Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson's Proleptic Eloquence

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson's Proleptic Eloquence

Article excerpt

This reading of Emerson's essay "Eloquence" from Society and Solitude challenges the perceptions of Emerson as "the genius of American democracy" and as the sentimental, genteel, mystical Concord Sage. Read alongside Edward T. Channing's "The Orator and His Times," Emerson's ideas concerning the potential political effects of eloquence to renew ancient modes and orders, divide the many from the few, establish and maintain communities through persuasion and dissimulation, and incite fanaticism seem to anticipate Nietzsche's rhetoric of nihilism and its vulgarization in the Nazi regime. Reading Emerson according to Leo Strauss' theories of "esoteric" writing and Strauss' statements on pedagogy and persuasion in "German Nihilism," this essay attempts to clarify aspects of Emerson's political philosophy that have long been ignored, dismissed, or unread.


In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power.

--Emerson, "Beauty" (W 6.279)

Whatever does not concern us is concealed from us.

--Emerson, "Nominalist and Realist" (W 3.231)

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and lectures remain central to American literary studies. Admiring his writings for what they seem to confirm about the Enlightenment ideals of the American regime, or for reminding us of what we wish to think about ourselves, many consider Emerson a dispenser of sage advice and untroubling meditations on nature, but Emerson insinuates that to understand him requires careful study. An inattentive reader will fail to make sense of one who claims always to be insincere, who only hints at the ends he thinks best, and whose rhetoric employs silence. As with Montaigne, who complains that those who admire his style slight his matter, much of the praise afforded Emerson is for qualities that are, according to him, neither praiseworthy nor important. Emerson's interpreters often render the political intentions of his writing invisible.

In opposition to claims that Emerson wrote "poetically" (that is, carelessly, not philosophically or rigorously), I suggest that Emerson composed his texts strategically in order to conceal his political philosophy from the many while indicating his intentions to the few. Far from being "progressive" or "subversive," his thoughts on nature, science, society, and industry contain a scathing critique of popular democracy and its deviation from the ancients who understood human limits and ordered their society according to the hierarchical laws of nature. Like Montaigne (from whom Emerson learned much about the art of the essay) and La Boetie (see Montaigne's "Of Friendship"), Emerson obeys the laws and respects the opinions of his regime, but this hardly means he believes them to be the best or true. In order to avoid possible condemnation from those he might offend, or from "men of understanding" unsympathetic to his purpose, Emerson pays lip service to the customs, opinions, reforms, and laws of his nation, and offers himself as a patriotic critic of American life and a believing skeptic of received religions. He portrays his thoughts with a certain tentativeness. Deploying ancient rhetorical stratagems, Emerson persuades the majority of his readers that he is on their side and has their interests at heart. Thus, he escapes the suspicion that he conceals anything. Drawing his readers' ire toward defects in the nature of a democratic, egalitarian society, Emerson can get them to regard their dissatisfaction as their own, not something placed in them from without. Training his less careful readers to consider him a thinker of sublime and poetic thoughts, he gets them to ignore or misread his political intentions. Following Montaigne's lead, Emerson denies he has any prudence. By praising sincerity, honesty, and self-reliance, he can mobilize the noble lie (pious fraus) without detection.

Unlike Montaigne, Emerson did not collect all of his essays and lectures into a book with a single introduction. …

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