How to Teach Emerson

If you keep up with the book blogosphere at all, you’ve no doubt already stumbled across this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, a brutal takedown of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The article is worth reading, if only for the blustery vitriol with which William Major and Bryan Sinche attack the Sage of Concord. A typical passage:

The savvy English major comes away delighted with Emerson’s aphorisms and amazed by his ability to thrust together barely related concepts that seem like a viable argument. In that way, Emerson reminds us of the novitiate graduate student who attempts to write theory for the first time. Having read a little, and having been both confused and charmed by it, the student dives in, employing language and concepts barely understood. The result is predictable nonsense. Emerson, too, picks and grabs, looking for a viable path through the forest. The problem, though, is that he has landed himself in a cumbersome thicket. What emerges is a bloated monster that has just gorged itself on nature, God, spirit, reason, understanding, and virtue, to name just a few.

The authors also blame Emerson for the evils of the narcissistic modern world; his famous (and infuriating) essay “Self-Reliance” tells our college sophomores that “They are the center of the world. Their parents and teachers have already told them thus; their iPhone rings with the news; and now here’s Emerson to tell them exactly the same thing.”

The problem, of course, is that “Self-Reliance” is only one part of a very complex and hard-to-define philosophy that Emerson put forth over his entire lifetime—and further, it’s a relatively early piece of the larger whole, and a piece that I doubt Emerson intended to be his sole legacy in the classroom. Major and Sinche recognize this problem and lament the fact that “any reading of his work (absent an agonizing 15-week dive into all his major writings, an undertaking about as inviting as prepping for a colonoscopy) provides students with but a bit of the man.”

As it so happens, I have undertaken just such a 15-week dive, in which my class read not only Nature and the two series of Essays, but pieces from The Conduct of Life and most his abolitionist speeches (an active counterpart to Emerson’s usual political quietism that gets too often neglected). I don’t love Emerson, and I am frustrated and baffled by him as often as I am moved. But I think he is worth listening to—even if one can only listen for one week in a survey course.

Emerson is, as I understand it, largely ignored by philosophy departments and is seen as the province of the English survey course. This is why Major and Sinche have been stuck teaching him, and that’s not really fair. Emerson would probably make more sense stuck between Rousseau and Kierkegaard in an Introduction to Philosophy course than he does stuck between James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne in an American Literature class. But that’s not the way things have shaken down, and Emerson—like Marx and Freud—has been cast aside by his home department and left for the literature folks to pick up.

The problem, one might argue, is that Emerson makes no arguments, not the way David Hume or Aristotle do. He’s content to dance around a topic. The two best things I’ve read on the way Emerson works come from scholars Norman Miller and John T. Irwin. Miller:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, by his own admission, was not a system-builder, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word “system”—a unified and internally consistent set of tenets built upon a basic premise or fact. And it is probably unfair for the twentieth-century American to judge Emerson’s eclectic philosophy—born as it was out of such diverse roots as Platonism, Eastern mysticism, and German romanticism—by strictly logical criteria. For Emerson’s philosophy, if it is informed by a logic at all, is informed by the logic of the spider web rather than that of the skyscraper; it is circular rather than linear, intuitional rather than syllogistic. Given this nature, it resists penetration and probing. Tear it at one point and the whole construct falls.

And Irwin:

In a sense, an Emersonian essay is simply the decipherment of a hieroglyph. The strategy is always the same: he presents the emblem in all its outer complexity and then, through the doctrine of correspondences, he penetrates the emblem to reveal its inner simplicity, to show the hidden relationship between outer shape and inner meaning.

The two guiding metaphors here—the spider’s web and the hieroglyphic—suggest a natural mysticism more than a systematic conglomeration of arguments. If we were to make biblical parallels, Emerson is more John than Paul. But this argument does not adequately explain Emerson’s being kept out of philosophy departments—you could apply the “spider’s web” metaphor to figures as important in philosophy departments as Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and if they can do it, why can’t Emerson?

I don’t know, and to some extent, that’s not my question to answer. The only thing I have to work with is Emerson’s having been ceded to English departments, to a class I will (God willing) eventually teach. And so the question implied by Major and Sinche stands before me: How do you teach Emerson without reducing the complex web of mystery (and yes, contradictions) at his core? I will use the rest of this post to attempt to answer that question, assuming only one class period allotted to Emerson in a sophomore-level survey of early American literature.

I’d begin by chucking both “The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address,” both of which I read in college. These two pieces belong to the very early Emerson and are much less tense and interesting than his later work. Most everything they say comes across much better in “Self-Reliance,” which I would keep on the syllabus.

This essay, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows, will drive you crazy. If you have any sort of connection to the real world, you’ll want to backhand the Emerson who tells you, quite earnestly, that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” And if you have any notion of objective right and wrong, you’ll hate him when he says that “Power is in nature the essential measure of right.” (There’s that Nietzsche influence—virtue is often, for Emerson as well as for Machiavelli and Nietzsche, about virility.)  And if you’re lucky, your students will chafe at these assertions, as well.

But just in case they don’t, add to your syllabus the essay “Circles,” also from Essays: First Series (1841). This is Emerson at his finest. Here he explains the method behind all his writings: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Here we find him circling the truth, unable to settle on a single absolute. When you talk about him with your class, you can discuss how this essay opens up the world of the Over-Soul, the collective that sometimes trumps the individual in Emerson’s work and sometimes is trumped by it.

“Circles” is the dark, moody side of Emerson, the side that doesn’t get much airplay when compared to the blithe “Sage of Concord” vision of him; I’d add to it at least an excerpt from “Experience,” from Essays: Second Series, which is Emerson at his absolute darkest. Here he tries to come to grips with the death of his son and decides the only way to cope with loss is to adopt a Buddhist/stoic enforced alienation in which “Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.” This is the seamy underbelly of self-reliance.

Finally, to give students a taste of the Over-Soul as well as a taste of Emerson’s poetic power, assign the 1867 poem “Brahma,” which is not his best poem but is nice enough and serves as a very effective counterweight to the Jersey Shore narcissism of “Self-Reliance.” All in all, this is between forty and sixty pages of reading, perhaps too much for a single day in a sophomore survey course. If that’s true, you can excerpt from the essays or take out “Experience.” Or you can just assign it over a weekend.

Emerson, as frustrating as he is—and as potentially dangerous as his ideas occasionally are—is to important to the history of American philosophy to ignore. And if philosophers have decided to dispose of him, it falls to English teachers to keep his legacy alive. Let’s try to keep alive more than the Cliff’s Notes “follow your bliss” line-drawing version of him.

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