U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Growing Up, Growing Older with Ralph Waldo Emerson

The last couple of times out, I’ve talked about reading and teaching. If there was any particular approach I wanted to champion, it would be the close reading of texts. But what happens when you read something by someone who doesn’t precisely advocate close reading? Would it be in the spirit of the text to subject that writer to the scrutiny of a really close reading?

In the “On the Soul” class I teach with my philosopher pal we’ve just now veered into American thinkers, partly by accident. We eventually plan to spend a good deal of time with William James’ Principles of Psychology. Thus far, in the main, we’ve read Aristotle’s On the Soul, Augustine’s Confessions (Books X and XI), Descartes’ Meditations (I-III), The Passions of the Soul, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, (I-VI).

For whatever reason, I thought it would be fun to back up Thomas Hobbes with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Over-Soul” and then “Self-Reliance.” Why not jump an ocean and skip a couple of centuries? I honestly just blurted it out in class: “Hey, y’all want to read some Emerson?” My philosopher friend said, “Why not?” Then some students said, “Yeah, let’s read Emerson!” We scrapped the next couple of scheduled readings and launched right in. That seemed like a very Emersonian thing to do, or maybe a Monty Pythonian thing to do: “And now for something completely different!”

“The Sage of Concord”

More dedicated readers of Emerson can probably see where this is headed. I was immediately worried about how Emerson would go over and about how our classroom practices would fit with him. We’ve often read to reveal systems of one sort or another. In “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” George Santayana had to remind his readers twice that “Emerson had no system.” (Has anyone ever written intellectual history like George Santayana? Man alive. “When he [Emerson] came out of the conventicle or the reform meeting, or out of the rapturous atmosphere of the lecture-room, he heard Nature whispering to him: “Why so hot, little sir?” Priceless. )[1]

Emerson’s over-soul encompasses all, brings us in touch with our common humanity. A transcendent unity we occasionally tap into, it comes mostly unbidden, something like grace. Being ineffable, words or ritual experiences most often only confuse us and get in the way of it. Like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity, we can’t say exactly what it is, but we know it when we see it. Emerson never defines the soul so much as continually shade its meaning, piling on examples to help us remember how it feels. He poetically describes and re-describes. My favorite comes early on when he mentions how, in certain situations, say, “conversations” or “dreams…we see ourselves in masquerade, the droll disguises only magnifying and enhancing a real element, and forcing it on our distinct notice.”[2]

Maybe some of us have experienced this when teaching, when you talk to a class and have the distinct impression of this other self doing the talking, even to the point of having an internal dialogue running alongside the public, talking self: “This is weird, huh,” says that little self behind the self, “Who are you anyway?”  I like the idea that this little voice who is aware of my performative self “in masquerade” could be a hint of Emerson’s over-soul.

More than a few observers have mentioned that Emerson didn’t really read very closely, that he looked for inspiration and cherry-picked the telling aphorism here or there to fill out his sermons. In “The Over-Soul” we get this humdinger:

The soul is superior to its knowledge; wiser than any of its works. The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all that he has done. Shakspeare carries us to such lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own; and we then feel that the splendid works which he has created, and which in other hours we extol as a sort of self-existent poetry, take no stronger hold of real nature than the shadow of a passing traveler on the rock. The inspiration which uttered itself in Hamlet and Lear could utter things as good from day to day, for ever. Why, then, should I make account of Hamlet and Lear, as if we had not the soul from which they fell as syllables from the tongue?[3]

Democratic envy never sounded so fine. But Shakespeare gives us words and ideas to think about. He rewards close and careful reading. Emerson suggests we needn’t bother with that too much, only to a point. At the very least, the effect will be different than what we’ve been teaching. Rather than developing over time, and slowly, with repetition, an ever-deepening appreciation for the words of a thinker, we end up doing quite the opposite. Getting a glimpse of ourselves and the over-soul in the spark of the thinker’s genius, “we think less of his compositions.” The temptation for tu quoque is almost too much here. Gee, Ralph, if you think that, then should we despise all that you’ve written too once we’ve read you enough?  Even more, should we not question your very method? All those poetic re-descriptions of the over-soul beg for repeated reading until they stack up to a feeling that we understand you. But once the glimmer of understanding appears, that recognition of the over-soul in your words, it fades away as we read again; we become your “shadow of the passing traveler on the rock.”

This does bring up for me a rough analogy with Augustine’s Confessions, especially the section on memory in Book X. Both thinkers are on a search. There, Augustine wonders how we can have a memory of forgetting. If we remember we forget, then what is it we forget? Wouldn’t forgetting mean something had dropped out of existence for me? How, then, would I even know I had forgotten? If so, then why do we have this concept of forgetting if not to remember having forgot? That is, this word “forgetting,” in the strictest sense, can only be a species of remembering. Augustine burrows through the thicket of these rhetorical tangles to find God. The investigation happens in the first place because he wonders something like, to paraphrase, “how can I forget you, God?” “Are you there in the storehouse of my memory?”

Emerson is different because he never makes the deeper investigation. He warns us away from the thicket. He also wants us to find God in each human being’s originating spark of creativity. This is an example of Emerson’s pantheism. Augustine would probably call this vanity. The gulf between us and God is too great, and we experience our lack as we dive ever deeper, longing to be closer. Augustine resorts to poetic interventions only once he’s reached an impasse, after his rhetorical and philosophical formulations have bottomed out, leaving him gorgeously bereft of any other options when confronted with a God so great and eternal. This is why students can read Augustine profitably over and over again if that’s their bag. It’s also why I wonder whether we can do the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He resists our doing so. I also think Emerson was cagey enough to be fine with our not doing so. Get in, get your share of inspiration from the poetry, and get back out, people.

But this seems to go against nearly every fiber of my vocation as an intellectual historian. Maybe it means intellectual historians can only appreciate Emerson’s words less and less the more we read him? If that’s so, then Emerson wins. Isn’t in our job as intellectual historians not to let him win though? And in not letting him win, do we let him win by writing about him over and over again, keeping him around by puzzling over his poetic re-descriptions? In an essay like “Self-Reliance,” Emerson insists we trust ourselves and our intuitions, but we can never trust all that much anything we make in the world, our words, our institutions, our moral systems, and so on. Heroism comes from mistrusting the world we make in our associated life with one another. It means foreswearing politics as such and standing against one’s age. It reckons eternal youth, a refusal to grow up.

It means Emerson would have little patience for this vocation of ours, and yet there he is, taking up all that real estate in our presumed “canon” of eminent American thinkers. He won. He got his judgment from posterity. (I’ll leave the canon thing in the far more capable hands of a couple of my blog colleagues.) As we talked about him in class, that little parallel voice inside piped up: “God, this field I’m in is weird.” Was it the over-soul? Was it the Devil? Who cares.

The students on the whole really liked Ralph Waldo Emerson. They saw something of themselves in him. He would have wanted that. My philosopher friend spent the class periods encouraging students to get after him for his impulsiveness, for his anti-philosophy, and I spent time trying to get them to understand him before ultimately getting frustrated with him too. It felt good to be young for a little while. Then I had to grow up.

[1] George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” http://monadnock.net/santayana/genteel.html

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul” in Selected Essays (Chicago: People’s Book Club, 1949), 185.

[3] Ibid, 197. “Shakspeare” is Emerson’s spelling.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I liked reading this post and am surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion. You understandably write of Emerson, “[T]his seems to go against nearly every fiber of my vocation as an intellectual historian.” Interestingly, though, part of the excerpt from Emerson that you quote was also quoted by the late John Patrick Diggins in a 2006 defense of Arthur Lovejoy’s “unit ideas” against Quentin Skinner’s “contextualism.”

    Diggins suggested that Skinner claimed that the intellectual historian must find the “exact context of an idea” by “uncovering the author’s intent and purpose in putting forth the idea.” But what if the author intended to “transcend” the immediate context?

    If I may be permitted a block quote from Diggins:

    “The New England transcendentalists, who believed in the permanency of ideas, took to Homer as though he were a neighborhood school teacher. ‘The intellect is a vagabond,’ wrote Emerson. ‘Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.’ In ‘unit ideas’ there is wisdom and genius. ‘The inspiration which uttered itself in Hamlet and Lear could utter things as good from day to day, forever.'”

    Thus, Diggins, rightly or wrongly, concludes by saying that “Ideas have ‘meaning and significance’ not only in light of their origins in some kind of verbal performance in the past.” For the sake of argument, Emerson, perhaps especially because of his apparent lack of rigor, reminds us that intellectual history, to some extent, if not to the extent that we presuppose teleology or necessary coherence, has to be about ideas as “self-generating forces,” not mere “responses” to a condition.

    • This was really helpful. Thank you. I’m actually more than a little sympathetic to Lovejoy and certainly to Diggins’ Lovejoy despite what this post might imply in places. Emerson can be frustrating because being fair to him means giving him a wide berth. It’s clearly unfair to treat him like a philosopher in any narrow sense, because he was something different from that. I often think part of the fun in reading about Emerson comes from his resistance to the categorical boxes anyone might try to set up and shove him into. I just looked up the Emerson entry in the “Reading Guide” at the back of Paul K. Conkin’s Puritans and Pragmatists (1968) and Conkin writes “Almost no one can profitably read all of Emerson’s major writings, nor should they try. He has to be tasted in small bits, chewed over, and finally digested” (478).

      Yet I resist Emerson some because of what he suggests about reading. As I see it anyway, many of us tend to read like Emerson or rather, read like the worst tendencies that appear in Emerson, as a matter of method more extensively than intensively, and I wonder whether sometimes that reinforces conventional thinking. (I think it’s fair to suggest Emerson would be surprised at the sheer number of things people read nowadays, so even that comparison isn’t entirely fair.) So in this way I do think culture and social structures far more powerful than Emerson supposes. “An original relation to the universe” is no mean feat. I worry that the transcendent insight comes too easily for him.

      We’re often taught to get the gist and move on. But what if there are so many better insights that might have come along had we slowed down and dug in? We better appreciate the words when we dig in. And in better appreciating the words, we get a better sense of the ideas working in them, whether “self-generating” or not. These insights don’t have to be context-specific either. Clearly ideas in the past aren’t entirely incommensurable with those in the present. I don’t think anyone could honestly say that. Otherwise we couldn’t possibly express them. They echo in different ways, but experiencing those echoes from the past in the present often happens when really poring over a text.

      I’m a big believer in finding that weird thing in a text, to borrow from Big Bird on Sesame Street, that “one of these sounds is not like the others” moment. Sometimes that odd thing, by striking the discordant note, actually reveals much more deeply what the thinker is on about. But the weird thing isn’t weird until you’ve read enough to recognize its weirdness. Rather than necessarily revealing historical context, it can reveal something much more interesting, something that better travels across time and at the same time upsets conventional wisdom then and now. Emerson tells us we should upset conventional wisdom, but what happens when upsetting conventional wisdom comes to sound like the conventional wisdom? So I’m pushing back at him a bit.

      I should add that what we’re trying to do in the classroom will at best result in students carrying these thinkers and their ideas with them in something very much like an Emersonian fashion. Very few, if any, of our students will end up as intellectual historians or philosophers. Anyhow, your comment got me thinking and I appreciate it.

      • Thank you for your generous response. I’m sorry for my slow reply. I share your fascination and suspicion of Emerson. To continue the discussion, I wonder if your concern, “I worry that the transcendent comes too easily for him,” with the result that “upsetting the conventional wisdom comes to sound like the conventional wisdom,” is inevitable given Emerson’s metaphysical belief that, beneath different institutional structures and doctrines, all religions are essentially the same.

        As an earlier journal entry (1834) asks, “Do you imagine that because I do not say Luther’s creed all his works are an offence to me?” Emerson’s conclusion, “I can worship in that temple as well as any other. I have only to translate a few of the leading phrases into their equivalent verities, to adjust his almanack to my meridian & all the conclusions, all the predictions shall be strictly true,” whatever its other merits, does not necessarily encourage close attentiveness to particularity–the “weird thing,” as you memorably put it.

        Of course, much more can be said, but perhaps intellectual history requires background beliefs that do not dissolve everything to immediate context yet resist easy “transcendent insight[s]?” Emerson, then, is useful for the former, a warning against the latter.

      • Pete: I love this line below from your reply. And I’m replying, in part, just to let you know I read the post–despite having little substantive to add in comment. …Aside: Have you read Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book on Nietzsche, esp. regarding how she notes the latter’s appreciation of Emerson? – TL
        “I’m a big believer in finding that weird thing in a text, to borrow from Big Bird on Sesame Street, that “one of these sounds is not like the others” moment. Sometimes that odd thing, by striking the discordant note, actually reveals much more deeply what the thinker is on about.”

  2. Another good one.

    In reading the post, there is this idea that a close reading requires not just the will of the reader, but the degree of thought put into the text by the author. This is fairly obvious in banal instances (e.g. a work email), but I imagine it gets rather fuzzy in more intellectual pursuits.

    So perhaps Emerson didn’t want people reading his work too closely because he knew he was full of it! I’m teasing, of course, but you get where I’m driving to.

    • It seems we’re caught on the horns of one of those classic apples and oranges situations here. Emerson and Augustine are so different in so many ways that to judge either according to standards or criteria developed for the other is patently unfair. We shouldn’t pigeonhole nor should we attempt to make of something anything other than what it is.

      Augustine and Emerson are as different as night and day.

      To me Augustine offers puzzles for mental gymnastics unconnected to one’s living his or her life. He does this in your recounting of his observations on the matter of forgetting:

      “. . . Augustine wonders how we can have a memory of forgetting. If we remember we forget, then what is it we forget? Wouldn’t forgetting mean something had dropped out of existence for me? How, then, would I even know I had forgotten? If so, then why do we have this concept of forgetting if not to remember having forgot? That is, this word “forgetting,” in the strictest sense, can only be a species of remembering.”

      On the other hand, Emerson offers us something more along the lines of what Lao Tzu does in the Tao Te Ching, in which his subject matter is the “way of life.” (Mind the pun.) Emerson, like Lao Tzu, is concerned with offering us a picture of how life is all around us and how we can best live a life in those circumstances. His writing is of the world and is meant for people.

      His is the worldview of the Transcendentalist:

      “It was the quietly desperate Transcendentalists who sounded the alarm (about such things as slavery, an unjust war, and the dehumanizing of the newly instituted factory system) – they claimed that our true Manifest Destiny was to discover our own souls. They told us that the restless anticipation we felt was really for union with our higher selves and that it was a fool’s game to run off to the frontier in search of an illusory El Dorado when the only frontier worth exploring lay inside our heads. Because Transcendentalism is but a mystical form of Puritanism, it was not surprising that the call was to another, higher, world – a world far removed from the gross bonds of material existence.”

      Sounds pretty good to me.

      There’s one other thing. In 1967 writer Jack Newfield proclaimed that “if Whitman were alive today, he would be playing an electric guitar.” In the audience Emerson, with eyes closed, would be letting the music go through his central nervous system to his ciore while Augustine yelled for the band to turn the music down.

      Just my opinions.

      • Yes, the differences between Augustine and Emerson are profound, and I definitely pushed a “rough analogy” there. I didn’t have any intention to suggest the two are anything like one another, only that both men use rhetoric or language to look for God in their own way. That was my point there. I also side with Emerson for the most part when it comes to living, but I do find his anti-institutionalism too much in places. I have to much esteem for the idea of the political to go with him all of the way. It actually took Emerson a little while to come around on the slavery issue for example.

        Anyway, Augustine is just too much in his constant worry over vanity. I often find Augustine funny, say, when he worries over things like his naughty dreams and the like. Why, Lord, do I still have these naughty dreams at night when I do such a good job of tamping down those lusts of the flesh all day? Help me snuff out those naughty dreams, etc. etc. (But aren’t you being vain by telling us you’re so awesome at restraining yourself that your only slip-ups come unbidden in dreams?) The tangles are endless with him, and it makes him endlessly entertaining to read in my opinion.

        Speaking of music, Augustine would definitely say turn it down. He actually worries over the bodily pleasure one gets from music. See book X, chapter XXXIII:

        “Thus I fluctuate between the peril of indulgence and profit I have found: and on the whole I am inclined–though not propounding any irrevocable opinion–to approve the custom of singing in church, that by the pleasure of the ear the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Yet whenever it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by the thing that is sung, I admit that I have grievously sinned, and then I should wish rather not to have heard the singing. See in what I state I am!”

        Nonetheless, I stick to my guns on Emerson. He’s still frustrating to read.

  3. Tim,

    Yes! Spot on. I have read American Nietzsche, and so Nietzsche’s appreciation for Emerson was definitely on my mind as I taught Emerson and then wrote this. My first thought was that Emerson is sometimes like Nietzsche but without the training in philology and in a different context. It seems to me Emerson was the antidote in Nietzsche’s own time for what the latter saw as the deformations that were developing in German universities, the creation of an academic “industry” and so on.

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