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That, says an eminent American critic, is the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s message to us in our own troubled time
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
At first, Emerson did not realize this ambivalent quality of the unconscious: when he was young, his private revelations were apparently so angelic and so well disciplined that he trusted them absolutely. Even in middle life he had said jauntily, in reply to an older friend who asked how he could be sure that his confident new revelation might not come from below rather than from above, “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” This was all very well as a youthful act of defiant integrity: but it is no answer if it happens that the Devil’s disciple is not a staid, wellbred, firmly moralized young man, needing to discard his moral braces, but a Hitler or a Stalin, heeding every sadistic impulse and magnifying all the possibilities for human iniquity.
In later life Emerson corrected his youthful bias: he fervently blessed the yoke of men’s opinions which he had once forsworn. In his poem “Grace,” Emerson even thanked his “preventing God” for the defenses he had set around him: “example, custom, fear, occasion slow”—scorned bondmen who had served as parapet, keeping him from “the roaring gulf below.” This again is one of those occasions when those who gauge Emerson’s mind by this or that isolated expression fail to correct the momentary aberration by the full report of his life.
All this, and more, one will find in Emerson. But there is no use looking in his work for a closely ordered philosophic system; and to make Emerson into a mere Transcendentalism as many have done, is to show little insight into either the scope or the depth of his thought, for he transcended Transcendentalism as decisively as he protested against Protestantism and dematerialized Materialism. The nearest Emerson ever came to presenting his philosophy as a unity was in his first work on Nature, where he laid out the four chief categories of his thought—commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. But if that were his sole credential as a seminal thinker, it would hardly meet his own criteria; for he kept on contemplating a more adequate expression of his metaphysics in a natural history of the mind, a work whose belated publication as an essay did not fulfill the hopes he had long nourished.
The fact is that Emerson’s abortive efforts to produce a coherent philosophy were untrue to his own system-shattering openness. His mission was to examine crumbling foundations, to condemn unsound structures, to clear the site of lumber, to quarry new materials—not to instruct the would-be builders, nor to design a new structure. Repeatedly Emerson told Carlyle that he had no talent for construction. But what Emerson regarded as a defect was perhaps his essential virtue: his unwillingness to deny a truth because it was inconsistent in appearance or in logic with other equally reputable truths. What he retained, through this constitutional ineptitude, was a readiness to examine and even anticipate incredible new discoveries that system-mongers could not open the door to without acknowledging the insufficiency of their systems. George Edward Woodberry, an unsympathetic critic, said that in studying Emerson “one is reminded of the early sages of Greece.” Precisely: for in both cases this originality and imperfection marked the embryonic expression of a new culture.
Such a description places Emerson’s mind in its proper social setting: it does justice to his intellectual nakedness, his bright innocence, his sparkling richness of potentialities. Unburdened by past encrustations, untrammelled by future constraints, he was free to move in any direction. Emerson’s, in short, was the most liberated mind that the West had produced in several centuries: as liberated as Shakespeare’s. If Emerson “has no philosophy” it is because, like Shakespeare, his philosophy is as large as life, and cannot be reduced to an articulated skeleton without forfeiting its life.
“The day will come,” Emerson prophesied, “when no badge or uniform or star will be worn.” That day has not yet dawned; indeed, in our status-conscious, caste-bound America it seems further away now than ever. No such ungraded, fully individuated society as yet exists anywhere. So perhaps the high value of Emerson’s thought for the present generation lies not only in the way it anticipated or marched ahead of the special discoveries of our time, as in the place it gave to the unconscious and the prerational processes of the mind, but even more in the way it radically differs from our current assumptions and challenges our practices: our conformity, our timidity, our docility—or those fashionable negative images of these same traits, our mindless anarchies, our drug-excited audacities, our aimless violence.
I knew a humorist who in a good deal of rattle had a grain or two of sense. He shocked the company by maintaining that the attributes of God were two,…power and risibility, and that it was the duty of every pious man to keep up the comedy. —“Illusions”
Certainly Emerson’s America is not our present America: it is rather an older yet more youthful Amer- ica, part achieved reality, part hopeful ideal, which we have lost. It is in Emerson’s mind, more fully even than in Jefferson’s, Whitman’s, Thoreau’s, or Lincoln’s mind, that we can measure all that we have disowned or buried, and may, if we go further in the same direction, lose forever. And it is by entering Emerson’s mind once more that we may recover at least a portion of our lost heritage, and gain courage —“courage enough!”—to seek a better life.