a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson :: on self-reliance

Someone I greatly love and respect recently sent me a copy of Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” as an expression of his basic instincts with regard to religion, power, and the study thereof. He asked for my thoughts on the matter—which is a rare enough event these days that I jumped at the opportunity. I thought I would share the comments more broadly. They come in two forms: 1.) Below is a summary of my basic feelings on the piece. 2.) By clicking here (On Self-Reliance), you can access a Word document that has my comments written in the margins of Emerson’s text. I would love to hear what others think of Emerson, or my take on his thought.
_______________________________
The creed that Emerson is preaching seems to me to be the perfect religious expression of the Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. He is attempting to be very counter-cultural, and I have no doubt that in his day he was perceived by many people to be quite radical. But what he is offering, I will suggest, is not counter-cultural but is only the expression of the liberal half of the culture. His adamant non-conformity only represents conformity to a broader tradition than the traditions he saw at hand. To do that claim justice would require elaborating further on the history that I only briefly mentioned in one of the notes, but maybe I can offer a few points.

What is radical about what Emerson has to say?: That we should all decide for ourselves and guide ourselves? That authority cannot be trusted? That anything outside our own experience is liable to be the expression of someone else’s attempt to control us? Again, that is only the expression of an attempt to get “back to the sources” back to the very beginning, the very root of human existence, to see the very beginning and so to see human life in its pure form. With such a vision (we imagine) we could live rightly. The Enlightenment has been the sustained attempt to think or to experience ourselves back to our own beginnings. It is a fundamentally religious endeavor. And that is why persons within the Enlightenment tradition find themselves perpetually at odds with religion—and perpetually drawn to explain it. On that note, Kant tried to keep religion, but he had to divorce it from philosophy. Hegel tried to keep religion and philosophy together (because he knew they couldn’t be separated) and he ended up declaring himself to be God! Marx was wise enough to know that religion had to be one of the first things to go in his utopia because it offered a competing meaning for human life. To go even further back, Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic—stories are not good for ideal citizens. The best theologians have always recognized Western philosophy as another religion. Modernity itself is a religion of sorts, or a whole host of little sects if you’d rather. Romanticists think that they’ll plumb the depths of truth by living with their hearts wide open to the world, because they understand human beings as primarily an experiencing creature. Many of them ended up in very, very dark frames of mind, wearing a lot of scars. Idealist and rationalists sought to establish human beginnings by putting themselves in contact with (supposedly) universal Reason.

Here’s a bit of Bonhoeffer: “Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

The other side of this dynamic, and to my mind an equally unhelpful one, is an insistence on traditions and institutions for their own sake. Emerson and folks like him often have people to argue with who are little more than their mirror image on the other side of the same cultural movement. One side pulls while the other pushes. I may sound like I’m taking that other position (honestly, if I had to choose I might lean to that side at the moment). I hope that I am not being blind in the importance I place on tradition. There is no point in space “out there” where we can stand and objectively evaluate traditions from outside them. But after all that I’ve said, I am grateful to the Enlightenment for the notion that we should think as objectively as we can about different traditions. A big part of my decision to stay in the Christian tradition has been the help I’ve gotten from others in recognizing modernity as a tradition unto itself—and one that equally deserves evaluation.

All that to say, when Emerson urges “self-reliance” as the key to living well as a human being, I can’t help but hear him echoing a lot of other figures, and I’m not yet convinced that the religious option modernity has on offer is the best one available.

That’s not to say that I don’t love philosophy, nor that I don’t see value in studying it. But it often comes with its own account of history, reason, and what it means to be human—and when those presumptions are examined, what is taken to be “foundational” is no less “superstitious” than what is rejected out of hand. That realization is driving a lot of post-modern philosophy, or hyper-modern if you’d rather, and philosophy is literally consuming itself. I’m getting off track.

My main gripe with Emerson, besides what lies above [in the marginal comments], is not that he isn’t looking hard for truth. I just wonder if he is looking in the right places. He argues that truth can best be found within one’s self – apart from tradition, apart from history, apart from authority, apart from the advice (imitation) of others. But what is left of the “self” that Emerson describes? I’m not sure that the self can be understood outside of all the relationships that Emerson wants to strip away. And derivative of that, I’m not sure that he’ll find truth there. I don’t necessarily expect Emerson to come to a final agreement with me, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of searching for the meaning of history outside history. Looking for spiritual truth in lofty heights of personal experience and inward navel-gazing means that one will always miss Jesus, born in a rough and simple manger, died on a rough and simple cross, who lives still in the rough and simple realities of the world, and even communicates through the rough and simple realities of human habits, customs, and traditions.

After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside

Alasdair MacIntyre provides an exquisite account of the moral failings of modernity in After Virtue. His account is both exquisite and itself thoroughly modern. For what we find in After Virtue, is the brilliant commentary of one thinker standing back from the culture and providing an account of the whole. MacIntyre’s account of modernity’s moral self-destruction is thoroughly modern on account of the stance that he takes; for he stands at an uncommitted distance and offers the most objective account of our moral condition possible.

As valuable as MacIntyre’s account is, in the end it is hollow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After Virtue is not an account of virtue itself, but an account of what is necessary for virtue to flourish. If an astute but morally perplexed individual came to After Virtue hoping to find moral guidance she would finally close MacIntyre’s book with a vastly clarified sense of the moral landscape around her, but she would also face a great choice. For MacIntyre’s book delivers its reader to the point at which she must identify with a particular tradition—chosen from the array of traditions (and pseudo-traditions) available. MacIntyre leaves readers at the front door of the moral supermarket, convinced that while a tradition is precisely what is needed, a tradition is precisely what MacIntyre’s account lacks. Apart from arguing for the unique coherence of a broadly Aristotelian understanding of ethics (and how many Aristotelians have you met lately?), MacIntyre’s account delimits the shape of tradition in general without ever mentioning tradition in particular.

To call the account hollow is not to argue that After Virtue is not worth reading. I mean to be descriptive, not dismissive. I would recommend MacIntyre’s lucid argument to any number of friends with the requisite basic grasp of philosophy. Rather it is only to say that MacIntyre’s account is not really complete until its reader identifies himself (and begins to work within) a tradition of the sort that MacIntyre describes broadly, but refrains from advocating specifically.

This sort of noncommittal pose is politically astute—it is precisely what catches modern ears and leaves them tingling. MacIntyre offers a stance from which to explain every other stance (and make sense of the incommensurable disagreements between them). The position at which MacIntyre leaves us is one that is tempting to occupy longer than would be healthy. Like Christ on the mountain, MacIntyre has shown us all the kingdoms of the earth—the temptation would be to rule them all from an uncommitted distance. Like the character of the “manager” he describes at length (74-78), MacIntyre really understands how ethics “works.” Unlike that manager, his understanding does not enable him to really “work” ethics until he joins himself to a community of like-minded folk inhabiting a living tradition—that is until he comes down off the mountain and takes up residency within one of the kingdoms below.

The “hollow”-ness of the account also explains the enthusiasm with which his account has been received by theologians, who already stand within a semblance of the tradition described. MacIntyre’s work can be read as a sort of ethical pre-apologetic, dropping people off on the sidewalk outside the church’s front door, where they can be invited inside. To read it as such is not at all to misuse the book. After Virtue can also be read as a framework within which to understand the ethics of a community whose lives are bound within the narrative tradition of the gospel, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, has put MacIntyre’s thought to service in precisely this way. Here, the book is the impetus for a restoration of the church’s virtues and a fuller account of Christian life as a whole. Reading After Virtue, Hauerwas’ work came to mind with regularity; it is not too difficult to hear his voice echoing MacIntyre’s.

In the next week or so, I hope (no promises) to offer a few comments on MacIntyre’s account of action and its relationship to a few other philosophers…

_______________________________

Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

review :: robert jenson on six difficult notions

Robert Jenson’s On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions [1] is, at 86 pages, a deceptively short book for the depth it contains. Yet even given the density of its insight, the text itself is not laboriously terse or overwrought. The concept of the book is simple: take six concepts concerning human experience about which thought is notoriously contradictory, intractably ambiguous, or frought with persistent dispute, and consider each by transporting the conversation from one that is thought “in” the human experience, to one that is thought outside being-human. The outside perspective from which these concepts receive critical light is, time and again, that of the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God.  

After this introduction, the volume’s subtitle is strikingly ambitious, if not arrogant, but Jenson does not shy from the task of “resolving.” And in this, Jenson hopes to be no less arrogant than the New Testament itself (85), which is to say sufficiently confident to assert his belief that the universe can only “be thought” coherently in obedience to the Trinity. Indeed, by the denouement of each of the six chapters he has worked his way to a resolution. I am reading Robert Jenson for the first time, and am enormously impressed. It may be naïvely provincial affection for a fellow Lutheran with Barthian sensibilities, but both his statements of the “difficult notions” and his “resolutions” are strikingly elegant.
Continue reading “review :: robert jenson on six difficult notions”