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A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Alan M. Levine
Daniel S. Malachuk
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 500
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    A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Book Description:

    From before the Civil War until his death in 1882, Ralph Waldo Emerson was renowned -- and renounced -- as one of the United States' most prominent abolitionists and as a leading visionary of the nation's liberal democratic future. Following his death, however, both Emerson's political activism and his political thought faded from public memory, replaced by the myth of the genteel man of letters and the detached sage of individualism. In the 1990s, scholars rediscovered Emerson's antislavery writings and began reviving his legacy as a political activist. A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson is the first collection to evaluate Emerson's political thought in light of his recently rediscovered political activism. What were Emerson's politics? A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson authoritatively answers this question with seminal essays by some of the most prominent thinkers ever to write about Emerson -- Stanley Cavell, George Kateb, Judith N. Shklar, and Wilson Carey McWilliams -- as well as many of today's leading Emerson scholars. With an introduction that effectively destroys the "pernicious myth about Emerson's apolitical individualism" by editors Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk, A Political Companion to Emerson reassesses Emerson's famous theory of self-reliance in light of his antislavery politics, demonstrates the importance of transcendentalism to his politics, and explores the enduring significance of his thought for liberal democracy. Including a substantial bibliography of work on Emerson's politics over the last century, A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson is an indispensable resource for students of Emerson, American literature, and American political thought, as well as for those who wrestle with the fundamental challenges of democracy and liberalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3432-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Patrick J. Deneen

    THOSE WHO UNDERTAKE A study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. Such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times, public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary tradition...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction: The New History of Emerson’s Politics and His Philosophy of Self-Reliance
    (pp. 1-40)
    Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk

    IF MELVILLE, THOREAU, AND other major American authors have suffered significant periods of neglect, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) has never wanted for commentators. And yet fromThe Centenary of the Birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson(1903) forward, none of the many collections of essays dedicated to Emerson has focused exclusively on his political thought untilA Political Companion to Emerson.¹ It is an auspicious moment for this volume. Not since the Civil War, when Emerson was adored in the North and reviled in the South, has there been such interest in Emerson’s politics. This new interest has been building...


    • CHAPTER 1 Emerson: The All and the One
      (pp. 43-52)
      Wilson Carey McWilliams

      AMERICANS OF THE nineteenth century acclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson with an impressive unanimity. They lavished on him all the accolades that the schoolmen had reserved for Aristotle; he was nonpareil, the sage, the philosopher, the metaphysician. Even Julian Hawthorne, carrying on a family tradition of distaste for the seer of Concord, felt obliged to call Emerson’s work “enlightening”—though, he hastened to insist, Emerson was at best only a collector of truths.¹

      Prophets, however, are not honored in their own houses, and the genius who is praised in his own time is frequently no genius at all. He is likely...

    • CHAPTER 2 Emerson and the Inhibitions of Democracy
      (pp. 53-68)
      Judith N. Shklar

      EMERSON MAY NOT HAVE been what is conventionally called a political philosopher, but political considerations played a more subtle part in his thinking than mere expressions of opinion on public affairs would suggest. For Emerson, the beliefs and practices of American representative democracy constituted an integral moral barrier which he could neither ignore nor cross. It brought him up short, like a stop sign at a junction. This inhibition was not, however, something externally imposed on him against his will or better judgment. He was not giving in to something he could not overcome. Not only did democratic political experiences...

    • CHAPTER 3 Self-Reliance, Politics, and Society
      (pp. 69-90)
      George Kateb

      AT THIS POINT, a reasonable question may arise. What provision does Emerson make for a self-reliant individual to work with others, to cooperate and collaborate? No doubt the very idea of association disturbs self-reliant people when association moves out of a small circle of friends and includes numbers of people, many of them strangers or only acquaintances. When association is extended even more to one’s numerous fellow citizens, the condition of self-reliance becomes all the more uncertain. Unfolding one’s powers, becoming and staying what one is, living a life that one defines for oneself—all these conceptualizations fit uneasily with...

    • CHAPTER 4 Aversive Thinking: Emersonian Representations in Heidegger and Nietzsche
      (pp. 91-122)
      Stanley Cavell

      IN TAKING THE PERSPECTIVE of the Carus Lectures as an opportunity to recommend Emerson, despite all, to the closer attention of the American philosophical community, I hope I may be trusted to recognize how generally impertinent his teachings, in style and in material, can sound to philosophical ears—including still, from time to time, despite all, my own. But what else should one expect? My recommendation is bound to be based—unless it is to multiply impertinence—on something as yet unfamiliar in Emerson, as if I am claiming him to remain a stranger. In that case to soften his...


    • CHAPTER 5 Self-Reliance and Complicity: Emerson’s Ethics of Citizenship
      (pp. 125-151)
      Jack Turner

      EMERSON IS NOT KNOWN as a voice of social or civic responsibility. Wilson Carey McWilliams lambastes him as antipolitical: “Emerson saw in man . . . a deified self, independent of other individuals and the democratic public alike. . . . [I]ndividualistic romanticism, not democracy, was the logical result of his teaching.”¹

      Defenders of Emerson emphasize the intrinsically political nature of his vocation. In the words of Stanley Cavell, “The endlessly repeated idea that Emerson was only interested in finding the individual should give way to or make way for the idea that this quest was his way of founding...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition
      (pp. 152-184)
      James H. Read

      “SELF-RELIANCE” IS CENTRAL to the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his most famous and attractive idea. Emerson challenges the individual to “set at naught books and traditions,” to “be a nonconformist,” to recognize that ideas, books, religions, institutions, and occupations acquire life and value only when an individual enlivens them with his or her own experience and effort. “Though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new...

    • CHAPTER 7 Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy
      (pp. 185-220)
      Len Gougeon

      THERE WAS A TIME when most scholars assumed that Emerson’s transcendental philosophy, with its emphasis on self-reliance, was antithetical to political activism. Even though Henry Steele Commager asserted in hisEra of Reform: 1830–1860(1960) that “Emerson [was] the cow from which [reformers] all drew their milk,” it was generally assumed that Transcendentalists as a group were nonpolitical and socially aloof.¹ Thus, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his influential studyThe Age of Jackson(1945), held that the Transcendentalists “from their book-lined studies, or their shady walks in cool Concord woods . . . found the hullabaloo of party...


    • CHAPTER 8 Skeptical Triangle? A Comparison of the Political Thought of Emerson, Nietzsche, and Montaigne
      (pp. 223-264)
      Alan M. Levine

      THIS ESSAY SHARPENS OUR understanding of the exact nature and consequences of Emerson’s political thought by contrasting it to the thought of the skeptic Emerson most admired, Montaigne, and the skeptic with whom he is today most often compared, Nietzsche. In contradistinction to almost all scholars who have written on these connections in the past two decades, I show that Emerson is considerably less skeptical than both Montaigne and Nietzsche. It is important to correct these mistaken views because it is precisely the limits of Emerson’s skepticism that account for his unique moral and political vision.

      There is a well-established...

    • CHAPTER 9 Emerson’s Politics, Retranscendentalized
      (pp. 265-304)
      Daniel S. Malachuk

      IN HIS FIRST BOOK, the 1836Nature, Emerson famously proclaimed, “I am part or particle of God” (E&L, 10). For the next forty years, Emerson continued to express this conviction, not only about himself but about all human beings: “the doctrine,” as he put it in the 1841 “Lecture on the Times,” “of the indwelling of the Creator in man” (E&L, 167). All of Emerson’s significant political positions stemmed from his fundamental belief that our equality as human beings is based upon our shared transcendental essence, a belief here called “transcendental equality.”

      Very few modern academic readers, however, have pursued...

    • CHAPTER 10 Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze and the “Disagreeable Particulars” of Slavery: Vision and the Costs of Idealism
      (pp. 305-340)
      Shannon L. Mariotti

      EMERSON DESCRIBES IDEALISM as “a manner of looking at things.”¹ In a fundamental way, he reminds us of the deep connection between thinking and seeing: the term “theory” derives from the Greektheoria, which means to look at, view, or see something but also to contemplate and think about it. For Emerson, transcendental idealism was primarily a mode of perception, and he signals the direction of his concentration of mental and moral efforts with overt visual metaphors. How Emerson looks at things, how he focuses his eye, or often his mind’s eye, reflects what he values. But the nature of...


    • CHAPTER 11 Property in Being: Liberalism and the Language of Ownership in Emerson’s Writing
      (pp. 343-382)
      Neal Dolan

      AN INTERESTING FAMILY OF words appears at important moments throughout Emerson’s writing. Near the beginning of his first major work,Nature(1836), Emerson draws on the language of ownership to urge his readers to look afresh at the world around them: “There is apropertyin the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts” (E&L, 9, emphasis added). Later in the same tract he uses similar rhetoric to appeal to moral reason: “We are taught by great actions that the universe is thepropertyof every individual in it. . . . Every...

    • CHAPTER 12 Standing for Others: Reform and Representation in Emerson’s Political Thought
      (pp. 383-414)
      Jason Frank

      WAS RALPH WALDO EMERSON a democratic theorist? And, if so, which aspects of his political thought provide the best resources for thinking through the dilemmas of contemporary democratic theory? In recent years, a scholarly revaluation of Emerson’s politics has engaged deeply with these questions, enriching the study of American political thought and offering a more affirmative picture of Emerson as a political thinker. An earlier generation of political theorists often overlooked Emerson’s political thought to focus instead on his role as a prophet of the Imperial Self, as a “radical egoistic anarchist” whose theory of self-reliance contributed mightily to America’s...

    • CHAPTER 13 Emerson’s Democratic Platonism in Representative Men
      (pp. 415-450)
      G. Borden Flanagan

      THIS VOLUME HAS SOUGHT to correct two trends in Emerson scholarship—the underappreciation of Emerson’s political thought, and the tendency to read doctrines and positions into Emerson that belong more to ourselves (or to our enemies) than to him. Scholars tend to assimilate Emerson to what is familiar and useful. His works ask for this mistreatment by virtue of their complexity, subtlety, and charm, all of which can be either off-putting to those who want action and political utility in their authors, or beguiling to those seeking authoritative allies. In the face of Emerson’s poetic obscurity, it can be difficult...

  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 451-462)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 463-466)
  13. Index
    (pp. 467-488)