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The two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation are very old and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. The war rages not only in the battlefields, in the national councils and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour. Enrolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities. As we take our stand on necessity or on ethics shall we go for the conservative or for the reformer. When Ralph Waldo Emerson gave this lecture at the Masonic Temple in Boston, December 1841, he might have been taking a cue from a couple of thoughts entered in his journals. People wish to be settled.
It is only as far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them. It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which your age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost. Emerson himself had a constitutional dislike of controversy. But in another age that was noisy, money-mad, active, and full of confusions, he aimed to inspire those who had the future to mold. Surveying the scene with the detachment of posterity, he enlarged on the theme that some people resent change and others welcome it. Some are satisfied with what we have, others think we can do better. Did he find, at either poll, a persuasive basis for political action, was that his intent? Meet Mr. Emerson, a series of radio programs presenting in survey fashion excerpts from his lectures, journals, and essays.
These programs are produced by station WHOA, University of Wisconsin, for National Educational Radio, under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Today, between the polls, as we take our stand on necessity or on ethics shall we go for the conservative or for the reformer. A continuing dialogue. A modern critic assesses Emerson's relevance for our time. He challenges men of intelligence to plunge beneath the frivolous welter of surface in search, not of unity, which is not there, but of polls between which life can be managed with satisfactory illusion of success. The view of Emerson, which puts man where we have been taught he should be at the center of the universe, has been even in reaction against it, both culmination and starting point of much of our serious consideration.
Emerson speaks with skill of matters which disturb us still. Emerson watched the beginning of America's experiment in political and social democracy, and was obviously disgusted and disheartened with the methods and results of practical politics. He seems to have had a feeling that human progress was affected very little by practical politics, let each individual be the judge of his own actions, he said, and he proceeded to stir their thinking. And if they didn't understand? According to the Boston Journal, Mr. Emerson is greeted by a class of people who are rarely seen together on any other public occasion in Boston, aside from the large number of professed admirers and disciples, and the literati who are present each time he speaks or reads in the Boston vicinity, the men come to hear him, are mainly of the desire to be dazzled and shocked order, who seem disagreeably surprised when they do comprehend what he says. There is plenty of evidence that Emerson's lectures were well covered by the newspapers,
reports another Boston paper. Tall, thin, his features aqualine, his eye piercing and fixed, the effect as he stood quietly before his audience was at first somewhat startling, and then nobly impressive. Having placed his manuscript on the desk with nervous rapidity and paused, the lecture then quickly and as a word with a flash of action turned over the first leaf. Gentlemen and ladies, the two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation are very old and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is a subject of civil history. The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of most of the ancient world, the battle of patrician and plebeian, of parents state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor reappears in all countries
and times. The war rages not only in the battlefields, in national councils and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour, on roles the old world mean time, and now one, now the other, gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities. Such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a corresponding depth of seat in the human constitution. It is the opposition of past and future, of memory and hope, of the understanding and the reason. It is the primal antagonism, the appearance in trifles of the two poles of nature. It is ever thus, it is the counteraction of the centripetal and the centrifugal forces. Innovation is the salient energy, conservatism, the pause on the last movement, that which
is was made by God, Seth conservatism. He is leaving that, he is entering this other, rejoins innovation. There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle which conservatism is set to defend is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate. It must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must
deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet. Whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking and sure of final success. A comment from Oliver Wendell Holmes himself, a popular speaker. We had had revolutionary orators, reformers, martyrs, but we had nothing like this man with his graphic voice and countenance, his choice vocabulary, his refined utterance, his gentle courage, which with a different manner might have been called audacity, his temperate statement of opinions which threaten to shake the existing order of thought like an earthquake. Conservatism stands on man's confessed limitations, reform on his indisputable infinitude, conservatism on circumstance, liberalism on power, one goes to make an adroit member of the social
frame, the other to postpone all things to the man himself. Reform is debonair and social, reform is individual and impurious. We are reformers in spring and summer, in autumn and winter we stand by the old reformers in the morning conservers at night. Reform is affirmative, conservative feelings negative. Conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth. Reform is more candid to behold another's worth. Reform, more disposed to maintain and increase its own. Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention, it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry. It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing
or receding. It never puts the foot forward. In the hour when it does that, it is not establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and treachery, believes in negative fate, believes that man's temper governs them. That for me, it avails not to trust in principles, they will fail me, I must bend a little. It distrusts nature, it thinks there is a general law without a particular application. Law for all that does not include anyone. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with the hoofs. It runs to egotism and bloated self-conceit. It runs to a bodyless pretension, to a natural refining and elevation which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction.
And so, whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine. Nature does not give the crown of its approbation, namely beauty, to any action or emblem or actor, but to one which combines these elements, not to the rock which resists the waves from aged to age, nor to the wave which lashes incessantly the rock, but the superior beauty is with the oak, which stands with its hundred arms against the storms of a century, and
grows every year like a sapling, or the river which ever flowing yet is found in the same bed from aged to age, or greatest of all, the man who has subsisted for years amid the changes of nature, yet has distanced himself. So that when you remember what he was and see what he is, you say, what strides? What a disparity is here. Throughout nature, the past combines in every creature with the present. Each of the convolutions of the sea shell, each node and spine marks one year of the fish's life. What was the mouth of the shell for one season with the addition of new matter by the growth of the animal becoming an ornament? A New York reporter wrote, Emerson's voice is up to his reputation.
It has a curious contradiction, an awkwardly repellent and inwardly reverential mingling of qualities, which a musical composer would despair of blending into one. It bespeaks a life that is half-contempt, half-adoring recognition, and very little between, but it is noble as a natural support. As we take our stand on necessity or on ethics, shall we go for the conservative or for the reformer? If we read the world historically, we shall say of all the ages, the present hour and circumstance, is the cumulative result. This is the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been or that is yet possible. If we see it from the side of will or the moral sentiment, we shall accuse the past and the present and require the impossible of the future. But although this bifold fact lies thus united in real nature, and so united that no man
can continue to exist in whom both these elements do not work, yet men are not philosophers, and are rather very foolish children, who by reason of their partiality see everything in the most absurd manner, and are the victims at all times of the nearest object. There is even no philosopher who is a philosopher at all times. Our experience, our perception, is conditioned by the need to acquire with every truth a certain falsehood. As this is the invariable method of our training, we must give it allowance and suffer men to learn as they have done for six millenniums, a word at a time, to pair off into insane parties and learn the amount of truth each knows by the denial of an equal amount of truth. For the present then, to comment what some is attainable to us, we must ever hear the
parties plead as parties. A long view from historian Vernon Parrington. So shrewd or critic must concern himself greatly with the Jacksonian revolution that was harrying America toward the acceptance of political equalitarianism. By every compulsion of his transcendental philosophy, Emerson was driven to accept the abstract principle of democracy. He understood well what hopes for human betterment were awakened by the principle of majority rule, and as he followed the noise and tumult of the political campaigns, he was driven to definition. That which is best about conservatism, that which, though it cannot be expressed in detail, inspires reverence in all, is the inevitable. There is the question not only what's it... From the New York reporter.
What seems strange is to hear such a voice proceeding from such a body, a voice with shoulders in it, which he has not, with lungs in it, far larger than his, with a fist in it, which his own hand never gave him model for. We can imagine nothing in nature, like the want of correspondence between the Emerson that goes in at the eye and the Emerson that goes in at the ear. Emerson has been described as a slight build with stooped curved shoulders, large, strong features on a small face and head. There is little evidence that he ever played as other boys played, a schoolmate recollects. I cannot remember when I did not know and admire him. We learned our ABCs together. He sat together at our writing school when he, ten years of age, in I-11, wrote verses on our naval battles in the War of 1812. The only time I can remember when he played was when we were some six or seven years old
on the floor of my mother's chamber. He always lived from the earliest in the serene world of letters. One of the earliest books he read was a translation of Pascal's Ponce. And later, of his reading habits, he indicates that what he called idol books concealed under his bench at the Boston Latin School, were more valuable to him than the regular course of studies. When he went to Harvard at age fourteen, he was pictured as a slender, delicate youth, younger than most of his classmates, and of a sensitive, retiring nature. Again, according to his own account, he received from his professors little instruction that he considered valuable. He enjoyed Greek, made no headway in mathematics, and read mostly outside the prescribed course, concentrating on the old English poets and dramatists, and on Monten. A long line of clerical stock on both sides of the family included Calvinists, Universalists,
and Unitarians. His father, Reverend William Emerson, pastor of the first Unitarian church in Boston, died when the boy was eight. Ralph Waldo and his brothers were raised by his mother, and Aunt Mary, Moody Emerson, Pius conscientious household, where careful economy was practiced. Ralph Waldo once said that his strong-minded, intelligent Aunt Mary's influence on his education had been as great as that of Greece and Rome, though he later rejected her religious orthodoxy. When he resigned his own pastorate because of his disinclination to conduct the communion service, he said, I stepped into the free and open world to utter my private thought, to all who were willing to hear it. And for forty years, the lecture platform became his pulpit. The story is told of a critic who said, now, Mr. Emerson, I appreciated much of your lecture, but I should like to speak to you of certain things in it which did not commend my ascent
and approbation. Emerson turned to him, gave him one of his piercing looks, and replied, if anything I have spoken this evening met your mood, it is well. If it did not, I must tell you that I never argue on these high questions. In his journal, Emerson tells about receiving a letter from the Salem Lysium, requesting him to lecture there, with a note adding that the subject would, of course, be discretionary with himself, provided he made no illusions to religious controversy, or other exciting topics which divided the public mind. Emerson replied the same day, expressing his sorrow that any person in Salem should think him capable of accepting an invitation so encumbered. Emerson had often said that what Americans needed as both individuals and as a nation was a clean break. He himself made several such breaks.
He broke with the church. In his young wife died, he moved from Boston to Concorde, remarried, and settled down to a new life where he could write and think quietly. A Chicago Times writer reported that no man in Concorde was more popular or accessible than he. The kindest of husbands, the most considerate of fathers, a scholarly and urbane host. His lectures abroad and in America were followed and commented on by the foremost thinkers and writers of the day, said Oliver Wendell Holmes. To hear him talk was like watching one crossing a brook on stepping stones. His noun had to wait for its verb or its adjective until he was ready. Then his speech would come down upon the word he wanted, and not Worcester and Webster could better it from all the wealth of their huge vocabularies. He would lose his place, just as his mind would drop its thought and pick up another. Idiot cousin or no relation at all to it.
This went so far at times that one could hardly tell whether he was putting together a mosaic of colored fragments or only turning a kaleidoscope where the pieces tumbled about his best they might. It was as if he had been looking in at a cosmic peep show and turning from it at brief intervals to tell us what he saw. The present age will be marked by its harvest of projects for the reform of domestic, civil, literary and ecclesiastical institutions. The leaders of the crusades against war, Negro slavery, in temperance, government based on force, usages of trade, court and custom. These movements are on all accounts important. They not only check special abuses but educate the conscience and intellect of the people. The history of reform is always identical. It is the comparison of the idea with the fact. Whilst therefore I desire to express the respect and joy I feel before the sublime connection
of reforms, now in their infancy, around us, I urge the more earnestly the paramount duties of self-reliance. I cannot find language of sufficient energy to convey my sense of the sacredness of private integrity. I need hardly say to anyone acquainted with my thoughts that I have no system. When I was quite young, I fancied it by keeping a man-usage. Again, Oliver Wendell Holmes. What could we do with this unexpected, unprovided for, unclassified, half unwelcome newcomer, who had been for a while potted as it were in our Unitarian Cold Greenhouse? It had taken to growing so fast that he was lifting off its glass roof and letting in the hailstorm. Here was a protest that outflanked the extreme left of liberalism, yet so calm and serene that its radicalism had the accents of the gospel of peace.
Here was an iconoclast without a hammer, who took down our idols from their pedestal so tenderly that it seemed like an act of worship. The spirit of American radicalism is destructive and aimless. It is not loving, but is destructive only out of hatred and selfishness. On the other side, the conservative party composed of the most moderate, able, and cultivated part of the population is timid and merely defensive of property. From neither party, when in power, has the world any benefit to expect in science, art or humanity at all commensurate with the resources of the nation? The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the individual. John J. Chapman, a 19th century critic, wrote in The Atlantic Monthly. Emerson represents a protest against the tyranny of democracy.
His opinions are absolutely unqualified except by his temperament. He expresses a form of belief in the importance of the individual, which is independent of any personal relations he has with the world. It is as if a man had been withdrawn from the earth and dedicated to condensing and embodying this eternal idea. The value of the individual's soul, so vividly, so vitally, that his words could not die, yet in such elusive and abstract forms that by no chance and by no power could his creed be used for purposes of tyranny. Docmer cannot be extracted from it. By showing the identity in essence of all tyranny, and by bringing back the attention of political thinkers to its starting point, the value of human character, he is advanced
the political thought of the world by one step. He is pointed out for us in this country to what ends our efforts must be bent. A leading critic of our time points out that in the midst of the political, economic, and philosophical ferment of the mid-1800s, Emerson thought of his country as something still to be created, and of himself as one of the creators, conceiving his role as the founder of a new spiritual consciousness, says Alfred Cason. Since Emerson saw himself as the spiritual catalyst and mentor who could save his generation from the pessimism of a wholly materialistic outlook, he deliberately emphasized his conception of man as a creative agent rather than as a mere bystander or onlooker or victim of the universe. It was plainly part of his public strategy to support what he called the Party of Hope,
rather than the profound tendency to look on man as, at best, a doomed hero who never knew when he was beaten. His view of life is profoundly influenced by his sense of the natural process, the evolution of the species, of the fate that is transmitted not merely by our immediate ancestors, but by man in his cumulative history. And it is as an evolutionist that Emerson can be so profoundly interesting to our generation. He is concerned not only with the obvious force that works in us as heredity, but with invisible force that works in us as unconsciousness. A dissenting opinion from conservative spokesman Russell Kirk. Emerson is dangerous, he says. The whole meteoristic abstract individualistic tendency of this philosophy was destructive of conservative values.
Reliance upon private judgment and personal emotion, contempt for prescription and the experience of the species, a social morality alternately bewilderingly egocentric and all-embracing. These qualities of Emerson's thought gratified a popular American craving, which ever since has fed upon Emersonian self-reliance and his other individualistic manifestos. Were it not for this affinity with the American intellectual appetite, Emerson might not be remembered, but Emerson's speculations were so congenial to the American temper that their influence upon American thought has been incalculably great. Emerson appeals to a variety of egalitarian and innovating impulses common among Americans. The passion for simplicity, the dislike of hierarchy, the impatience with discipline and restriction, the fountains for summary remedies. Emerson was a radical thinker, perhaps the most influential of all American radicals.
Radical, liberal, conservative, words, ideas and philosophies debated by politicians, examined by intellectuals, and tossed around with a variety of epithetical connotations by average Americans in the 1960s. Barry Goldwater defines conservatism as a political philosophy or belief, which seeks progress in line with proven values of the past. Richard Humphrey defines liberalism as a political philosophy or attitude based on a willingness to change ideas, proposals and policies to meet present-day problems. According to Professor Clinton Rosseter of Cornell, both the conservative and the liberal are coming more and more to realize that they are brothers in the struggle against those who would hurry ahead to Utopia or back to Eaton. This leads the more than 100 years behind Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of liberalism and
conservatism that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. That in a true society, in a true man, both must combine. According to another historian, Saul Patover, Emerson had, in the midst of crass materialism, proclaimed the all-pervasive value of human intelligence. By his emphasis on the universal spirit of morality, he had enriched the democratic mind with his vision of human nobility. He may well be considered the moral philosopher of democracy, its profit and herald. Let us examine the pretensions of the attacking and defending parties. Here is this great fact of conservatism entrenched in its immense redoutes and says,
I will hold fast, and to whom I will will I give, and whom I will will I exclude and starve, so says conservatism, and all the children of men attack the colossus in their youth, and all but a few bow before it when they are old. Let this side be fairly stated. Mean time on the other part arises reform and offers the sentiment of love as an overwatch to this material might. I wish to consider well this affirmative side, which has a lofty or port and reason than here to fore, which encroaches on the other every day, puts it out of countenance, out of reason, out of temper, and leaves it nothing but silence and possession. A young man who attended the lectures wrote later. It must be admitted that Emerson's sentences, separated from their fellows, readily lend
themselves to every sort of propaganda. It's the fate of all inspired utterance, founded on what is deepest and most universal in experience. But their critique and corrective are in other sentences, for he never allows a too literal application of his oracular utterances. Although he has wings with which to soar, he loves also to plant his feet firmly upon the earth. I dare say it would have alarmed him. Had any body of men attempted to organize into civil or religious compact, he is more advanced ideas. He wished rather to see the whole of mankind move forward and upward to higher ideals through the integrity of the individual, and not drawn apart into cotteries of one idea. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and devines.
With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words. And tomorrow, speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today. Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood, pathagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh to be great, is to be misunderstood. Was Emerson himself seeking consolation in the future? It's safe to guess that he would enjoy today's continuing debate about what he said and wrote. Since he wanted no followers, he might be delighted to know that his thoughts and ideas have been interpreted with such varying connotations.
The charm of life is this variety of genius. These contrasts and flavors by which heaven has modulated the identity of truth. And there is a perpetual hankering to violate this individuality, a low self-love in the parent, desires that his child should repeat his character in fortune, an expectation which the child, if justice has done him, will nobly disappoint. By working on the theory that this resemblance exists, we shall do what in us lies to defeat his proper promise and produce the ordinary and mediocre. I suffer whenever I see that common sight of a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which they are totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you.
One is enough. From an Emerson contemporary. He went on year after year in affirming certain spiritual facts which had been revealed to him when his soul was on the heights of spiritual contemplation. And if he differed from other minds, he thought it ridiculous to attempt to convert them to his individual insight and experience by arguments against their individual insights and their individual experiences. He poured lavishly out from his intellectual treasury, the silver and gold, the pearls, rubies, amethyst, opals and diamonds of thought. If his audiences chose to pick them up, they were welcome to them. But if they conceived that he was deceiving them with sham jewelry, he would not condescend to explain the laborious processes by which he had brought the hidden treasures to light. And from Emerson himself, people came, it seems, to my lectures, with the expectation that I was to realize the republic I described.
And ceased to come when they found this reality, no nearer. They mistook me. I am and always was a painter. I paint still with might and mane and choose the best subjects I can. Only have I seen come and go with false hopes and fears, dubiously affected by my pictures. But I paint on. Meet Mr. Emerson, a series of radio programs presenting in survey fashion excerpt from his journals, lectures and essays, produced by station WHO, the University of Wisconsin. A grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made possible the production of this program for National Educational Radio. This is the National Educational Radio Network.
Meet Mr. Emerson
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The Call of Worth
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Meet Mr. Emerson is a series of programs which introduces the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson through excerpts from his journals, lectures, and essays. In addition to dramatic readings, the program provides commentary on Emersons life, reputation, and legacy. The program is produced by station WHA, the University of Wisconsin, and is distributed by the National Educational Radio Network.
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Chicago: “Meet Mr. Emerson; 2; The Call of Worth,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 20, 2024,
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APA: Meet Mr. Emerson; 2; The Call of Worth. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from