Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Emerson, a much-neglected thinker

Ralph Waldo Emerson — the leader of American “Transcendentalism” in the 19th century — has a lot to teach the self-obsessed, narcissistic, smartphone-wielding generation of today. Despite the fact that his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841; available here) is written in the excessively patriarchal language of the time — one might be forgiven for thinking there were no women in America at the time — Emerson’s emphasis on the virtue of independence of thought is a tonic in an age like ours. Today virtually everyone is a “follower” of some celebrity or other on Twitter, and would not know independent thinking if they themselves miraculously engaged in it.

Here is Emerson on the difference between repeating what others believe and thinking for yourself (p. 1): “Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” It follows from this that one must learn to trust your own intuitions, instead of echoing the sentiments of others. This is how he puts it, using what must have been a very telling agricultural metaphor for exploring and using one’s own talents and abilities to the full (p. 2):

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

It is refreshing to encounter in his prose this belief — one that resonates with the Lacanian psychoanalytic principle, that each human subject is driven by his or her singular “desire”, by what distinguishes one from every other human being, even if others seem, at first blush, to share your desire. If others are driven, like yourself, by the wish to become a good architect, for example, no one can do it in exactly the way you can, or for you, in your place. Hence the truth of Emerson’s claim, that the power that exists in every person is “new in nature” – it has never been on this planet before, and only YOU can generate creative, original insights or actions through that force within you.

Isn’t this a comforting — and, one would hope, galvanising — thought in an age of mass-just-about-everything? If you dare to examine what you, unencumbered by the fashionable beliefs that clog up your mind every day, are capable of doing, it may just be what launches you on a life-adventure that you could truly call your own. But to be able to take that step one has to develop, or already have, self-confidence. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string”, says Emerson (p. 2).

Judging by this resolute defence of self-reliance in mind and character, the 19th century was no different from our own (and one might venture to guess, nor was any other age) when it comes to the pressure to conform (Emerson p. 3-4): “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

Of course, even Emerson was (unwittingly) guilty of conformism in the patriarchal language he uses — today one would/should write “Whoso would be a (true) woman or man must be a nonconformist”. One remains trapped in certain conventions even when you try your mightiest to rid yourself of them — that goes for all of us. Here Emerson anticipates the work of Martin Heidegger who, in his major work, Being and Time (1927), pointed out that everyone lives in (and conforms to) a sphere of “everydayness” characterised by “curiosity”, “ambiguity” and “idle talk”, to begin with. It is from here that one has to set out in your quest for “authenticity”; no one can bypass everydayness — not even Emerson did — you start there, and conquer independence of mind, of character, of action, painstakingly. It does not happen overnight.

To attain and maintain such independence of mind, does mean, of course, that one has to sacrifice a certain kind of social involvement that comes with living in human society. In fact, it might require what Emerson does not hesitate to call “solitude”. This is how he puts it (p. 5):

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

How many of today’s social media addicts would be able to do this? In the 17th century René Descartes expressed the ontological measure of being human in the formula “I think, therefore I am”. Everyone knows that its 21st-century counterpart is “I am connected on social media sites, therefore I am”, and most of the denizens of these sites would rather die than be “unfriended”, let alone opt for “solitude”. Nonetheless, Emerson does not demand that one divorce oneself from social life altogether, hence his reference to “the independence of solitude” – that is, by all means socialise with your friends and others, but not at the cost of your independence of mind.

Even then you can anticipate censure and criticism, if not complete ostracisation: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (p. 6). Most people instinctively regard an independent soul with suspicion, for the simple reason that the vast majority of people follow convention — that is, conformity — without question. Emerson and 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant would have seen eye to eye as far as this is concerned. Did Kant not famously, in his short essay, “What is enlightenment?”, exhort people who would be “enlightened” to “have the courage to think” for themselves (“Sapere aude”)?

Emerson even goes as far as discouraging one to quote “great” thinkers or poets from the past (p. 11); the independent person thinks and writes without recourse to the words of others. What this demands of one is the almost superhuman ability to formulate your thoughts exclusively in your “own” words, whether they have been articulated by others before you or not. This seems to me somewhat excessive. One enters into a dialogue of sorts with people from other eras and cultures by quoting or paraphrasing them and responding to their thoughts in your own words. And besides, even Emerson could not free himself from the language he spoke and read — it preceded him and shaped him. But once having mastered it, he augmented and shaped the (American) English language in his turn.

Emerson believed that, should people be receptive to his ideas, it would affect every aspect of society (p. 15): “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views”. Like him, I have no doubt that this would be salutary. But are people capable of doing this?

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