Essays and English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Charles Eliot, the editor of the Classics, was asked late in life to rank the ten greatest men of the past millennia. He placed Ralph Waldo Emerson on that short list. I'm not sure if this fact becomes more or less surprising when one knows that the two came from the same New England world and were separated by hardly more than a generation. (Emerson graduated from Harvard in the 1820s, Eliot in 1853.) The inclusion of a man from roughly one's own time and place on a list alongside Jesus Christ is itself an Emersonian gesture, for one of Emerson's chief credos was: "The sun shines to-day also."
Instructive, then, still early in my journey through these books, to read an essay like The American Scholar. Here is Emerson's take on the Classics:
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.
Ouch. And I've only gotten through Bacon so far. I didn't feel all that meek before I started reading these essays, but I got there in a hurry. Though of course it's not really that Emerson doesn't care for books:
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.
As I understand it, he means
inspire here in that strict etymological sense of
bringing forth breath. For Emerson, everything good is within us. The external is good insofar as it draws the internal to us:
That is always best which gives me to myself.
I must admit I found it jarring to be reminded of a time when people
seemed too quick to depend on tradition, too little willing to trust in
Our age is retrospective, Emerson writes. Maybe so, but ours
is certainly not, in part because we have so absorbed the lessons of
our great American prophet of Self-Reliance. Emerson didn't, in fact,
going it alone, but rather a robust relationship with the world that brings out the best in oneself.
Truly speaking, Emerson writes,
it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.
And Emerson does provoke a reader who turns to the Classics as some
shelter from contemporary society. These books can tell you nothing, he
seems to say, that isn't already in you and around you.
There is a paradox here, which is that Emerson, by his own lights, can't even teach us to turn inwards. We must learn from ourselves to teach ourselves. For which I have no answer. Enough to say that I come out of reading Emerson feeling less meek. (Though still looking forward to Cicero and Locke.)
--CRB, February 7, 2007