Saturday, December 23, 2006

Emerson on English Universities and Religion

This week Emerson writes about English Universities and Religion. I didn't like either of these chapters very much. Emerson has lost his humor and light and hearty tone that he began English Traits with and I am not quite sure what the point of these two chapters is. But maybe I will find something interesting as I try to write about them. Emerson has great admiration for English universities, in particular Cambridge and Oxford, which, by this chapter, you'd think were the only universities in England. Emerson spent some time at Oxford in his travels and it made an impression on him. He describes Oxford as "redolent of age and authority," a veritable "Greek factory," turning out men knowledgeable in Greek language, Greek learning, Latin, and math. The students of Harvard and Yale do not compare well in Emerson's eyes. Not only do the American university students lack the "polished manners" instilled in English universities, but through "diet and rough exercise," the English hold the advantage in "vigor and color and general habit" as well. Plus, the English read better and write better because they have available to them libraries with all the best books in them. Oxford is not perfect, however. Emerson saw evidence of misspent revenues, and "gross favoritism," and notes that many of the chairs and fellowships are "made beds of ease." Nonetheless, if an American student were to attend Oxford, he should count himself blessed. As far as religion goes, Emerson states that "no people at the present day can be explained by their national religion." That doesn't keep him from trying though. Emerson feels that Christianity civilized England, that the English Church was effective in "humanizing the people in cheering and refining men, feeding, healing, and educating." And Emerson notes that "the stability of the English nation is passionately enlisted in its [the Church's] support." However, there is always a however with Emerson, the Church in England no longer really means anything and "the religion of England is part of good-breeding." The English are "neither transcendentalists nor Christians." The national church is nothing but an ornament. After he spends eight pages of detailing the national religion, what it has done, what it has not done, and what it is at the time of Emerson's visit, he wiggles back to his opening line and tries in one page to convince us that the national religion is not the true religion of England. Rather, the true religion of England does not dwell in a church, it is something more intangible yet all permeating: "the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil." This is the "divine secret" of English religion that has existed from the days of Alfred to the present and will go on into the future. I am not entirely convinced, but then I don't know much about religion in England either. I am back where I began, having found nothing particularly interesting or insightful in either of these chapters. I am, however, beginning to harbor suspicions about Emerson, his obvious anglophilic feelings, and the delivering of these lectures to American audiences. I can see Emerson walking a very fine line, praising the English in everything, but careful, always, to find a flaw. Wouldn't want to make the Americans mad, they are the ones, after all, amongst whom Emerson makes his living. Next week's Emerson: English Literature