BOOK REVIEW: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays by Ralph Waldo EmersonEssays by Ralph Waldo Emerson by Emerson Ralph Waldo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many collections of Emerson’s essays in publication – some more complete or more recently compiled – but the one under review here was originally published by the Charles E. Merrill Co. in 1907. It contains eleven essays, including selections from both Emerson’s First and Second Series. There are around 700 end-notes that provide points of clarification. The front matter includes a brief biographical statement on Emerson, a discussion of critical opinion of his work, and a list of his writings.

Rather than discuss the essays as a whole, I’ll describe each in turn.

1.) The American Scholar: a major theme in this essay is avoiding pretentiousness and not neglecting to see the virtue in the simple and unrefined.

2.) Compensation: Emerson had an interesting philosophy on this subject, believing that everything that belongs to one or which one ought to have will come to one. There is a Taoist feel to this essay, e.g. “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else: and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

3.) Self-Reliance: This is my favorite essay, hands down. It’s full of pithy, powerful, and quotable statements. e.g. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Even where it’s not so concise and quotable, it delivers important ideas.

4.) Friendship: There is a quote that I think is quite illustrative of Emerson’s thoughts on the subject: “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

5.) Heroism: Consistent with the ideas in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson proposes that the route to heroism is in trusting oneself and having inner confidence, rather than in trying to satisfy the dictates of society.

6.) Manners: Emerson was a fan of a polite and genteel nature. This may seem at odds with his general inclination to avoid pretension or elitism, but if one treats all people with polite respect, then these ideals do not conflict.

7.) Gifts: Related to the earlier essay on compensation, this piece decries getting caught up in giving opulent gifts and thinking it a grand virtue, while it doesn’t criticize gift giving all together.

8.) Nature: This is the subject that one likely most associates with Emerson and his friend and protégé, Thoreau. As one expects, Emerson suggests one spend more time in nature. Something interesting I found in this piece was his rebuke of pseudo-science. Not that it should be unexpected, but one must consider that the line between science and the occult wasn’t as fully formed as it is today and Emerson was a mystic. But consider this: “Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology become phrenology and palmistry.”

9.) Shakespeare; or, The Poet: While honoring Shakespeare, Emerson points out that our recognition of brilliance isn’t recognition of originality. e.g. “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

10.) Prudence: Emerson insists that sagacity in managing oneself and one’s affairs is crucial.

11.) Circles: This essay covers a lot of ground in dealing with topics that are cyclical – though they may seem progressive. In parts it reminds me of the portion of self-reliance that says “society is a wave,” and which goes on to explain how it’s not a matter of society steadily advancing because it recedes on one side as quickly as it gains on the other. This can be seen in a quote such as: “New arts destroy the old.” I think a quote that drives to the heart of not falling into the illusion of believing fashions of the moment are an invariable truth can be seen here: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with not past at my back.”

I highly recommend this collection of essays. Some have maintained greater relevance than others, but all offer some interesting food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Bhagavad-Gita Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical poem, the title of which is translated as “Song of the Lord.” It’s often read as a stand-alone work, but it’s included in the sixth book of longest known epic poem, entitled the Mahabharata.

In The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about sacred duty (dharma.) The setting is the battlefield at Kurukshetra as a war is about to get underway. Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to halt the vehicle between the opposing armies. Arjuna is struck with a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t want to fight and kill the men on the opposing side–some of whom are related to him by blood and others of whom are well-respected elders. Arjuna can see no virtue in the war.

Krishna, after briefly mocking what he describes as Arjuna’s newly developed cowardice, goes on to offer his explanation of why it is that Arjuna should fight. The first argument is that nobody really dies because consciousness is reborn. This makes sense if you believe in reincarnation… otherwise, not so much. A concise restatement of this argument is presented in the 11th teaching: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, set in motion to annihilate worlds; even without you, all these warriors arrayed in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory! Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship! They are already killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side!”

Another of Krishna’s argument is that if Arjuna fails to fulfill his duty he will be thought less of by others. This is an odd argument to make as Krishna makes a more compelling case for ridding oneself of ego, whereas this seems to be saying that one should put what others think of one above doing what one believes is right. That sounds a lot like succumbing to ego rather than eliminating. In the 12th teaching, in fact, Krishna tells us that the best of men are “Neutral to blame or praise…” This suggests that perhaps one shouldn’t be moved by what others will think of one.

At the core of Krishna’s argument is that one cannot escape the Karmic cycle by engaging any acts but those that are selfless. Like the reincarnation argument. One may find this logic compelling or not depending upon whether one believes in Karmic theory. Karma is the idea of cause and effect. If you do good, you’ll receive good effects and if you do bad you’ll experience bad effects. Ultimately, however, the goal is to break free of the Karmic cycle and, in theory, the only way to do that is to engage in acts that are selfless—hence doing your sacred duty. If your driver isn’t God, it’s not entirely clear how you know what your sacred duty is, at least not by way of this work. (Presumably, God talks to kings and princes, and kings and princes tell the unwashed masses what they are supposed to do. If you happened to have already done away with such a system—as most of the planet has—you may have trouble with this logic.) However, if one takes the lesson to be that one should not be consumed with personal gain when one acts, one has an argument of more general appeal.

Another argument is that devotion to God is all important, not a man’s actions in any absolutist sense. From the 9th teaching, “If he is devoted to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”

It should be noted that Krishna delivers a number of lessons beyond the need to comply with one’s dharma, and, in my opinion, many of these ancillary lessons are more compelling than Krishna’s explanation of why Arjuna must fight.

One such lesson is to concern oneself with the journey and not the destination. Krishna states it as such, “Be intent on action; not the fruits of action…” Furthermore, there are a great many teachings that will be familiar to Buddhists, such as the need for non-attachment and moderation.

The poem contains lessons of Samkhya (e.g. discussion of the three gunas) and Yoga. It describes concepts from the three original forms of yoga (predating yoga as a fitness activity by centuries): those being of action yoga (karma yoga), knowledge yoga (jnana yoga), and devotional yoga (bhakti yoga.) While The Bhagavad-Gita predates the formulation of eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali, it does address certain among them in varying detail. Early on, it speaks about pratyahara—withdrawal from the senses—in considerable detail. There are also references to pranayama (breath/energy control exercises) and most of the yama and niyama are listed among the virtues in the latter part of the teachings. Of course, samadhi (liberation / yoga’s 8th limb) is a central concept in this work.

While The Bhagavad-Gita remains widely cited and relied upon for guidance to this day, it’s not without its controversial elements. In the fourth teaching, Krishna explains how he created the caste system. Of course, Krishna might not have intended it to be the stain it became.

The Miller translation that I read has a few nice ancillary features. There is an introduction that offers background and context for those who have little knowledge of Indian history or mythology. There’s also a glossary that goes into detail about terms that are frequently used in the work. It’s not that there are Sanskrit words mixed into to the text. The glossary explains what the English words should be taken to mean in the context of the Hindu worldview.

What is most intriguing, however, is the afterword which is entitled, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond?” Of all the thinkers that have cited The Bhagavad-Gita, the use of Thoreau and Emerson as examples raises intriguing questions. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience and the Emerson of Self-Reliance would seem to be as far from the message of The Bhagavad-Gita as possible. Krishna is telling Arjuna to ignore his conscience, and just do what God tells him to do—be a selfless instrument of destruction. Thoreau and Emerson both preached that one’s conscience should always be one’s ultimate guide. Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes that would support the war with Mexico. I suspect Krishna would say to Thoreau, “Hey, I’m throwing this war, and you’d damn well better do your part.” However, there are ideas in The Bhagavad-Gita that work with the American Transcendentalist philosophers. The idea of removing self-interest and egotism as a way to eliminate delusion before one makes one’s own decision is a consistent suggestion.

I have mixed feelings about The Bhagavad-Gita. Like many (most?) sources of religious doctrine, I think the central message of The Bhagavad-Gita is just another means by which to keep the masses under the control of an elite—and, specifically, fighting the wars of the royalty. However, I–like Thoreau and Emerson—also see a great deal of insight into how to be a better person in this poem.

I think The Bhagavad-Gita is worth a read, regardless of how you may ultimately feel about its message. It offers a concise summary of key ideas in Indian philosophy and psychology. It will give one a better understanding of the Indian worldview, and may teach you something about how to live in the process.

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TODAY’S RANT: Emerson Haters

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedI began reading the Best American Essays of 2012 and was disappointed by the first  essay entitled, The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance by Benjamin Anastas.

Self-Reliance: In or out of the canon?:

Anastas rails against the essay Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The only nice thing he has to say about Emerson (as a parenthetical insert) was that the philosopher spoke out against slavery and the poor treatment of American Indians.  Anastas suggests Emerson’s essay should be eliminated from the  canon of required reading. This desire to censor ideas that he (or his collective) find objectionable is a telling indicator of why he finds Emerson so vile. In my ideal world, students would read Emerson and Marx and Jefferson and Socrates and Confucius and eventually even the likes of Hitler and they’d make up their own minds about what ideas were sound and which were suspect. I’m  confident that on the whole that a free-thinking people will overwhelming reject the poorest and most vile of ideas. Obviously, not all will draw the same conclusions as I about which ideas are best, but I prefer the company of such people to those who completely agree with me but have turned their thinking caps off. Anastas seems to favor control of the flow of ideas to those society or teachers or some collective finds agreeable.

An undeniably powerful idea:

About all that Anastas and I agree on is that the thesis of Emerson’s Self-Reliance is powerful. By a powerful idea, I mean one that has the ability to grab a reader by the collar and demand his or her attention –whether they like it or not. Where Anastas sees Emerson’s ideas as perniciously powerful, I see them as sagely powerful. While we seem to be in near complete disagreement, I don’t want to go into a point by point refutation. I want to focus on what I believe is Anastas’s central point, that our current political dysfunction is the fault of Emersonian thinking. On this I think Anastas is shows perfection in his wrongheadedness.

The reason I don’t bother arguing point by point is because  much of my difference of opinion with Anastas comes down to being on radically different places on the Borg-Anarchist continuum. Reasonable people may disagree. I have a set of beliefs that inform my position on the Borg-Anarchist continuum that range from my opinion on free will to ideas about the value of optimizing (minimizing) what I would call “social friction” (others have used that term in another way.) That’s neither here nor there, Anastas may have his own justification for his views, though he doesn’t lay them out. For example, he uses the phrase, “excessive love of individual liberty” without indicating what he believes would be the appropriate amount to love liberty, let alone how he drew his conclusion. It may be that he doesn’t have a rationale, but rather has suborned his views to some collective that he believes is representative of society (that would be the true anti-Emersonian approach.)

The Borg-Anarchist continuum:

I should explain what I call the “Borg-Anarchist continuum” for those who are neither Star Trek fans nor wonky. Humans are inescapably both individualistic and social creatures. We know that people get morbidly depressed when they feel they aren’t valued as individuals (Tom Hanks at the beginning of Joe Versus the Volcano), but it’s also true that people go nuts when they are completely isolated from others (Tom Hanks in Castaway.) [Please, don’t draw conclusions about which is “better” on the relative merit of those two movies.] This leads to one of our most fundamental dilemmas. Where our individuality bumps up a social unit, how does one reconcile theses conflicts?

We can imagine a continuum where at one end are the Borg and at the other end are Anarchists. Borg were a powerful enemy in the Star Trek universe. The Borg were a collective in which any given individual was inconsequential and all gave themselves fully to the objective of the collective (i.e. universal domination.) Anarchists are those who feel there should be no authority over the individual. Virtually no one fits into the extreme camps because they’re both blatantly flawed. No one would have any incentive to do anything in Borg world, and an anarchy will inevitably devolve into chaos. No one would invite the Borg or Anarchists to their cocktail party. In practice, one might think of a Communist-Libertarian continuum. Communists believe the state owns the means of production and should be able to regulate ideas as intimately personal as religion, but they don’t attempt to completely stamp out all vestiges of individuality (e.g. people still have names instead of the Borg’s “4 of 7.”) Libertarians believe that authority over the individual should be minimal, but that there’s a role for governance in punishing the illegitimate use of force or the use of fraud.

Yes, I realize that in being one-dimensional, a Republican and a Democrat could occupy the exact same space on the continuum (i.e. wanting the same amount of governance, just not in the exact same domain.)

Is political dysfunction a product of Emersonian thought?:

So, let’s go back to the issue of blaming political dysfunction on Emersonian ideals. It’s my belief that we have political dysfunction because politicians aren’t following Emerson’s advice, rather than that too many are doing so. Let’s consider Anastas’s argument.

“’A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,’ Emerson advises, ‘as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.’ If this isn’t the official motto of the 112th Congress of the United States, well, it should be.”

Anastas is saying that the idea that one shouldn’t bend to the ideas of other men, as suggested by Emerson, is the cause of the problem. However, this requires us to believe that politicians engaged in free thinking consistently come down in the perfectly bifurcated set of positions required for grid-lock to take hold on a wide range of issues.  This is dubious. I find it much more probable that politicians do not think freely, but rather they subordinate their opinion to their party and to what the people of their district think. That, my friends, is the source of the problem. Politicians are doing exactly what Anastas wants, which is subordinating their opinion to the majority in their districts. The two-part problem is that: a.) districts are drawn to have clear winners. b.) our society has abandoned the Emersonian idea and taken party and sect as a substitute for thinking. We’ve created a two-party grid-lock machine, and we’re surprised that it works.

Yes, Emerson tells us to be obstinate in holding to ones own beliefs in the face of other people. If every politician did this, our political field would be much richer with many sets of opinions and not just the two captured by the party platforms of the two ruling parties. (At least it wouldn’t hold sway always on anything important.)  What Emerson does not ask of us is to be obstinate in the face of new or better information. Anastas’s own selection of quotes says as much.

“Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

In other words, Emerson is suggesting that one should be able to change one’s mind (one just shouldn’t do this in deference to the views of other people.) One should changes one’s mind when one has new or better information or one’s thinking about the subject is clearer. Changing one’s mind has a bad rap in our political system. There’s a kind of changing of one’s mind that should leave us with a bad taste in our mouths, and that’s pandering. However, not all mind-changing is pandering. If we ask a politician why he changed his mind and he says, “Because I learned X, and that new information made me conclude Y,” then that person should be applauded. The ideas of people of party and sect don’t change regardless of new information. This stagnancy is part of the problem as well. An individual can change his or her mind rapidly but an ideological organization is never swift. When people subordinate their thinking to their sect, this is when we end up unable to get out-of-the-way of slow-moving freight train problems like many that we face today.

The animus that characterizes our political domain is not a function of Emersonian thinking. While Emerson may not address it because it isn’t part of what he’s trying to get across in this essay, it stands to reason that if everyone thinks for themselves people will draw different conclusions. The Maytag repairman is not the loneliest person; the loneliest person in the world is a free-thinker who can’t get along with people who don’t share his exact slate of thinking across a range of  subjects. Thinking for oneself is not only consistent with tolerance, it breeds it. It’s only when one conforms one’s thinking to that of a collective that one can afford to act like people who think differently from one are pure evil.

Other thoughts on the subject:

For another post of mine about Emerson’s Self-Reliance see here.

Also, Emerson was not the only one in the 19th century who was dismayed by the trend toward subordinating political views to party, Mark Twain had a lighter essay on the subject called Corn Pone Opinions.