Uses of Great Men

Sometimes I suspect that education is wasted on young people. How many young people really need to read an idealist like Emerson, for goodness sakes? The young, by their very nature, tend to be optimistic and idealistic. How come there isn’t a course that requires those over 50 to read Emerson? I’m sure most adults have long since forgotten what he wrote, and, even worse, have lost the last shreds of their idealism.

If we did so, perhaps we would learn to make use of Emerson some of the ways he suggests we should make use of great men in his essay “Uses of Great Mean.” If so, we would learn that the world is a better place because of him:

The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually or ideally, we manage to live with superiors.

Whether or not we agree with everything that Emerson says, and I’m not sure I do, most people would agree that he is seeking truth and that our world would be a much better place if everyone tried as hard as he did to make it a better place.

Like many people, I see the world differently after I read Emerson:

Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest. The stronger the nature, the more it is reactive. Let us have the quality pure. … I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error.

When I first read Emerson many years ago, I thought that he must have read my mind before he wrote his essays. He put into words thoughts I had held for many years but had never articulated. Coming back to him some thirty years later, once again I feel like I have rediscovered parts of myself that have gotten buried in time’s detritus. He is, at least for me, a great writer, and I am a better person for having read him.

As Emerson points out in his essay, our society is built on the great men of the past:

Well, in good faith, we are multiplied by our proxies. How easily we adopt their labors! Every ship that comes to America got its chart from Columbus. Every novel is a debtor to Homer. Every carpenter who shaves with a fore-plane borrows the genius of a forgotten inventor. Life is girt all round with a zodiac of sciences, the contributions of men who have perished to add their point of light to our sky.

We all realize that modern industry constantly reinvents itself based on the new ideas of innovators. It’s much easier to forget that our ideas are built on the top of other’s ideas, that we are not the same people are parents were.

Of course really great men become classics:

We cannot read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: "A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined."

Authors who have died long before we were born affect us as much, or more, than contemporary teachers. Who has ever read Homer’s Odysseus without being inspired to start his own journey in life?

We are drawn to those who reveal the truths we need as surely as we are drawn to the people we love:

… learn to choose men by their truest marks, taught, with Plato, "to choose those who can, without aid from the eyes or any other sense, proceed to truth and to being." Foremost among these activities are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. ... We are as elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and our feet tread the floor of the Pit. And this benefit is real because we are entitled to these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.

Once exposed to a new idea, we can never quite forget. I doubt that anyone who experienced the Vietnam war could ever see the world quite the same after reading Catch-22. Heller puts into words what many of us thought after being exposed to the insanity of combat.

One of the main reasons we are attracted to great men is that they make our own thoughts great:

We love to associate with heroic persons, since our receptivity is unlimited; and, with the great, our thoughts and manners easily become great. We are all wise in capacity, though so few in energy. There needs but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so rapid is the contagion.

One of the surest signs of a great thinker is when a “school” grows around him, when his genius attracts and inspires those of equal talent. The most famous American “teacher” like this is Emerson himself, and the transcendental movement that surrounded him. Emerson’s ideas inspired artists as diverse as Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson, all of whom managed to maintain their own identity.

Emerson, who emphasizes the importance of self-reliance, is profoundly aware of the danger of relying too heavily on anyone else’s ideas:

True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. If a wise man should appear in our village he would create, in those who conversed with him, a new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurances that we could not be cheated; as every one would discern the checks and guaranties of condition. The rich would see their mistakes and poverty, the poor their escapes and their resources.

Great writers, like Emerson himself, do not make us less in control of our destiny but, instead, give us new control over what we do and what we think. Readers leave Emerson not just with an awareness of his genius, but with an awareness of their own potential for genius.

The major reason Emerson is not worried about the power of great minds, though, is that it is not the person himself who has the power, but, rather, the idea that provides him with his appeal:

… against the best there is a finer remedy. The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor.

It is not Plato, per se, that we carry with us the rest of our lives, but, rather, his concept of ideals, or of forms. If perhaps we rediscover the same idea in a study of archetypes, we do not immediately think of Plato, but, rather, his theory of forms.

In everyday life we tend to learn from our contemporaries:

We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of the skin. We catch it by sympathy, or as a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral elevations of her husband.

And, dear reader, lest we forget that Emerson, too, had feet of clay, and learned from his contemporaries we leave the exact quotation intact. The danger of learning just from contemporaries is that you will not go beyond them:

But we stop where they stop. Very hardly can we take another step. The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors and defend us from our contemporaries. They are the exceptions which we want, where all grows like. A foreign greatness is the antidote for cabalism.

One of many advantages of books, as opposed to other more recent forms of media, is that they draw from a much wider range of time and place. Our exposure to a world literature makes it difficult to hold on to a parochial view of life.

If we only listen to our contemporaries, it is too easy to come under one man’s sway. Reading widely makes it highly unlikely that your ideas will be dominated by just one man:

But a new danger appears in the excess of influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;- other great men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. … We balance one man with his opposite, and the health of the state depends on the see-saw.

Plato’s arguments seem impeccable until we read Aristotle’s arguments. Romantic novels like The Three Musketeers have a particular appeal until you read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Even in a discussion of great men, Emerson remains true to his ideal of self-reliance and the worth of each and every person:

…all are teachers and pupils in turn? We are equally served by receiving and by imparting. Men who know the same things are not long the best company for each other. … As to what we call the masses, and common men,- there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere. Fair play and an open field and freshest laurels to all who have won them!

The goal of learning, despite what some teachers may say, is not to parrot back the ideas of others, but, instead, to realize your full potential by developing your own talent.

If we are attain our full potential and avoid the danger of relying too heavily on the thinking of another, we must go beyond our teachers, no matter how great they are:

We have never come at the true and best benefit of any genius so long as we believe him an original force. In the moment when he ceases to help us as a cause, he begins to help us more as an effect. Then he appears as an exponent of a vaster mind and will. The opaque self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause.

In essence, Emerson is urging the reader not to worship the individual but to see these geniuses merely as part of that great Oversoul that we are all part of.

In the end, Emerson argues that:

Yet, within the limits of human education and agency, we may say great men exist that there may be greater men. The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.

Emerson undoubtedly realizes that individuals are not going to immediately attain enlightenment, but he does hope that through the insights and inspiration provided by great men, the world can gradually improve and get better.

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