Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Emerson on communism and socialism

In the spring months of 2007 I copied into this blog entries from the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson during his first trip to Europe in 1843. Today, I'm beginning a second set of entries, ones from a second trip to England and France that he made between October 1847 and July 1848. Where before he had arrived, known to very few and relying mainly on a few letters of introduction, he now was a published man of American letters somewhat reluctantly responding to requests for his popular lectures. He had quite a few useful friends. The help he gave Thomas Carlyle to become known in the US had gained him one such. A correspondence he had carried on between-times with Alexander Ireland gained him another.

The English of the late '40s impressed him. In January he wrote in his journal:
I trace, then, the peculiarities of English manners to their working climate; their dense population; the presence of an aristocracy or model class for manners and speech; their diet, generous and orderly taken; and their force of constitution. Their manners betray real independence, and they are studiously inoffensive. They are castles compared with our men. . . . An American feels like some invalid in their company.
But he was not entirely bowled over. At the beginning of April he also wrote:
If I stay here long, I shall lose all my patriotism and think that England has absorbed all excellences. My friend Alcott came here and brought away a couple of mystics and their shelf of books from Ham Common, and fancied that nothing was left in England;[1] and I see that Kew Gardens and so many great men and things are obscure.

I look at the immense wealth and the solid power concentrated, and am quite faint: then I look in the street at the little girls running bare foot through the rain, with broom in hand, to beg a halfpenny of the passenger at the crossing, and at so many Lascars, and pitifullest trades, and think of Saadi, who, barefooted, saw the man who had no legs, and bemoaned himself no more.

[Editor's note: 'On the invitation of Arthur Hugh dough, then a Fellow of Oriel College, and also of Dr. Daubeny,the botanical professor, Mr. Emerson went to Oxford, "and spent something more than two days very happily," meeting, among others, Palgrave and Froude.']

March 31. At Oxford, in the Bodleian Library Dr. Bandinel showed me the manuscript Plato of the date of A.D. 896, brought by Dr. Clarke from Egypt. [2] . . .

[Editor's note: "On April 1 Mr. Emerson went to a soiree at the Marquis of Northampton's, and in a letter tells of the company he met there, among others Prince Albert, Sir Charles Fellows, Dr. Buckland, and Crabbe Robinson, who in his Diary mentions his meeting with Emerson. Later, the same evening, he went to Lord Palmerston's, and there met Disraeli, Bunsen, Macaulay, and Baron Rothschild."]

Mr. Neuberg said that the Rothschilds make great fortunes, but they really do a certain important service to society; they are the cashiers of the world: and it is a public mischief when any calamity befalls them. . . . So when a bank discounts freely in any district, immediately an impulse is given to population, and new men are born. . . .

The New Religion. Yes, there will be a new Church founded on Moral Science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again.[3] . . . It was necessary that this roaring Babylon should fall flat, before the whisper that commands the world could be heard. It seems to every youth that he is alone, and left to fall abroad with too much liberty, when he is left with only God. He does not yet begin to see and to hear. The English Church, being undermined by German criticism, had nothing left but tradition, and flung itself into the Roman Church, distrusting the laws of the Universe. The next step is now the ruin of Christendom.[4] Wisdom always lays the emphasis of reform in the right place, on tendency, on character, and not on some absurd particular, as on the knife and fork, which is sure to produce dislocation and ridiculous jangle. . . .

I had rather have a good symbol of my thought, or a good analogy, than the suffrage of Kant or Plato.[5] . . .

Every soul is sent into Nature accompanied by its assessors or witnesses. They are attached to it by similarities which keep them through all changes in the same stratum or plane, and within the same sphere; as the bodies of one solar system never quit their respective distances, but remain, as the foot of an animal follows its head. To his astonishment the man finds that he can never think alone, his thought is always apprehended by equal intellect; that he can never hide his action, but witnesses, and those his intimate acquaintance, look out of the dark of every cave, in an Asiatic desart, in an Arabian Sahara.[6]

Everything connected with our personality fails.[7] . . .

People interest as long as there is some reserve about them. Only that mind draws me which I cannot read. . . .

The objection, the loud denial, not less proves the reality and conquests of an idea than the friends and advocates it finds. Thus communism now is eagerly attacked, and all its weak points acutely pointed out by British writers and talkers; which is all so much homage to the Idea, whose first inadequate expressions interest them so deeply, and with which they feel their fate to be mingled. If the French should set out to prove that three was four, would British journalism bestir itself to contradict them? The Geologic Society and the Stock Exchange would have no time to spare it. . . .

At Oxford you may hold what opinion you please so that you hold your tongue. In going through the street you should be in a state of positive electricity, not negative.

If I should believe the Reviews, and I am always of their opinion, I have never written any thing good. And yet, against all criticism, the books survive until this day.

For the matter of Socialism, there are no oracles. The oracle is dumb. When we would pronounce anything truly of man, we retreat instantly on the individual. We are authorized to say much on the destinies of one, nothing on those of many. It seems cruel that every man should be in false position and that, scholar and saint though he be, he should find himself in this most awkward relation to loaves of bread. And the promise of Socialism is to redress this distorted balance. But I think it needs that we must have the substance in purity which we will analyze, and not only cling to individuals but to angels. We must consider the condition of a youthful soul sent for its education into this University of Nature, and perhaps it must have this drastic treatment of famine and plenty, insult and rapture, wisdom and tragedy, infernal and supernal society, in order to secure that breadth of culture so long-lived a destiny needs. . . .

Oh, were there times that deserved any attention! but how can these convulsions effect any change of mood in any firm Caesarian scholar? Archimedes buried himself in his geometry. . . when Marcellus was battering down the walls.

{A portrait of about this time}

{First page of a letter Emerson wrote in April 1848}

Notes (all from the editors of the Journals):

[1] Messrs. Lane and Wright, who joined in the Fruitlands Community, already mentioned in the Journals of 1843 and 1 844. The School at Ham Common had been named Alcott House.

[2]Here follows the narrative of what he saw in this library printed in English Traits (pp. 203, 204).

[3] The passage thus beginning is printed in "Worship" (Conduct of Life, p. 241).

[4] A part of the above passage is printed in the chapter "Religion" {English Traits, p. 228).

[5] The rest of the passage is found in "Poetry and Imagination " {Letters and Social Aims, p. 13).

[6] The same idea and some of the same expressions occur in "Worship" {Conduct of Life, p. 226).

[7] The substance of this passage is printed in "Immortality" (Letters and Social Aims, pp. 342, 343).

Some sources:

Journals Of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1820-1872, with Annotations, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes; Vol. VII, 1845-1848 (London, Constable & Co.; Boston And New York Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Oscar W. Firkins (Houghton Mifflin company, 1915)

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, Cambridge, Mass., Riverside press, 1904)

The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, edited by Charles Eliot Norton (Houghton, Mifflin, 1896)

English Traits, by By Ralph Waldo Emerson; edited by Edward Waldo Emerson (reprint, Unit Library, 1903)

English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson; edited by Philip Nicoloff, with photographs by Robert E. Burkholder, et al (Harvard University Press, 1994)

Ralph Waldo Emerson; his life, genius, and writings. A biographical sketch, by Alexander Ireland (London, Simpkin, Marshall, 1882)

Emerson at home and abroad, by Moncure Daniel Conway (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882)

A memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by James Elliot Cabot (Cambridge, Printed at the Riverside Press, 1887)

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Recollections of His Visits to England in 1833, 1847-8, 1872-3, and Extracts from Unpublished Letters, by Alexander Ireland (Simpkin, Marshall, & co., 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, His Life, Genius, And Writings; A Biographical Sketch; To Which Are Added Personal Recollections Of His Visits To England and Extracts From Unpublished Letters, by Alexander Ireland (London, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co. 1882)

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