Saturday, October 14, 2006

Emerson the Anarchist

Emerson's essay, Politics, seems like it could have been written today and fits nicely into the adage "the more things change, the more they remain the same." He says things like:

The same necessity which secures the rights of person and property against the malignity or folly of the magistrate, determines the form and methods of governing, which are proper to each nation and to its habit of thought, and nowise transferable to other states of society. In this country we are very vain of our political institutions [...] They are not better, but only fitter for us.
Somehow I get the feeling President Bush has not read this essay. Emerson also bursts the bubble of delusional thinking by rightly insisting, "Every actual State is corrupt." Because the State is corrupt, "Good men must not obey the laws too well." I wonder how much influence this essay, published in 1844, had on Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" published in 1849? Since the two men were friends, there must be a connection. In "Politics" Emerson gives us a mini lesson in the history of government, an overview of government in his time, and suggests what we should be aiming for. And just so we aren't shocked later in the essay by his suggestions, Emerson begins the piece with a reminder:
In dealing with the State we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good, we may make better.
Something to keep in mind as Emerson then launches into his history of government before he reveals himself to be an anarchist:
Hence the less government we have the better--the fewer laws and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.
I was shocked and delighted with Emerson the Anarchist. Suddenly he seemed much more hip and dangerous. The more I think about what he is advocating, the more dangerous he becomes. You see, Emerson calls it a matter of character. Character is something we would have if we were living up to our fullest potential as human beings, it has nothing to do with the petty political arguments over character. This is like Buddha character or Jesus character or even Gandhi character. This is the kind of character that has worth. Unfortunately, we do not live this way. We strive for worth but we do it the wrong way. We think that being ambitious and successful is the way to do it, but in reality it is "the fig-leaf with which the shamed soul attempts to hide its nakedness." We substitute a "petty talent" for worth and "are haunted by a conscience of this right to grandeur of character, and are false to it." Perhaps the worst character (ironic?) belongs to politicians who Emerson calls "forest animals" with a "prehensile tail" (sounds like a bunch of monkeys to me!):
Senators and presidents have climbed so high with pain enough, not because they think the place especially agreeable, but as an apology to real worth, and to vindicate their manhood in our eyes. This conspicuous chair is their compensation to themselves for being of a poor, cold, hard nature.
Think of that when going to vote in a few weeks! The first step towards little to no government is to build a State based on love rather than the one we have which is based on force. Love "separates the individual from all party, and unites him at the same time to the race. It promotes a recognition of higher rights than those of personal freedom, or the security of property." Emerson believes "that thousands of human beings might exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments, as well as a knot of friends, or a pair of lovers." An idea that makes me giddy. Unfortunately Emerson doesn't say anything about how we get there. Do you work from within the system? Or is a revolution necessary? Either way, there is a Beatles song ready and waiting. Will it be "All You Need is Love" or "Revolution"? I suppose it is up to those with character to figure it out and drag the rest of us along whether we want to be enlightened or not. Wait, that isn't very loving is it? Now you know one person who won't be among those picking the theme song! Next week's Emerson: Nominalist and Realist