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The Classical Liberalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Western Philosophy on January 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

“The less government we have, the better.”[1] 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. His is a pastoral libertarianism that glorifies nature as a source of insight and inspiration for those with a poetical sense and a prophetic vision.

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.”[2] “Throughout his career,” Neal Dolan adds, “Emerson remained fully committed to the Scottish-inflected Lockean-libertarian liberalism whose influence we have traced to his earliest notebooks.”[3] An abundance of evidence supports this view. Dolan himself has written an entire book on the subject: Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). Emerson extolled the “infinitude of the private man”[4] and projected a “strong libertarian-liberal emphasis”[5] in his essays and speeches. He was not an anarchist: he believed that “[p]ersonal rights, universally the same, demand a government framed on the ratio of the census” because “property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning.”[6] Nevertheless, he opined that “[e]very actual State is corrupt”[7] and that, if the people in a given territory were wise, no government would be necessary: “[W]ith the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary.”[8] One need only look to one of Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for proof 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.”[9]

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”[10] 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”[11] and “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”[12]

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate productivity. “Wild liberty develops iron conscience” whereas a “[w]ant of liberty […] stupefies conscience.”[13] 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.”[14] Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”[15] 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.”[16]

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.”[17] 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.”[18] It is in everyone’s best interest that each individual resides in his own truth without selling off his liberty.[19] “It is,” in other words, “easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.”[20]

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. Because “man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows,”[21] self-reliance enables cooperative enterprise: “Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end.”[22] Counterintuitively, only in total isolation and autonomy does “all mean egotism vanish.”[23]

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,”[24] 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.[25]

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. “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,” he elaborates.[26] Emerson 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,[27] 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. The best thing one can do for the poor is to help them to empower themselves to achieve their own ends and to utilize their own skills—to put “them once more in communication with their own reason.”[28] “A man is fed,” Emerson says, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”[29] Emerson’s work ethic does not demean the poor; it builds up the poor. It is good and right to enable a poor man to overcome his conditions and to elevate his station in life, but there is no point in trying to establish absolute equality among people, for only the “foolish […] suppose every man is as every other man.”[30] The wise man, by contrast, “shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits as wide as nature.”[31] Such separation and gradation are elements of the beautiful variety and complexity of the natural, phenomenal world in which man pursues his aims and accomplishes what he wills.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”[32] 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.”[33]

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.”[34] “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.”[35] 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.”[36] 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 here 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”[37] who is able to recite talking points and to argue the predictable “airs of the bench”[38] 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.”[39] We can stand together only by first standing alone. Thus, “[w]e must go alone.”[40] You must “[i]nsist on yourself”[41] and “[s]peak the truth.”[42] You must channel your knowledge and originality to enable others to empower themselves. All collectives are made up of constituent parts; the unit benefits from the aggregate constructive action of motivated individuals. Emerson teaches us that if we all, each one of us, endeavor to excel at our favorite preoccupations and to expand the reach of our talent and industry, we will better the lives of those around us and pass along our prosperity to our posterity.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 567.

[2] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 40.

[3] Neal Dolan, “Property in Being,” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011), p. 371.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, correspondence in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982). This quote comes from Vol. 7, p. 342.

[5] Neal Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), p. 182.

[6] Emerson, “Politics,” at 560.

[7] Emerson, “Politics,” at 563.

[8] Emerson, “Politics,” at 568.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 259.

[10] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 260.

[11] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[12] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[13] Emerson, “Politics” at 565-566.

[14] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 259.

[15] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[16] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[17] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[18] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[19] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 274.

[20] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 275.

[21] Emerson, “Politics,” at 566.

[22] Emerson, “Politics,” at 567.

[23] Emerson, “Nature,” in Emerson: Essays and Poems, p. 10. The original reads “all mean egotism vanishes” rather than “vanish.”

[24] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[25] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262-63.

[26] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 273.

[27] “Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog,” Emerson says. Emerson, “Self Reliance,” at 274.

[28] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 276.

[29] Emerson, “Nature,” at 13.

[30] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[31] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[32] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[33] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[34] Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), p. 51.

[35] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[36] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[37] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[38] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[39] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[40] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 272.

[41] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 278.

[42] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 77.

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Interview with Robert J. Ernst, author of “The Inside War”

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Robert Ernst

Robert Ernst

APM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for this interview, Bob. Your novel The Inside War is about an Appalachian mountain family during the Civil War. How long have you been interested in the Civil War?

RJE: I have had an interest in the Civil War for many years. Specifically, the effect of the war on Appalachia became an interest as I researched family history, now more than a decade ago. I realized that not much had been written, outside of academic treatises, on this aspect of the war. Bushwhacking ambushes, bands of roving deserters, intensely opposed partisan factions, and a breakdown in civil society befell western North Carolina. Of course, much study had been given to the poverty of the area during the twentieth century, but not much, save bluegrass music, about its culture. What I discovered was a vibrant pre-war society thoroughly rent by the war. And, the area did not recover.

APM: The story of Will Roberts, your novel’s protagonist, is similar to that of many actual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. How much historical research went into this book? It seems as if there are a number of events in your story—Sammy Palmer’s shooting of the sheriff, for instance—that track historical occurrences.

RJE: Much of the story is based on historical events. In fact, Will Roberts was a real person, as was his brother, Edwin. I traced their wartime adventures, researched the battles and conditions of their captivity and wove a fictional story around them. Likewise their wives, as portrayed in the story, were based on real people, although their story is more fictionalized. The novel does incorporate many historical characters and events that occurred in the vicinity of Marshall, North Carolina, by which I attempt to portray a picture of the character of the area and the severe impact of the war on it.

APM: There are some themes in the book that cover an aspect of the Civil War that is not often covered. Tell us about those.

RJE: The tactic of bushwhacking, or ambushing mountain patrols, is one. Guerrilla warfare as a matter of accepted tactics was new and was a terrifying degradation of the morality of warfare. There was a real cultural divide among the citizens of western North Carolina between those who supported the North, the “tories,” and those who supported the Confederacy. These divisions played out in many ways, most notably in atrocities like the Shelton Laurel massacre, but more subtly in familial and neighbor relationships. I doubt many women suffered as did those in Appalachia, from the depredations, theft and physical threat of the men who populated the mountains during the war. I was surprised to learn of the inhumane prison conditions at Ft. Delaware. Everyone knows of Andersonville, but not many are aware of Ft. Delaware. We know of the great Civil War battles, but there were scores of skirmishes every week that terrified the contestants and shaped their perceptions. Certainly, Roberts’s family suffered greatly, even though their war happened in the background to better known events.

APM: You seem careful not to glorify war but to present it as the complex tragedy that it is. The book’s epigraph states, “For those who have suffered war.” I wonder if the process of writing this book taught you anything about war itself. What do you think?

Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall

RJE: The grand histories of the conflicts, eulogizing the fallen and celebrating the victorious are all necessary parts of our remembrance of a terrible, national conflict. What I found in researching this story was intense personal suffering, unnoted except at the basic unit of society, the family, and rippling out to the church, neighborhood and town. Why would a woman abandon her children? What would drive a member of the home guard to massacre captives – mere boys? How could people, so crushed, hope? And, of course, the main theme of The Inside War is hope; hope after, and despite the loss and suffering. As we deal with the veterans of the conflict with radical Islamists we need to surround them with a culture of hope.

APM: From one attorney to another, do you think being a lawyer affects your writing in any way—from the preparation to the organization to the style?

RJE: That’s interesting. Certainly the actual practice of law involves clear writing. I have a hard time reading novels written in stream of consciousness or in rambling, shuffling styles. So, hopefully this book will be understandable and clear to the reader. I like the process of legal research and enjoyed the process of researching this book. However, the characters, though based on historical figures, came about from my imagination, which is why the book is a novel and not a history.

APM: It’s been said that the Revolutionary War produced political philosophy in America whereas the Civil War produced literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, why?

RJE: Perhaps the truth in that statement devolves from the Revolutionary War defining the creation of a nation, the Civil War defining its character. The revolution tested the theories of individual liberty and melded them, free of sovereign control, imperfectly into a new nation. The Civil War represents a gigantic challenge to the notion that a nation of citizens can be free. Millions were intimately involved in the latter conflict and the upheaval and changes were intensely felt and recorded in innumerable books. But the fundamental story of both wars is ongoing, in my view, and that is America must re-experience, “a new birth of freedom,” with regularity if America is to retain her vibrancy and hope.

APM: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I know our readers do, too.

The Lawyers’ Guild

In America, American History, History, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America on August 27, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Last month, thousands of recent law school graduates sat for a bar examination in their chosen state of practice. They were not undertaking a harmless rite of passage but overcoming a malicious obstacle: an artificial barrier to entry in the form of occupational licensure.

Barriers to entry are restrictions on access to, or participation in, markets or vocations. Occupational licensure is a type of barrier to entry that regulates professions by requiring certification and licensing in the manner of medieval guilds. Medicine and law are perhaps the most recognizable professions to require their practitioners to obtain and maintain licenses.

The purpose of occupational licensure is to reduce competition by using government power to restrict membership eligibility in a profession. The criteria for membership are often prohibitively expensive for low-income earners. To be admitted to the law in nearly every state in the United States, you must not only pass a bar examination but also earn a law degree from an accredited law school, admission to which requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.

The average student-loan debt for graduates of American colleges is around $29,400. The average student-loan debt for graduates of American law schools is between $75,700 and $125,000, depending on whether the school is public or private. The American Bar Association imposes heavy burdens on law schools such as accreditation standards that are inefficient and that drive up costs so that over time the high price of legal education is passed on to the public in the form of attorneys’ fees and costs. Having already saddled themselves with student-loan debts, recent law-school graduates pay thousands of dollars for bar-preparation courses to study for an examination that, if passed, will open the door to a job market that is the worst in recent memory. Nobody struggling financially should attempt to leap over each of these expensive hurdles.

Before the rise of bar examinations and professional licensure during the Progressive Era in the United States, aspiring attorneys simply “read law” as apprentices for practicing attorneys or as clerks for local law firms. Once they achieved a certain level of competence, apprentices were released from their tutelage and eligible to accept clients. Those jurisdictions that did require examinations allowed judges to conduct informal interviews with candidates to determine the candidates’ moral and intellectual fitness for practice. Such examinations were typically mere formalities: few candidates failed; few careers were at stake as the interview took place. Newly admitted attorneys had to demonstrate their excellence in order to gain clients. They launched their careers by charging low fees that even the poorest in society could pay. Attorneys who did not prove fit for practice never gained enough clients to sustain their business and were forced to embark on other professions.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, energetic and entrepreneurial members of the middle to lower classes in cities such as New York and Chicago began to threaten the legal establishment that had previously been comprised of a mostly wealthy and elite fraternity. This fraternity simply could not compete with low-cost providers of legal services because, for example, the most elite attorneys considered it unseemly and degrading to advertise for services or to offer contingency fees. Bar associations that were once voluntary organizations of upper class professionals therefore began to use their political clout and government connections to obtain powers conferred by legislatures. They wanted to keep the lower classes out of their profession and to preserve a highbrow reputation for lawyers. They began to exercise a monopolistic control over the practice of law within their respective jurisdictions. Today they constitute authorized arms of the State.

In most jurisdictions’ bar associations determine who may be admitted as members and who must be excluded, whether and to what extent lawyers may advertise their services, what constitutes the “authorized” practice of law, whether a law firm must have a physical office with a non-residential mailing address, and under what conditions contingency fees are permissible. These anti-competitive practices hit communities most in need the hardest by increasing the costs of legal services beyond the ordinary person’s ability to pay.

The bar examination is the most hyped precondition for membership in a state bar association. Like hazing, it is more ritual than training; it does not help one learn to be an attorney or indicate any requisite skills for practice. It tests how well someone can memorize arcane and esoteric rules and their trivial exceptions, many of which have no bearing on actual practice. Few if any lawyers spend their days memorizing rules for courts or clients, and no one who intends to practice, say, corporate law in a big city needs to memorize obscure criminal law rules that were long ago superseded by statute.

Despite reciprocity among some states, the bar examination restricts the free flow of qualified attorneys across state lines, forcing even the best attorneys to limit their services to certain jurisdictions. The bar examination also creates racial disparities among practicing attorneys as minority passage rates tend to be lower, a fact that flies in the face of nearly every bar association’s purported commitment to diversity.

Keeping the number of lawyers low ensures that lawyers may charge higher fees. Keeping the barriers to entry high ensures that the number of lawyers remains low. It’s a popular fallacy to complain that there are too many lawyers. We don’t need fewer lawyers; we need more, so long as we gain them through competitive forces on a free market.

We need to unleash capitalism in the legal system for the benefit of everyone. We could start by eliminating the bar examination. Doing so would have no marked effect on the quality of lawyers. It would drive down the high costs of legal services by injecting the legal system with some much-needed competition. It would make practitioners out of the able and intelligent people who wanted to attend law school but were simply too prudent to waste three years of their lives and to take on tens-of-thousands of dollars of student-loan debt while entry-level legal jobs were scarce and entry-level legal salaries were low. Justifications for the bar examination are invariably predicated on paternalistic assumptions about the ability of ordinary people to choose qualified attorneys; such arguments ignore the number of ordinary people who, today, cannot afford qualified attorneys at all under the current anticompetitive system.

Abolishing the bar examination would benefit the very community it is supposed to protect: the lay public.

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

Allen 2

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.

Book Synopsis: Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, The South on October 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This is the story of America’s struggle to end slavery without destroying the union.  The book deliberately focuses on the rhetoric of white male politicians and thus does not purport to tell the “whole” story, but only that part of the story which is most recoverable and hence most knowable.  Many early 19th century politicians averred that the Northern textile industry, which was roughly as powerful as today’s oil industry, depended on Southern slavery.  An industry with such power and control over the financial interests of the country can, Miller argues, cause social changes to come about more slowly.  When talking about slavery, Miller submits, American politicians of the time had to deal with inherent contradictions in the American tradition: a nation that celebrated equality and the virtues of the “common man” had to come to terms with the fact that African slaves, officially excluded from citizenry, embodied the “common man” ideal but were not permitted to climb the social and economic ladder.  Most politicians did not believe slavery could end abruptly but would end gradually as economic dependence turned elsewhere.  Slavery went against all the principles and rhetoric of America’s founding documents, and yet there it was, a thriving and ubiquitous industry.

The book begins in 1835, when Congress deliberated over petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  Congress took on these petitions reluctantly, unwilling to address a contentious and divisive issue that would disrupt congressional and governmental harmony.  Congress wished the issue would just go away—but realized that it could not.  During this congressional session, most of the speechmaking came from proslavery Southerners, since Northern politicians were, generally, too afraid to take a stand one way or the other.

Major figures from this session include the following:

President Andrew Jackson

John Fairfield: Congressman from Vermont who introduces the petitions to abolish slavery in D.C.

Franklin Pierce: Eventually the fourteenth President, he is, at this time, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He is a Northerner with Southern sympathies.

James Henry Hammond: Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A former president (the nation’s sixth), he is, at this time, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.

Henry Laurens Pinckney: A Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams but who also did not get along with John C. Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun: A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, having resigned from the Vice Presidency.

Martin Van Buren: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eighth), he is, at this time, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson.

James K. Polk: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eleventh), he is, at this time, a member of the U.S. House from the State of Tennessee.

The debates in Congress were fueled by abolitionist literature (written by people like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizur Wright, Jr.) and oration that maintained not only that slavery was wrong (as people had maintained for decades) but also that its demise was the nation’s highest priority.  Congress could not “sit on its hands” while abolitionists protested and demanded change; it had to respond, albeit reluctantly, to an institution that many congressmen assumed was already doomed.  The demise of slavery was supposed to be inevitable, according to the common logic, yet it persisted; therefore, the abolitionists forced Congress to address slavery, the demise of which, the abolitionists argued, was not as inevitable as people supposed.

The Senate also faced petitions.  Senator Calhoun became the most colorful and powerful figure opposing these positions.  Calhoun and his followers often employed “liberal” rhetoric on the Senate floor.  Henry Laurens Pinckney authored the gag rule, which was an attempt to stop citizens from submitting antislavery petitions.  (Calhoun despised Pinckney so much that he endorsed unionist candidates to take over Pinckney’s Congressional seat.)  The gag rule was adopted by a 117-68 vote, thus suggesting that the nation was more united on the issue of slavery than popular thought maintains.  The gag rule required congressmen to set aside slavery petitions immediately, without so much as printing them.  John Quincy Adams would spend the following years in Congress battling the so-called gag rule.

At this point in the book, Adams becomes the central figure.  Adams, then a distinguished ex-president, was in his 60s and 70s as he fought against the gag order.  He maintained that not only abolitionists but also slaves could petition.  Miller argues that this position shows the extent to which Adams was willing to risk his reputation and what was left of his career in order to stand up to the Southern gag order.  Other congresspersons were slow to join Adams in his fight.  During these debates, very little was said of African Americans, and most of the debates focused on the rights and roles of government and ignored the human persons that that government was supposed to serve and protect.

After Martin Van Buren became president, succeeding Andrew Jackson, he announced that he would veto any bill involving the issue of slavery in D.C. or the slave states.  Nevertheless, the petitions continued to pour in.  Adams himself began submitting petitions.  The gag resolutions had to be passed each session, but a gag rule was announced in 1840 that, in essence, made the “gagging” permanent.  Adams led the effort to rescind this rule.  He grew closer and closer to the abolitionists as he precipitated disarray in the House.  He also made several speeches despite threats against his life.  Adams’s opponents tried to get the entire House to censure him, but they failed.  Adams used the censure trials as an occasion to bring slavery to the forefront of Congressional debate.  In 1844, Adams succeeded in having the gag rule abolished.

Why the Union Soldiers Fought

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Southern History, The South on August 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Allen Mendenhall

Nearly every Southerner was raised studying the Civil War, or, as some here call it, the War Between the States. By the time I entered the public school system in Marietta, Georgia, in the 1980s, the War had long been a cornerstone of the curriculum, although Lost Cause mythology had dissipated and the Confederacy was hardly treated with tones of admiration. It became clear, however, that the War was more complicated than my teachers let on, that the events leading to and following this great conflict represented more than a morality play between competing forces of good and evil. There was, for example, the case of the Roswell Mill. Decades and decades ago, at this mill, the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and young sons of Confederate soldiers labored while the soldiers were off at war. One day Sherman’s Army showed up at the mill and absconded with the women and children. When the Confederate soldiers returned home, their women and children were gone. No one knows exactly what happened to the women and children of the mill, which is why they are still, to this day, called “The Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”

Recently trends in scholarship about the War have been uncritical in their assessments (or lack of assessments) of Union ideology as a contributing factor to the War. Gary Gallagher’s recent The Union War, a companion text to Gallagher’s earlier book The Confederate War (Harvard University Press 1997), corrects this trend.

This book is a restorative history, and a timely one at that. The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the War, and for the last four decades, Gallagher notes, scholarship on the War has neglected to emphasize the ideology of Unionism.

Unionism is central to any understanding of the War. As Gallagher explains, “[T]he focus on emancipation and race sometimes suggests the War had scant meaning apart from these issues—and especially that Union victory had little or no value without emancipation.” Although Union soldiers may have understood that issues related to slavery precipitated fighting in 1861, for them that is not what the war was “about.” Gallagher adds that a “portrait of the nation that is dominated by racism, exclusion, and oppression obscures more than it reveals,” not least of all because it ignores the vast influx of immigrants and the relative receptivity toward different cultures that Americans championed to varying degrees, even at that time.

Gallagher’s goal in this book is to disabuse readers of the notion that the War was, for the typical Union citizen-solder, “about slavery.” The book asks three fundamental questions: “What did the war for Union mean in mid-nineteenth century America? How and why did emancipation come to be part of the war for Union? How did armies of citizen-soldiers figure in conceptions of the war, the process of emancipation, and the shaping of national sentiment?” In answering these questions, Gallagher’s focus is on “one part of the population in the United States—citizens in the free states and four loyal slaveholding states who opposed secession and supported a war to restore the Union.” Gallagher concludes that the War was, for the aforementioned citizens, one for Union, and that it only happened to bring about the emancipation of slaves. Emancipation was never the goal; it was a result.

“From the perspective of loyal Americans,” Gallagher explains, “their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s.” According to this reading, Southern slaveholders of the planter classes represented the aristocracy that was responsible for the creation of the Confederacy. The Southern elite seemed like a throwback to monarchy. Citizen-soldiers of the Union Army believed that by taking on the Confederacy, they were restoring democratic principles and preserving the “Union,” a term that contemporary readers who lack historical perspective will have trouble understanding. Miseducated by Hollywood fantasies and adorations—consider the films Glory and Gettysburg—the average American today has lost all constructive sense of Unionism as it was understood to mid-nineteenth century Americans, especially in the North.

In five short chapters totaling 162 pages—notes excluded—Gallagher repeatedly identifies problems in the recent historical record, and then reworks and revises those problems, improving the record. He criticizes the tunnel-vision of scholars who write about The Grand Review as an exercise in racial exclusion, for instance, and he suggests that instead nineteenth-century descriptions of this procession indicate that “Unionism” meant something like “nation” and “America,” signifiers that stood in contradistinction to oligarchy and that were only tangentially related to racial ideology. By systematically picking apart various histories while summarizing and synthesizing a wealth of recent scholarship, Gallagher has produced what could be called a prolonged bibliographical or historiographical essay with extended asides about what is wrong in his field.

What is wrong, he suggests, is imposing contemporary preoccupations with race onto the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans. Against this tendency, Gallagher reminds us of forgotten facts—for instance, that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment had more to do with political unity than racial enlightenment, or that, over the course of the War, concerted military action by ordinary individuals (not the acts of rebel slaves, Abraham Lincoln, or congressmen) determined which black populations in the South became free. Gallagher interrogates the difference between Lincoln the “Savior of the Union” and Lincoln “The Great Emancipator.” He supports the study of military history, which other academics have scorned. All of this plays into Gallagher’s claim that although “almost all white northerners would have responded in prejudiced terms if asked about African Americans, they were not consumed with race as much of the recent literature would suggest.”

The take-home point from this book is that devotion to Union had greater currency for most Americans than did any contemporary understanding of a commitment to race. “Recapturing how the concept of Union resonated and reverberated throughout the loyal states in the Civil War era,” Gallagher submits, “is critical to grasping northern motivation.” This motivation was rooted in the belief that Union would preserve rather than jeopardize liberty, and had little to do with slavery, except in that an important side result was liberty for all.

Gallagher has reminded us of the importance of Unionism to the War and to the psychology of the average Northerner. He has reminded us that race was hardly a chief concern to the typical Northern soldier, and that retrospective imposition of our concerns onto theirs is poor scholarship and bad history.

Abolish the Bar Exam

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America on July 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here at LewRockwell.com.

Every year in July, thousands of anxious men and women, in different states across America, take a bar exam in hopes that they will become licensed attorneys. Having memorized hundreds if not thousands of rules and counter-rules — also known as black letter law — these men and women come to the exam equipped with their pens, laptops, and government-issued forms of identification. Nothing is more remote from their minds than that the ideological currents that brought about this horrifying ritual were fundamentally statist and unquestionably bad for the American economy.

The bar exam is a barrier to entry, as are all forms of professional licensure. Today the federal government regulates thousands of occupations and excludes millions of capable workers from the workforce by means of expensive tests and certifications; likewise various state governments restrict upward mobility and economic progress by mandating that workers obtain costly degrees and undergo routinized assessments that have little to do with the practical, everyday dealings of the professional world.

As a practicing attorney, I can say with confidence that many paralegals I know can do the job of an attorney better than some attorneys, and that is because the practice of law is perfected not by abstract education but lived experience.

So why does our society require bar exams that bear little relation to the ability of a person to understand legal technicalities, manage case loads, and satisfy clients? The answer harkens back to the Progressive Era when elites used government strings and influence to prevent hardworking and entrepreneurial individuals from climbing the social ladder.

Lawyers were part of two important groups that Murray Rothbard blamed for spreading statism during the Progressive Era: the first was “a growing legion of educated (and often overeducated) intellectuals, technocrats, and the ‘helping professions’ who sought power, prestige, subsidies, contracts, cushy jobs from the welfare state, and restrictions of entry into their field via forms of licensing,” and the second was “groups of businessmen who, after failing to achieve monopoly power on the free market, turned to government — local, state, and federal — to gain it for them.”

The bar exam was merely one aspect of the growth of the legal system and its concomitant centralization in the early twentieth century. Bar associations began cropping up in the 1870s, but they were, at first, more like professional societies than state-sponsored machines. By 1900, all of that changed, and bar associations became a fraternity of elites opposed to any economic development that might threaten their social status.

The elites who formed the American Bar Association (ABA), concerned that smart and savvy yet poor and entrepreneurial men might gain control of the legal system, sought to establish a monopoly on the field by forbidding advertising, regulating the “unauthorized” practice of law, restricting legal fees to a designated minimum or maximum, and scaling back contingency fees. The elitist progressives pushing these reforms also forbade qualified women from joining their ranks.

The American Bar Association was far from the only body of elites generating this trend. State bars began to rise and spread, but only small percentages of lawyers in any given state were members. The elites were reaching to squeeze some justification out of their blatant discrimination and to strike a delicate balance between exclusivity on the one hand, and an appearance of propriety on the other. They made short shrift of the American Dream and began to require expensive degrees and education as a prerequisite for bar admission. It was at this time that American law schools proliferated and the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) was created to evaluate the quality of new law schools as well as to hold them to uniform standards.

At one time lawyers learned on the job; now law schools were tasked with training new lawyers, but the result was that lawyers’ real training was merely delayed until the date they could practice, and aspiring attorneys had to be wealthy enough to afford this delay if they wanted to practice at all.

Entrepreneurial forces attempted to fight back by establishing night schools to ensure a more competitive market, but the various bar associations, backed by the power of the government, simply dictated that law school was not enough: one had to first earn a college degree before entering law school if one were to be admitted to practice. Then two degrees were not enough: one had to pass a restructured, formalized bar exam as well.

Bar exams have been around in America since the eighteenth century, but before the twentieth century they were relaxed and informal and could have been as simple as interviewing with a judge. At the zenith of the Progressive Era, however, they had become an exclusive licensing agency for the government. It is not surprising that at this time bar associations became, in some respects, as powerful as the states themselves. That’s because bar associations were seen, as they are still seen today, as agents and instrumentalities of the state, despite that their members were not, and are not, elected by the so-called public.

In our present era, hardly anyone thinks twice of the magnificent powers exercised and enjoyed by state bar associations, which are unquestionably the most unquestioned monopolies in American history. What other profession than law can claim to be entirely self-regulated? What other profession than law can go to such lengths to exclude new membership and to regulate the industry standards of other professions?

Bar associations remain, on the whole, as progressive today as they were at their inception. Their calls for pro bono work and their bias against creditors’ attorneys, to name just two examples, are wittingly or unwittingly part of a greater movement to consolidate state power and to spread ideologies that increase dependence upon the state and “the public welfare.” It is rare indeed to find the rhetoric of personal responsibility or accountability in a bar journal. Instead, lawyers are reminded of their privileged and dignified station in life, and of their unique position in relation to “members of the public.”

The thousands of men and women who will sit for the bar exam this month are no doubt wishing they didn’t have to take the test. I wish they didn’t have to either; there should be no bar exam because such a test presupposes the validity of an authoritative entity to administer it. There is nothing magical about the practice of law; all who are capable of doing it ought to have a chance to do it. That will never happen, of course, if bar associations continue to maintain total control of the legal profession. Perhaps it’s not just the exam that should go.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

Thoreau, Environmentalism, Economy

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Writing on May 22, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at The Literary Table in 2010.

Turning to the works of Henry David Thoreau might provide a “third way” and go some length toward resolving debates about the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  I borrow the words “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” from Bryan G. Norton, who uses the phrase to refer to the competing discourses of two environmentalist camps: the economists and the moralists.  These camps would, Norton submits, provide very different answers to the question, “What is the value of biodiversity?”  Economists would emphasize “the actual and potential uses of living species” whereas the moralists “do not believe our obligations to protect nature can be traded off against other obligations” (Norton 29-30).  Economists would state the value of biodiversity in quantifiable, utilitarian, and anthropocentric terms whereas the moralists “insist that we have an obligation to protect all species, an obligation that transcends economic reasoning and trumps our mere interests in using nature for our own welfare” (Norton 30).  The dilemma for the environmentalist is which of the two realms, economic or moral, to heed.  Norton’s argument is that the two realms are not in fact mutually exclusive and that Henry David Thoreau supplies proof of their mutual reinforcement.  That Thoreau titles the opening chapter of Walden with one simple if unsuspecting word, “Economy,” is no coincidence.  The Environmentalists’ Dilemma, for Thoreau, is no dilemma at all: “most commentators have assumed that we should give one answer or the other,” but an absolute, totalizing separation is neither necessary nor accurate (Norton 31, my italics).  I agree with Norton and would like to extend his reasoning in this brief post, which draws its analysis from Thoreau’s Walden.

If economists first measure value “as contributions to human welfare” and then promise “an aggregation of values”—i.e., if they promise a calculation of “the contribution of nature to human welfare” as “commensurable and interchangeable with other human benefits”—then Thoreau was something of an economist (Norton 30).  As implied by the title of his opening chapter, Thoreau uses nature as an occasion to opine about human affairs, often in purely economic terms; he transforms the humble, small, and common scenes of nature into grand meditations about labor and profit.  “When my hoe tinkled against the stones,” he says of a day in the bean field, “that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (247).  Here, Thoreau’s profit—his “yield”—is not quantifiable in monetary terms but in vague moral insight:  “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios” (247).  Thoreau appreciates the value of labor (minimal physical input for cost-effective output—free food) while recognizing that such value goes far beyond the fiscal benefit of planting crops rather than purchasing food at a store: the labor becomes valuable for what it teaches about solitude, individualism, and freedom from materialism, and not just for its potential for monetary savings.  In this respect, Thoreau marries economics and morality.  Or, as Norton, looking elsewhere in Walden, puts it, “Thoreau describes the benefits of the transformation to higher values in terms of human maturation and fulfillment of potential, as improvements within human consciousness, not in terms of obligations to nature and extrinsic to human consciousness” (32).  In other words, in his celebration of nature, Thoreau takes pains to privilege human economy over natural aesthetic, although the former is dependent upon the latter for its “proceeds.”  Nature is a vehicle for arriving at virtue, thrift included.  It is good—and a good—but humanity is essentially of higher importance.

The merger, as it were, of economics and morality finds its most obvious expression in Thoreau’s various price listings: the costs of building a house; the profits turned from harvesting corn, potatoes, turnips, and beans; the expenses of food and clothing; and the overhead in maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle.  Of these, John Updike writes,

The long opening chapter, “Economy,” joyously details just how to build a house […] down to a list of expenses totaling $28.11 1/2.  Briskly marketing to the world his program of austerity and self-reliance, he itemizes the few foodstuffs he paid for and the profits he obtained from his seven miles of bean rows.  (xiv, my italics)

Updike’s choice of the word “marketing” is important, revealing as it does that Thoreau’s economics did not stop at savings and cutbacks, but actively advertised a lifestyle at once economic and environmentalist.  Thoreau sold his routine and persona to a curious public, a few of whom bought—and bought into—the ultimately published and publicized form (the book).

On the one hand, Thoreau’s frugality is a lesson about simplicity and prudence; on the other hand, it offers a more environmentally friendly approach to architecture and construction while simultaneously warning about the destructive effects of what today we might call “the tragedy of commons.”  I have neither the time nor space to fully hash out my ideas about the tragedy of commons.  I will, however, quickly supply Steven C. Hackett’s definition for the term and then offer a short justification for my reference to it.  According to Hackett,

The tragedy of the commons is most likely to occur under the conditions of open-access or other poorly designed and enforced property rights regimes.  The tragedy of the commons outcome results from strategic behavior—behavior that an individual takes based on how other people are expected to behave and respond.  At the heart of the tragedy of commons is the belief that if one were to conserve the CPR, others will take what was conserved, and the CPR will degrade (116).

Thoreau’s worries about the tragedy of commons are evident in a few abrupt asides.  Take, for instance, these lines regarding hunting:

Almost every New England boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling piece between the ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were more boundless even that those of a savage.  No wonder, then, that he did not oftener stay to play on the common.  But already change is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society (329).

It seems abundantly clear that Thoreau refers here to the phenomenon—now known as the tragedy of commons—whereby people acting in their own self-interest use up a limited shared resource, in this case animal prey, despite their knowledge that doing so will be bad for everyone.  [Consider this point in light of another sentence by Thoreau: “By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives” (257-58).]  Perhaps the tragedy of commons motivates Thoreau’s declaration that “if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (269-70).  After all, thieving and robbery “take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough” (270).

Economics and morality also apply—albeit more tenuously—to what Michael Berger calls Thoreau’s “study of ecological dynamics in forests,” a “vigorous program of research” about seed dispersal and its spontaneous generation (381-82).  Although Berger does not explicitly say so, he implies that Thoreau’s scientific forays lend authority to his literary works.  This authority allows Thoreau to promote himself and his philosophical vision.  Berger analyzes Thoreau’s The Dispersion of Seeds, which was not published until 1993.  Nevertheless, Berger’s observations apply almost as aptly to various passages in Walden.  Setting out to show that Thoreau’s somewhat Darwinian ideas were not only sophisticated but also pioneering, Berger posits, “Thoreau’s seed dispersal ecology was […] rich in significance regarding the various kinds of complicated mechanisms, principles, and patterns by which species of plants succeed one another in local ecosystems” (382).  To substantiate this point, Berger quotes the following from The Dispersion of Seeds:

In this haphazard manner Nature surely creates you a forest at last, though as if it were the last thing she were thinking of.  By seemingly feeble and stealthy steps—by a geologic pace—she gets over the greatest distances and accomplishes her greatest results.  It is a vulgar prejudice that such forests are ‘spontaneously generated,’ but science knows that there has not been a sudden new creation in their case but a steady progress according to existing laws, that they came from seeds—that is, are the result of causes still in operation, though we may not be aware that they are operating. (383)

This passage recalls Thoreau’s claim in Walden that “where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever” (302).  Thoreau’s point, at any rate, is, in both cases, that forests (in all their various manifestations—trees, plants, etc.) will spring up as if on their own: independent of the botany or vegetation that preceded them.  In the “big picture,” the economics and morality at issue have to do with Thoreau’s ability to market himself and his ideas.  If he could pit himself as both scientist and writer, his writings would gain both cultural and actual currency as well as popular credibility.  This coupling of scientific sophistication with moral sensitivity produces, in Updike’s words, Thoreau’s thinginess: “the thinginess of Thoreau’s prose […] still excites us, the athleticism with which he springs from detail to detail, image to image, while still toting something of Transcendentalism’s metaphysical burden” (xxii).  Without science, Thoreau is little more than a gushing nature enthusiast; without science or the metaphysical burden, he “comes close to being merely an attentive and eloquent travel writer” (Updike xxii).  Fortunately, Thoreau recognizes the need to economize while moralizing, and to do the former well required a certain scientific literacy.  Norton is more generous than I because he casts Thoreau’s scientific observations about the forest as having nothing to do with self-promotion and everything to do with the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  Thoreau’s self-promotion notwithstanding, Norton’s praise does tend to demonstrate the manner in which Thoreau yoked science to economics and morality:

Thoreau quite explicitly recognized that the forest, a dynamic system, had a ‘language of its own, and that the transition form the immature state was both literary and scientific. […]  He saw that one learns more important things by relating an organism to its environment than by dissecting an organism into parts.  This indicates that Thoreau was on the right track, seeking the secret of life and its organization in the larger systems in which species live.  Especially, he thought we learn more important things about human behavior, and the evaluation of it, by observing organisms in environments.  He believed that if he could unlock the code of nature’s language, it would provide the key to a new, dynamic and scientific understanding of nature.  The key prerequisite for this change to a more contemplative consciousness was development of a new ‘language’ of human values based on analogies from the ‘language’ of nature. (40)

If Norton is right, as I believe he is, then the Environmentalists’ Dilemma is not so paralyzing as some would suggest.  Indeed, Thoreau’s Walden shows how economy and morality can participate with each other in unique and even scientific ways.

For further reading, see the following:

Berger, Michael.  “Henry David Thoreau’s Science in the Dispersion of Seeds.”  Annals of Science.  Vol. 53 (1996:  381-397).

Hackett, Steven C.  Environmental and Natural Resources Economics:  Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society.  M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Norton, Bryan G.  Searching for Sustainability:  Interdisciplinary Essays in Philosophy and Biology.  Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Updike, John.  “Introduction.”  Walden.  Princeton University Press, 2004.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mesmeric Possibility

In American History, Arts & Letters, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Writing on May 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This piece first appeared here at The Literary Table in 2010.

Sidney E. Lind, writing in the 1940s, said of the “mesmeric lexica” of nineteenth-century America:  “It is safe to say that the terminology of mesmerism was bandied about in much the same manner as the language of psychoanalysis was to be eighty years later, and with, in all probability, as little real comprehension on the part of the public.”

Lind’s reference to psychoanalysis—signified, at that moment, by Austrian physicist Sigmund Freud—is particularly telling for 21st century audiences, who have witnessed an avalanche of criticism of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, according to the naysayers, the results of which are un-testable at best and bogus at worst.  Lind’s aim is not to destabilize the practices of psychoanalysis but to interrogate three short works by Edgar Allan Poe in which mesmerism features prominently:  “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  “These three stories,” Lind submits, “constitute a series within which the mesmeric experiment becomes more profound, irrespective of plausibility or implausibility, or of whether or not Poe in at least two of the three was hoaxing his readers.”

Lind’s point is well-taken.  In Poe’s day, the subject of mesmerism was “in the air” and therefore “it was logical that Poe, as a journalist sensitive to popular interest, should have exploited it.”  True, these three stories exhibit, often wryly, a profound familiarity with mesmeric techniques and influences.  But more is going on in them than Lind lets on.  Indeed, Lind goes to great lengths to contextualize these stories within scientific (or other) discourses on mesmerism in Poe’s era, but he overemphasizes their “unity,” “theme,” and “intention” (always mimetic) instead of their singular dialogic contribution.  That is to say, Lind treats the stories as “echoes” or “reiterations” of other thinkers rather than as unique theses in their own right.  For Lind, the stories are indebted to other sources because they derive their vocabularies and methods from these sources.  I would suggest that Poe’s stories are in conversation with various dissertations on mesmerism rather than mere signs of cherry-picking or copying.  Although Poe’s modus operandi or preferred genre is fiction, his supposedly plagiarized passages lend substance to the notion that he might actually have been dissertating on mesmerism, animal magnetism, or hypnosis.  The luxury of storytelling is that the storyteller can dismiss unverifiable data as hoaxes or products of imagination; nevertheless, the storyteller can at least hope to hit on something real, novel, or scientific.  Two examples, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writing well after Poe, conceived of technological advances—most notably space travel—long before such advances were practical.

Lind’s work, at any rate, is impressively researched, laying the foundation for future analyses of Poe and his infatuations with mesmerism.  But why does Lind downplay Poe’s role in developing pioneering work?  All arguments are indebted to previous arguments; indebtedness does not take away from the originality or force of their articulation or genre.

Unlike Lind, Matthew A. Taylor calls attention to the distinctiveness of Poe’s contributions to “mesmeric theory” (for want of a better phrase) and its progeny.  He locates Poe in contradistinction to Herbert Mayo:  “Unlike Mayo, […] Poe radically deviated from the utopian utilitarian, or benign notions of mesmerism at play in most contemporary discourses on the topic, picturing instead the unsettling implications for human ontology consequent upon the idea that persons are less sovereign entities than manipulatable effects of external powers.”  In short, Poe considered mesmerism a bad thing, or at least a dangerous thing that did not lead down a road to human improvement.  “Poe concluded,” Taylor opines, “that an all-encompassing cosmic energy inevitably troubles human-being by suspending the autonomy and interiority of individual humans; the disorientation of normal, corporeal functioning and the literal loss of self-possession attending mesmeric practice illustrated for Poe the fact that people are little more than occasions for the demonstration of an impersonal power.”  If Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism is not only unique but also quite sophisticated; it demonstrates a full understanding of mesmeric theory while simultaneously rejecting that theory.  More to the point, if Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism stands on its own and demands critical attention.  Unlike Lind, Taylor seems to acknowledge Poe’s special role in shaping mesmeric theory—or, more precisely, mesmeric counter-theory.  In fact, Taylor seems to think Poe’s ideas about mesmerism reflect an entire cosmology about human nature and the imperfectability of humankind.  This is a tall claim.  For present purposes, it shows that Poe might have been worried about more than entertaining readers with fanciful mind-candy.  He might have been positing a worldview that flew in the face of prevailing physics (that “perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a single, universal law that, by definition, eliminates all difference—including, of course, the human difference”).  Poe, the relativistic Renaissance man, might have been demonstrating his facility as both scientist and philosopher.  To further establish Poe’s uniqueness, I might add to Taylor’s observations the theological dimension of “Mesmeric Revelation,” which accounts for evangelical objections to mesmerism without plainly endorsing or rejecting them.

Besides the three stories that Lind interrogates, there are, Martin Willis claims, “many other tales that exemplify [Poe’s] abiding interest in the contestation between the science and the human, as well as his fascination with the borderlands of scientific achievement, both in terms of their advancement to new states of knowledge and their place within the scientific pantheon.”  Poe’s interest in scientific trends was not a passing one.  Willis points out that Poe spent years studying science in general before turning to mesmerism in particular.  Whether Poe “believed” in mesmerism is unclear.  It seems plausible that his stories about mesmerism were meant, in Willis’s words,  to “consider mesmeric debates in the realm of fiction rather than that of science.”  I would argue that Poe collapses any distinction between science and fiction by teasing out various theses—which, for all he knew, might one day be proven—through the medium of imaginary characters.  In doing so, Poe forges a distance between theories and their authors: if the theories turn out to be “true,” future generations will consider Poe a genius; if they turn out to be bogus, future generations will claim Poe was merely hoaxing.  Thus the dual-advantage of employing fiction to hash out scientific hypotheses.  Regardless of whether Poe is ultimately “right” about any of his dissertations, which he dresses up as fiction, he demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge that should not be ignored.

Not all scholars have ignored it.  Antoine Faivre takes pains to explain how Poe appropriated scientific knowledge and then inserted it into fictional narratives.  He suggests that many readers have mistaken or misread Poe’s tales as “factual, non-fictional case studies,” which in turn has led to a “flurry of reactions and debates.”  My point is not to argue that Poe treats his stories as factual case-studies but to suggest that he left open the case-study possibility.  In other words, Poe might have wanted readers to misread his tales as factual, or else to have some later scientist come along and verify the “truth” of his hypotheses, notwithstanding whether they were in fact his, or whether they were intended as reasoned argument at all.

Lind allows that Poe might not have been hoaxing readers in writing about mesmerism.  “Mesmerism as a theme for fiction,” he explains, “was, like metempsychosis and the exploration of the realm of the conscience, so well suited to Poe’s principles of literary composition that it was natural for him to work this new field, to attempt to achieve the sensational without deliberately attempting to mislead.”  More than simply avoiding misleading commentary, Poe might have been dissertating with the hopes that, one day, scientists would look on his fiction as a catalyst for new and innovative practices.  While not aspiring to complete verisimilitude, Poe’s stories about mesmerism are highly sophisticated tracts, informed by trendy scientific theories (and their counter-discourses), and very probably marked with the faint expectation that their subjects, though fictional, might somehow contribute to future systems of knowledge.

See the following for further reading:

Faivre, Antoine.  “Borrowings and Misreading:  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Mesmeric’ Tales and the Strange Case of their Reception.”  Aries, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007: 21-62).

Lind, Sidney E.  “Poe and Mesmerism.”  PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (1947:  1077-1094).

Torrey, E. Fuller.  Freudian Fraud:  The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture. Lucas Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Matthew A.  “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)physics:  A Pre-History of the Post Human.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2007: 193-221).

Willis, Martin.  Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines:  Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent State University Press, 2006.

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