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Transcendental Liberty

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on January 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This essay originally appeared here in The Freeman.

“The less government we have, the better.” So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a  man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of  Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or  libertarian.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that  “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist  or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at  times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.” An  abundance of evidence supports this view. Emerson was, after all, the man who  extolled the “infinitude of the private man.” One need only look at one of  Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for evidence of his  libertarianism.

“Self-Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism  ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree  of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity.  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your  private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its  ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each  individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily  or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a  definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”  and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most  creative faculties. Such self-realization has a spiritual component insofar as  “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” and “no law can  be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt  rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate  productivity. History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and  authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more  affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous  impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of  voices is on the other side.” Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to  badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” We ought, that is,  to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere  apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,”  Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”

Self-Interest and Conviction

For Emerson, as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their  self-interests, including self-interests in the well-being of family, friends,  and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract  political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my  constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Or: “Few and mean as my gifts  may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of  my fellows any secondary testimony.”

It is not that self-assurance equates with rightness, or that stubbornness  is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition  precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks;  only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are  needed to achieve success.

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all  opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,” how should he  treat the poor?  Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my  obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell  thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent,  I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is  a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for  them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;  the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain  end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief  Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar,  it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or  charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to  prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. He  is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally  simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible,  unsustainable, or exploitative business activities. It is not moral to give away  a little money that you do not care to part with, or to fund an abstract cause  when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you  give money to people or causes with which you are familiar, and with whom or  which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never  moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must  mean to give morally—and have something to lose.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of  little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Much ink  has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean,  in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a  person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great  but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a  consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many  ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very  consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has  simply nothing to do.”

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming  individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity.  Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”  “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants  to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter,  the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional  standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.” This man  does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive  institutions; he is “by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental,  irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is  precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”  He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian, you may not accept the endorsements and propositions  in this article as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and  Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its  affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you  do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own  impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have  reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to  consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of  course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom  facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless,  there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition  among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in  treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable  transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become  what Emerson called a “retained attorney” who is able to recite talking points  and to argue predictable “airs of opinion” without engaging the opposition in a  meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and  interact with others, lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of  any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from  the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test  of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s  opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he  who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of  solitude.” Let us stand together by standing alone.

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