Emerson dogmas

Recently, a friend asked me to attempt to summarize the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 5-10 dogmatic statements. In one sense, it’s an inherently foolish enterprise, since so much of Emerson’s work is precisely about taking dogmatisms and upsetting them. His are written in a style designed precisely to prevent readers from walking away from them convinced of a set of theses. Emerson writes on the wing, following the dazzle and swoop of thought.

At the same time, it is an intriguing question, and worth trying. I do think there is a core to Emerson that can be isolated and presented in the form of dogmas, even if much is thereby lost. So here is my attempt:

  1. At the core of ethics is self-reliance: trust in one’s own perceptions and one’s own doubts.
  2. Self-reliance requires both openness and resolve.
  3. Openness is a kind of self-abandonment, in the form of receptivity to perspectives outside one’s own, a willingness to meet experiences on their own terms, to humble oneself before them.
  4. Openness is countered by resolve, by a stubborn refusal to open oneself to influences that would draw one away from oneself.
  5. Openness allows one to expand one’s capacities and sympathies; resolve steps in when this threatens to turn into utter self-effacement and lethargic bagginess.
  6. The opposite of self-reliance is conformity, the adherence to externally imposed forms of action.
  7. External imposition of forms of action can come from oneself, one’s past, one’s habits, just as much as from others.
  8. Self-reliance requires self-doubt as much as self-trust, a recognition that aspects of oneself are false and not to be relied upon; it is therefore selective.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I will probably come up with a different list, but I am not too displeased with this.



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