Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Short Course on Emerson

Having something as geeky as a ten-year reading plan (much less two) makes a guy look like a walking encyclopedia to some people. From time to time, I’ve had friends ask me about New England transcendentalism, assuming that I know stuff, and then of course I’ve had to let them down. Part of the problem has to do with the generic nature of its name. One friend asked me, “Is it like Kant? Kant was interested in the transcendental, right?” Well, yeah, but just because Kant and Emerson both think something transcends something else doesn’t mean they’re thinking of the same somethings.

A bigger part of the problem, though, has come from my not having read Emerson. It always amazes me how much clearer an author’s ideas become when I read them from the horse’s pen, no matter how many times I’ve read about them in a reference work. So in year 3, I read a bunch of Emerson’s essays, and suddenly the picture came into focus. For Emerson, what at first seems transcendent is right in our own backyard. God, the powers of nature, and the structure of the universe all lie in every particle. So forget tradition and social norms, and search your own soul for your answers. Any thought anyone has ever had, even the greatest ideas, can be had by anyone; reading history should be like reading autobiography.

Since everything connects to everything else, Emerson says, we should all set out on an upward journey of discovery. Falling in love with someone is a good way to begin; when your attraction to your love’s physical beauties eventually blows away like autumn leaves, you’ll learn to love the person, then the soul, then humanity, and finally the All. Don’t go to Italy to see Michelangelo, he says, if you can’t see Beauty all around you and within you. (This passage in my notes really jumped out at me considering my recent trip to Italy and my frequent encounters there with the Renaissance master.)

It would do me good to review all this great advice periodically and learn to see the world as a stained-glass window, a beautiful picture in itself that one can nevertheless look through to see an even greater beauty. The wisdom works even though he and I disagree on the nature of the ultimate reality we glimpse through the window. But I eventually have to  part ways with the philosopher of Concord; I stop short of denying any clear separating point between God and Man and of denying the personality of God (or “the All”). And the conclusion implied by those two premises (that humans aren’t persons and have no individuality) concerns me deeply.

If you’re like me (and I respect your individuality enough to entertain the possibility that you’re not), you might still have no very clear idea of Emerson’s transcendentalism after my few, brief observations. If you want a short introduction, I’d recommend reading four items from his first collection of essays: “History,” “Heroism,” and “The Over-Soul,” and “The Poet.”

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