Thursday, January 23, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Emerson

Emerson – Self-Reliance

Nearly sixty years after Emerson’s essay was published, the Governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, gave one of his most famous speeches; in praise of and advocating “the strenuous life.” This rugged means of living and striving was considered fundamental to the national character; and it clearly echoed the influence of Emerson and the Transcendentalists of antebellum New England.
            The Transcendentalists are best remembered by two persons, Emerson and Thoreau. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) was Thoreau’s mentor; and while Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment is arguably more famous now than Emerson’s essays, that experiment was merely the attempted implementation of Emerson’s ideas. What, then, is Transcendentalism?
            While our image of New England in the early 1800s is notably quaint, to the Transcendentalists the influence of society, politics, and other civilizational forces were viewed as corrupting the pure individual. In tandem with the ideal of a purity comes the notion that Nature, untamed and undeveloped, is superior to the bustling development and urbanization of the world. These ideas caught on with influential persons, such as naturalist John Muir and poet Walt Whitman. They believed that Man, alone in the woods, is at his best.
            Emerson’s ideas are not to be considered misanthropic, or antisocial, but rather advice for improving oneself morally, spiritually, and physically. What can we know of ourselves if we spend no time with ourselves alone? Where can we be truly alone except in nature? Within a few decades, still in Emerson’s lifetime, the United States would take the unprecedented step of setting aside the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone, as a place for retreat, contemplation, self-evaluation and spiritual nourishment. As Muir said “nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This is little removed from Emerson’s landmark essay, “Nature,” which states “The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtle spiritual connection.” For Emerson, both Man and Nature are inherently spiritual, and therefore inherently good.
             Transcendentalism was local to the United States. Emerson’s book of essays was the first philosophical work of note to come from a country only half a century old. The notion of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ has, like his commitment to untrammeled Nature, spread beyond American borders. Throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, the society of other humans was seen as a source of comfort and even luxury. Cities were a means of assistance, rather than hindrance, to one’s livelihood. As the early Modern period progressed, this notion began to shift throughout the Western world. The early Industrial Revolution was greeted with astonishment, but also wariness, and perhaps a sense of curious novelty. As the factories progressed and the harm of child labor and poor working conditions became manifest, the view of cities and society itself became embittered. White-steepled and brick towns of Massachusetts are practically the definition of benign landscapes. Near Emerson’s home in the 1820s, the mill town of Lowell was founded, and within a decade young girls were working an average of 73 hours a week. Dependency on the towns and cities for protection, a compact reaching back to the Renaissance, was now being rewritten, and those who subjected themselves to the factories led hard, unrewarding lives. Retrospectively, it’s not surprising that a movement arose advocating for self-reliance and the importance of nature.

            Emerson’s life was one of recognition and appreciated distinction. While we may consider his peaceful philosophy to be tame, it was considered radical at the time. The notion of God in all things, to be experienced intuitively through commune with nature was certainly unconventional. In a predominately Protestant country, Transcendentalism evolved naturally from the conditions of time and place, but was disdained by some Americans. As a prominent thinker and advocate of individualism, it may be safe to assume that these concerns were of little note to Emerson. During the middle of the last century, due in large part to the modern environmental movement, Emerson influenced both American as well as global thought. The first great American essayist, and the first great essayist since Montaigne, Emerson gave new importance to the rugged individualist.

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