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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 »

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Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. 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 »

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