Brian Feeney

The American, Ralph Waldo Emerson

For his book, Examined Lives, James Miller selected a small handful of philosophers and looked at the way in which their philosophy blended with their lives. Of the twelve, many are expected: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche. But the one which stands out to me, and who most peaked my interest, was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is not usually listed among other canonized philosophers, and, further, he is the only American chosen by Miller. I was eager to learn what he had to say about the life of the American thinker.

Historically, we Americans have a long, love/hate relationship with philosophers, thinkers, and intellectuals. From decade to decade, public opinion towards men of higher learning has swayed strongly back and forth between rapt fascination to antagonistic distrust. Lucky for him, Emerson arrived at a moment exceptionally friendly to new ideas and ways of thinking. The lecture circuit was thriving, nearly 4,000 communities in the US hosting the public talks, and Emerson greatly used this to his advantage, eventually making it his prime source of income.

People everywhere, from rural farmers to wealthy aristocrats, wanted to participate in this new form of entertainment. Many treated the lectures as academic hobbies, while others, particularly the poor, viewed them as a way to better themselves, raise their stations, and supplement their children's increasingly improving education. It was a great time to be an intellectual. The public was exceptionally receptive to new and dangerous ideas.

Emerson was often criticized as a dangerous thinker for how he challenged people to question their faith. He was "denounced as a man with 'neither good divinity nor good sense', an 'infidel and an atheist,' a freelance mystic whose message would weaken entrenched bulwarks of social order." We think of him now as a more benign figure, an American icon known for his uplifting and inspiring philosophy of "self-reliance," a supremely American idea if ever there was one, but let us not forget what kind of trouble a man could get into when swimming against the current of Christian Protestantism.

Bertrand Russell said of the Romantics, a group Emerson was an exemplary member of, "[They] did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life." The philosophical atmosphere Emerson worked to create was intended to be transformative, if not revolutionary. It is debatable to which degree he succeeded. How many people did he lure away from their churches and temples to think for themselves? Did he effect any change in the central way Americans approached their faith?
There is no doubt of Emerson's influence on the academics, novelists, and philosophers who followed him. How the philosophy of self-reliance landed on the greater American public, however, is difficult to discern. One might think that such an outspoken critic of authoritative religion would have acquired a faster reputation for being so. But he is still taught in schools, and with a more than glowing representation. Could Emerson be our most celebrated American atheist? It may just be a matter of time before the same group pushing for Creationism in our children's text books to notice the tiger in the tall grass.

What protects Emerson to this day is the beauty of his writing. He was a prose poet who forwent hard-lined skepticism for the flowery and uplifting language of sacred texts. It is important to remember he was an ordained Unitarian minister graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson may have concluded that belief in a personal God was faulty -- "Prayer as a means to effect a private end is theft and meanness. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness." -- but he knew better than to cast off the power of Biblical language.

Emerson thrived among the American people of his day. He lived as an intellectual, and though what he preached clawed mercilessly at the religious faith of Americans, we accepted him. We accepted him because he taught what we Americans know in our very bones, that the good things in life require work, and nothing is more inspiring than to be told "You can do it." What we so desperately need now is another Emerson, someone who can wipe all the clutter off our intellectual and spiritual lives, and give us the motivation and encouragement to be better. We can all be better.

March 10, 2011