1.26.2010

*THIS* is what wobbling looks like...

Whoa, I've just had a surge of ideas. Somebody pushed my mind-primer button lately.

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.

4 comments:

fenhopper said...

i think the simplest i can say, is that not everyone disagrees with you. you invite careful criticism of the body of your claims, but within each claim you pack so many reasons and necessary outcomes that lots of people are bound to pick on you.

and when you simplify, you do have a tendency to imply a reduction to the essence. to the necessary base.

disagreeing with your ends is not the same as disagreeing with your values. and disagreeing with your foundations is not the same as disagreeing with your morals.

a simple point. i have to imagine that you see me in one of those groups that you mention.

my best guess is that i'm a "leftist progressive." tho i could hold my own as a bible thumper if i wanted to get all nostalgic.

and my guess is that you definitely see me as looking to external institutions for action parallel to mine and my goals. and that's something you don't do? at all?

my suggestion is that we both believe that institutions should do some of what we ourselves would do, but not everything. we desire institutions as forces towards some of our goals but not all. we start arguing about which goals and which behaviours, but in those negotiations we're not seeing things in completely different ways.

if we each backed off the importance of some of our causes, and we reined in our emotional charges, we'd probably find that the only things we really really are willing to put above each other, are the same things, and we'd be in perfect alignment. our wives. our childhood families. our (future) children.

i mean, those are the basics. emerson, labov, thoreau, chomsky, keynes, hayek, they don't really matter to either of us... at all.

fenhopper said...

...and, of course, i'm not saying those are the only basics. i'm sure you have other friends and 'causes' and foundations that go before me.

just... you know...

Casey said...

That's helpful, really... in this case, incidentally, I wasn't thinking of you explicitly. But as you say, who doesn't look external sometimes?

So you're right: I mean, I can even acknowledge a part of my psyche that longs to discover that there is no internal--to give everything over to something external, whether it be a church or a state or a wife or a child.

Lately I've been having this email conversation with a friend, a lawyer friend, about the difference between Moral Law and what he calls "Positive Law." And I suppose, in your mood right now, you'd suggest as he does some kind of middle-ground balance, right? That probably is where wisdom lies. Really. I really think that when I "think."

But what I'm asking is why I feel so excited about a radical position like Thoreau's compared to the relative ennui I feel when confronted with the middle way.

Are my emotions misleading me? Should I maybe consider what-I-get-excited-about only to be an indicator of which side to err on if I have to deviate from the middle way?

fenhopper said...

that i don't know. i've wondered it myself. by i think it has less to do with the ideas and more to do with the assurance of singularity.

why are we so convinced when we're ecstatic that everything is wonderful? why are we so sure when we're depressed that we always will be?

we love the color of single chemicals burning. i think that's a big part of it. why are lasers so fun to play with?

lasers get their power from focusing the wavelengths. so do we. but have you ever tried to walk around a room with the lights off and guided by a laser pen?