The editor’s note for Emerson’s Conduct of Life essay, Considerations by the Way, intimates that this essay is for those who had been going to Emerson’s lectures and not really getting what Emerson was talking about. Emerson was a personality, a celebrity of sorts. He had enough fame by this point that he had people attending his lectures just so they could say they saw him, people for whom abstract thinking and reasoning were not their strong suits. And so in this lecture/essay, Emerson relents a little, lowering the abstract and lofty tones, putting the crux of his ideas into a more everyday, “this is what you should do” formulation. At one point he even says something to the effect of there not being any rules by which to live, but if there were, this is what they would be. And he is kind enough to sum it all up at the end, something he never does:
The secret of culture is to learn that a few great points steadily reappear, alike in the poverty of the obscurest farm and in the miscellany of metropolitan life, and that these few are alone to be regarded;–the escape from all false ties; courage to be what we are, and love of what is simple and beautiful; independence and cheerful relations, these are the essentials,–these and the wish to serve, to add somewhat to the well-being of men.
There they are, Emerson’s rules to live by, stripped of all the beautiful philosophy that goes along with them, yet still sound and good on their own. It seems like a concession, but I don’t think it is and I don’t get the impression that Emerson saw it as one either.
I think what Emerson is about in this essay can be best winkled out by looking at what he says about “the masses.” People fall into two kinds, the benefactors and the malefactors. There are but a handful of the first while the second is “vast.” In case you missed that, Emerson classes the masses as malefactors. If you are like me, your hackles just went up when you read that. Take a deep breath and try to be open-minded, trust that there is more to it than there appears, and know that Emerson will get you even more riled up before you come to understand him. Ready?
Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled. […] The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses. […] If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population.
Sounds sort of like Mr. Scrooge, doesn’t he? What’s he got against the masses? Is he some kind of elitist pig or something?
For Emerson, the masses do not belong to any particular race or economic class or educational class. Those who belong to the masses do not think for themselves but go along with whatever they are told by the one they nominate their shepherd. Those who belong to the masses follow the latest fads. The masses are an undifferentiated herd of sheep. The masses, in Emerson’s view, are malefactors because they are worthless. Anything good that has come into this world has not come from the masses, though it may be picked up and supported by them, the original spark came from an individual:
The good men are employed for private centres of use, and for larger influence. All revelations, whether of mechanical or intellectual or moral science, are made, not to communities but to single persons. All the marked events of our day, all the cities, all the organizations, may be traced back to their origin in a private brain. All feats which make our civility were the thoughts of a few good heads.
Here, someone can throw out a diversionary argument, declaring that this is hogwash, that not even Einstein or Emerson himself worked alone, that each one owed his thoughts and ideas to, at the very least, those who came before them. And Emerson would be the first to concede that he does indeed stand upon the shoulders of those who came before him. No one works and thinks in a vacuum, but this is not the kind of community Emerson is talking about. The kind of community Emerson is talking about is what we might call today a commune or, on a smaller scale, a committee.
What Emerson wants is individuals. He wants unique people with ideas and visions all their own. He wants people who think and question, who rely on their own powers of reason and make their own opinions. He does not want lemmings. He does not want communes or committees where people have to compromise themselves or their ideas for the sake of the group. As individuals, Emerson says later in the essay, we all have a right to be here, and that we are here is proof of that.
But Emerson knows full well that
The race is great, the ideal fair, but the men whiffling and unsure. The hero is he who is immovably centered.
He knows that humans are a process, not a product. We have not reached our final destination, we are still evolving. He knows there are quite a lot of people who do not understand his philosophy. Therefore this essay in which he simplifies everything, hoping, perhaps, to strike a spark of individuality in a few of the sheep on the edge of the herd. The editor remarks in a note on the text:
His [Emerson’s] own work in life was to teach man his worth and possibilities, and that Mr. Emerson sincerely believed in these was shown by his daily attitude towards humble neighbors, or young people, or servants. Moreover, the service was reciprocal, for he said he found that every man could teach him something. His harshness is only for the man who sacrifices his manhood for the mass.
So this essay laying out Emerson’s “rules” for living, is a remedial lesson or sorts, directed at an audience who found themselves scratching their heads and asking, “huh?” after his previous lectures on things like power and culture and behavior.
Emerson began his career as a school teacher and he hated it. Then he became a minister. While he didn’t hate it, he found that it was not his calling either. But I think his experience working at both professions contributed to his success as a lecturer, essayist and thinker. It is, as he says in “Considerations”:
Life is a boundless privilege, and when you pay for your ticket and get into the car, you have no guess what good company you shall find there. You buy much that is not rendered in the bill. Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim.
His time as a teacher and minister were not wasted.
On a side note, I finally got my own good edition of Conduct of Life. Instead of continuing to search for a recent reprint that I could enjoy, I decided that since I liked the library edition I am reading I will find a copy of that. And I did. It arrived in the mail today and is in beautiful condition for being a book aged 103 years old. There is not a spot of mold. It is also in the original binding with wider margins than my rebound library copy and the top edges of the pages are gilt. To say that I am happy would be an understatement. For anyone who wants her own copy of this book, I highly recommend this particular edition which will cost you pretty much the same as a newer edition. Here are the details: The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Concord Edition, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume VI . Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904.
Next week’s Emerson: Beauty