Ralph Waldo Embarrassment

Micah Mattix lays into the celebrated American philosopher:

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedHis central idea, of course, is “Trust thyself.” In his earlier essays, he encourages his readers to disregard the past, institutions, and dogma, and to obey “the eternal law” within. “I will not hide my tastes or aversions,” he writes. “I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.” But in a later essay on Napoleon, who seems to have embodied the “deep” self-trust Emerson lauds, he states confusingly (after praising Napoleon) that what made Napoleon’s egoism wrong was that it “narrowed, impoverished and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him.” And whose fault is this?

It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay to live and thrive without moral principle. It was the nature of things, the eternal law of man and of the world which baulked and ruined him.

Read that again. It was the “world” that ruined Napoleon, not Napoleon who ruined the world.

To live “without moral principle” is a bad thing for Emerson. He writes in “Self-Reliance” that the “rejection of popular standards” is not “a rejection of all standards.” Yet he refuses to state how we are to decide which ones are good and which ones are bad other than by, again, looking within. The “law of consciousness abides,” he writes—except, of course, when it doesn’t, which is why Emerson concludes his essay on Napoleon with a confusing warning on the dangers of being (you guessed it) selfish: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual or selfish aim, will fail.” In short: “Trust thyself, but not always!”

(Image: Emerson in 1857, via Wikimedia Commons)