When I was in college and read Emerson for the first time, I was 100% behind him. I was so behind him that I imagined all people of good sense would readily agree... indeed the only question with regard to Emerson was how fired-up you got about him. People who "get it" are like "rah, rah!," while the men of desperation are like, "Yeah he's right, but I've got errands to run."
Then I started teaching college students. My first semester, I had these two great students in class. Identical twins. Bible-thumpers. They read Emerson closely and, with enthusiasm, opposed his views on the grounds that he was a "false prophet" (they actually said that!). This was a stunner for me. I had always thought that Bible-Thumpers figured the voice of the false prophet would be "Hail Satan," but here was Emerson saying "In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended," and these girls were saying he was the false prophet!
Look at what this meant to me: either I and my instincts were entirely wrong, or else these girls were totally wrong. There's no middle-ground here.
In a recent email exchange with one of my best friends, we were considering an excerpt from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" essay. Here's the excerpt:
...a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.My friend, a lawyer (!!!), said at one point, "Wow I disagree with him on just about everything;" and with that, I was once again put in that situation where either I and my instincts are 100% wrong or he is. And frankly, his email was convincing!
In Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," he says, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." And I know totally what he's talking about!--I absolutely feel my heart vibrate to that iron string... but is it possible that the iron string is on the wrong side of things? Is the voice of false prophecy especially alluring, for some reason, to me? Are all of those wrong who say, in the spirit of the inscription on the Temple of Delphi, "If you do not find within yourself that which you seek, neither will you be able to find it without...?"
Because almost nobody seems to agree with me anymore. The Bible-thumpers, the lawyers, the leftist-progressives--a strange gathering!--but all of them look to external institutions to improve the life of human beings. What is going on here?
Is my tuner out of whack? Can it really be that the highest Good & Right is to be found in the Southern Baptist church, the tax code, universal healthcare?
I need some affirmation here. Or else a serious course-correction.