Americans have always believed that they have a new and unique wisdom to impart to the world, and while some would name Benjamin Franklin as the American breakthrough thinker, that distinction more justly belongs to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Where Franklin counseled prudence and moral circumspection, not unlike an Old World uncle, Emerson proclaimed the ecstatic universe and intimated that the unloosed American self was especially well-placed to lead the celebration. While Americans have outgrown Franklin, or grown tired of him, with his reminders to be thrifty and temperate, chaste and well-scrubbed, we have grown into epigoni of Emerson, who urged his countrymen to follow their deepest impulses and to know the supreme joy of becoming truly themselves. But just how pleased should we be that we are living in Emerson’s America more than in Franklin’s?
By nearly all accounts, Emerson was tender, affable, accepting, and a one-man band for cosmic enthusiasm. He wrote poems, orations, lectures, five volumes of essays, a travel book about England, and a journal that he kept for 57 years, which consumed 263 notebooks and whose homemade index ran to hundreds of pages.1 Matthew Arnold, writing in 1883, called Emerson’s Essays (1841 and 1844) the century’s most important work of prose; the volumes included such pieces as “Self-Reliance,” “Heroism,” “The Over-Soul,” “The Poet,” “Experience,” and “Character.”
Known as the Sage of Concord, he was purveyor of wisdom to the classes and the masses alike, a Harvard graduate who lectured widely on the Lyceum circuit to working-class audiences hungry for self–improvement. He prophesied an America far surpassing in excellence the country he was living in, imagining a nation of free spirits indifferent to crass material concerns and liberated from constricting religious orthodoxies, proclaiming the epoch of the omnipotent self, which would shape a world at last congenial to genuine human needs and honor the divine in each of us in a way worthy of man and God alike.
To attempt to bring men to proper terms with the divine, in an age ever more godless, was perhaps Emerson’s ultimate calling. He became a Unitarian minister in Boston like his father before him but found pulpit decorum uncongenial to his questing and increasingly unorthodox mind; he left the ministry in 1839. The problem of evil ripped at him with unusual ferocity: “the enslaved, the sick, the disappointed, the poor, the unfortunate, the dying, the surviving cry out—[evil] is here.”
Life’s cruel vagaries brought that evil home so he could not miss it, as his first wife, brother after brother, and his cherished son all died young; grief at the boy Waldo’s death in 1842, from scarlet fever at the age of five, all but split Emerson wide open, so that he understood “nothing of this fact except its bitterness.” Seeking superior understanding, or at least some intellectual salve, that would reconcile him to such loss became a preoccupation, though generally a tacit one; clarion praise of universal justice and goodness often drowned out those cries of the suffering, including his own.
Emerson liked to remind his readers that the Greek word Kosmos originally meant “beauty,” suggesting that the meaning of the universe could be found in aesthetic bliss, readily available to all in gorgeous nature as well as in art. That line of thought in his hands was not always winning. His elegy for his son, “Threnody,” plunges into greeting-card bathos when he tries to be most rapturous: “Will thou not ope thy heart to know? What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?”
Making one’s way through Emerson’s poetry requires a tolerance for saccharine effusion and tinkling rhyme, though there are several poems that stand up quite handsomely, such as “The Problem,” “Uriel,” and “The Snow-Storm.” Negotiating Emerson’s prose involves many a weary trudge between one golden passage and the next, or for that matter, one good line and the next.
His writing is not the most significant thing about Emerson, Matthew Arnold notwithstanding. Rather, it is as a case study in democratic intellect that Emerson appears most meaningful now. What is there of lasting wisdom in his reflections on spiritual and intellectual excellence, the reality and the promise of egalitarianism, the decay of time-honored religion and the prospect of a new god or gods, or of no god at all, on the horizon? These remain living matters, perennially unsettled; how much can we learn from Emerson’s thinking on them?
America and the other major democracies have grown leery of greatness, as though it were the sharpest grift there is. Equality and quality do not coexist on easy terms; the former fears that the latter is out to defraud it of its birthright. A vindictive meanness pervades the land, as legions delight in bringing the remarkable low. It was not always so. In the early days of democracy, the best men—Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, Beethoven—sought to inspire their audience with the prospect of a new order of nobility appropriate to the dawning epoch, a nobility based not on the undeserved accident of birth but on cultivated excellence of mind and heart. What Saul Bellow called “the universal eligibility to be noble” opened vistas of achievement and fulfillment to multitudes who had previously spent their lives staring at a brick wall.
As it turned out, however, most men wanted something less than nobility. By the time Emerson was 17, he already felt the insurmountable disparity between the few who sought excellence and the many who had no interest in or hope of attaining it. He started young in his loathing of the crowd and his adulation of the exceptional men who stand apart and above: “But there are on earth great men who disdainful alike of the multitude’s scorn & the multitude’s applause elevate themselves by their own exertion to heights of human exaltation…. Every man of talents & application has it in his power to be one of these.”
Emerson would meditate on greatness all his life. In his best book, Representative Men (1850), he considers some of the most extraordinary figures mankind has ever produced: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Of these he plainly regards Goethe, his particular hero since youth, as the most extraordinary: the man who cultivated every aspect of his superb nature: poet, playwright, novelist, autobiographer, statesman, scientist. All the world, all knowledge, was Goethe’s province, and the world suited him perfectly because it allowed his mind free play. “But this man was entirely at home and happy in his century and the world,” Emerson writes. “None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game.”
There is nevertheless something lacking in Goethe, precisely because he lived so largely for himself:
He has not worshipped the highest unity; he is incapable of self-surrender to the moral sentiment. There are nobler strains of poetry than any he has sounded. There are writers poorer in talent, whose tone is purer, and more touches the heart. Goethe can never be dear to men. His is not even the devotion to pure truth; but to truth for the sake of culture.
To Emerson’s mind, adherence to truth for the sake of truth is inseparable from moral sentiment; this compound virtue is the touchstone for every representative man he writes of, and none really measures up. One suspects that the cardinal virtue they lack is one Emerson believes himself to possess, and he possesses it because he is an American and a democrat, with the sublimely compassionate heart that enables him to feel others’ suffering as his own and to perceive the divinity in all men.
Emerson embodied the dilemma of the intellectual in the democratic age, unable to choose between the devotion to his own development and the obligation to push the great mass along on its hopeful way to an uncertain destination.
In the opening essay of Representative Men, “Uses of Great Men,” Emerson insists that the earth gladly accommodates every man who has sprouted here. None is to be denied his share of the divine nature, he writes in a passage that reads like a highfalutin stump speech in which a politician goes for broke flattering his audience:
As to what we call the masses, and common men;—there are no common men…. But heaven reserves an equal scope for every creature. Each is uneasy until he has produced his private ray unto the concave sphere, and beheld his talent also in its last nobility and exaltation.
But Emerson could also shudder at the sight of the rabble clambering into political power over the bodies of the astute and capable, as in this 1844 journal entry about the condition of the Whig Party:
They the active, enterprizing, intelligent, well-meaning, & wealthy part of the people, the real bone & strength of the American people, find themselves paralysed & defeated everywhere by the hordes of ignorant & deceivable natives & the armies of foreign voters who fill Pennsylvania, N.Y., & New Orleans, and by those unscrupulous editors & orators who have assumed to lead these masses.
The essay “Politics” (1844) seethes with uncontrollable contempt for democratic politicians at the top, who have no real vocation for statesmanship but who grasp and climb just to prove to themselves that they are not worthless: “Like one class of forest animals, they have nothing but a prehensile tail: climb they must, or crawl.” And he damns in thunder some of the most characteristic native folkways, as in a journal entry from 1836: “When I spoke or speak of the democratic element I do not mean that ill thing vain & loud which writes lying newspapers, spouts at caucuses, & sells its lies for gold, but that spirit of love for the General good whose name this assumes. There is nothing of the true democratic element in what is called Democracy; it must fall, being wholly commercial.”
Yet in “The Young American,” an 1844 lecture to the Mercantile Library Association of Boston, he wheeled about and proclaimed the propulsive national commercial energy to be a literal godsend: “The philosopher and lover of men have much harm to say of trade; but the historian will see that trade was the principle of Liberty; that trade planted America and destroyed Feudalism; that it makes peace and keeps peace, and it will abolish slavery.” When he was not in a denying mood, he was the cheerleader for the American experiment.
And more. Emerson earnestly undertakes to be the American arch-poet of true human diversity; by that he intends the very opposite of the meaning given diversity by today’s identity-group politics, which prescribes appropriate thought and behavior for representatives of a particular race or gender or sexual affiliation or social class. Any sort of group-think eats into the individual integrity that is the heart of Emerson’s ideal democracy.
For Emerson, the plague of ordinary life is the compulsion to be like everyone else. What he called “the conventional devil” goads most American men to think continually of money and most women to compare your carpet, saltcellar, and cook with the standard-issue items in town. That every person might live as his or her genuine nature directs—such would be the fulfillment of America’s promise.
About Brook Farm, the socialist experiment in communal living, which was not to Emerson’s taste and which he declined to join, he enthuses nevertheless, for it represents a new human possibility: “Why should we have only two or three ways of life & not thousands & millions?” Wisdom born of the moral sentiment will permit each man his singularity: “Cannot we let people be themselves, & enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One’s enough.”
Among the impedimenta blocking access to the true self was that old-time religion—specifically, Christianity, whose original spirit had been deformed by its outworn institutions. In the essay “Worship,” Emerson declares that the old faith is dead for modern men and no new religion has appeared to replace it: “By the irresistible maturing of the general mind, the Christian traditions have lost their hold.” The age is refulgent with spiritual promise, even though that promise is threatened by consumerism. For the religious impulse is not extinguished, and liberated from Christian orthodoxy, men can now appreciate the world as it really is: they can “see that, against all appearances, the nature of things works for truth and right forever.”
Emerson believed he had peered deep into the nature of things, indeed into its most secret parts, and had beheld there the mystery it was his anointed duty to announce to the world. On June 3, 1836, a single line in his journal blazes: “Shall I not treat all men as gods?” This is democracy apotheosized in a quintessential Emersonism. You can’t talk up the common man any louder than that. But what sort of democrat does that make Emerson really?
The philosopher, poet, and novelist George Santayana was no democrat, but in his essay on Dickens in Soliloquies in England(1922), one of the finest pieces of criticism in the English language, he honors Dickens as the celebrant of “a golden mediocrity” who embodies the moral sentiment in the democratic soul. Dickens had, Santayana writes, “a sense of happy freedom in littleness, an open-eyed reverence and religion without words.” Santayana evokes the richness of the Dickensian world with a loving energy of his own, summoning up “the charm of humble things, the nobleness of humble people, the horror of crime, the ghastliness of vice, the deft hand and shining face of virtue passing through the midst of it all.” Here Santayana, like Dickens, delights in the existence of ordinary humanity as Emerson never quite manages to do.
For Emerson loves common men only insofar as they promise something uncommon or as they reflect his own extraordinary soulful perspicacity in appreciating their divinity, hidden from most eyes. Men who take pleasure in their own littleness do not suit Emerson at all; he has to pump them up to an acceptable grandeur.
Rather than “treat them as gods,” why not treat them as they come—as men, with an abundance of peculiarities, infirmities, deficiencies, and deformities, just the way their Creator made them, and as they have made themselves, however unhappily that may comport with the soaring dogma of the new hyper-egalitarian theology Emerson proclaims. Emerson’s relish for diversity and individuality extends only as far as his preference for spiritual titanism will allow. Goethe and Shakespeare and Plato he could love, with reservations. Dickens he pretty well despised and dismissed. “There are no common men,” Emerson boomed, and Dickens’s novels reminded him too much of humanity as it actually is, prolific and irrepressible and common as toadstools.
And Dickens’s world remains essentially under the Christian dispensation, so that good and evil are clearly defined, while Emerson’s godlike selves interpret the moral sentiment as they see fit and are really bound to no Law but their own will. There is an undeniable sweetness to such freedom, as we 21st-century Americans know, but we also see around us today the cost to be paid for realizing Emerson’s vision of the democratic self rampant.
It is no failure for a thinker to be most at home among the great. It is a failure, and a grave one, for a would-be democratic seer to trumpet his love and awe for men so many of whom he has no use for. There is too much trumpery to Emerson, who professes to embrace all while he recoils from so many. In the end, the “Sage of Concord” was a learned but confused man with a severe case of spiritual bloat.
1 The Library of America has published Emerson’s Selected Journals 1820-1842, 910 pages, and Selected Journals 1841-1877, 1,021 pages.