Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Philosopher of Modern Ages

Michael Fong
Journal #9 Ralph Waldo Emerson
October 20, 2009

"Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower, there is no more; in the leafless root, there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time." (Emerson 1172)

"His aunt called it [Self-Reliance] a 'strange medley of atheism and false independence'." (Wikipedia)

Emerson speaks his mind in his essay "Self-Reliance"; here, he urges man to speak more freely of their own minds, and not merely quote past words of the wise. The present, he argues, should be the time that man should live in, instead of being restricted and inhibited by the past.

Emerson may very well be the perfect melting pot of classic as well as modern age philosophy. His incorporation of classic philosophy could be seen in his discussion of divine Providence earlier on. Shades of Boethius' "A Consolation of Philosophy" could easily be observed in his discussion; both in the aspect of the divine order of things as well as the place of man in the plans of Providence. His arguments also carry with them a flavor of Plato himself, as he discusses the nature of man in terms of his virtue, his actions, and his soul.

At the same time, Emerson celebrates the nature of inconsistency as well as innovation. I think this is a bold and daring thought upon his part. When have philosophers of the past ever contradicted their own words and alter through different modes of thinking as time goes? Emerson's argument that inconsistency should not be condemned, but rather, commended, is a breath of fresh air.

Is this a really a medley of atheism and self-independence though, as Emerson's aunt describes it? I would say that the Christian undertones are radically different in terms of nature, but in essence the same ideal of Christianity still prevails. Emerson rejects the notion of learning "dead" religion, rather he describes religion as an organic matter that is ever-evolving, and cannot be taught. He also acknowledges a certain form of higher power, and God serves constantly as a figure of power and stability in this essay. His stance of refuting conformity, could be seen in a way as self-independence, but from another perspective it could also be seen as him encouraging people to be unique and different, in order to elevate man to a whole new level of unity. I myself find the mental requirement to read Emerson comparable to that of reading the works of classic philosophers and thinkers, and certainly within the complex labyrinth of arguments that Emerson laid down there is still much more to dwell upon. He is without doubt, one of the best philosophers of modern ages.

Thoughts after class today:

First of all, I must clarify my personal stance in which I had not the chance to do so in class today because of the limited time frame. I am not, in any sense, endorsing the notion that Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is entirely Boethian in nature. As Eduardo noted in class, I would say that it contains certain Boethian ideals, but it is not a complete imitation of the philosophy of Boethius. But then again, it also contained ideas reminiscent Plato, Confucius, and many others; at the same time, I agree that it too contains exclusively American ideals (this point itself cannot be refuted). I suppose the direction in which I conveyed to class today was that the Emerson borrowed his idea, or at least referred to it directly, from Boethius in his essay, which is not what I intended to express at all (probably that may account for the immediate excited conversation between Natalie and Eduardo at the other end of the classroom).

To say that Emerson's ideas and philosophies are directly linked to Boethius, or even the classics, is ignorant. What I intend to say, instead, is that Emerson may have reflected (most probably not to his intention) certain ideas and principles from a great many past authors, and at the same time incorporated such ideas into the writing of his own. The French writers, for instance,were an influence to him; would it be a stretch to claim that with the influence of the classics upon the Renaissance writers that Emerson subconsciously caught some of it as well? I suppose my point is that it is to some extent true to say what one writes reflect what one reads. To force a purely Boethian reading on Emerson is, as I have said, ridiculous; but to come up with cross interrelations between Emerson and the whole legion of writers, thinkers, and philosophers of the past provides, on the other hand, extremely valuable insights as well as inspirations.

1 comment:

  1. 20 points. Haha stop worrying. I loved the Boethian parallel -- in no small part because it happens to be True. Emerson would have agreed to it instantly. The teasing was meant as a compliment. Sorry if it felt otherwise. You should also recognize that there's also always a bit of a rivalry between the British and American sides of any English department faculty. So I'm sort of teasing Steve Williams, in absentia, by means of his impressive proteges. Again, purely complimentary. It's sooooooo rare to hear community college students making sophisticated associations like this that it does indeed take me aback (but in an entirely wonderful way).