Democracy, Representativeness, and Conversation
“And nature advertises me in such persons, that, in democratic America, she will not be democratized.” (503-4)
Emerson is a philosopher of democracy in just the same experimental sense that he is a philosopher of self-reliance. In his philosophy of self-reliance, an unyielding emphasis on the sufficiency of one’s own self, on honesty to that self-sufficient self, coexists in tension with—but incomprehensible apart from—a thorough mistrust of the self one possesses at a given moment. So too with democracy: Emerson’s advocacy of democracy coexists with its adversary and partner, his hatred of the majority, the crowd, the herd, and his love of the individual.
Thus, in speaking of the man of character (in his essay “Character”), Emerson can confidently state that what shows itself in such a man is that nature—which here stands in for the man’s character—will not be democratized, that nature is unyielding even where it is a minority of one. This man expects all events to follow his lead, to go as he desires. They are not up for negotiation by public debate, and they are not to be resolved by democratic vote. “The hero sees that the event is ancillary: it must follow him.” (499)
A remarkable passage in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” sees the narrator simply assume that Bartleby has left the office—this is his master plan to dispense with the irritating, useless Bartleby. But he begins to suspect his plan will not work—he is right—and he realizes it is because Bartleby is not a man of assumption, cannot be assumed out of existence.
Emerson’s man of character, by contrast, is the sort who could make such assumptions, and be followed in them. The narrator of “Bartleby” is too prudent, is the sort of man who “cannot see the action, until it is done.” (499) Indeed, it is much more Bartleby, whose assumption is that the world will conform to his preferences, who has this power of assumption. Without asking the fascinating questions there are to be asked about the relation between Melville’s otherworldly characters and Emerson’s man of character—because I am incompetent to answer them—I think we may at least liken Emerson’s man of character to a perhaps healthier Bartleby, characterized by this power of what we may call efficacious assuming.
But is this not inherently undemocratic? Are we not seeing Emerson in a moment where he lusts for the powerful man who draws others in his wake? Is this not much more tyranny than democracy?
“The men who carry their points do not need to inquire of their constituents what they should say, but are themselves the country which they represent: nowhere are its emotions or opinions so instant and true as in them; nowhere so pure from a selfish infusion.” (496)
I am afraid this too is a question I am incompetent to answer. But, unlike the questions about Melville, I can at least take a few faltering footsteps, heading into the forest of the passage just quoted. Emerson makes a move something like that of Plato in The Republic: he psychologizes the city. A persistent theme in Emerson, so persistent that it served as a book title, is that of Representative Men, of men who stand in for the whole of Man, of humanity. (We may, and must, lament the absence of women in this picture.) But there is, at the same time, the idea of the representative as appears in a representative democracy. That is what the above quote brings out. Emerson is here indulging in a recurring fantasy: that of the completed man, the impartial man, as it were. I call it a fantasy because, in his soberer moments, Emerson recognizes that there are no such men (or women). “What greatness has yet appeared, is beginnings and encouragements to us in this direction.” (508) It is always a hope, always in the distance. Not in the future, but in the distance, something we may begin to move toward, but do not reach.
This is Emerson’s experimental philosophy reappearing. This ideal of representativeness to which we may consecrate ourselves, is always beside us, in the distance, but never quite attained. And it is here, if anywhere, that the reply to the critic of Emerson who sees him as fundamentally undemocratic must lie. I do not know how to flesh out this reply. I feel it in my fingers, slipping through them the harder I clutch. I see it at the periphery of my vision, moving as my eyes move to keep itself just out of reach. One day I may grasp it—perhaps a future post will realize this grasping. But for now it is only a tantalizing semi-vision.
“The sufficient reply to the skeptic, who doubts the power and furniture of man, is in that possibility of joyful intercourse with persons, which makes the faith and practice of all reasonable men.” (506)
I cannot help but end with yet another reflection on the skepticism that lingers at the margins of Emerson’s philosophy, at the margins of life. Emerson here sounds so confident in the ability to overcome skepticism. But, as ever, his apparent confidence varies inversely with his actual confidence. In the possibility of joyful intercourse with persons lies the reply to the skeptic. Such an easy reply! Yet Emerson cannot make the reply. He may point out its sufficiency, but almost immediately we has launched into his superficially hopeful, desperately skeptical end to the essay, beginning with this: “Could we not deal with a few persons,—with one person,—after the unwritten statutes, and make an experiment of their efficacy?” (507)
Here it all comes together. Democracy, the ideal democracy, is the state in which all engage in this project with all. Yet Emerson here questions whether we may even manage this with one person. Manage what? Manage to become representative, to deal with others in the manner ordained by the “unwritten statutes.” Even should this interaction exist between two people, we could reply to the skeptic, if not yet achieve true democracy. But that is itself dubious. Emerson leaves us in solitude, and does not show us the way out.