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:
- At the core of ethics is self-reliance: trust in one’s own perceptions and one’s own doubts.
- Self-reliance requires both openness and resolve.
- 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.
- Openness is countered by resolve, by a stubborn refusal to open oneself to influences that would draw one away from oneself.
- 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.
- The opposite of self-reliance is conformity, the adherence to externally imposed forms of action.
- External imposition of forms of action can come from oneself, one’s past, one’s habits, just as much as from others.
- 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.