Friday, February 16, 2007

Reflections on Emerson

“Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking—and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority.”
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, p. 13

This quote by Fromm highlights what, for me, is one of the most significant themes in Emerson’s thought—that of conformity. I think it’s impossible to read Emerson without considering his critique of education in relation to our present circumstances. We are trained to value certain lines of thinking, methods of critique and analysis rather than being nurtured to articulate our particular contribution to human thought and action. In Emerson’s words, we are “made a satellite instead of a system.” Emerson believes that the law of all nature, and the divine idea, is manifest in the human being and that we thus have a responsibility to recognize and live out our full potential, which he puts in terms of the active soul. In unconsidered compliance with social norms, the soul loses authentic identity, its unique contribution. In imitation, it can be annihilated completely. If the soul falls short of its rightful state—Emerson’s Man Thinking—it can become a victim of society; “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” While I appreciate our examination of Emerson’s ideas from the angle of their historical relevance, I think it wouldn’t hurt to “subjectify” them a little bit—to entertain them as if directed toward our individual lives and experiences. What can we learn by taking Emerson’s challenge of non-conformity to heart?

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