Conquered Eyes

I had some very interesting discussion with my sophomores and juniors yesterday about Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance." This particular class has an interesting dynamic -- the conversation is usually steered by the convictions of five or six evangelical Christians who tend to object to everything written in America after Jonathan Edwards' sermons.

The standard question with this essay goes like this: "What is the SELF that Emerson argues we should rely on?"

Students are usually quick to point to passages like this, where Emerson seems to answer the question: "Whoso would be a man must be a noncomformist." Yesterday, my students read this passage and responded with pointed hesitation... especially because Emerson follows it up with this zinger: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind." For my Baptists, this is going too far; recoiling, they cling to dogmatism and literalism.

Not surpisingly, I love that reaction -- gives me the teachable moment I'm looking for. My students are reluctant to trust the SELF because they feel that it is in some kind of eternal disharmony with that which they do trust, the Bible. I sharpen the distinction by quoting the same paragraph: "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature... the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it."

Emerson's language so opposes the structure of the original-sin-nature language that pervades Baptist theology that students retrench when they hear this stuff. We talk some about Jesus, about whether he was "a nonconformist" (they tend to think not, which makes me grin), about whether Jesus' opposition to "the Law" was similar to Emerson's rejection of the Bible (again, they think not).

We turn to Emerson's most interesting description of what the SELF is, or should be:
What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text in the face and behavior of children, babes and even brutes. That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has not computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.
It takes a while to get my students to understand what Emerson means by "that divided and rebel mind," and what it means to say that a child has a whole mind, and an "unconquered" eye. What always makes it clear is when I point to them as examples: "Well, you--you, Emerson would say, for example, have divided, rebel minds. Conquered eyes."

They ask how that's true, indignantly. "You disagree with him, don't you?" The look of recognition passes especially flashingly across the faces of those who had most strongly opposed Emerson's thesis. Yesterday, for good measure, I asked them to remind me what Jesus thought about little children...

To think always in terms of distinction, always critically, always academically -- this is the mindset that Emerson (and Plotinus, and Swedenborg) wishes to disrupt. At the end of class, I showed this video ("Listening," by Adyashanti) to help them understand just how radical Emerson would've sounded to his contemporaries:

They left rolling their eyes, and thinking "that guy sounded crazy" -- a sure sign that they are on the road to academic success, the good little critical thinkers. Like Odyssey's Penelope, I hope they have a good journey, and trust that they will return home, long and fraught with difficulty though their adventures may be.

[I'm going to comment further on Adyashanti and his thinking in my next post.]

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