July 13, 2007

On Emerson and Emerson’s History

On Emerson and Emerson’s History


Whether we actually complete both series or not, the point is the start, the initiative is all, what Susan Sontag called “the beginning mind.” In what follows I’ve tried to offer some opening general impressions on Emerson, as well as more specific observations on History, the first essay of the first series. As far as a plan or schedule, I think we should read the essays in sequence, as Emerson, perhaps, intended. For, as Douglas Crase points out, the “light” as the end of History leads into that “gleam of light” at the beginning of Self-Reliance. Separate threads will be set up for each individual essay, with specific headers written by volunteers to kick things off.

The only general guide for reading and discussion that I can think of right now, is to look out for repetitions and resonances within and between the essays. Emerson encodes his ideas in startling imagery. How these images fit into and form the overall picture he’s painting, is, I think, key.

So, let’s get started…

Mynocturama in an Email to Mary

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  • lostsa

    It’s finally begun!

    I don’t think I’m ready to comment on Emerson or History yet, maybe have to re-read the essay before that. I don’t know, I tend to get paranoid about not knowing enough about what I’m discussing. On that note, I was wondering if someone could maybe post some links to some good extra resources, like a review/analysis of the essay or something, if possible, like what was done on the wiki for Heroism. Although, for someone new to Emerson like me, the above was very enlightening. I must confess that I did not pick up on a number of things you mentioned (like the Big Bang thing), and have seriously started thinking about what was said in the essay (which I previously thought I already had done). As far as “thoughts you may or may not find interesting”, I’d say they were fairly interesting.

  • Bobby


    I respect and appreciate your willingness to share the following with us:

    “I don’t think I’m ready to comment on Emerson or History yet, maybe have to re-read the essay before that. I don’t know, I tend to get paranoid about not knowing enough about what I’m discussing.”

    If you feel you need to re-read, and then re-read the essay, so be it. However, after you’ve re-read it for the umpteenth time and you still have nothing but one big question mark at the end, then awesome! For what better place to start with than with a big “HUH?”

    I’m reminded of the following “words of wisdom” I’ve read – and often need to read – especially when I, too, “get paranoid about not knowing enough about what I’m discussing:

    …the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we’re here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later. People often say to me, “I wanted to come and have an interview with you, I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to call you on the phone, but I wanted to wait until I was more together.” And I think, “Well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!” Socome as you are.

    You asked if some of us could post some links to extra resources, like they did for Heroism. I’ll be more than happy to look for some this weekend. However, I’m reminded, also, of these words of wisdom:

    I sometimes lead retreats, and from time to time participants show me the notes they are taking as the retreat unfolds. The pattern is nearly universal: people take copious notes on what the retreat leader says, and they sometimes take notes on the words of certain wise people in the group, but rarely, if ever, do they take notes on what they themselves say. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within. I urge retreatants to turn their note-taking around, because the words we speak often contain counsel we are trying to give ourselves.

    By all means, read the “experts”, but I want to hear/read what you, lostsa, thinks ! 🙂

    And if you don’t believe me. I “stole” this line from Emerson’s essay on Heroism:

    Self-trust is the essence of heroism. 🙂

    Again, I think it’s pretty cool that you shared your concern. However, before I start to sound too preachy, I’m willing to bet EVERYBODY is a little uncomfortable about sharing their thoughts when commenting on these essays! Don’t believe me, watch how may times all of use self-deprecating phrases in our responses. 🙂

  • zeke

    bobby: I loved the “words of wisdom” you cited about people never taking notes on their own opinions. Very Emersonian! I was unclear whether this was something you gleaned from your own experience or whether you were quoting someone.

    Of course, there is a corollary that retreat leaders are aware of. People are so busy composing their next statement that they fail to truly hear the words being spoken by others.

  • zeke

    Sorry. I meant to add a line.

    Hopefully, we will none of us fall prey to the second of these axioms during our disucssion here.

  • Bobby


    This last Sunday, I had a long talk with both my mother and step-father! I’m not embarrassed to say there wasn’t a dry eye in the room! And one of the things I talked about was what you just said:

    That people very often fail to truly hear the words being spoken by others.

    I am a huge believer in Conflict Mediation. Finally got my certification in it last year, and one thing each and everyone of us could do more, is to truly hear what the other person says.

    As Stephen Covey says, Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

    (I believe most people are afraid/uncomfortable around silence, which is why they feel the need to talk/respond, and God forbid try and fix your problem)

    I’ve sometimes caught myself saying to someone “would you at least show some !@#$ courtesy and let a moment pass before responding to what I’ve just said. Count to five in your head. Something! Anything! Even if it’s only to pretend you’ve heard me. But for crying out loud put a few seconds in between me finishing and you beginning! Thank you!!!”

    Haha! Not exactly the best way to make friends! 🙂

    My girlfriend would often ask why her friends, even her own mother would share stuff with me that they wouldn’t necessarily share with her. My answer: because I just listen. I don’t try to give advice; I don’t share my similar experience(s), etc. I just keep my mouth shut, and by me doing that, it’s usually a way of saying (without saying anything) I’m fully present to whatever you have to say.

    No, I can’t take credit for those words of wisdom I quoted in my last response.

    The first words of wisdom quote comes from:

    The Wisdom of No Escape

    by Pema Chodron.

    It’s an excellent book. It’s all about how we should try to be fully present to NOW. Not in the past, or future, but to fully present to where we are at this very moment.

    The second quote comes from my all time favorite book:

    Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

    by Parker J. Palmer.

    I recommend this book to everyone.

  • Bobby

    Woops! Didn’t mean to indent the whole !@#$ thing 🙂

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    unbalanced… perhaps, now balanced….

  • Bobby

    indent! I meant italics!

  • Thanks Myocturama and Mary for getting this ball rolling. I’ve gotten about half way through the History essay and think that the first sentence alone has plenty worth pondering.

    There is one mind common to all individual men.”

    First, there is the juxtaposition between the individuality of men and the unity of a common mind. He acknowledges the uniqueness and unity of men in one breath. That alone contains plenty of material for discussion. Then, I am not at all convinced that he means gender-neutral humanity when he says “men” or that I can pretend that he does. I think he is in fact specifically referring only to men. When he talks about men and the history of men, as when he refers to Greeks, he lists the names of famous Greek men. He is decidedly not talking about Greek women. It is when he speaks of nature that he uses the female pronoun and he does this consistently. Should a woman reading Emerson in the 21st century translate “men” into “persons” as she goes along? Should I refer to nature as “he” 50% of the time? I don’t think so. I cannot ignore it. But I think I’d rather read it as it is written, as a 19th century essay, a historical document from a time when men were men and women were: (a. property (b. quiet (c. nature, taking all that blatantly exclusive masculinity as a patina due to the age of the work.

    Emerson says:

    “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary. Thus compelled, the Muse of history will utter oracles, as never to those who do not respect themselves. I have no expectation that any man will read history aright, who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense than what he is doing to-day.”

  • Bobby

    Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate.

    1. Every man? (For argument’s sake I’m assuming/pretending Emerson indicates both man & woman) Does everybody, can everybody have access to the whole estate? I agree with myocturama that we must want it, that we be willing to move beyond ourselves, that we be required to actively participate. I like/love the idea that I can have access to the same thoughts as Plato, or feel exactly what a Saint feels. What a beautiful concept. It gives me hope. But isn’t that like saying anyone, i.e. American citizen, can be President of the United States? Certainly on one level it’s true. But then again highly unlikely.

    2. By right of reason does Emerson imply one needs to be rational, capable of “intelligent” thought, cogent, logical, and all the other words that distinguishes man from beast, before he/she is capable of accessing the estate. If that’s true, then not all men/women will ever have access to that estate. How many people do you know who, because of a horrible accident, or genetic defect, will never mentally develop past the age of two? What about those individuals? It seems unfair that, through no fault of their own, they will never be able to converse with the great philosophers, or empathize with a man who’s known only prejudice.

    Again, I love the idea that I, you, everybody could potentially walk alongside Kant, Leonardo da Vinci, or St. Peter, and hold our own in a conversation, maybe even educate them (Not Faith, Pete! Just fluoride, twice a day), but I’d be naïve to believe I’d beat Tiger Woods in a game of golf no matter bad I wanted to, no matter how hard I practiced.

    Which brings me to believe that everybody has his/her own unique gift that we each bring to this world. But that’s for later. . .

  • Katherine

    Hi Bobby. I fixed those pesky italics so they don’t overwhelm certain browsers that don’t auto-correct!

  • Bobby

    Thank you very much, Katherine! I actually wrote my last post in notepad, saved it as an .html doc, opened it to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake – which I did 🙂 – and made the corrections before sending it.

  • Regarding the value of listening.

    In the Navajo ethos, one hallmark of the embodiment of wisdom is a long pause in conversation between hearing the other and responding.

    I am also reminded of a book that my father gifted to me as a very young man, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie makes the humorous and paradoxical observation that if you develop good listening skills, people will mistake you for a superior conversationalist.

    And finally, a little observation of great value in my own life: whenever tempted to offer a friend advise, pause and consider how our life may benefit if we were to apply our advise to ourselves.

  • Bobby

    I love the Chinese character for listening. It’s the combination of ear, eyes, undivided attention, and heart! How cool is THAT!!!

  • Katherine

    Bobby — saving it as an html doc first is a great way to do it. Good idea!

  • Bobby, Yes, Moving on to sentence #2: I’m pondering this because I read it as similar to something both Jesus & Buddha said, that anything I have done you also can do (achieve eternal life or become enlightened respectively), but I didn’t think they were talking about reason so much as faith on the one hand and dedication to the pursuit of enlightenment on the other. This type of rapture or enlightenment seems beyond “reason” to me yet it seemed Mr. E must have been referring to a “cosmic groove” type of “estate”, something we might access through our mind and not a worldly form of attainment. He lived during times when the political inequality of man was vicious and obvious due to the issue of slavery.

    He does conclude the essay: “The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.”

    I hate to think what Winona LaDuke would have to say about being thrown in with the idiots & children and I know Sherman Alexie would have plenty to say about the white man’s romanticization of the Indian but here again we have Emerson as a man of his own times. I’m thinking that he is talking about the “whole estate” as a form of “enlightenment” accessible by all through mind and nature.

  • zeke

    Peggysue, I think he also romanticizes the Greeks at one point as “simpler” versions of what hisory ultimately leads to–namely himself. In fact, one of my general problems with the essay is that it seems to take for granted that history equals “progress.” I believe that in evolutionary biology this is called the Lamarckian Fallacy (I could be wrong about the name, but not the flawed belief.)

    Add to this his self centeredness as the epitome of both nature and history, and one can be left with some qualms about the thesis.

  • Curious to get Mr. E’s take on women I found this…

    From American Transcendentalism Web

    Emerson’s 1855 lecture titled Woman


    OK, there is plenty here to make a feminist choke – like this description of women…

    “They emit from their pores a colored atmosphere, one would say, wave upon wave of rosy light, in which they walk evermore, and see all objects through this warm-tinted mist that envelops them.”

    After too much of that kind of nonsense here is the redemptive paragraph….

    “I do not think it yet appears that women wish this equal share in public affairs. But it is they and not we that are to determine it. Let the laws be purged of every barbarous remainder, every barbarous impediment to women. Let the public donations for education be equally shared by them, let them enter a school as freely as a church, let them have and hold and give their property as men do theirs;–and in a few years it will easily appear whether they wish a voice in making the laws that are to govern them. If you do refuse them a vote, you will also refuse to tax them,–according to our Teutonic principle, No representation, no tax”.

    One wishes he might have quit while he was ahead. Unfortunatly he goes on….

    “Woman should find in man her guardian. Silently she looks for that, and when she finds that he is not, as she instantly does, she betakes her to her own defences, and does the best she can. But when he is her guardian, fulfilled with all nobleness, knows and accepts his duties as her brother, all goes well for both.”

    I kept hearing Harriet Tubman’s Ain’t I a Woman? speech while I was reading this lecture.

  • Bobby – I love Pema Chodron!

  • OOps! I ment Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman Speech not Harriet Tubman!

  • Bobby

    I actually agree with you, peggysue, when you say:

    I read it as similar to something both Jesus & Buddha said, that anything I have done you also can do (achieve eternal life or become enlightened respectively), but I didn’t think they were talking about reason so much as faith on the one hand and dedication to the pursuit of enlightenment on the other. This type of rapture or enlightenment seems beyond reason.

    Now, I’ve often thought the ability to reason was purely a phase/skill one experienced/obtained as he/she progressed toward enlightenment. It’s like a key that merely opens a door into the next room. And though we’re told we no longer need the key upon entering the next room, we nevertheless hold onto it, like child holds onto his safety blanket. As the mathematician Vaclav Hlavaty said, “The farther we go, the more the ultimate explanation recedes from us, and all we have left is faith.”

    Forgive me, but a scene from The Empire Strikes Back just flashed into my head. Remember when Luke Skywalker, while training with Yoda, is about to enter a cave. As he pulls out his light saber, Yoda turns to him and says he won’t need it. But Luke takes it anyway, ignoring the wise words of his teacher. Well, you all know the rest. Point is, I wonder if the skill of reason can be compared to the light saber.

    (Question: Is there a difference between being rational and being able to reason? I think there is, but the difference is so subtle that I find it hard to differentiate. If you agree with me, help me define it. If you don’t, please tell me why.)

    However, I don’t believe it’s always necessary that we acquire the skill of reason in order to progress toward enlightenment (By enlightenment, I’m referring to Emerson’s idea that we can experience Plato’s thoughts, a saint’s feelings, etc. Perhaps this is also what Jesus and the Buddha refer to by Heaven/Enlightenment) When I first read the last line of History: The idiot, the Indian, the child, and the unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary. I was a little taken back, wondering, like peggysue, what Sherman Alexie and Winona LaDuke would have thought.

    (Peggysue, did you hear the interview with S. Alexie on KUOW a few months ago? I ask because he was talking about the white man’s romanticization of the Indian. You know he lives here in Seattle. We should invite ourselves over for a dinner conversation)

    At first I thought Emerson was somehow looking down on them. But now I believe he is, if not protecting them, at least revealing to those of us who may not recognize the “gift” they all share, that is, the gift of not being burdened with intellect, i.e. not needing to/believing it’s necessary to understand/comprehend every single thing in this world in order to appreciate it. Now, how each “receives” the gift, is unique. The idiot is unable, the Indian unwilling, and the child & unschooled farmer boy unaware of “needing” intellect. (Is this making sense to anybody? It did to me when I walking the neighborhood earlier this evening.) I said in another thread, as one who majored in philosophy, I concluded that if I were the devil, and wanted to divide man from God, I’d give the world philosophy. That way they’d be too busy trying to understand God, instead of experiencing Him.

    Now for those of us who need to analyze everything – raise your hand if you know who you are – hopefully, one day, we’ll come to view the world through the eyes of the idiot, Indian, child, or unschooled farmer boy, and finally be able to rest. Like T.S. Elliot said:

    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

    Okay! You can put your hand down now 🙂

  • Potter

    Hello you thinkers. Thank you Mynocturama for that thoughtful opening post.

    Peggy Sue– I read Emerson’s use of the masculine as meaning humanity, “man” having another sense, standing for all men and women or mankind. Whatever else he says makes no sense if it was meant for only half of humanity. It did get my dander up at first because of my own sensitivities which are similar to yours.

    To the first sentences of this essay-

    “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate.”

    In other words, we are all connected to the same (divine) source.

    Emerson writes this in his journal, May 26, 1837. I think it is helpful:

    “Who shall define to me an Individual? I behold with awe and delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind. I see my being imbedded in it. As a plant in the earth so I grow in God. I am only a form of him. He is the soul of me… Yet why not always so? How came the Individual, thus armed and impassioned, to parricide thus murderously inclined, ever to traverse and kill the Divine Life? Ah wicked Manichee!* Into that dim problem I cannot enter. A believer in unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two…

    A certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one, and I another, but this is the life of my life. This is one fact then; that in certain moments I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ, and in my ultimate consciousness am He. Then secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator and learner of all my life. This is the habitual posture of the mind- beholding. But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.

    Cannot I conceive the universe without a contradiction?”

    *Manichee – Manichean dualistic religion founded in Persia, 3rd century, affirming the universal conflict of Light and Darkness

  • Potter

    PS- regarding this: “Woman should find in man her guardian. Silently she looks for that, and when she finds that he is not, as she instantly does, she betakes her to her own defences, and does the best she can. But when he is her guardian, fulfilled with all nobleness, knows and accepts his duties as her brother, all goes well for both.”

    This is the plain truth, especially then ( less so now but also true now) and because of history, the way things have evolved between man and woman. So when a woman depends on a man or tries to lean on him and finds nothing there- she stands on her own. I might say that the same is true in reverse. But what we have here is Emerson writing as a man, about women. I think it is absolutely true that men have and can play this guardian role, “fulfilled with all nobleness” and duty as brother—. They are a team ( yin and yang if you will) and all goes well. Very traditional and idealistic but it does work, when it works.

    In any case where is the anti-feminist in that?

  • Bobby

    Insofar as the first line:

    There is one mind common to all individual men.

    I thought of John Donne’s poem For Whom the Bell Tolls:

    No man is an Island, Entire of itself.

    Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main . . .

    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:

    It tolls for three

  • Potter

    Emerson to Margaret Fuller, April 1843:

    “Man can never tell woman what her duties are: he will certainly end in describing a man in female attire……. No, woman can only tell the heights of feminine nature, and the only way in which man can help her, is by observing woman reverently, and whenever she speaks from herself, and catches him in inspired moments up to a heaven of honor and religion, to hold her to that point by reverential recognition of the divinity that speaks through her.

    I can never think of woman without gratitude for the bright revelations of her best nature which have been made to me, unworthy.”

    From February 1851:

    “Women carry sail, and men rudders. Women look very grave sometimes, and effect to steer, but their pretended rudder is only a masked sail. The rudder of the rudder is not there.”

    We could probably find women with genuine operating rudders as well as men who carry sail.This could take up the whole thread.

  • zeke

    Robert Richardson’s biography of Emerson gives some interesting background on how these essays came to be written. Emerson had over 250 volumes of journals and notes. He systematically indexed them , by 1847 compiling a 400 page master index of topics each followed by location symbols.

    Speaking of this first essay, which we are discussing, Richardson says: “The piece is not really about history but about how to convert the burden of the past into a survival kit for the present. It could equally be called ‘Our Reading History.’ The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible…[t]the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, withourselves as actors in it. Not knowledge of the past, but sympathy with it is what matters. And no aspect of the past, however grand it may appear, is to be regarded as superior to the present moment.”

    A key point he makes is that, to Emerson, history is “dechronologized.”

  • zeke

    Sorry! The missing sentence between the first and second paragraphs above would explain that Emerson listed his potential essay topics in a notebook and then used the index to find appropriate references in the journals. No doubt this contributes to the description someone gave earlier about their aphoristic style.

    It also seems to me that it may be mistaken to study these essays as if they represented the systematic discipline of a traditional philosopher. Rather than tightly argued treatesies, they might better be viewed as the reflections of an active mind.

  • Bobby, Yes, I did hear Sherman Alexie recently on KUOW. That is exactly why he popped into my mind.

    Potter, Thanks for your thoughts on Emerson and women. Its a little too ‘on the pedestal’ for me. I have no problem thinking of my father as a guardian except that I’m grown up now and he’s dead. I guess I’ve been rowing my own little boat for long enough now that all that he is the rudder, she is the sail stuff seems totally ludicrous to me. Who is the bailing bucket? I tend to be drawn to the guy in the little plastic boat with the fast outboard motor who is zipping around thwarting whaling ships. It is a darn good thing that I know how to row my own boat.

  • “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space”.

    Gloria Steinem

  • Bobby said: At first I thought Emerson was somehow looking down on them. But now I believe he is, if not protecting them, at least revealing to those of us who may not recognize the “gift” they all share, that is, the gift of not being burdened with intellect, i.e. not needing to/believing it’s necessary to understand/comprehend every single thing in this world in order to appreciate it. Now, how each “receives” the gift, is unique. The idiot is unable, the Indian unwilling, and the child & unschooled farmer boy unaware of “needing” intellect.

    With the exception of the idiot and the given limitations of children I think that Indians and farm boys are quite likely to possess an intellect to match the wits of any urban white man. They may not have read the exact same books but aren’t you are falling into the trap that is exactly what Alexie was talking about?

  • listen to Sherman Alexie on KUOW here…


  • Zeke

    Emerson and Native Americans. Following up on some comments above about Emerson’s attitude towards Native Americans. It’s important to note that the treatment of Native Amricans was not “history” to Emerson, but current events. Although not an agitator by nature, he was vrey outspoken about the criminal resettlement of the Cherokee Nation in 1838.

    He was not alone. Resonant with executive action in our own time, Van Buren’s order was carried out despite opposition from not only much of the public, but also from the Supreme Court, which had issued a technical ruling in 1832 affirming favor Cherokee sovereignty, and from the general in charge of forces in Cherokee land, who he promptly replaced.

    Emerson wrote a letter to Van Buren excoriating the administration’s disdain for the Cherokee’s rejection of a treaty and its proposal to resettle them anyway. It is an angry letter. One phrase: “We only state the fact that a crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, -a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country ? for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country, any more?”

    Unfortunately, the letter also betrays that, as with his attitudes about women, he was still a man of his time. Sharing his knowledge of the Cherokee Nation as a highly evolved, complex society, he includes: “…we have witnessed with sympathy the painful labors of these red men to redeem their own race from the doom of eternal inferiority, and to borrow and domesticate in the tribe the arts and customs of the Caucasian race.”

    I believe there is a term in academic history which warns against holding people from another time accountable to the standards of contemporary society. Does anyone recall what it is?

  • Igor

    A few quotes from the essay, some with my comments:

    “Who hath access to this universal mind is a party …, for this [universal mind] is the only and sovereign agent.”

    “Human life … is mysterious and inviolable, and we hedge it round with penalties and laws.” – Not so inviolable, it seems…

    “It is remarkable that involuntarily we always read as superior beings.”

    We have the same interest in condition and character. We honor the rich…” – One would expect some words about the poor later on. No such luck 🙁

    “The world exists for the education of each man.”

    “Who cares what the fact was, when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign?”

    “We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.”

    “Every law which the state enacts indicates a fact in human nature; that is all.”

    “All inquiry into antiquity … — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”

    “Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws.”

    “Civil and natural history, the history of art and of literature, must be explained from individual history, or must remain words.”

    “Jesus astonishes and overpowers sensual people.”

    “But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him.”

    Well, it seems the facts did fall aptly and supple into their places for me, one thing I don’t understand, i.e. why our most enlightened and highly liberal friends push this crap upon us?

  • Potter

    Zeke I believe there is a term in academic history which warns against holding people from another time accountable to the standards of contemporary society. Does anyone recall what it is?

    I agree. Emerson in his writings is way ahead of his time but it is unfair to expect him to be completely and always in that enlightened or eternal state of mind. It’s unfair to judge person of the past by today’s standards. History evolves us. I don’t think any of us can be other than of our time unless we stay high ( retreat).

    I believe that the word is presentism See alsom linked at the bottom of the article, “chronological snobbism” and “historian’s fallacy”.

    Steve Martin quote – I believe you should place a woman on a pedestal, high enough so you can look up her dress.

    Peggy Sue- Presumably the pedestal would keep a woman trapped in her place. I don’t get that yet from my reading of Emerson- but I am still reading from your link.

  • Emerson knew a lot of darkness, but the keynote of his mind and writing is still: enthusiasm! I call us modern Emersonians “ecstatic melancholics.” The world is a frightful mess, so let’s get busy.

    My own word of encouragement to this fine thread — thank you, mynocturama and sutter — would be just to counsel patience and to note that it took me the longest time to crack the code and feel I was getting to know a real person. Now, as the great biographer Robert Richardson has said, “I take him straight.” Or as Harold Bloom once confessed to me about his own discovery of Emerson’s journals, every line seems to be composed and posted for me! He is speaking to us directly and personally as our best self, or as Bloom said, as “the God within.”

    Down the road, I’d like to pose a parlor-game question to open an argument: if Emerson was the American prophet — even the American God — of the 19th Century, who was the intellectual, spiritual, temperamental and functional equivalent in the 20th Century? Of course I have a candidate… Where’s to look for the Emerson of the 21st Century.

    Meantime, here is a summary talk with a Letterman-esque “top ten points” about RWE, in the form of a graduation talk I gave six years ago at Concord Academy, an arts-rich prep school for the gifted and gorgeous, outside Boston. Thanks for letting me into the game.

    Concord Academy Graduation, June 1, 2001

    To the handsome class of 2001, the young sages of Concord, congratulations. Some of you know Art Buchwald’s two-sentence graduation speech: “We’ve given you a perfect world, kids. Don’t screw it up!” We could stop right there, but while we’re at it, I want to pay down a debt to your neighbor in the village, the old Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson: poet, essayist, lecturer, the world’s favorite Bostonian in the 19th Century, and a man I cherish. As a reader, not a scholar, I want to advocate him to you as a writer for the long haul, a storehouse of American visions especially today in a world of instant communication in a world culture. Above all I want to recommend him as an anti-dogmatic advocate of the spirit who enlivens our intuition of the inward and the invisible.

    We all have an impression of the blue-eyed slope-shouldered man with the Indian nose that formed the gentlest of hatchet faces. You know his house in Concord and his Old Manse where Thoreau kept the garden and Hawthorne wrote some of his great early stories. Emerson was a child of the Boston Latin School and the youngest member of the Harvard class of 1821; he was a minister who left the church to be a professional talker and writer, a “diamond dealer,” someone said, in moral and ethical ideas.

    We all know fragments of Emerson: the Concord Hymn about “the rude bridge that arched the flood” and “the shot heard round the world,” which Robert Frost thought was the finest of American poems. We all know that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and other bits of the essay “Self-Reliance,”–that: “to be great is to be misunderstood,” for example. Or the warning that: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one if its members.” But if you’re anything like me you’ve searched for the capsule idea connecting all those brilliant sentences, and you’ve missed the theme in the pudding. On the radio we say to guests and callers: “give me the bumper sticker,” and Emerson didn’t have one. His friend Henry James Sr., father of the novelist, used to get exasperated at Emerson’s many elusive meanings. He called Emerson “you man without a handle,” yet James Sr. also found himself thinking often about Emerson: “if this man were a woman I should be sure to fall in love with him.” A certain perplexity was typical among Emerson’s friends, who felt nonetheless an intensely personal magic in the man and deep inside the work. Walt Whitman loved it that nobody could tag Emerson’s thinking: “no province, no clique, no church,” he said. Whitman, too, felt “a flood of light” about Emerson, an impression of pure being. Nathaniel Hawthorn said Emerson wore “a sunbeam in his face.”

    I had been reading Emerson for years before I knew he was speaking to me, and here’s the sentence from Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838, that did it for me, a radio host. “We mark with light in the memory,” Emerson said, “the interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought, that told us what we knew, that gave us leave to be what we inly were.” Maybe you’ve had teachers like that. My head was flooded with radio guests and callers who’ve moved and shaken me by telling me what I knew, by introducing me to myself. The bandleader Eddie Palmieri on the subject of Afro-Cuban jazz. Diana Eck talking about her embrace of Buddhism. Dava Sobel on ocean sailing and the 18th Century sea clock that made the calculation of longitude swift and sure. Albert Murray talking about the blues form and blues performance as a metaphor of black life in America. E. O. Wilson talking about his life study of ants.

    On these and several thousand subjects over the past 7 years, the phones would light up at WBUR every morning, and something extraordinary happened! People got on the line and told us what they knew. Their souls made our souls wiser. The best of the callers and guests gave us leave to be what we inly were. Over and over we felt ecstatic flashes of what I began to call an Emersonian democracy I’d never credited before. Emerson speaks often of “the infinitude of the private man,” and I tuned my ear to hear exactly that every day. And we did: voices of experience, passion, suffering sometimes. I’ll never forget the quavering voice of the caller “Margaret” who spoke of a family legacy of mental illness (an Emerson family affliction at that). She quoted Winston Churchill’s nine-word speech to the students at his own Winchester school, recalling his own black dogs of depression: Churchill’s speech, as Margaret quoted it, was “Never give up, never give up, never give up!” Hope, Margaret said, was “when things get a little bit better.”

    I loved another lady, Gabrielle, who called one day to say how she’d first encountered Johannes Brahms: she’d heard the Piano Quintet and fell passionately in love with it and with him. “If you can believe it, Christopher,” she said, “Brahms was my first love.” I think of a man named Lewis, an industrial designer, who called to explain that he and his wife were studying box turtles, marveling at the beauty and perfect function of their bodies and shells; but he had a question: how could he tell his hard-core MIT-trained colleagues on his day job that he was beginning to see the hand of a creator in nature?

    Day after day we heard a sweeping refutation of so much cant about our dumbed-down culture. There is a democracy out there—vital, cranky, critical-thinking but also good-humored, alert, unfooled, that knows how to speak and how to listen: a democracy not just of votes and rights and laws but a democracy as Emerson described it of speech and intellect and spirit. “Democracy has its root,” Emerson wrote at age 31, “in the sacred truth that every man hath in him the Divine reason.” Even though “few men since the creation of the world live according to the dictate of Reason, yet all men are created capable of so doing. That is the equality and the only equality of all men.” Presumptuous and strange as it may sound for me to say it, these were the dimensions I came to hear in our radio conversations—Emersonian dimensions of an Emersonian democracy, maybe drifting and demoralized in our time, but out there pulsing vigorously in spirited American language, still generous and articulate in a call-in radio mode that welcomed it.

    My talk-show self got another chance Emersonian jolt in a letter he wrote to his friend Margaret Fuller in 1840 about a magazine, The Dial, they were to edit together. In our world today they’d be opening a website. Emerson told Margaret Fuller he wanted The Dial to be “a little bad,” anticipating black English. It should publish “some of the good fanatics” and “lead the opinions of this generation on every interest… in the whole Art of Living.” In short, he said, the new journal should aim to be “one cheerful, rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.” That was Emerson in 1840; and here we were a century and a half later, amidst the same media din of mourners in the print press, hucksters in commercial broadcasting, but holding our own on the radio in Emerson’s blessed space with the cheerfully rational.

    I mention one more Emerson nudge to me, and then I want to guess what he’d say to you. Three years into doing our radio program on WBUR, the question came: could we network it to other towns, to the country perhaps. My reservation was Henry David Thoreau’s skepticism in Walden, where he recounts the completion of the telegraphic cable from Maine to Texas. The question, he said, was whether Maine had anything to say to Texas. My leaping presumption, on the other hand, was to try to think like Emerson: a provincial who traveled the world, was interested in everything, and spoke everywhere. So on Emerson’s example, we went to 75 stations around the country, and hope to go back to a lot more.

    So much for Emerson and me. What might the writer and the man say to you at this threshold and commencement? With apologies to David Letterman may I offer you a list?

    No. 10. Plant a garden, and better yet: cultivate an orchard. This was easier done in Emerson’s time when a Concord farmhouse and 100 acres might be had for $2000. But a potted plant may be enough, or a walk in the woods. Emerson felt “an occult relation between man and the vegetable… They nod to me, and I to them,” he wrote. He felt an occult relation “between the very scorpions and man.” He said: “I feel the centipede in me—cayman, carp, eagle and fox.. I say continually, ‘I will be a naturalist.’”

    No. 9. Keep a Journal. Emerson wrote volumes of try-out ideas. His first journal he began at Harvard, age 16. He called it “The Wide World,” and here’s the second entry: “I do hereby nominate and appoint ‘Imagination’ the generalissimo and chief marshall of all the luckless ragamuffin Ideas which may be collected & imprisoned hereafter in these pages.”

    No. 8. Cultivate eccentricity and, of course, non-conformity. “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” is the rule of Self-Reliance. The proof was Emerson’s love of the prickly Thoreau and the vividly, vulgarly sexual Walt Whitman. Emerson told Whitman he might tone down the sex in “Leaves of Grass,” but Whitman knew that Emerson admired him more for not cleaning it up, not trimming his sails. Emerson marveled about Thoreau’s intimate knowledge of the Concord swamp, such that if he waked from a trance in it he could tell by the plants what time of year it was, within two days. He marveled just as much that the Concord opposition to Thoreau and ridicule from “these crybabies of routine and Boston” did not seem even to register on Thoreau.

    No. 7. Listen with your own stethoscope for the heartbeat of this country. Emerson was an American believer who grieved for American cultural impoverishment. He wrote: “My bareness, my bareness, seems America to say.” One shudders to think what he would make of the TV, techno, magazine-stand pop scene, but then he might not pay it much attention. “Shall we judge a country by the majority, or by the minority? By the minority, surely,” he answered himself.

    No. 6. Celebrate consciousness, the miracle of our self-awareness, and fight the scientific reduction of its magic. He wrote in his journal at age 23: “There is a pleasure in the thought that the particular tone of my mind at this moment may be new in the Universe; that the emotions of this hour may be peculiar and unexampled in the whole eternity of moral being.” Amen!

    No. 5. Cultivate your own ecstasy, each to his and her own wildness. The key quality in Emerson is enthusiasm. The commonest feelings in his work are wild delight, rapture, ecstasy, especially in nature even when we can hardly say why. He writes: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

    No. 4. Harvest world culture, after Emerson’s omnivorous example. In a hide-bound province, Emerson was the relentlessly wandering grazer, who translated Dante, read the Bhagavad Gita and corresponded for years with Carlyle in England. Not because he was a multi-culturalist but because he thought the human mind and heart were capable of immense and innumerable expansions. “There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us.”

    No. 3. Beware the self trap in all the stuff about self-reliance. Emerson is not an egotist, and his self is not a constructed identity that we’re compelled to advertise and inflict on others. The beauty of Emerson’s self is its affinity, its aptitude for the universal soul. He would tell you it’s possible to be full of self, without being full of yourself.

    No. 2. For the anxious likes of most of us, me between jobs and you between schools, he would say: fret not, trust thyself, move forward. “The new position of the advancing man has all the powers of the old, yet has them all new.” And in two other sentences from his great essay, “Circles,” he’d remind us: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” And: “Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.”

    No. 1. From the end of Emerson’s first book, Nature, a summing up for all of us, and for high-school graduates most especially. “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs… As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions… Build, therefore, your own world!”

    And as a reminder of old Concord, keep a little volume of Emerson at your side as you build.

  • mynocturama

    Thanks Chris for that. Hopefully this reading group will “keep the blog alive and dynamic.” Hope to read/hear more from you as the discussion goes on.

    And thanks to all who’ve contributed so far. A lot of good stuff, a lot to respond to…

    Peggysue – I have to be honest, part of me wants to say, urghhh, or some other such onomatopoeic expression, to the issue you so diligently raise. But I do think the question needs addressing.

    As I love Emerson, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to say, simply, well, by “man” or “men” he obviously means humanity in general. There were certain literary pronoun conventions firmly in place at the time, and, though Emerson is very much about resisting and questioning convention, he shows that he’s subject to it as well; a man of his times, in other words. And, yes, beyond the mere matter of pronouns, some of his statements about women are flat-out patriarchal. But the simple practical question arises: what does one, as a reader, do about it? First off, generally speaking, the argument’s been pretty well made, to my mind at least, about the masculine bias in much of history, literary or otherwise. It’s well established. So, now what? Denigrate writers of the past who exclusively use the masculine pronoun? To the exclusion of whatever else of benefit they may have to offer? The pronoun criterion alone, if you’re strict enough about it, will shut out a significant chunk of the humanities tradition, literary or otherwise. Some might say good riddance, but I’d prefer to be a bit more forgiving. Which leaves one more open to possibility.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the criticism. The Dead White Male (as simplistic shorthand) argument is there to be acknowledged and dealt with. But a strident insistence can be as limiting and constricting as the limitations being railed against.

    And with Emerson, and “History,” specifically, while he does use the feminine pronoun to refer to nature (inconsistently, however, if you look through more of his work), and of “the one mind” common to “all individual men,” it simply doesn’t make sense, as Potter notes, in the course and context of the overall essay and his overall work, for him to exclude one half of humanity from this “universal mind” he goes on and on about. In fact, at one point in “History” he talks about riding through the woods with a woman: “A lady, with whom I was riding in the forest, said to me, that the woods always seemed to her _to wait_, as if the genii who inhabit them suspended their deeds until the wayfarer has passed onward: a thought which poetry has celebrated in the dance of the fairies, which breaks off on the approach of human feet.” Which illustrates exactly her access to the one common or universal mind. She’s confirming in her own private experience what’s been testified to in poetry and myth. This, to my mind, constitutes specific textual evidence that Emerson does indeed include women as part of this universality and commonality. Granted, this is an anecdote, as opposed to those lists of names he likes to rattle off. But it’s testament nevertheless, of a direct personal kind on Emerson’s part.

    Does Emerson have his shortcomings? Yes. Obviously. He’s limited in more ways than one, as a writer or otherwise. For instance, you don’t go to Emerson for erotic poetry. And the air of the pulpit still hangs around him (he was a lapsed preacher, remember), to at times tiresome effect. He tends to pontificate, and, if you approach him too literal-mindedly, he can seem absurdly overinflated. But if you give him the benefit of the doubt, and stick to it, something just might click. You start to see what he’s doing, where he’s going, what he’s getting at.

    Definitely have more to say. I’ll try to get more in later today…

  • Hey, I said he is a man of his times and I’d try to view the 19th century gender/racial bias as a patina and keep looking for the nuggets. I am trying to pan for the gold. I’ve never read Emerson before and if I may stick to the panning for gold metaphor, sometimes you have to jump into some mighty cold water. I’m trusting there is gold in this creek or I wouldn’t be here. I’m just saying this ain’t no California streambed. This is the Klondike.

    Oh Potter, how can you not see the pedestal? Is it all that rosy mist?

    Chris, Thanks for the mining equipment.

  • Slow joining this conversation. I’m chewing, mulling, only getting through a paragraph at a time.

    Some early thoughts and responses:

    1) His opening premise is a very universal esoteric one.

    The Muslim invocation: “la illaha il allahu” means there is nothing but god.

    Hindu description of Vishnu: “On him this entire universe is woven and interwoven: from him is the world, and the world is in him; and he is the whole universe.”

    The list could go on. Emerson describes it as a ‘mind’, but I think the concept is the same.

    This phrase “admitted to the right of reason” jarred my reading. Admitted? Right? Reason? To be admitted could be construed as requiring another agent to allow you to pass into to. He doesn’t say ‘entered”. But this is where I find that the passage of time may impede my understanding of him. Not being familiar with the way words were commonly understood in the mid-19th century, I may be doomed to misinterpretation. I start to doubt my ability to read him at all. Yet, still, I wonder if what he is writing is any different from other things I have read of Rumi, Jung, Siddhartha, Christ, many many lights. So, perhaps it is best to simply drink it in and sense what is trying to impart. See if I feel lighter for it.

    On the question of Emerson’s attitude toward women, I find the quote about his not daring to define women refreshing. In some ways it is the most respectful approach. Beyond that platitude that we are all of the one, we cannot deign to speak for another’s experience of his/hers singular portion of the oneness. So, if he sticks to the word ‘man’ because he cannot claim anything for women, I can accept that. If he sticks with the word man as one that represents all humans, okay. I’m not sure I need to care what Emerson meant. I need to sense whether there is a truth here for me. The words now exist without the person who wrote them. They will impart their own meaning to every reader. I can either wrangle with the possibility that he didn’t have the relationship to women that I would prefer, or I can relate to his words as they impact me. I choose the latter.

    On the idea that women look to men for protection and may be disappointed and, therefore, turn to themselves. I don’t see this as antithetical to the concept that women are fully vested human beings with all the rights, powers and responsibilities of men due to them. We look for things in relationship. In partnerships we protect one another in different ways. When our partners don’t meet our expectations, we re-examine our relationship, our expectations, etc. I just told a friend the other day that if I am in a position to consider a new relationship, I have some things I will look for. In my history, never has a man stepped up to “defend my honor”. I will be looking for this. (A catch-22, of course, because I don’t really want a situation that calls for it to present itself.) This doesn’t mean that I couldn’t stand for myself. Or that I am prey to some concept of traditional gender roles that inhibits me from being self-empowered or considering myself an equal peer to a man. It is exactly that I do seek my equal. I want to know that this person would do for me what I would do for him and that I will not be considered “the strong one”. I could write a litany about this. But the point is that, seeking a partner who is protective may be natural and not at all antithetical to feminism – if we mean feminism to be the idea that women are equally vested human beings as men. (Maybe I like humanism.)

    That’s it for this moment.

  • Potter

    Allison: I need to sense whether there is a truth here for me…..I can either wrangle with the possibility that he didn’t have the relationship to women that I would prefer, or I can relate to his words as they impact me. I choose the latter.

    It is exactly that I do seek my equal. I want to know that this person would do for me what I would do for him……seeking a partner who is protective may be natural and not at all antithetical to feminism – if we mean feminism to be the idea that women are equally vested human beings as men.

    I could not have put it better Allison and I thank you for that. My reading of Emerson, particularly the lecture that Peggy Sue links above with regard to women, or woman, has not yet invoked any indignation ( and I can get indignant) and I am almost finished. I do find this treatment of women very respectful on the one hand and filled with praises about their special qualities ( which I recognize), how they are complementary, and how it would be all to the good if they flowered in the public sphere. I urge you to read it if you have not.

    Peggy Sue- thank you for that link btw-Regarding the pedestal, I believe I said that presumably a pedestal ( the metaphor as used by feminists) would keep a woman trapped in her place. I do not get that from Emerson at all. I meant by that that if he is placing woman on a pedestal ( and I don’t think he is) it’s not a device to keep a woman trapped in her place. He is noting and praising the differences which are plain.

  • Potter

    “He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.”

    A freeman is a man not tied to anything or anyone. The “whole estate” I take to be all there is, past present future.

    So the right of reason, may mean the mind freed of it’s encumbrances, liberated, connected to the divine, but still operating ( since we must reason). To be admitted to the right of reason is then to pass through, to transcend. It’s a higher state, a higher perspective. Nirvana? or near Nirvana?

  • Potter: The lecture on Women did seem patronizing to me except for the redeeming paragraph about making our own choices and getting the vote. That bit saved the whole thing. It seemed like he was kind of blathering on, suddenly came to his senses, captured reality, drove his point home, then continued to blather on a bit more.

    “They (women) emit from their pores a colored atmosphere, one would say, wave upon wave of rosy light, in which they walk evermore, and see all objects through this warm-tinted mist that envelops them.”

    To me this sounds like he is projecting his own romanticism onto women. I feel that he is looking at women through his own self-generated rosy mist. Not that I would ever deny being anything less than a mysterious flower of feminine virtue.

    Sherman Alexie has a story about a young native girl going away to collage. She is praying she won’t get a white girl as a roommate because she knows that if she is living with a white girl it will become obvious that she is just an ordinary girl like everyone else and she won’t have the advantage of being thought to be special or spiritual simply because she is native. Alexie often works with these themes.

    Being romanticized can be an advantage at times and yet I think if what we value is truth, the rosy mist is not helpful.

  • Potter

    Gosh Peggy Sue- there is so much else in that lecture-too numerous to quote- that is so much ahead of it’s time regarding women’s rights- this was actually a lecture given at a women’s suffrage meeting!! You picked the most sentimental of thoughts to focus on. I wanted to say, after reading your previous post that I find the image of having to pan for gold nuggets to be quite the opposite of mine. It’s the more like bits of crud that have to be sifted out. But that’s me. We have different takes I guess.

    I am glad you are on our side though… love your sense of humor and you!

  • Potter: I’m a total Emerson newbie and am finding Chris’s Letterman 10 very helpful. If you and Christopher Lydon love Emerson that is enough to tell me that there is gold in them thar hills. I’ll keep digging.

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue- You are a gem. ( I hope that is not patronizing- I mean it!)

  • When Emerson says that men are the rudders & women are the sails… you don’t suppose he thinks we are full of wind do you? ;^)

  • tbrucia

    I’m reading William James’ ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ and he makes several comments about Emerson…. I’ll let the curious obtain a copy of James’ classic and let them comment about his words regarding Emerson…. I’m not ready yet…

  • To get a better idea of the historical context of Emerson himself I turned to another legendary Bostonian, Howard Zinn and his books A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. This is what I found.

    1. As mentioned above by Zeke in 1838 Emerson wrote an open letter to President Van Buren regarding the removal of the Cherokee stating “You, sir, will bring down that renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy; and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.”

    2. In 1846 Thoreau denounced the Mexican American War and refusing to pay his poll tax landed in jail. In 1917 Emma Goldman was tried and convicted of conspiracy to obstruct the draft before WWI. She addressed the court quoting RWE & HDT, “I may remind you of two great Americans, undoubtedly not unknown to you, gentlemen of the jury; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau was placed in prison for refusing to pay taxes, he was visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emerson said: ‘David, what are you doing in jail?’ and Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?’ ” Emma Goldman served two years in the state penitentiary in Missouri.

    3. Before the execution of abolitionist John Brown for treason in 1859 Emerson said, “He will make the gallows holy as the cross.”

    4. On the eve of the civil war the wealthy of Boston kept their distance from the sources of their wealth, the factories run by overseers and the dismal and diseased working class. Emerson described Boston: “There is a certain poor-smell in the streets, in Beacon Street and Mount Vernon, as well as in the lawyers’ offices, and the wharves, and the same meanness and sterility, and leave-all-hope-behind, as one finds in a boot manufacturer’s premises.”

    And from the essay History…

    “What befell Asdrubal or Caesar Borgia is as much an illustration of the mind’s powers and depravations as what has befallen us. Each new law and political movement has meaning for you. Stand before each of its tablets and say, ‘Under this mask did my Proteus nature hide itself.’ This remedies the defect of our too great nearness to ourselves.” RWE.

  • bft

    Chris, I could tell from The Ten O’Clock News in the 1980s that you were after truth of the kind that lives can rest upon.

  • Bobby

    Peggysue & Allision,

    You two just need to recognize that the female is inferior and that. . .hold on. Okay I gotta go! My wife has to leave to perform an emergency appendectomy and she wants me to empty the dishwasher and put the clothes in the dryer after they’re done washing 🙁

  • nother

    Howdy all. Nice to back in your company.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson is an older white man who questions older white men – and that’s a good start for me. Look no further then the Divinity School Address to see all the ivory feathers ruffled in Emerson’s wake.

    “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

    That’s a darn good declaration, no matter your definition of “God.”

    When I was younger, I would periodically smoke marijuana and delight in the infusion of questioning that would overtake my consciousness. Then I discovered that I could garner that same healthy skepticism from reading my man Ralph – minus the paranoia and lighter wallet.

    His “History,” blasts off with a distinct subtext of questioning that pervades all of his work.

    “Yet every history should be written in a wisdom which divined the range of our affinities and looked at facts as symbols. I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is.”

    Emerson whips us with the reality of the relativity of history. Some teacher subjectively lectured to my subjectively listening ears, words that some author subjectively wrote – and now I know history?

    Today I walk outside to make history – my own.

  • nother

    Yikes, nice to BE back baby.

    I will be sure to pass the following quote from “History” on to my children – if I’m lucky enough to have any:

    “The whole of heraldry and of chivalry is in courtesy. A man of fine manners shall pronounce your name with all the ornament that titles of nobility could ever add.”

    I am so thankful to my mother for drilling the merits of courtesy into me. It is the richest and most democratic of all qualities.

  • mynocturama

    Bobby – you were wondering what Emerson meant by “reason” earlier. One potentially frustrating thing about Emerson is, not only can he be inconsistent with terms within his own work, he sometimes uses words unusually, differently from their conventional meaning. Emerson isn’t a system-builder. Which isn’t to say he’s devoid of pattern and regularity. But he isn’t deliberately attempting to build a consistent system.

    In “Nature,” however, his first published work, he’s at his most systematic. There he at least makes an effort to clarify terms, and tries to proceed according to an outline (of sorts). In it he distinguishes between “understanding” and “reason.” As I understand it, by “understanding” he means something along the lines of calculation, or ratiocination, or practical reasoning – manipulating and arranging known or measurable quantities, or dealing with things readily available to the senses for practical use. Basic arithmetic and logic would for him, I think, fall under that category too. “Understanding” works with what’s already there. By “reason” (which I take to be akin to his use of the term “genius”) he means more our capacity for generative insight, for creativity, for seeing things according to new and different frameworks, in the light of new and other patterns, and the like. The idea of a “paradigm shift” would fall under the realm of Emersonian “reason.” I consider his “reason” synonymous with imagination, with imaginative leaps of mind, whether artistic, scientific, whatever.

    Say you want to be able to fix and tune your car on your own. So you learn the basics of the internal combustion engine, familiarize yourself with the specs of your car, look at diagrams, try out routine adjustments, etc… In coming to know how your car works, and how to deal with it, you’d be using your “understanding” in Emersonian terms. At some point in “Nature” I think he describes “understanding” as “the Hand of the Mind.”

    But if you were to come up with an alternative design, more efficient, less wasteful, something entirely new, perhaps, then you’d be using “reason.” Rather than just working within an already established framework, you’re creating a new system, structure, organization.

    Emersonian “reason” also implies, I think, a kind of gestalt perception, seeing the whole of a new pattern or form, as a whole, in a flash of “a-ha” insight, and working out the details in the wake of this sudden new view of things. As opposed to “understanding,” which Emerson tends to describe as a more deliberate, step-by-step, sequential operation of the mind.

    Now why he chose to call this capacity of mind “reason” may have something to do with Kant. While Emerson isn’t a systematic philosopher, I’d say he definitely has what can be called philosophical concerns and interests. His essays converse with the philosophy floating around in the air at the time, as well as with previous philosophers. He refers directly to Descartes in “Self-Reliance,” for example. And, if I remember right from the Richardson bio, he took in Kant mainly by way of Coleridge.

    Someone else may be better equipped than I am to explain Kantian “reason.” But here’s a start at least. Kant says: “Reason creates for itself the idea of a spontaneity that can, on its own, start to act–without, i.e., needing to be preceded by another cause by means of which it is determined to action in turn, according to the law of causal connection.” For Kant, reason, our ability to reason, is intimately bound up with freedom, with our being free. Reason, at least to some degree, is free from deterministic causation. What we think and choose to do doesn’t necessarily follow a determined chain of events, at least in any straightforward, obvious sense.

    There’s actually a lot of Emerson in the above quote from Kant. The idea that “reason creates for itself” a conception of its own freedom resonates with Emersonian Self-Reliance, that the self, that is, consciousness, is this strange, utterly mysterious loop, feeding back onto itself, creating itself, inventing and reinventing itself. Or at least that it has the capacity, potential, to do so (the various hindrances, which Emerson elaborates on throughout his work, have to do with, among other things, conformity, reliance on external forms). Also Kant’s “idea of a spontaneity” finds its way directly into Emerson. From “Self-Reliance”:

    “The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.”

    Human consciousness’s capacity for the unprecedented, the unexpected, to make anew, to arrive at something that doesn’t necessarily follow from what’s gone before, this is all deeply key to Emerson. Emerson is all about the vanguard of the known into the unknown.

    But even the seemingly unprecedented has its precedence somewhere. And Emerson doesn’t deny this. Which is one reason why he opens his essay series with an essay on history. The point is that what is new, original, genuinely creative, doesn’t necessarily or predictably follow from what’s gone on before. Our potential for the unexpected, the unpredictable, for surprise, for imaginative freedom – this is what Emerson wants to stir in us.

  • Zeke

    Today, after three weeks, I finally steeled myself to listen to the “final” radio show. Very emotional for me, but also (as always) enlightening, entertaining and nourishing. The story Chris told about the usher at the BSO coming up to him and describing himself as a fellow “searcher” was inspirational. I think we members of the ROS community are all children of Emerson and brothers and sisters of Chris Lydon (and the usher) in this regard.

    The point of this post is not sentimental however. On the show one of the book endings cited was The Great Gatsby. In the context of our discussion I thought it resonated with Emerson’s essay ‘History.”

    And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

    And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

    Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

    There seems to be a uniquely American tension here –a tension I believe Emerson is trying to address in his essay. One guest characterized the passage as “antihistorical” if I understood correctly. Perhaps: in its description of Gatsby as a character. But the rumination itself, and the view of the observer Nick Carraway, seems to me to be very much in synch with ‘History.’ This is particularly true of the paragraph I have added at the start. Had Emerson been sitting on that dock instead of Gatsby, he could have written that first paragraph. And then, instead of pining for the green light and thinking he could change destiny, he would have gone on to right the rest of the essay –including the beautiful final sentence– as a caution to the Gatsby’s of the world.

  • Zeke

    Correction in last paragraph: “Had Emerson been sitting on that dock instead of Nick

  • Bobby

    The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of the tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge , and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

    I’ve read these lines for years; they capture best what I’ve enjoyed about reading Emerson. Unfortunately, as soon as I attempt to examine the essay too closely, the “soul”, i.e. the idea(s) Emerson wants to share is lost, and I have to start all over again. I’ve often thought a beautiful piece of art, e.g., essay, painting, Chris Lydon interview, acts as a catalyst; it invites me not to examine itself per se, but rather it invokes feelings, ideas, or issues that reside in me that either I may not have been aware of or, am aware, yet unable to adequately describe, I

    can now at least use the piece of art as a metaphor. “How are you feeling today, Bobby?” Like a !@#$ Jacking Pollock painting. OKAY!”

    BTW, Thank you, mynocturama for answering my question regarding Emerson’s definition of “reason.” Your pointing out his inconsistency with terms is similar to what I said above. If I attempt to examine too closely, then I miss the point.

    Regarding your following paragraph:

    Say you want to be able to fix and tune your car on your own. So you learn the basics of the internal combustion engine, familiarize yourself with the specs of your car, look at diagrams, try out routine adjustments, etc… In coming to know how your car works, and how to deal with it, you’d be using your “understanding” in Emersonian terms. At some point in “Nature” I think he describes “understanding” as “the Hand of the Mind.”

    I think of my friend who drives a completely restored Studebaker. I can imagine a mechanic telling her everything about the car, and at the end of his hour talk, my friend, caressing the hood, would say, “Her name is Harriet.” My point is we could take that whole thing apart, talk to the engineer who designed her, etc. yet be completely ignorant of the relationship between Harriet and her driver. I know in the medical field, I could look at a patient’s chart, read her entire H&P (History and Physical), think I know the person, only to hear some kid say, “That’s my mom.” Wow! (We are more than the sum of our parts) I think the same is true for reading Emerson. I need to stop trying to make a diagnosis, and just listen to what Emerson is trying to tell me. To walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of the tree and maybe, just maybe, out of the corner of my eye, I’ll catch a glimpse of the precious wildness I seek.

  • Bobby


    Regarding your July 16th, 4PM post (which I agreed with), I thought of this quote:

    If, as I believe, we are all made in God’s image, we could all give the same answer when asked who we are: ”I Am who I am.” One dwells with God be being faithful to one’s nature. One crosses God by trying to be something one is not. Reality – including one’s own – is divine, to be not defied but honored.

  • Bobby

    Zeke made the comment:

    I believe there is a term in academic history which warns against holding people from another time accountable to the standards of contemporary society. Does anyone recall what it is?

    Potter replied:

    I agree. Emerson in his writings is way ahead of his time but it is unfair to expect him to be completely and always in that enlightened or eternal state of mind. It’s unfair to judge person of the past by today’s standards. History evolves us. I don’t think any of us can be other than of our time unless we stay high (retreat).


    Everyone agrees we should be cognizant of the time period, culture, politics, etc., while reading Emerson. However, shouldn’t we be using the same standards while reading each other’s comments/point of view? I think it’s actually easier to remind myself that Emerson wrote the essay 150 + years ago. However, I would be naïve, maybe even arrogant, to believe I know what Potter, Zeke, or Peggysue for example means when reading one of their comments. I bring this up because while reading everyone’s comments, I sometimes find myself disagreeing and/or not understanding, and I have to remind myself that all of us are in a sense writing our own “essays” here, and I need to appreciate that each of you have lived a life different from mine, and therefore bring a unique perspective to the table.

    Anyway, just something I was thinking about before turning in for the night.

  • Nature by RWE

    A subtle chain of countless rings

    The next unto the farthest brings;

    The eye reads omens where it goes,

    And speaks all languages the rose;

    And, striving to be man, the worm

    Mounts through all the spires of form.

    Nature, Act II by peggysue

    The planet sighs exhaling life

    A child is born through love and strife.

    He cries, he sings, he learns, he grows,

    he marvels at the mighty rose.

    The earth inhales another breath

    and sucks him in upon his death.

    He finally takes his glorious form

    when man at last becomes the worm.

    (Sorry, it was a flash of inspiration I couldn’t resist sharing).

  • Bobby, I’m just guessing of course but I think I kinda know what you mean when you say you feel “Like a !@#$ Jacking Pollock painting. OKAY!” (the expressive punctuation helps)

    G’night now – hope you feel a little more like a rococo puti painting soon.

  • Zeke

    Much of this essay seems to anticipate modern biology and evolutionary theory.

    Certain paragraphs reminded me of Richard Dawkins’ wonderful The Ancestor’s Tale.,/i>

    For example:

    Genius studies the causal thought, and, far back in the womb of things, sees the rays parting from one orb, that diverge ere they fall by infinite diameters. Genius watches the monad through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of nature. Genius detects through the fly, through the caterpillar, through the grub, through the egg, the constant individual; through countless individuals, the fixed species; through many species, the genus; through all genera, the steadfast type; through all the kingdoms of organized life, the eternal unity. Nature is a mutable cloud, which is always and never the same. She casts the same thought into troops of forms, as a poet makes twenty fables with one moral. Through the bruteness and toughness of matter, a subtle spirit bends all things to its own will.

    I suspect it would pain Emerson to learn that what he dubs “Genius” may actually be DNA! But he does seem open to the concept that form does not equal substance. There is one universal substance which experience (history) reveals through nearly infinite forms.

  • Zeke

    Drat. Last paragraph should not be italicized. It is my “wisdom” not Emerson’s! I have to get the hang of this HTML coding.

  • Bobby

    “How you feelin’ today, Bobby?”

    “I feel like PUTTI! Are you happy now!” LOL!

    It doesn’t have quite the cute feel to it when you yell it like that, does it, peggysue? 🙂 Haha!

  • mynocturama

    Peggysue – that second stanza’s yours? Terrific stuff.

  • mynocturama

    OK – I’ll try my hand at html, to slay this slanted beast


  • mynocturama


  • mynocturama

    For general reference, if for myself if no one else:


  • Bobby

    Mynocturama Before:

    Briefly on Emerson’s philosophical outlook, which will serve as segue into the essay itself. . .

    Mynocturama After:

    OK – I’ll try my hand at html, to slay this slanted beast Done? Done!

    Just say NO to HTML tags 🙂

  • wonderful poem, PeggySue. Having run a composting company, I have a great appreciation for the glorious form of the worm.

    Zeke, I can see how you translate RWE’s genius to DNA. I was struck by something else because as I’ve been reading, I feel that I’ve read all this before. That I have been led to read this because I’ve forgotten what I once learned and I need to return to my own knowing. One place I have read these concepts is in the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan (HIK) – the founder of the Sufi Order International (originally Sufi Order of the West). I think he and RWE would have had ecstatic times together, much like Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. The following HIK quotes are examples of why I imagine this:

    “It is said in the Gayan, “The present is the reflection of the past, and the future is the re-echo of the present.” Destiny is not what is already made; destiny is what we are making.”

    “As water in a fountain flows as one stream, but falls in many drops divided by time and space, so are the revelations of the one stream of truth.”

    “All aspects of live meet and share in common in that one central point which is divine Mind.”

    The list of similarities in their expressions is endless. I am glad to now have RWE in my pool of contemplation.

    In one of HIK’s writings – The Alchemy of Happiness – he discusses the path of souls.

    “Eastern philosophers have had different ideas about this matter. The way that the wise and the mystics look at it is that man is a ray of the spirit, like a ray shooting forth from the sun. Therefore the origin of all souls is one and the same, just as the origin of the various rays is in the one sun. But as these rays shoot forth they pass through three different phases, in other words they penetrate through three different spheres. When the ray shoots forth, the first sphere it passes is the angelic sphere, the next is the sphere of the genius or jinn, and the third is the physical sphere. As they are recognized in the metaphysics of the East.” (you can read more here: http://rosanna.com/message/VI/VI31_40.htm)

    He goes on to say that the genius/jinn is the mind. But the mind is acquired in a state that is not physical. It it cannot be fully accommodated in the body. It is too expansive and occupies a different kind of space. I remember hearing is son speak about some people come to earth with more of their angelic self present. Some with more of their genius self. He used the word genius to mean a mind that comprehended things beyond the physical limitations. He would speak in awe of musicians, but also of quantum physicists. Anyone who seemed to bursting through barriers and connecting us to more truth than we usually can attain.

    For me, when RWE speaks of all that the genius can see by simply observing flies, etc. he is exhibiting his own level of what the Khan’s would call genius. His very way of presenting expressions is that of a genius. (It was in learning the Khans’ definition of genius that I first began to understand the middle-eastern word genie. ) As RWE writes, he is trying to bridge two levels of consciousness. A daunting task, trying to use the limitation of earthly language to pass along concepts that are by definition not bound by earthly limitations. I find myself struggling to read his passages. Resistant almost. I couldn’t figure out why. They’re just words. They pull on me, though. They don’t want to be read. To be parsed. They want to get into me and converse with my cells. No, not my cells. The non-substance that surrounds all my cells and tells them that they are me. They are asking to be let in. And I’m having trouble opening the door. At the same time, I’m realizing that I need them. All that I am struggling with in my life right now may be because I have not maintained a consciousness of what these words are imparting. As life throws things at me, I have been responding without holding onto these concepts. And I make things harder. I have not held onto my innate faith. I have had self-doubt. I’m resisting because I feel admonished and I don’t want to hear it.

    Wow, I didn’t know that was where this writing was going……..

  • sure wish we could edit…..

  • hey, where’s katemcshane?

  • mynocturama

    Wondering the same about Sutter and Nick.

  • mynocturama – thanks for posting the link to the html code – I was looking all over for it and couldn’t find it. (and thanks also for the appreciation of my humble poem).

    yes, where indeed are katemcshane, sutter & nick?

  • over on HTML at ROS I tried the

    are you bold?

    and it kept getting stuck in bold. So I thought I’d see if that would happen here too. I swear, I gave my text no cause for such boldness!

  • How dare you

    be so bold sir

    surely, I’ve given you no cause.

  • that was even inserting an anti bold cue into the text following the blockquote and I never did put in a cue for bold. I think it just gets stuck sometimes.

  • Allison,

    I think I know what you mean. I have some struggle going on myself and it was when I got to No 1 on Chris’s Emersonian Letterman list that I finally felt Emerson from the inside.

    “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs… As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions… Build, therefore, your own world!”

  • Sutter

    Sutter, sadly, is crushed under a huge pile of work, looking in from the sidelines and hoping to join in the fun soon!

  • Potter

    I will try to end the boldness

    Peggy Sue- First- Your poem is wonderful-I think I will save it ( I have a folder ……)

    On my browser top heading I can pull down “view” and then “view source” and I can see that instead of forward slash b you put forward slash p between the . We should really have a sandbox to play in.

    I decided to read up on Kant… nudged by Mynocturama’s post. BTW I have an opening piece for the next “Self-Reliance” and I sent it in last week. You guys are already echoing a lot of what I had to say. We are approaching one mind here. “History” that connects “Self-Reliance”

    I also want t o say that “right of reason” has a use in theology (Catholicism). Emerson was a minister from a minister.

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue-I just went over to the sandbox- we do have one on that HTML thread, I forgot. I had the same problem. The bold in the blockquote continues outside of it no matter what I tried. see me at http://www.radioopensource.org/html-at-ros/

  • Potter

    Hey- Peggy Sue! Can’t she become a worm as well?

  • Potter

    Emerson says:

    History is the record of the “entire series of days” of mankind; mankind is explained by nothing less than all his history.

    “Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man.”

    The first man, then, was pure potential for all that followed; all that followed was “merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world”.

    [so] “If the whole of history is in one man, it is to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time.”

    This reminds me of “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogengy” or recapitulation theory.


    It’s very appealing and not entirely discredited.

    It’s a wonderful idea- that a person in his unfolding life, in a way, repeats the history of mankind. It seems more like a romantic notion but I could fall for it.

  • Zeke

    Potter. Great summary. I, too, thought of ontogeny recapitualtes phylogeny when I was reading the essay. However, as I noted elsewhere, it is important to distinguish the concepts you summarized from a mistaken attitude that says that creating the present is the purpose of the past. We are not the pinnacle; we are merely another acorn leading to future oaks ourselves.

  • Potter, We are all worms! (eventually). It was kind of a call and response thing. RWE called, I responded.

    See you in the sandbox…

  • Potter

    I hope Katemcshane has not turned into a worm. I miss her too…. and Nick, grumpy old Nick. What would they say?

  • Zeke

    Thank Goodness He Switched to Essays!

    I snatched this from the blog About Last Night:

    From Robert Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire:

    In writing, as in other endeavors, Emerson did not find his characteristic voice while at college, although some traits begin to emerge. In prose he was working on wildly diverse projects. One was a lurid gothic tale about a Norse prophetess and sibyl and her magician son. The fantasy is overheated and overwritten — more dream than anything else, a sort of Norse Vathek. The heroine Uilsa speaks:

    “Did I not wake the mountains with my denouncing scream — calling vengeance from the north? Odin knew me and thundered. A thousand wolves ran down the mountain scared by the hideous lightning and baring the tooth to kill; they rushed after the cumbrous host. I saw when the pale faces glared back in terror as the black wolf pounced on his victim.”

  • mynocturama

    Hmmmm…Sounds suspiciously like my soon to be published fantasy novel, “Algathor, The Beast-Slayer Within: The night the Wolves Awaken.” Look for it on Amazon.

  • Potter

    Curious- My old copy of Emerson’s Essays has a slightly different version. I’ll have to look into this but I want to quote something I think wonderful from my copy:

    “Some men have so much of the Indian left, have constitutionally such habits of accommodation that at sea, or in the forest, or in the snow they sleep as warm, and dine with as good appetite, and associate as happily as in their own house. And to push this old fact still one degree nearer, we may find it representative of a permanent fact of human nature. The intellectual nomadism is the faculty of objectiveness or of eyes which everywhere feed themselves. Who hath such eyes, everywhere falls into easy relations with his fellow-men. Every man, everything is a prize, a study, a property to him, and this love smooths his brow, joins him to men, and makes him beautiful and beloved in their sight. His house is a wagon; he roams through all latitudes as easily as a Calmuc.

    Every thing the individual sees without him corresponds to his states of mind, and every thing is in turn intelligible to him, as his onward thinking leads him into the truth to which that fact or series belongs.”

    The last paragraph is the same in both my new and old books, but the first paragraph is just not there.

  • Bobby

    I just returned from my evening walk while listening to Chris’s “Oh Yeah. Emerson” interview on my MP3 player. Wow! And then to top it off, I opened the fridge to get my last can of Nectar of the Gods, aka Dr. Pepper, to find I in fact had two cans left. Life IS beautiful!

  • Bobby

    A scholar is committed to building on knowledge that others have gathered, correcting it, confirming it, enlarging it. But I have always wanted to think my own thoughts about a subject without being overly influenced by what others have thought before me. If you catch me reading a book in private, it is most likely to be a novel, some poetry, a mystery, or an essay that defies classification, rather than a text directly related to whatever I am writing at the time.

    There is some virtue in my proclivities, I think: they help me keep my thinking fresh and bring me the stimulation that comes from looking at life through multiple lenses. There is non-virtue in them as well: laziness of a sort, a certain kind of impatience, and perhaps even a lack of due respect for others who have worked these fields.

    But be they virtues or faults, these are simple facts about my nature, about my limits and my gifts. I am less gifted at building on other people’s discoveries than at tinkering in my own garage; less gifted at slipping slowly into a subject than at jumping into the deep end to see if I can swim; less gifted at making outlines than at writing myself into a corner and trying to find a way out; less gifted at tracking a tight chain of logic than at leaping from one metaphor to the next!

  • bobby, I have a similar proclivity. This feeling that my thinking/creative output would be somehow manipulated if influenced by others. Of course, we all have influences. But I don’t want to go to writing school and study writing styles and analyze what others have written as a part of my writing development. I don’t mind if I’m naturally inspired to read someone’s work, or randomly encouraged – such as this endeavor to keep the ROS community engaged – but I’m resistant to “studying” writing. I simply want to write.

    I’m never sure if this a virtue – as in some honorable sense of purity – or a fault – as in some amount of arrogance or ignorance. Alas, it is the way I am. Perhaps. someday, I’ll actually write something publishable…..

  • Bobby


    ”somehow manipulated; influenced by others; don’t want to go; I’m resistant; never sure; Alas, it is the way I am; Perhaps someday”

    Dear God! What overbearing, sour, and sadistic parent, professor, or partner decided to avenge his/her mediocrity by belittling your creativity! Give me his name, Allison! I’ll neuter him faster than he can say, “I’m a baritone!” Well now you’re an understudy for Renee Fleming, you bastard! Ha!

    Seriously though! If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s divine intervention that the next essay is titled self-reliance.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Allison, I’m going to find some words of wisdom that will hopefully naturally inspire and randomly encourage you 🙂

  • Hey Allison,

    I think, about creative work, that it is very important to have times when you develop your own voice. I went back and finished school when I’d already worked on an editorial collective and had been working on my own writing for a while. In school I lucked out and got some wonderful professors who really helped me refine my writing. I don’t think they would have been as helpful to me if I hadn’t already been working on it. Then when I graduated with my MFA in painting I told one of my teachers that after having so much input I felt like what I needed next was to go live out in the woods by myself for 5 years. I haven’t exactly had the luxury to do that but I feel like I need both, time to develop my own voice and time to learn from and be inspired by others. So much of creative work is in the process, the practice of just doing it. Now I take writing workshops sometimes mainly for the discipline of keeping in practice in spite of living a busy life. I think I know what you mean about wanting to find that purity. I still wish I could spend five years out in the woods by myself just writing and painting. (OK coming into town once in a while for supplies and socialability). As for getting published… that’s when those writing workshop connections will come in handy! ;^)

  • Down the road, I’d like to pose a parlor-game question to open an argument: if Emerson was the American prophet — even the American God — of the 19th Century, who was the intellectual, spiritual, temperamental and functional equivalent in the 20th Century? Of course I have a candidate… Where’s to look for the Emerson of the 21st Century. – Chris Lydon

    Is it time to start the game yet? Please forgive (or disqualify) me if I’m jumping the gun.

    Twentieth century: I’m awfully fond of Albert Einstein, but given that we are looking for an “American prophet” I nominate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

    and the 21st century? how about Thomas Moore (of Care of the Soul fame) or David L. Miller (author of Christs) Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion, Emeritus, Syracuse University.

  • How about Joseph Campbell as the Emerson of the twentieth century?

  • Bobby


    You’ve got my vote, flow. Joseph Campbell is awesome! I own the DVD of the interviews Bill Moyers did with him at George Lucus’s Skywalker ranch. I use to watch them over and over again.

  • I agree bobby,

    an extraordinary man, an extraordinary career, an extraordinary life. Have you read Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind by Stephen Larsen and Robin Larsen? I recommend it for those interested in the exploring the background to his career and writing.

  • Potter

    I love Joseph Campbell….count me in. (“Follow your bliss”)

  • Potter


    Down the road, I’d like to pose a parlor-game question to open an argument: if Emerson was the American prophet — even the American God — of the 19th Century, who was the intellectual, spiritual, temperamental and functional equivalent in the 20th Century? Of course I have a candidate… Where’s to look for the Emerson of the 21st Century.

    Not easy. E.O Wilson is another personal favorite (along with Campbell).

    Chris who is your candidate?

  • mynocturama

    I’ll toss in my candidates – though, in a way, looking for an “Emerson” of the 20th or 21st century goes against the spirit of Emerson himself. He would, of course, counsel against looking to old models, whether him or anyone else.


    As I mentioned her twice in the opening of this thread, and since there’s a recent NYRB piece on her as well, I’d nominate Susan Sontag as a paradigmatic Emersonian of the 20th century. This has its ironies – she’s remembered more as an importer of European art and culture into America than a proponent of American art and culture per se; but in several interviews I’ve come across, she’s listed Emerson as a love and inspiration of hers. And her mix of hot passion and cool intellect calls Emerson to mind, or to my mind at least.

    As far as Joseph Campbell goes – The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been sitting on my shelf for several years, and only last month did I pick it up and begin reading it. I think it’s beautiful and brilliant. And the lookout for connections, resonances, between various myths and stories from different cultures, definitely strikes an Emersonian chord. Though I think there are interesting differences too, between Emerson and Campbell. Namely, Campbell’s focus on narrative, on passing through different stages of the “monomyth” or what have you. The very idea of moving through stages in a story, a developmental pattern, is, in a way, alien to Emerson, it seems to me. Emerson is much more about flashes of insight in this eternal moment or NOW. At least that’s my impression, right now, in writing this post. I wouldn’t make it a clear cut distinction. And there are passages in the essays where Emerson discusses phases of development. It’s simply that this distinction strikes me, right now. And also, I’d say Campbell is comparatively systematic, in a way that Emerson isn’t (at least not overtly – I do think Emerson has something of a system too, though his method is to have the system speak through him, rather than speak about the system explicitly; to embody it, rather than describe it, if that makes any sense).

    OK, as far as writers alive and well into this new century, I’d nominate Adam Phillips. He’s a British psychoanalyst, and while he certainly taps into psychoanalytic theory in his essays, he’s in no way bound to it, and doesn’t get bogged down in technical jargon at all. He’s a beautiful writer, one of my favorites. John Banville’s called him “an Emerson for our time,” so there you go. I’ve plugged him 2 or 3 times in the suggest a show thread, but I was never really successful with my pitches. I would love for Chris to interview him, to talk about whatever, Emerson, Freud, art and culture and life in general. If anyone’s interested, I’d recommend starting with his essay collection “On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored.” It’s terrific.

  • silvio.rabioso

    Hello to all,

    Sorry to have disappeared from the ROS community for a while. I have been very busy with my own projects etc. This discussion about Emerson looks timely, relevant, challenging, fruitful and interesting. Sadly, I will not be able to catch up/participate fully, but I would like to offer my own form of a contribution to the discussion. José Martí–the pillar of the Cuban Independence movement–wrote a “crónica”-obituary about Emerson for a Venezuelan newspaper in 1882. Emerson was a seminal thinker for Martí, and many of Martí’s most influential essays–including “Nuestra América”–draw direct inspiration from Emerson’s writings on nature.

    I was inspired by mynocturama’s question about Emerson’s successors, but I found myself unsatisfied at the scope of the question. If British thinkers can carry on the Emersonian tradition, why stop there? As a way to open up the discussion to a more global level, why not consider Emerson’s influence on philosophical traditions outside the US? I would be willing–provided that it occurs no earlier than the this coming fall–to assemble some materials specifically on Emerson and Martí. But I would view this as a first step in opening the discussion to a much broader level.

    Emerson has inspired (and continues to inspire, as this ROS project shows!) many thinkers from many parts of the globe and many parts of the ideological spectrum. I can think of no better way to reflect upon the meaning of Emerson’s thought than to see how his thoughts have been assimilated into diverse philosophical traditions. I am certainly not the most qualified person to lead that discussion, but what I CAN do is to give us a starting point: José Martí’s “Emerson”

    If this appeals to anyone, please contact me directly, as I will not be checking the site with frequency until September. silvio DOT rabioso AT gmail DOT com

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  • Tayla

    What are some of Emerson’s claims in his essay ‘History’? I a m trying to write a paper either agreeing or disagreeing with his claims made in the essay but I don’t fully understand the Essay.