledge was sensual and social order a matter of property and contract. Religion was losing public recognition as true and becoming legally, socially, and intellectually disestablished, a matter of private feeling and preference. Its continuing influence on law and public life was justified by secular benefit and popular sentiment rather than intrinsic obligation.

In both America and Europe, "[t]he age of arithmetic and of criticism ha[degrees] set in.... The young men were born with knives in their brain...." (5) Industrialism, democracy, and modern natural science were destroying coherence between religion and other departments of life and thought. Tradition and authority were weakening, and the public concerns to which they relate were growing more purely secular and material. The consequence was a disordered relation among individual, society, and spirit.

It was an age of public crassness and private dreams, of religion at odds with intellect, of romantics, utopians, and social dropouts. The increasing absence of the transcendent from public life made society a contract for material ends--"a joint-stock company, in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater." (6) The inability of public life to support the life of the spirit drove sensitive souls into internal exile.

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