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?


Rediscovering Ibn Tufail

One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.

It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.

And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?

The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.


Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.

Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.

Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?

A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…


Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?