EMERSON AND THOREAU WALK AND TALK

WALDEN POND

Emerson (1803–1882) and Thoreau (1817–1962) liked to walk and talk around Concord, a little New England town that valued the life of the mind. Besides summoning ideas, they were naturalists and noted the countryside. Thoreau in particular made notes on scraps of paper he put in his pockets. The two men made their livings by writing essays based on all this, but also interwoven into speeches given across the broader country which they traveled by the new trains. A subject that had been given as an address a number of times was rewritten again for publication. This was before television.

Emerson and Thoreau, plus others, were “Transcendentalists” reacting to the new ideas coming from India, like Buddhism and Hinduism. This has never stopped. One result of the Sixties and Seventies adventures in India was the restoration of feeling to religion — even mysticism. Emerson had previously been a Unitarian minister but objected to Communion and said that watching the snow fall out the sanctuary window was a better sermon than anything said from the pulpit. This was heresy. Proper people were supposed to be disciplined.

New England Unitarianism was based on logic, thus objecting to the idea of the Trinity. Historical Bible scholarship had revealed that this oxymoronic idea was a political compromise rather than some epiphany. But not until another small denomination, Universalism, joined the Unitarians in 1961 in Portland, did feeling re-enter the belief system. Universalism, a doctrine of the heart that offered universal salvation, was based on Jesus, not as a magical incarnation of God, but as a loving prophet.

The two forces have gone along uncomfortably since then, until modern science has blasted apart all the ideas of earlier Euro-thought. The Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans now comes to us in what are termed the “deep past”, “thick history”, particles in quantum theory, molecular cell doings, and cosmic spectacles like the birth of stars. Technology asks us to come to terms with our new ability to perceive and to analyze data.

The tension between the individual and the community has always been in terms of humans, mostly those we know, like who is for me and who is against me — Me. Now we have to deal with ideas so vivid and paradigm-exploding that sanity is challenged. Sci-fi has seized us. No “religion” is adequate and anyway we’re unsure what “religion” is anymore. We’re told that almost everything “thinks” in some way.

My writing of essays comes from “preaching” to the people whose minds are open to this, an extension and logical successor to the strategies of the Transcendentalists. Far back through history there have always been streams of humanism and, more recently, what we came to call Enlightenment thought.

“The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.”

“What are the four fundamental principles of Enlightenment? (1) The law like order of the natural world. (2) The power of human reason. (3) The “natural rights” of individuals (including the right to self government) (4) The progressive improvement of society.” (Both quotes are from the Internet/Google.)

These were ideas we now call “left wing” or liberal. They have nothing to do with extremism or socialism or even cooperatives. Nor do they address international crime, globalization of resources, or the pretense that a corporation is a human. They do not judge capitalism itself but rather the uses and kinds of capitalism.

This thinking could be narcissistic and grandiose, assuming far more power of human thought than is possible, as well as emphasizing the individual far too much for reality. All human waves of thought are reactions to either a preceding set of ideas that don’t work anymore or to a radical change in the world around them. The previous set of ideas that had been brought from Europe — Puritanical, punishing, focusing on Hell and the Devil is over. To debunk a three-layered world where only the obedient and favored could escape torment was a great relief.

An even stronger force for “religious” thought is always the ecosystem in which the people dwell. Now many were blooming on the wide and fertile land. Most people in the 19th century in America made their living in the country as farmers, therefore what seemed right and successful for that became the morality: family-by-family had one dominant individual who was in charge of wife and children, hard-work by daylight hours, neighborhood congregations where conformity was reinforced by God, the most dominant individual. This pattern lingers on. The people who defend it most are the ones who get to be the dominant individual, though the hard work is mostly gone.

It is a pattern uneasily and incompletely reconciled with the requirements of the industrial revolution. In the east industry meant factories but in the West it meant railroads and reservations, plowing and grazing. Men were separate to tend livestock and work fields while women ran the homestead and raised the children. The gender split was much increased.

Then the tech revolution arrived and though some people managed to ignore and deny it, the level of understanding of the world was drastically changed. The huge emphasis on believing a person could be captured by putting a brain in a bucket has thrown off the balance again with both feeling and community. For many people, denial is not enough — drugs are necessary! One of the most powerful drugs is the feeling of vengeance on others and we’re way too far into that.

Seth Abramson (twitter) says something similar.

“Postmodernism was the “structure of feeling” and “system of logic” dominant in the age of television. As many scholars had built careers on writing about postmodernism, they irresponsibly tried to pretend it was still dominant in the internet age. That was a destructive move.”

“Many of the ills we now experience online are the result of there being no encompassing conversation about how the digital age has changed how we think about ourselves, one another, and the very nature of reality. Or — rather — the conversation we’re having doesn’t fit the moment.”

I’m talking about this. What comes next? Keep walking. Put scraps in your pockets.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.