Skepticism at the Margins II: Emerson’s “Man the Reformer”
A common, mostly misguided criticism of Emerson is that he is optimistic to the point of mush, that he waves evil away with his hands, that he sinks into positivity of the sappiest sort. I don’t know how this criticism can survive careful reading of any substantial portion of Emerson’s work (dare I suggest these critics are not careful readers?), but there are times where it is justified. The end of “Man the Reformer” is one such place. After a meek conclusion to the topic of everyday reform (“and we must not cease to tend to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day” – pg. 145, Library of America edition of his Essays & Lectures), Emerson makes one of his weaker segues into his real interest: man as Reformer, as “a Re-maker of what man has made” (146), which proceeds through self-reliance (“Let him renounce everything which is not true to him”). And from here, Emerson moves to a discussion of how Americans lack the twin virtues of Faith and Hope, frustratingly never defined—frustrating especially since Emerson says they are words whose meanings have been lost sight of. And then, here it comes, Emerson predicts the dawn of an era of the “sentiment of love”, and he turns to goop. The final three pages of the essay (with the exception of two valuable suggestions on the final page) is precisely the sort of overly optimistic view that Emerson’s critics attribute to him. For instance: “But one day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine.”
Yet there is a darker undercurrent to the essay, and in the interest of restoring his name I want to recover it. Emerson sees, and mentions, but does not dwell upon, a dark force that he struggles with again and again in his journals, a force that undercuts his optimism and must be placed beside it. Emerson’s optimism is a bulwark against a form of skepticism that he sees as a very real, very live possibility, one that he has to fight against. (For this reason, I have titled this post after my earlier post on Tom Noonan’s The Wife.) Moreover, I want to suggest that Emerson himself licenses reading his lecture in this manner.
Emerson, at various points in his journals, notes that there is an objection to every manner of living. Without realizing it, as we consider one way of living, then another, then the next, we find ourselves rejecting each one on perfectly good grounds, until there are none left. This threat always remains lurking in the shadows: the threat that we will argue ourselves into catatonia, into complete inaction, and that our arguments will be flawless. Each locally justified step will carry us into a final state that is ultimately worse than anything. This is a form of skepticism: the skepticism that any manner of living is adequate to human dignity and the duty of genius.
It is this skepticism that eats away at Emerson in “Man the Reformer”. Emerson begins the essay by discussing the institution of trade, and the manner in which it creates vices in people. Emerson does not blame individuals for these vices (“The sins of our trade belong to no class, to no individual” – 138): it is the system itself that creates these vices. The vice of the individual is to see himself as merely “an obscure private person who must get his bread”—in short, not to feel himself “called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man.” Emerson does not stop with trade, however: “But by coming out of trade you have not cleared yourself. The trail of the serpent reaches into all the lucrative professions and practices of man.” Every profession has its evils, cultivates vices, requires “a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love, a compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity.”
And here Emerson draws out the full corrosive power of this skepticism:
Suppose a man is so unhappy as to be born a saint, with keen perceptions, but with the conscience and love of an angel, and he is to get his living in the world; he finds himself excluded from all lucrative works; he has no farm, and he cannot get one; for, to earn money enough to buy one, requires a sort of concentration toward money, which is the selling himself for a number of years, and to him the present hour is as sacred and inviolable as any future hour. Of course, whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated. Inextricable seem to be the twinings and tendrils of this evil, and we all involve ourselves in it the deeper by forming connections, by wives and children, by benefits and debts. (138-139)
Two things happen here. First, Emerson imagines the saint, the perfect individual: he cannot act at all, cannot make a living, for any means of doing so is too impure, requires an inadmissible sacrifice of the “sacred and inviolable” present hour. So Emerson offers a skepticism for saints: the world is such that a saint could not live in it. But we are not saints: Emerson denies that title both to himself and to his audience. This does not mitigate the skepticism, however, for the world’s ostracization of the saint vitiates any title to our property that we have. It calls all of our actions into question as well. We have no choice but to make a living, yet no matter how we do so, there the saint stands, reproaching us.
Emerson draws this conclusion in full later in the essay: insofar as we aspire to the saintlike, we force ourselves to inaction:
If we suddenly plant our foot, and say,—I will neither eat nor drink nor wear nor touch any food or fabric which I do not know to be innocent, or deal with any person whose whole manner of life is not clear and rational, we shall stand still. Whose is so? Not mine; not thine; not his. (145)
Emerson dispels this immediately: if we cannot achieve this purity, then we must
clear ourselves each one by the interrogation, whether we have earned our bread to-day by the hearty contribution of our energies to the common benefit? and we must not cease to tend to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day. (145)
But is this compelling? It is eminently practical, but precisely in virtue of that, it is a failure to really address the skeptic. It is a turning away: well, we cannot act on skepticism (indeed, it leads to catatonia), so let us be practical. This response grants everything to the skeptic, and is just the shutting of the eyes that Emerson earlier protested against. Emerson does not say how this is possible without sacrificing the inviolable present hour, and so he does not say how it is possible at all.
Emerson thus does not sufficiently answer the skeptic, and he acknowledges this, for he immediately goes on to suggest that this practical solution cannot hide a deeper idea that agitates us, that we must “revise the whole of our social structure” (146) around man the Reformer, the “Re-maker of what man has made.” It is this that leads into Emerson’s almost desperately optimistic encomium over the sentiment of love. It is a vision of a radical revision of the principle at the foundation of society, and Emerson speaks as if this reform is guaranteed. But this idealism is unrealistic, and it is hard to imagine that Emerson did not know it, did not realize that world would always be inhospitable to the saint.
Why this flight to idealism? Emerson tells us himself, at the very beginning of the lecture:
What if some of the objections whereby our institutions are assailed are extreme and speculative, and the reformers tend to idealism; that only shows the extravagance of the abuses which have driven the mind into the opposite extreme. It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas, and aims to recruit and replenish nature from that source. Let ideas establish their legitimate sway again in society, let life be fair and poetic, and the scholars will gladly be lovers, citizens, and philanthropists. (136)
If we read the ending of the essay in this light, it no longer seems optimistic—it seems desperate. What drives us to idealism is precisely our feeling the force of skepticism, of feeling not at home in the world. Interpreting Emerson by his own principles, we ought to see it not as sappily optimistic, but as deeply pessimistic. Emerson’s idealism at the end is not a prediction of a better world to come, but a bulwark against the dark forces governing the world in which he lives. It is a vision that gives him the strength to live.
I titled this essay “Skepticism at the Margins II”, in keeping with my first post on this subject, but in fact this is a misnomer. For, if what I have argued is correct, Emerson’s apparent optimism arises precisely because his skepticism has overflowed the margins and come to occupy a central place, because, when he delivered this lecture, he was losing the battle against skepticism. “Man the Reformer” should be seen as one of Emerson’s darkest essays, an essay where he turns to idealism because he cannot find effective resources to combat the skepticism gnawing at him.