Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?

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