In spite of the fact that relatively few of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, speeches and lectures—nor even the most important—are expressly concerned with politics, the Sage of Concord had a major influence on the American political culture. How come? The point is that Transcendentalism—Emerson, as it is well known, was the most important theoretician of that movement—showed a “practical” character, the central point of which was that a man, if renewed in soul, would be able to change, in the truest sense of the term, the world. Meanwhile Emerson had resolutely moved the traditional borders of philosophy, he namely had “evaded” the inclination to center on epistemology. There follows an idea of philosophy as a form of criticism of culture, centered on Emerson’s idea of America—”America,” he said, “is the idea of Emancipation.” Which doesn’t prevent him from seeing the ills of his country. He wrote in his Journal:
American idea, Emancipation, appears in our freedom of intellection, in our reforms, & in our bad politics; has, of course, its sinister side, which is most felt by the drilled & scholastic. But, if followed, leads to heavenly places.
This is the “political Emerson,” a censor of concrete America of his days in the name of an ideal America he would propose to his fellow countrymen with his volcanic power, emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity—”We live in Lilliput,” he complained—, between an indignant protest and the blazing faith in one democracy to come, founded on the soul, and not on governments and banks.
In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they 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.
What is most important, for Emerson, is that no state, institution and economic system can assume the right to constitute a higher principle than the Individual. He is on the same wavelength as his friends Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Carlyle by dissociating from both the alienation of the individual under the conditions of modern production and the way many contemporary Americans were, “with their vast material interest, materialized intellect, & low morals,” he wrote in his Journal in 1851.
As a result, one can, must, distrust state and government.
Hence, the less government we have the better, - the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation. That which all things tend to educe, which freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and deliver, is character; that is the end of nature, to reach unto this coronation of her king. To educate the wise man, the State exists; and which the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State. [Politics]
Is this utopia? It may be so, at least as long as we declare even the idea of emancipation, in the most comprehensive sense of the word, to be utopistic. Certainly Emerson shows a way, an attitude of mind. Nevertheless, this apotheosis of individualism, pragmatically suggests to him anything but extremist behaviors. He gets angry with bankers and politicians, but by advancing solid arguments.
As an old fan of Emerson, I think that as a political thinker he was actually worthy of the Man of God, the Poet, the Enchanter. Above all, it is amazing to see the symbiosis of two faiths almost always antithetical—that in the aristocracy of the spirit, and that in the liberté-egalité-fraternité principles.
Which perhaps is quite comforting if you think about the depressing political landscape of today.