Monday, April 06, 2009

without good men there cannot be good technology

This is from the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, written on or about this day:
[April 6]

I fancied, when I heard that the times were anxious and political, that there is to be a Chartist revolution on Monday next, and an Irish revolution in the following week, that the right scholar would feel, now was the hour to test his genius. His kingdom is at once over and under these perturbed regions. Let him produce its Charter now, and try whether it cannot win a hearing, and make felt its infinite superiority to-day, as, in the arts, they make winter oil on the coldest, and spermaceti candles on the hottest, day of the year.

People here expect a revolution. There will be no revolution, none that deserves to be called so. There may be a scramble for money. But as all the people we see want the things we now have, and not better things, it is very certain that they will, under whatever change of forms, keep the old system. When I see changed men, 1 shall look for a changed world. Whoever is skilful in heaping money now will be skilful in heaping money again.

Power. There must be a relation between power and probity. . . . We seem already to have more power than we can be trusted with.

And this preparation for a superior race is a higher omen of revolution than any other I have seen. Except to better men, the augmented science is a mere chemic experiment of the quickest poison.

What wrong road have we taken that all the improvements of machinery have helped every body but the operative? Him they have incurably hurt.

A curious example of the rudeness and inaccuracy of thought is the inability to distinguish between the private and the universal consciousness. I never make that blunder when I write, but the critics who read impute their confusion to me.

In the question of Socialism, which now proposes the confiscation of France, one has only this guidance; you shall not so arrange property as to remove the motive to industry. If you refuse rent and interest, you make all men idle and immoral. As to the poor, a vast proportion have made themselves so, and in any new arrangement will only prove a burden on the state. And there is a great multitude also whom the existing system bereaves forever of all culture and of all hope. The masses ah, if you could read the biographies of those who compose them!

The word Pay is immoral.

Now we will work, because we can have it all to our snug selves; to-morrow we will not, because it goes to the community, and we all stand on a pauper s footing.

The wonder of the Science of Intellect is that the substance with which we deal is of that transcendent and active nature, that it intoxicates all who approach it.[1] . . . Everything is mover or moved, and we are admonished of omnipotence when we say, let us have intellect on our own terms.

Happy is he who gets early in life (or not too late) a good hobby. What happiness and fortune for Charles Fellows was in that ruin at Xanthus.[2] . . . Owen by his fixed idea penetrates all courts, and sees all distinguished men. Morgan's village is his key to Pope, and prelate, author, and foreigner. Dr. Tuckerman with his Ministry-at-large. So Perez Blood with his telescope.[3] Sir Joshua Reynolds (Fox said) had no pleasure in Richmond; he used to say the human face was his landscape.

Guidance and determination to an aim, yes, certainly, the book must have these, were the author ten times a poet; but it must not be mechanical, not a placing, but a polarity.
Emerson was no economist nor did he pretend to instruct on the subject. He saw, as this journal entry says, that the industrial economy caused 'incurable hurt' to workers. However, he did not believe violent revolutions would correct this injustice, but rather put his faith in the evolutionary changes of electoral politics. As this entry makes evident, he did not believe in a forced leveling of classes — a forced redistribution of wealth — but rather in the motive force by which people seek to better themselves. His implicit hope is that this force would eventually remove the injustices which poor workers suffered. He hoped and implicitly believed that well-meaning reformers, men of good sense, peace, and generosity, would eventually prevail against the unjust, impolitic, and selfish policies of oligarchs, monopolists, and other members of the old establishment in Britain.

He is unlikely to have known about the publication of two books that were printed in London while he was there: (1) The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels (Feb 1848) and (2) The Principles of Political Economy with some of their applications to social philosophy, by John Stuart Mill (London, Parker, 1848). Although he sympathized with the intent of the former, he disagreed with the means of redress it advocated. His views were much in sympathy with the latter. It might seem ironic that while Emerson was in London Marx prepared a speech which supported the tenets of free trade, but Marx's support was merely tactical: he felt a policy of unbridled free trade would increase class conflict and thus hasten the communist revolution he predicted would inevitably occur.

Notes by the editor of the Journals:

[1] This and what follows is printed in " Powers and Laws of Thoughts " (Natural History of Intellect, pp. 10, 11). Mr. Emerson wrote, April 20, to his wife: "My newest writing is a kind of Natural History of Intellect; very unpromising title, is it not?"

[2] See Education (Lectures and Biographical Sketches, pp. 145, 146).

[3] A Concord farmer, referred to in an earlier journal, who used his small inheritance of money from his father to buy a telescope and celestial globe.

Emerson had earlier written his friend Thoreau on the positive effects of the Free-Trade movement — those being realized at the time and those yet to come as the policy matured. Here is the letter:
2 Fenny Street, Higher Broughton, MANCHESTER, 28 January, 1848.

DEAR HENRY, — One roll of letters has gone to-day to Concord and to New York, and perhaps I shall still have time to get this into the leathern bag before it is carted to the wharf. I have to thank you for your letter, which was a true refreshment. Let who or what pass, there stands the dear Henry, — if indeed anybody had a right to call him so, — erect, serene, and undeceivable. So let it ever be! I should quite subside into idolatry of one of my friends, if I were not every now and then apprised that the world is wiser than any one of its boys, and penetrates us with its sense, to the disparagement of the subtleties of private gentlemen.

Last night, as I believe I have already told Lidian, I heard the best man in England make perhaps his best speech, — Cobden, who is the cor cordis [i.e., heart], the object of honor and belief, to risen and rising England: a man of great discretion, who never overstates nor states prematurely, nor has a particle of unnecessary genius or hope to mislead him, nor of wasted strength; but calm, sure of his fact, simple and nervous in stating it as a boy in laying down the rules of the game of football which have been violated, — above all, educated by his dogma of Free Trade, led on by it to new lights and correlative liberalities, as our abolitionists have been, by their principle, to so many reforms. Then this man has made no mistake.

He has dedicated himself to his work of convincing this kingdom of the impolicy of corn-laws, lectured in every town where they would hear him, and at last carried his point against immense odds, and yet has never accepted any compromise or stipulation from the government. He might have been in the ministry. He will never go there except with empire for his principle, which cannot yet be awarded. He had neglected and abandoned his prosperous calico printing to his partners. And the triumphant League have subscribed between sixty and eighty thousand pounds as the Cobden Fund, whereby he is made independent.

It was quite beautiful, even sublime, last night, to notice the moral radiations which this Free Trade dogma seemed to throw out, all unlooked for, to the great audience, who instantly and delightedly adopted them. Such contrasts of sentiment to the vulgar hatred and fear of France and jealousy of America that pervade the newspapers! Cobden himself looked thoughtful and surprised, as if he saw a new future. Old Colonel Perronet Thompson — the Father of Free Trade, whose catechism on the corn-laws set all these Brights and Cobdens first on cracking this nut — was present, and spoke in a very vigorous, rasp-like tone. [Mimer] Gibson, a member of the British government, a great Suffolk squire, and a convert to these opinions, made a very satisfactory speech; and our old abolition friend, George Thompson, brought up the rear, though he, whom I now heard for the first time, is merely a piece of rhetoric, and not a man of facts and figures and English solidity, like the rest. The audience play no inactive part, but the most acute and sympathizing, and the agreeable result was the demonstration of the arithmetical as well as the moral optimism of peace and generosity. Forgive, forgive this most impertinent scribble.

Your friend, R. W. E.

Wikipedia entries for some people mentioned in this post:

Some sources:

The Emerson-Thoreau Letters VI-X (1848) in Works and Life of Henry D. Thoreau

Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, Waldo Emerson Forbes (Houghton Mifflin company, 1912)

The Principles of Political Economy with some of their applications to social philosophy, by John Stuart Mill (London, Parker, 1848) revised, 1849, 1852, 1857, 1862, 1865, 1871.

Free Trade, A Speech Delivered Before the Democratic Club, Brussels, Belgium, Jan. 9, 1848. With Extract from La Misère de la Philosophie, by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels; translated by Florence Kelley (Lee & Shepard, 1888)

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