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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

Richard Posner is a Monster

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Scholarship, Writing on January 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

William Domnarski is probably right when he writes that Richard Posner, like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “seemed destined for a literary life.” Holmes modeled himself on Emerson; he was the class poet at Harvard and earned his reputation as a thoughtful if controversial man of letters who could write with panache.

Posner, who majored in English at Yale, modeled himself on Holmes. “Holmes,” Posner declared in a missive, “is the greatest jurist, at least of modern times, because the sum of his ideas, metaphors, decisions, dissents, and other contributions exceeds the sum of contributions of any other jurist of modern times.” Posner’s writing similarly stands out for its flair and confidence.

Both men extended their influence beyond their legal opinions and have contributed to philosophy, becoming provocative historical figures in their own right. Posner has correctly invoked Holmes as a pragmatist, even if Holmes avoided the designation and referred to William James’s pragmatism as an “amusing humbug.” A member of the short-lived Cambridge Metaphysical Club that birthed pragmatism in the 1870s — and which also included James and C. S. Peirce — Holmes at least imbibed the pragmatism that was, so to speak, in the Boston air. Posner’s pragmatism, however, is only tangentially related to the thinking of Peirce and James, and so one hesitates to call it pragmatism at all.

In a move that must irritate University of Miami professor, Peirce supporter, and Richard Rorty critic Susan Haack, Posner distinguishes his variety of pragmatism — what he calls “everyday pragmatism” — from philosophical pragmatism. His thesis is most pronounced in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy(2005). The quotidian pragmatism that inheres in the law is, in his view, practical and forward-looking and based on “reasonableness.”

It’s not always clear how this mode of pragmatism intersects with, or diverges from, the so-called traditional or classical pragmatism, though it differs markedly — and refreshingly — from what Haack labeled “vulgar Rortyism,” that Frenchified variety of structuralism that dispensed with truth as a meaningful category of discourse.

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One suspects, given his outsized ego, that Posner delights in having placed his stamp on legal pragmatism, thereby forcing perplexed students in philosophy departments to come to terms with his ideas and square them with not only Peirce and James but also John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and W. V. Quine.

Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting. You might see him as an erudite, spirited dandy playing the part of flamboyant intellectual; or, more cruelly, as a bitter sophist bent on celebrating his own idiosyncratic views and maliciously dismissing his opponents with callous words and harsh indictments. Certainly his gratuitous rhetorical attacks on the late Antonin Scalia warrant this latter take.

And yet the man speaks with a high, soft voice; loves and spoils his cat; and spends most of his time reading and writing. It’s hard to condemn such things.

Posner is on record as having fancied himself as not just equal to, but more intelligent than, Learned Hand and Henry Friendly — two giants of American law — because he considered himself more informed about economics. This is surprising, chiefly because his self-assessment occurred before he became a judge.

As a judge, Domnarski tells us, “he could seek to persuade his new judicial colleagues to follow him, so as to further shape the law as he saw it — in his own image.” He continues to shape everything, it seems, in his own image, including, perhaps, Domnarski’s biography, which he read both in draft form and as a final manuscript.

One wonders how heavily he edited his own biography — how much latitude he enjoyed in fashioning his story. He sat for interviews and emailed with Domnarski, which wouldn’t be unusual or improper had he not been a primary source of his own legend, as he certainly appears to have been. As a young man, Posner exercised his authority as president of Harvard Law Review to include certain content over the objections of his peers. Might he have done this with his biographer?

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Posner, an only child, is used to promoting himself, and his acquaintances at different stages of his life often note his arrogance. As early as high school, he would say “the Poze knows,” and called himself “the mighty one,” writing in yearbooks that he “welcomes you as a High Priest of Posner Worship.” You can write this off as playful, but you can’t write off the fact that he cites himself in cases more than any other judge — though not by name, Domnarski points out, as if to acquit him of unseemly motivations.

An editor of a peer-reviewed journal once complained that Posner had cited himself too often in a paper, to which Posner rejoined that self-citation was necessary because he had produced most of the relevant literature on the subject. “The Poze knows,” the footnotes might have read. Another time an exasperated Posner wrote to editors at Cambridge University Press, “Don’t you know who I am?” — the same remark that landed Henry Louis Gates Jr. in hot water under different circumstances.

Although Domnarski connected with over 200 people to piece together this book, Posner’s personal opinion of himself seems to control the narrative and crowd out contrary valuations that critics may have offered. It’s not that Posner’s accomplishments and reputation are unearned. He’s worked hard to become perhaps the best-known and most prolific federal circuit judge in our nation’s history, and his talents and learning are unquestionable and impressive. The person who emerges in these pages is exceptional at what he does, but difficult to like. He graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School but was not popular. He remains good with ideas — just not with people. He’d rather disseminate brilliant theories than keep them to himself, even when they’re in bad taste or poor form. Whether that’s a virtue or vice depends upon one’s priority for manners and decorum.

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Posner’s most remarkable and admirable quality, it seems to me, is his ability — even willingness — to accept constructive criticism in stride. He doesn’t take evaluations of his work personally, and he invites opposition to fine-tune and improve his ideas. He instructs his clerks to criticize his draft opinions line by line so that he can perfect his rationale. “[W]e should want” and “insist upon,” he wrote to a colleague, “challenge and criticism; the rougher the better; for one of the great dangers of achieving eminence is that people are afraid to criticize you and then you end up inhabiting a fool’s paradise.”

Posner has referred to himself as a “monster,” a characterization he’s also reserved for Wagner, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Proust, Kafka, and Michelangelo. The term thus seems like an odd form of self-approbation rather than regret or self-loathing. It accords with his grand notion that he is “a Promethean intellectual hero,” not just some federal judge who happens to be well read.

Posner remains “a writer first and a lawyer second.” He’s correct that, as he told one correspondent, “the modern practice of law does not offer a great deal of scope for the poetic imagination.” Law schools have divided faculty into fields and sub-fields, and specialists in different areas of practice are increasingly unable to speak to one another in a common idiom or with shared vocabularies. Posner studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, who directed Posner’s research on William Butler Yeats, so he knows a thing or two about the poetic imagination and memorable expression.

But maybe the law is not about poetic imagination. Maybe it requires a prosaic and mechanical mind that can dispassionately and without fanfare adjudge the soundness of legal arguments presented by the parties to a case. If so, Posner may have been better suited for a different profession, one he would have loved and within which he could have more appropriately flaunted his creativity. Being an English professor, though, would’ve been out of the question; he dismisses much of what English literature departments regard as scholarship as “bullshit.” He uses the same word to describe work in the legal professoriate, of which he was once a seminal figure. By age 30, in fact, he had achieved the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He cultivated the image of an iconoclastic rabble-rouser willing to subject all human activity to cost-benefit analysis. He popularized the law-and-economics movement and eagerly imparted that economic efficiency supplied the right methodology for describing and delineating common-law judging, which involved practical resolutions to concrete problems. The doctrinaire Posner of this period drifted far from the Communist roots of his mother. More recently, though, he’s alleged that capitalism is a failure and moved decidedly to the left on key issues.

Perhaps because of his haughtiness, the law can seem boring and routine without him. There’s something to be said for the color and liveliness he brings to his office, and for his belief that “the law really is a very limited field for a person of literary bent.” Domnarski’s treatment may seem deferential, but it doesn’t cover up Posner’s naked, sometimes brutal honesty. Posner is willing to say what others aren’t, and able to say it more eloquently.

If, as Domnarski avers, Posner considers the average lawyer to be like Bartleby or Ivan Ilych — fancifully tragic figures — then he must disdain or pity those lawyers who come before him in the courtroom and submit their briefs for his relentless scrutiny. The 1987 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary states that lawyers who argued before Posner found him to be “arrogant, impatient, dogmatic,” and “opinionated,” and that he “dominates arguments” and “cross-examines lawyers as if they were 1-Ls in a Socratic exchange with a professor.” The man is important, no doubt, but never learned how to play nicely.

Ever the Darwinian, Posner has suggested that great books prove their merit over time in the competition of the marketplace; perhaps his reputation will too.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

1881: The Year Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Adapted Emerson to the Post-War Intellectual Climate

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on October 14, 2015 at 8:45 am

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. turned forty in 1881. The publication of The Common Law that year gave him a chance to express his jurisprudence to a wide audience. This marked a turning point in his career. Over the next year, he would become a professor at Harvard Law School and then, a few months later, an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The trauma of the Civil War affected his thinking and would eventually impact his jurisprudence. Leading up to the War, he had been an Emersonian idealist who associated with such abolitionists as Wendell Phillips. As a student at Harvard, he had served as Phillips’s bodyguard. He later enlisted in the infantry before joining the Twentieth Massachusetts, a regiment that lost five eighths of its men. He was wounded at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October of 1861, when he took a bullet to his chest; the bullet passed through his body without touching his heart or lungs. In September of 1862, he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam, a bullet having passed through his neck. In May of 1863, at Marye’s Hill, close to where the battle of Fredericksburg had taken place six months earlier, Holmes was shot and wounded a third time. This time the bullet struck him in the heel, splintered his bone, and tore his ligaments; his doctors were convinced that he would lose his leg. He did not, but he limped for the rest of his life.

He emerged from the War a different man. He was colder now, and more soberminded. “Holmes believed,” Louis Menand says, “that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he had imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war.” And he learned that forms of resistance were necessary and natural in the constant struggle of humans to organize their societies and to discover what practices and activities ought to govern their conduct. The War, accordingly, made him both wiser and more disillusioned. In light of his disillusionment, he reflected the general attitudes of many men his age.

But not all men his age shared his penetrating intellect or his exhilarating facility with words; nor did they have his wartime experience, for most men who experienced what he had during the war did not live to tell about it. Certainly no one besides Holmes could claim to have enjoyed such intimate and privileged access to the Brahmin, Emersonian culture of New England before the War, and he more than anyone was equipped to see the continued relevance of that culture to the present. He knew there were things the War could not destroy and varieties of thought that could endure.

The above text is an excerpt from my essay “Pragmatism on the Shoulders of Emerson: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Jurisprudence as a Synthesis of Emerson, Peirce, James, and Dewey,” published in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2015). To view the full essay, you may download it here at SSRN or visit the website of The South Carolina Review.

 

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

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“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.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Literary Quality of his Prose

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Rhetoric, Writing on June 11, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s writings are known for their literary qualities.  The Class Poet at Harvard, the son of a famous poet, and a lifelong devotee of Emerson, Holmes often rendered his judicial writings in poetic prose.  Consider the following lines from Gitlow v. New York, which I have reformulated as a poem:

 

                 Gitlow v. New York[i]

                 A Poem[ii] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.

 

The plain, raw idioms and variable feet in these lines resemble those characteristically employed by Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Holmes’s language here is similar in tone and rhythm to Williams’s in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was published just two years before this dissent. Holmes’s alliterative use of the letter “n” emphasizes mobility, momentum, and ignition: “incitement,” “energy,” “movement,” “incitement,” “enthusiasm,” “conflagration.” These nouns suggest provocation, stimulus, instigation; they are tied to ideas themselves, as in the line “every idea is an incitement,” hence the correspondingly alliterative “n” sounds in the words “expression” and “reason.” The metrical regularity of “Every,” “offers it…,” “for belief,” “failure of,” “energy,” “stifles the,” “at its birth,” “difference,” “narrower,” “Eloquence,” and “had no chance” accents the activity associated with thinking insofar as these dactylic words and phrases pertain to ideas or beliefs. Holmes follows a series of dactyls with spondaic feet just as he describes the possibility of combustion: “Eloquence [stress / slack / slack] may set fire [stress / stress / stress / slack] to reason [stress / stress / slack].” It is as though he wishes to create the sense of building pressure and then of sudden release or combustion. Two unstressed lines abruptly interrupt the heightened tension; the first appears with the transitional conjunction “But,” which signals a change in the tone. Holmes appears to reverse the intensity and calm his diction as he assures us that the “redundant discourse,” a phrase made cacophonous by the alliterative “d” and “s” sounds, has “no chance of starting a present conflagration.” A sudden move to iambic feet and hence to a lightened tone rounds out these lines and suggests that Holmes has smothered or extinguished whatever energy had been building with the three-syllable feet. These lines have become some of the most famous in American constitutional history most likely because of their memorable qualities, which contributed to the eventual vindication of the dissent.

Be that as it may, feet and meter are basic to English speech and writing and may be displayed in many other legal writings by less able judges and justices. It would be difficult to prove that Holmes deliberately set out to invest these lines with literary features, at least those pertaining to alliteration and feet. Holmes no doubt had an ear for language and probably intended to employ alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme in his writings, but how far does his intent extend?  Does the scanning exercise above give Holmes too much credit and attribute to his writings undeserved praise?  There is no empirical way to answer this question, but the speculation is, I think, worth the time.

 

[i] Gitlow v. N.Y., 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

 

[ii] My addition.

 

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.

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