Academic journal article Humanitas

Progressive Change in Emerson's 'The Conservative'

Academic journal article Humanitas

Progressive Change in Emerson's 'The Conservative'

Article excerpt

Emerson scholars have long noted the ubiquity of change in his perspective on the natural and social worlds. They have also called attention to the dialectical process that Emerson credits with driving such change. They have not, however, paid much attention to the fact that the standard Emerson applies to the pace of change in the social world is the same aesthetic standard that he derives from the world of nature, and applied to the world of art. Emerson refers to the aesthetically pleasing nature of flowing or graceful change (as opposed to abrupt) found in nature and art as "beauty." When applied to the political, social, and religious worlds this pace of change results in what we call gradualism. Although Emerson frequently favored political, social, and religious reforms that were considered radical at the time, he believed that the proper pace of progress toward these goals was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is my contention that Emerson's preference for gradualism was based on his application of a natural aesthetic standard to the political, social, and religious spheres.

In true Heraclitian fashion Emerson saw a world that was in a state of continuous change or flux. (1) He understood such change to be not only an essential aspect of existence, but evidence of a healthy level of energy and vitality. Change is simply "The Method of Nature": "If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed." (2) Emerson believed that political, social and religious institutions, being parts of the natural world, are just as subject to the ubiquity of change as any other aspect of existence. Whereas change in the world of physical nature, however, occurs according to the working of unconscious laws, change in the sphere of human activity can be affected by the choices humans make. The power of the will can be used to manipulate the pace and direction of change in human societies, and in human psyches as well.

In the natural world, according to Emerson, change takes on an aesthetic quality, and thus can be evaluated according to a natural aesthetic standard. He characterized any experience in which change is absent, for example, as "deformed." In fact, Emerson found beauty to exist in the process of change itself--in the actual movement of phenomena from one form into another. "Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms. Any fixedness ... or concentration on one feature ... is the reverse of the flowing, and therefore deformed." (3) The deformity of fixedness is particularly apparent in human activity. In a social environment the power of the will can be utilized either to promote or to hinder change.

That Emerson considered this natural standard regarding change to be as applicable to human activity as to purely physical phenomena, there can be no doubt:

We are to revise the whole of our social structure, the state, the

  school, religion, marriage, trade, science, and explore their
  foundations in our own nature; we are to see that the world not only
  fitted the former men, but fits us, and to clear ourselves of every
  usage which has not its roots in our own mind. What is a man born
  for but to be a reformer, a Re-maker of what man has made; a
  renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great
  Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an
  old past, but every hour repairs herself, yielding us every morning
  a new day, and with every pulsation a new life? (4)

Hence Emerson believed that political, social, and religious vocabularies and institutions were not only subject to, but benefited from, continuous change.

Change within the cultural sphere, as any reader of Emerson knows, will owe a lot to the contributions of "a few imaginative individuals." Imagination, like all other natural phenomena, "is to flow, and not to freeze. …

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