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.

The American Scholar, Part II

In the second half of “The American Scholar” Emerson emphasizes the importance of physical labor to the scholar:

When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

The apparent emphasis here is on being in touch with the world. Although I’m not entirely sure I understand the reasons for this emphasis on action in America, it is a pragmatism that seems to be characteristic of America.

While Emerson states that action is secondary to the scholar, he argues that it is also vital because it puts the scholar back in touch with all men, in touch with mankind, if you will:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

This emphasis on action certainly seems to foreshadow the Pragmatism later made famous by Charles Pierce and William James. According to the World Book encyclopedia that came with my new Apple iBook, “James's interpretation of pragmatism stated that the meaning of an abstract idea is determined by the idea's effects on one who believes it. James wrote that a true idea is one that can be verified, that ‘works,’ and that satisfies. According to this concept, truth is changeable. Because a true idea is one that agrees with reality, James concluded that we can make ideas true by our actions and change the world in which we live.” While I’m not sure that Emerson, who seems more Platonic than this, would subscribe to this concept of a “true” idea, Pragmatism certainly seems to describe what he has in mind when he talks about the necessity of the scholar being actively involved in life.

Disregarding, for the moment, that truism that “there’s no fool like an old fool,” hopefully it goes without saying that for most people the longer they live the wiser they become. By encountering problems the scholar extends his understanding of life. Problems generate wisdom and the ability to articulate these problems successfully:

So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.

While I’m into preserving wilderness, not vanquishing and planting it, it’s hard not to agree that adversity can make a man wiser. Milton says in Areopagitica, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” It seems equally hard to praise an idea that has not been tested in the real world.

To get the most out of our wisdom we must also apply it:

Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.

It’s certainly not enough to simply have an idea. We must live by our ideas and promote them if they are to have any real worth. Of what value is “freedom” if we choose to live like slaves or are forced to submit to other’s whims? It’s only when such an idea is put to the test, when, for instance, we allow those we disagree with to express their ideas publicly that we can test the worth of such a concept. When we can actually see that the best ideas emerge from the free exchange of ideas, then we see the true worth of freedom, and not until.

Emerson argues that thinking and acting interact with each other, reinforcing each other:

The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other. When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, -- he has always the resource to live. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.

Practicing our ideas produces character, and who would argue that character is not higher than intellect? If we live a book, then that book is part of us long after we have read it.

Of course, the scholar is to do more than just apply his ideas himself

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.

At times this “scholar” seems more like a minister than what we generally call a “scholar:”

He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.

Personally, I would hope that the true scholar would also be to point out dangerous trends in society, not just communicate “heroic sentiments” or “melodious verse.”

Ironically, since he puts so much emphasis on working with others, Emerson argues that the scholar must trust his own insights and, most of all, be true to himself:

In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, -- happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.

Emerson feels that when the scholar explores himself, when he searches the depths of his soul he also explores all men, for, at the deepest level all people share the Oversoul.

Finding himself at the beginning of a literary movement that had shifted focus from tragedy focused on a noble hero to a celebration of the common man, Emerson sees hope in this new movement:

One of these signs is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

To me, this emphasizes Emerson’s attempts to balance individualism with democracy. Of course, if you really believe in an Oversoul and the sacredness of the individual, there is bound to be a shift in literature.

Part of this emphasis on the individual are reflected in America’s political movement:

Another sign of our times, also marked by an analogous political movement, is, the new importance given to the single person. Every thing that tends to insulate the individual, -- to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state; -- tends to true union as well as greatness.

Of course this political movement is little more than a reaffirmation of the Bill of Rights, but it also ties in neatly with the transcendentalist’s emphasis on individuality.

Emerson feels that the job of celebrating the common man lies with the American scholar:

…this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar

Little wonder that Emerson celebrated Whitman as the American Scholar with the publication of Song of Myself, for Whitman brilliantly celebrated both himself and the common man.

Most of all the American Scholar, though, will find himself through Nature:

He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, "Know thyself," and the modern precept, "Study nature," become at last one maxim.

Emerson’s greatest disciple, Thoreau, of course went on to do this better than anyone in American history, discovering himself in his hermitage on Walden Pond.

If Emerson isn't himself America's greatest scholar, he certainly inspired someone who became America's greatest scholar.

The American Scholar, Part I

Much of what Emerson says in “The American Scholar” seems even more relevant today than it did when it was written nearly a hundred and fifty years ago for society has become increasingly segmented, increasingly specialized, over time. The fable he begins this address with suggests that the individual in order to possess “himself” and to sustain society must return to embrace all other laborers. Although this may sound socialistic, it actually lies at the heart of “democracy,” for true democracy balances the life of the individual against the well-being of the society. Until the two are integrated, and in my opinion the transcendentalists came as close as anyone to balancing these two needs, it’s impossible to have a successful society:

The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, -- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Emerson seems to be suggesting a virtual Renaissance Man here, someone like Da Vinci who participated in science and art at elite levels. Of course, the sheer amount of knowledge has increased so greatly over the centuries that it is doubtful there will ever be another true Da Vinci, but that does not mean that we do not need specialists who are able to see the “whole picture.” As the Romantics clearly saw, scientists who could only see their specialty presented a clear danger to society.

Emerson clearly foresaw the dangers of an academic elite that retreated to their ivory towers to contemplate their navel and the navel of other scholars.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

If, indeed, because of the demands of specialization, society is going to depend on academia to understand and interpret the world, then it is imperative that the academics also understand and participate in the world outside of academia. If this was dangerous in Emerson’s time, think how much more dangerous it is today with the potential, and potential danger, of genetics, bio-chemistry, physics, etc. Let us hope that the hand on the rudder of scientific development is not the hand of some myopic scholar who has lost sight of society’s overall needs because of an overindulgence in academic minutiae.

In fact, it would seem to me that academic blogs would be a perfect way for scholars to disseminate their ideas to a broader public and, in turn, receive feedback from those outside of academic circles.

Emerson also argues that:

Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

Of course, this is eminently clear in the scientific fields, particularly in fields like computer development. While perhaps it’s less clear in an area like poetics, I think it is still absolutely essential that poets, if they are going to serve their function of providing insight into human nature and our ongoing relationship with the world, continue to engage us in new ways of seeing our lives and our world. At the very least, they need to remind us what parts of the past are being lost and need to be preserved before it’s too late.

Emerson’s warning about the dangers of men devoting themselves entirely to the study of books also seems valid:

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Chillingsworth, the cold-blooded scholar who abandons Hester for his studies and then self-righteously punishes her for abandoning him is an excellent example of this kind of individual. Unfortunately, most of us who’ve spent many years in school have also suffered under such teachers, those who can make even the best writers seem to disappear under the weight of a bookshelf of scholarly essays.

One of my greatest disappointments in college was a world-famous critic in early novels at the University of Washington whose classes I waited years to get. It turned out to be one of the worst classes I ever took. He came in, sat down, and read directly from a set of brown, dusty notes that must have been written fifty years earlier. I had trouble staying awake in that classroom and once embarrassed myself by actually snoring in class. Naturally I was embarrassed, but it was the teacher who should have been.

Little wonder the Beats gained appeal precisely because they rejected the literary control of academia. Ironically, though, many somehow ended up teaching part- time in colleges to make a living.

Luckily, teachers have not been able to destroy people’s loves of books precisely because, as Emerson’s argues, books inspire us to live fuller, more meaningful lives:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

Though I have never tried to live my life by any one author’s vision, books like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Ralph Ellisson’s The Invisible Man, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 have helped me to understand my life and the lives of people around me.

Of course, another function of books is to remind us that, no matter how different the circumstances we live under, all human beings share some basic values:

There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

Classic works, particularly those from very different cultures, such as ancient Greek or Roman culture, also remind us that people who are live under very different conditions than we do often have the same dreams that we have. Indeed, such poetry should help to create empathy for all humans, for we all share certain aspirations, so much so that it is our very inability of fulfill those aspirations that may well define us as “human.” It is the human “race” to fulfill these dreams that creates the bonds that, in the end, create society.