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.

Churchill on Attlee

Clement Attlee was a lawyer, World War I captain, socialist, Labour Party leader, and Deputy Prime Minister from 1942-1945 under Winston Churchill in his war-time coalition government. Attlee was to follow Churchill as PM from 1945 until 1951.

Despite his accomplishments, Attlee had a rather laconic, unimpressive personality more reminiscent of a bureaucrat or manager than a national leader in times of great change. While Churchill was on a bold mission to rescue the free world from the greedy claws of the German iron eagle, Attlee was more interested in civic life in Great Britain. As a member of the Labour Party, Attlee stood for policies that were in opposition to Churchill’s conservative ideals.

To Churchill, it must have appeared a little like the divide between the hunter husband battling off rival tribes and hunting fierce wild boar while his wife tended the hearth and waited for something to cook on the fire. Churchill was certainly well aware that there would be no society for Attlee to attend to, engineer, or micro-manage unless he himself succeeded in his hunt.

Churchill’s prey was of course the dictators of the 1930’s who became the despots on a quest for world domination in the 1940’s. As one of the few with the foresight to see the evil trajectory long before the intelligentsia or masses caught on, he became liberty’s staunchest defender, the lion who would not back down even in the face of a pack of hyenas—his own party members and countrymen, no less. In true Churchillian style he “never, never, never” gave in, and the world was saved an ignoble fate.

Thus, when someone referred to Attlee as modest, we can understand why the courageous and colorful Winston Churchill, with his familiar dry wit and sense of irony, said: “Well, he has much to be modest about.”

With Gratitude for Innumerable Bounties

Giving thanks to God for blessings—life, health, and a successful harvest—had led to a tradition of holding festivals throughout the colonies going back to the early 1600’s.

A century and a half later, both Presidents Washington and Madison called for days of thanksgiving. In November 1777, during the War of Independence, the Continental Congress declared a holiday for the thirteen colonies that began this way:

“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties….”

On August 6, 1863, a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving celebration. It was the height of the Civil War, and there was a deep need for national unification and healing. In late September, Lincoln received a letter from Sarah J. Hale, a women’s magazine editor and nursery rhyme author, who had campaigned for a number of years for a “national and fixed Union Festival.” On October 3, Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November.

By the President of the United States
A Proclamation

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”

Abraham Lincoln

Let us carry forward the nearly four centuries of American wisdom and gratitude for “innumerable bounties,” and continue to hold this day dear as an opportunity for “thanksgiving and praise.” There is no such thing as too much gratitude, too much giving thanks for blessings, or an excess of praise for the “Almighty Hand” that heals and uplifts. So let us on this day, above all, pause and give our heart-felt thanks for divine love and protection.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.