Emerson’s mistake

Emerson’s Self-Reliance makes a provocative case for cultivating the self and shunning morality in the form of obligations to others. One famous paragraph begins, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. … Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The same paragraph ends with an argument against charity as an entanglement that damages integrity: “do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.”

Emerson strongly favors interacting with other minds, especially the geniuses who figure in the books that he devours in his private hours. Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Milton, Copernicus, and Newton are just some of the names he invokes in Self-Reliance. He thinks these people (all men) had distinct and invariant characters. “For I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being.” Thus, to understand an author is to grasp something unitary and unique about him that inspires you to enrich your own equally coherent character, not by sharing his truth but by creating your own. In Experience, Emerson writes:

Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert; their turn must also come, and the longer a particular union lasts, the more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire. Life will be imaged, but cannot be divided nor doubled. Any invasion of its unity would be chaos.

But this is false. To experience another person’s mind (whether through a brilliant book or an everyday interaction) is not just to pick out one idea that you think defines the other. It is to begin exploring his or her web of thinking while sharing your own. You both have unique webs, but each element of your thought is shared with many other people. You gain the most by exploring many of the other person’s moral nodes and their connections. This does not threaten your “unity” or risk chaos, because your own character was already a heterogeneous, evolving, and loosely connected web that you largely adopted from other people. Touching at just one point is a failure of communication and interpretation.

To be sure, you can strive to disentangle from everyday life and politics and prefer books to “dining out occasionally” (which, Thoreau found, interfered with his “domestic arrangements”), but you should not persuade yourself that you have thereby disconnected your network map from everyone else’s. Your self is still a social creation, and you are still mentally involved with others, even if you detach politically and economically.

References: Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (New York: Random House, 2009) pp. 134-5, 138. Emerson, “Experience,” in ibid, p. 322. Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (New York: T.Y Crowell & Co., 1899)p. 62

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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