Saturday, October 28, 2006


I could not guess what Emerson had in store for me in his essay New England Reformers. What a nice surprise it turned out to be. He begins the essay talking about the myriad reform movements of the last 25 years (1819-1844) and even pokes fun at them before coming around and saying that they all came initially from a legitimate protest against "existing evils" and some of them even brought about good changes. The issue Emerson then takes up is not the desire for reform but the people who are doing the reforming. Today we'd call them hypocrites, or worse. You know the kind of people, the church leader who preaches about family values and is caught having an affair; the senator who helps write a bill against sexual predators but is found to have sent sexually explicit emails to a teenage page; I could go on and on. But Emerson doesn't refer only to leaders in his essay, he includes all of us who ever wanted to convince someone to change. The point Emerson argues is "that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him." In other words, if you want reform, start with yourself. Hopping on the bandwagon of a single cause is not the way to go about things. A just and heroic soul does not choose a cause, but does whatever needs to be done at any given time. If you think you are a more virtuous person because you are an uber-envrionmentalist, have completely solarized your house and are off the grid, compost and don't drive a car but you are mean to everyone you meet, you are no better than anyone else. Emerson asks, "What right have you, sir, to your one virtue? Is virtue piecemeal? This is a jewel amidst the rags of a beggar." Joining an association of some kind won't help you either. Association too often requires compromise of one's self and as soon as one compromises herself, she becomes less than a whole person. Besides, Emerson says, if two people who are inadequate alone think that by joining together they can become adequate, they are sorely deluded, "there can be no concert in two, where there is no concert in one." The world is on the right track by wanting to improve things, but we are going about it in the wrong way. The human mind suffers from a disease: want of faith. We do not believe in the power of education nor do we think we can "speak to divine sentiments in man," and we don't even try. Instead of aiming for something higher we settle for fear and amusements and do ourselves a grave disservice:

We do not believe that any education, any system of philosophy, any influence of genius, will ever give depth of insight to a superficial mind. Having settled ourselves into this infidelity, our skill is expended to procure alleviations, diversions, opiates. We adorn the victim with manual skill, his tongue with languages, his body with inoffensive and comely manners. So have we cunningly hid the tragedy of limitation and inner death we cannot avert. Is it strange that society should be devoured by a secret melancholy which breaks through all its smiles and all its gayety and games?
I think Emerson is spot on with this one. Education is more than being able to pass a test or get a job. He insists "life must be lived on a higher plane," that we are deprived of truth when all we want is truth. But before we can tell the truth to others we have to be able to tell the truth to ourselves. If someone doesn't agree with your opinion and refuses "to accept you as a bringer of truth" even though you think you have it you have not given the other person reason to believe you because you have not been authentic. To be authentic we must open ourselves up to a power for which we are "the channels of its communications." For Emerson this is "Providence" but we could also call it a higher power, Nature, Genius, the universe, the soul, whatever floats your boat. When we obey this power, follow the truth of this power, and speak the truth of this power we will be liberated. When we are true to ourselves we can be true to each other, and then the real reform will happen. This essay is the final one in Emerson's second series of essays. Next week I move on to his book English Traits. Chapter one is First Visit to England