R.W. Emerson on Politics

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently listening to Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer and driving home from the train station today, I heard excerpts from Tillman’s journal while in Iraq.  He was particularly moved by an essay titled “Self-Reliance” by Ralph W.E. (as he put it).  Krakauer quotes a section of the essay which Tillman included in his journal.  I was envious of Tillman.  So when I got home I asked my wife (an English teacher) whether we had an anthology or something which might include this essay and we did.  In turning to “Self-Reliance,” I couldn’t help but notice an essay in the table of contents titled “Politics” (1844) and turned to it first.

The timing couldn’t have been better.  Though I had never heard of this essay when I wrote yesterday’s post, it turns out that Emerson articulated something from that post much better than I was able.  I was trying my best to say that our modern culture has lost sight of people and their daily lives in favor of politics, business and profits.  Not surprisingly, this concern is not new. Emerson writes:

“…such a structure given to our usages, as allowed the rich to encroach on the poor, and to keep them poor; but mainly, because there is an instinctive sense, however obscure and yet inarticulate, that the whole constitution of property, on its present tenures, is injurious, and its influence on person deteriorating and degrading; that truly, the only interest for the consideration of the State, is persons; that property will always follow persons; that the highest end of government is the culture of men: and if men can be educated, the institutions will share their improvement, and the moral sentiment will write the law of the land.”

People are the necessary focus of the government and we should be sensitive, both in government and in business, to the lives of people.  On this subject he said, “that [institutions] are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.”

Emerson focused heavily on individual character and a collective moral sense that our society possessed, and still possesses.  For example he had this great line about legislating, “that the State must follow, and not lead the character and progress of the citizen.”  Considering a life in politics or government, there is the temptation when imagining the faceless American public to assume that it’s all the State can do but to lead.  Yet, Emerson (and Tillman) reminded and inspired me to believe in the character and values of our society.  It can be a hard thing to do when our leaders reveal personal shortcomings or constantly bicker over issues which only matter inside the Beltway. The truth is we’re doing the best we can.

In describing the American experience, Emerson highlights the fluidity and uneasiness that is our greatest strength and constant insecurity. He quotes Fisher Ames image of America as a raft that never sinks but always seems to cover our feet in water.  It is this back-and-forth between our values and this constant insecurity which forces us to rely on our character and each other.  He says, “Ordinarily, our parties are parties of circumstance, and not of principle;” which is a fact that I often overlook when placing far too much hope and faith that the parties will ultimately choose what’s right.  It is not the parties’ responsibility to choose right but our collective example to drive the parties.  Even then Emerson describes a great different between the two main parties,”Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men.”

While I’d love to take that further and try to determine if we can stretch it to apply to today’s political culture, a greater point is at stake.  In returning to my original point about people being first and foremost in our dealings and as a helpless romantic to the power of politics and social change, we often forget that politics has always been messy.  I know this attempts to combine Tillman, Emerson and my inarticulate thoughts on politics, yet even though I can’t articulate it perfectly, I sense there’s something here.  As long as we continue to focus on the lives of the American people as our standard for success, evaluate the impact of our decisions on each other and alway lead the State with our character, we have a chance to continue the progress of the generations before us.  Emerson talks about how the State is a fluid concept and even though the young don’t recognize it, the older generations watch as our governments and laws ebb and flow with our culture.  This is encouraging and inspiring.  Even though I believe we’re in the midst of a transitional period in America, I know that I’m willing to see it through and ensure the best is yet to come.  Or maybe I’m just letting the Emersons, Krakauers and Tillmans get the better of me.  Either way, I hope I still have time to read “Self-Reliance,” and you should too.


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