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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.

Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

On Ugliness

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Writing on February 21, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at The Legendary (July 2010).

I am, at this writing, looking over a spider’s corpse, the little thing having spooked me into murder. It hurried across my papers at an alarming speed for so small a creature and then halted suddenly when I flinched and pushed my chair back from the desk. At this the miniature monster reared himself aloft, his front legs and chelicerae raised and ready for attack, his size strangely exaggerated. “This is ugly,” I gasped to no one in particular.

I’ve heard that spiders have thousands of eyes so it’s no wonder that the thing supposed me threatening. Heck, I was threatening, whether I was one or a thousand. I reached for my newspaper and, foregoing reflection, swatted the brittle beast over and over until its yellow guts, an oozy snot-like substance, spattered all over an otherwise unblemished copy of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. “Ugh,” I sighed, relieved and rubbing my sticky hands together, “that was ugly.”

Sometimes I short-circuit reflection, especially when, as then, an unusual thing startles me or otherwise makes me want to tell somebody something. What do I mean? I’m not sure exactly. I think I mean to say I’m a talker. It’s a terrible habit, this talking. And a nervous one too. Although Freud might disagree, today’s psychologists suggest that babble is a sign of egomania or a warped sense of prerogative. Folks back home simply refer to this as “diarrhea of the mouth.”

What a yucky, demented feeling I get when at dinner parties people glance around the room while I’m talking to them. They’re hoping, I know, that somebody will pass by and relieve them of their duties. “Oh, say, have you met Jonathan?” they’ll interject, grabbing poor Jonathan by the arm and stationing him in front of me. “Jonathan also went to law school. Y’all have something in common.”

I might have been relating the story of my religious conversion or of my struggle with cancer but my now-retreating listener wouldn’t even know. Why? Because I’ve chattered him out of caring. Now I’m standing there staring at an obviously uncomfortable Jonathan whose eyes scan the room for the nearest and next substitute. He seems ugly to me, and I to him. Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

Joan Richardson on Emerson, the Pragmatist

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Creative Writing, Information Design, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics on December 9, 2010 at 9:22 pm

If pragmatism is, as Joan Richardson claims, “thinking about thinking” (79), and if Emerson is, as Richardson claims, a pragmatist, then we might ask ourselves what intellectual tradition Emerson appears to appropriate and modify.  What are Emerson’s “moving pictures” (the title of Richardson’s chapter on Emerson), and how do they receive and transmit thought and theory?  Richardson seems to suggest that, for Emerson as for Jonathan Edwards, nature and imagination are mutually reinforcing and inextricably tied concepts.  Emerson works out of Edwards’s paradigms while altering them to fit his own historical moment.  Emerson mimics not only Edwards’s intellectual framework—his theories—but also Edwards’s diction and syntax (63).  Put differently, Emerson imitates a concept while imitating the vocabularies through which that concept passed down to him. 

What makes Edwards and Emerson unique is their turn to nature to make sense of the “transcendent.”  Just as Edwards looks to spiders and light to aestheticize his theology and exhilarate his congregation, so Emerson looks to nature to spiritualize the human mind.  Both men observe and then internalize the natural world to refine their thinking about thinking.  For Emerson, however, the human mind is itself an organism—one hungry for knowledge.  The mind is not so much “the room of the idea” as it is a living being with an appetite for thought (67).  Emerson employs and seeks out metaphor to organize this thought—one might say to satiate his ravenous intellectual appetite—and he does so because he realizes “the seminal role played by image” (68).  The world, for Emerson, is full of semiotic possibility, and one can arrive at truths about reality through the study of metaphor.  Science, after all, uses signs and symbols—i.e., metaphors—to test and decode the natural world (see, e.g., Richardson on the “metaphor intrinsic to biology’s emergence as a distinct field”) (69).     Read the rest of this entry »

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