"Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string."
"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would
gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness,
but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but
the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you
shall have the suffrage of the world." Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"
Granddaddy of the Transcendentalists, Emerson is one of America's foremost
philosophers. While I admit he can occasionally be tiresome (all of his vaunted
self-reliance went out the window after the Civil War, when he started praising the formative value of institutions. But, hey,
consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds), I am greatly intrigued by his philosophy of moral perfectionism,
as articulated by Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell. In sum, Emerson's writings illuminate a path towards inner
development through self-tutelage.
When Emerson speaks of "self-reliance," Cavell doesn't take him to mean it the same way
as Thoreau might, as in a dogged frontiersman-style independence. (While we're on the subject, it's interesting
to note that not only did Thoreau return home from Walden on the weekends, but he also had someone else do his laundry. To be fair to Thoreau however, University of Washington historian Richard White has recently argued that much of Walden was intended satirically, to poke fun at nineteenth-century Americans' narrowly utilitarian conception of nature.)
Rather, Emerson believes we should rely on, or make ourselves a pupil of, our next self. Thus, by living our lives according to the
dictates of our inner self, we improve our minds as a snake molts its skin. [Nietzsche touches upon the same theme in his Untimely Meditations essay
"Schopenhauer as Educator."]
You may wonder why I'm going out on such a New Age limb for old Emerson here. Well, this whole scenario sounds
complicated (when it comes to moral philosophy, what isn't?), but Cavell holds this theory not only to be the solution to
the thorny issue of consent to a polity (mulled over by Locke, Kant, and Rawls), but the key for a more deliberative
and communitarian yet non-coercive democracy. For, as Emerson transcribed by Cavell puts it, we
establish our consent to democracy by invoking our dissent with democracy. Thus, by following and honing
the dictates of our inner self, we learn how to contribute constructively to the debate
on the common good from our own standpoint. (Hence, the dangers of conformity so often touted by Mr. Emerson.)
As you can see, I'm not a very eloquent paraphraser of philosophy. To quote Walt Whitman,
"Do I contradict myself? Well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." Perhaps you should ask my next self...