Last week Emerson was about wealth and how wealth is both an outcome and a means of power. But wealth for the sake of wealth is useless. That is where this week’s Emerson essay, Culture, comes in. Culture is a correction to wealth. Wealth is got by a single-mindedness that sacrifices the balance of a person’s power. And if I am learning nothing else from Emerson, it is the importance of balance.
The individual is important to Emerson, self-reliance is the watchword. A certain self-regard is required both so that one may persist (gain wealth and power) but also so that one may, when it comes to culture, not be lost within or subdued by it. Culture keeps a person from becoming a lopsided egotist which is what happens when you have wealth without culture. Individualism gone too far stays in the particulars. The purpose of culture is to counter this, but not destroy the individual. Culture is a training away of egotism (particulars) with a view toward the catholic (universal) so that one is left with only pure power.
the suggestion, from certain best thoughts, that man has a range of affinities through which he can modulate the violence of any master-tones that have a droning preponderance in his scale, and succor him against himself. Culture redresses his balance, puts him among his equals and superiors, revives the delicious sense of sympathy and warns him of the dangers of solitude and repulsion.
Culture is necessarily social, it takes us out of our solitude and puts us in touch with others with whom we can test our ideas and stimulate our brains.
Cultural education should start early, the earlier the better. We must, therefore, “make our education brave and preventive.” We should, of course, read books. But we should not neglect what we can learn from things like dancing, skating, riding, swimming, because these offer lessons in power just as much as books do. The idea of physical education coupled with intellectual education is not new. But I am always surprised by how much emphasis and importance Emerson places on it. I think, after reading a bit about Emerson’s brothers in Emerson: The Mind on Fire, I understand it better.
Emerson was third of eight children. The first and last died in infancy. Emerson’s elder brother, after going to study theology in Germany, had a crisis of faith, returned home crushed spiritually and physically. And while he lived into his late fifties, he never regained his physical strength and drive. Two of Emerson’s younger brothers, both brilliant and ambitious died in their twenties from tuberculosis, one of them having a complete mental breakdown a few years before his death. These three brothers were supposed to be the ones who succeeded since Emerson was seen as rather mediocre and without drive or ambition. But Emerson had health, both mental and physical, and eventually came into his own.
The best place for culture is in cities for the sheer variety of people and access to information and ideas. And also because cities give people of various kinds room to exist and the hope of encountering others of like mind. But cities, society, culture must be balanced with access to the country and solitude. “Cities degrade us by magnifying trifles,” we lose the “grandeur of the horizon, hills and plains.” We must leave the city from time to time to regain a sense of perspective. We must leave society for solitude to allow our imaginations and thoughts to percolate.
Another aspect of culture is to open to us a sense of beauty. And it is here that Emerson famously says, “I suffer every day from want of perception of beauty in people.” One of the later essays in The Conduct of Life is “Beauty.” I’m sure Emerson will have many interesting things to say in it.
Time and again, Emerson describes high ideals and then admits that he has yet to meet someone who exhibits them completely. But Emerson has faith in evolution and believes strongly that “to meliorate is the law of nature.” He ends his essay on a hopeful note insisting that if humans evolved from quadrupeds, then humans can continue to evolve to something more, something better, something superior to what we are now:
And if one shall read the future of the race hinted in the organic effort of nature to mount and meliorate, and the corresponding impulse to the Better in the human being, we shall dare affirm that there is nothing he will not overcome and convert, until at last culture shall absorb the chaos and gehenna. He will convert the Furies into Muses, and the hells into benefit.
And then “the age of the brain and of the heart” will arrive and evil will no longer exist. Grand and beautiful thoughts. I like to consider myself an optimistic person. I am all for idealism. But life has also instilled in me a bit of cynicism and as much as I want to shout Emerson some “Amens!” from the pews, I look around and see more Furies and chaos and gehennas than I see Muses and benefits. But oh, how it wish it were otherwise.
Next week’s Emerson: Behavior