What Would R.W. Say?

It appears to be Emerson month around here on a consistent basis lately. And why not — Ralph Waldo had something true and helpful to say about just about everything. He was therefore a man for all seasons.

Emerson was perhaps America’s most influential 19th Century writer and philosopher. A quintessential American individualist thinker, his non-conformist and slightly Gnostic religious understanding was typical of his Transcendentalism. He believed that consciousness, not matter, was the fundamental stuff and state of the universe. His division of humans into two groups, the materialists and the idealists, recall the classical difference between Aristotle and Plato — the one looking to the sensory world for answers, the other to the realm of consciousness as the ultimate source of our knowledge of life. It also applies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the separation between the secular socialist (materialist) forces and those who believe in a transcendent reality beyond the realm of matter affecting human lives.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a long discussion with the old man. We should think he’d be pleased to know that his unique take on things is still appreciated more than 130 years (April 27, 2012) after his death. Being quoted would probably annoy him, however. One of the many quotes attributed to Emerson is, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

He had a point. But then he lost it again, right around the time he decided to impress upon that malleable consciousness of ours his own particular brand of perception. Were he to object to being quoted, we might have to resort to using his own words against him: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Take that, buddy. If we’re still crowding onto your front porch, that’s what you get for building a better philosophical body of writing. What’s true for the inventor and merchant bringing new goods to the market also applies to the dealer in ideas. He would surely have acquiesced, at least once we reminded him that, “The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.” Inspire, and you get quoted. Live with it. Or, if you’re long dead, as the great poets tend to be, deal with it anyway. In Emerson’s case, it is the price of genius.

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