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Emerson the Modern

The New York Times popped off the obligatory birthday card this week to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 200 years old on May 25th.

I’d like to propose more explicitly that the Yankee Plato, as he’s been dubbed, the Sage of Concord, the so-called father of American individualism, even (says Harold Bloom) the American God, remains a contemporary guide to who we are and where we’re going.  Bloggers, too.

Consider three points in particular, and add your own.

1.  Consilience.  It was E. O. Wilson’s book title, observing and promoting the convergence of scientific, humanistic and spiritual understandings.  A century and a half earlier, it was Emerson’s strong polymathic instinct to gather all manner of learned people into one imaginative conversation.  As in the planning with Margaret Fuller of his new magazine, The Dial, in 1840:  It should publish “some of the good fanatics,” Emerson declared, reconcile “the practical with the speculative powers,” including science and commerce, and “lead the opinions of this generation on every interest… in the whole Art of Living.” 

2.  Genomics.  The modern biological breakthrough into the genetic architecture of our species, and also the advances in cognitive science and the histories of evolution and the migrations of homo sapience out of Africa, all extend Emerson’s intuition of the unity of the species and the universal sameness of the human brain.  “The mind is one,” as he elaborated in the essay, History:  “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.”

3.  Internet and Web Communications.  Emerson is credited with creating the American voice in literature, opening the path for Whitman and Thoreau.  But he was also the first globalist–a student of Persian verse and Brahmin philosophy, a champion of Goethe and correspondent for many years with Thomas Carlyle in England.  Not because he was a multi-culturalist but because he thought the human mind and heart were capable of immense and innumerable expansions.  “There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us,” he wrote in the essay: Circles.  And now with the Web we understand more nearly what he meant.

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