Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Problem of Emerson

When it came to Emerson, many Boston Unitarians tended to "love the sinner and hate the sin." That is to say, while they felt him a gentleman and an honorable man (which, to them, amounted to the same thing) they experienced his teaching as dangerous and ultimatly descructive of the liberal Christian world they sought to build. Those focused on his teaching (such as Andrews Norton, the Unitarian Pope) were vitriolic in their denunciations of Emerson while others, more focused on his character and personality, loved him and defended his teaching as essentially "Christian." I am firmly in the latter camp. It was, in fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson that introduced me to Unitarianism, albeit in a pretty backhanded manner.

Meanwhile, following are exerpts from the first essay in Emerson's First Book of Essays, "History" which figured prominently in a lecture I was recently honored to attend by Robert Richardson who wrote The Mind on Fire, a ground changing biography of Emerson.

"There is one mind common to all individual men. 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. 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. Of the works of this mind, history is the record...Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history...We, as we read, must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner; must fasten these images to some reality in our seret experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly."

Emerson is much caricatured as a starry eyed idealist, a radical individualist, a muddle headed optimist and more. The reality is much more complex. The Way of Emerson was, and is, not an easy road and his optimism was bought with hard struggle through difficult and tragic events. Yet he could say to Thomas Carlyle, "My whole philosophy-which is very real-teaches acquiesence and optimism." Surrender and faith.

No comments: