Was Emerson a Racist?

antislavery-writings-ralph-waldo-emerson

Emerson’s Antislavery Writings

In a recent Scene on Radio podcast, “Seeing White,” historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People, among other books, asserts that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a racist.* This assertion rests largely on Emerson’s book, English Traits, which, in her view, extols the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. In her book, she calls him “the philosopher-king of American white race theory,” and she points out that, in addition to English Traits, he makes a number of derogatory comments on black people in his journals. 

I’ll leave it to readers of Emerson to form their own opinion as to whether or not Emerson is a racist, but before they take someone else’s word for it, I would encourage them to read Emerson for themselves. Bear in mind that Emerson’s major works are published in eleven volumes. In addition, there are three volumes of early lectures, two volumes of later lectures, sixteen volumes of his journals, four volumes of his sermons and ten volumes of his letters. 

In all of these one can find perhaps a dozen openly disparaging comments about black people. At the same time, there are numerous essays, lectures and journal entries condemning slavery, in which Emerson calls for emancipation and equal rights for black people. He also believes they should receive reparations, education, citizenship and the right to vote.

Early views

In 1826, shortly after he was approbated to preach, he went to the South for six months because he had taken ill and hoped for a cure in warmer weather. While there he witnessed and was repulsed by the cruelty of chattel slavery. While still a minister at Boston’s Second Church, he exhorted his parishioners, “Let every man say then to himself—the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine.” As the Negro Question increasingly came to the fore in the North during the 1840s and 50s, Emerson became more and more outspoken in opposition to slavery.

His first major anti-slavery address was given on the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. That emancipation and its aftermath, in Emerson’s view, demonstrated conclusively that the widespread belief in the inferiority of black people was false. The defenders of slavery, he says, “think it the voice of nature and fate” that black people are inferior. “The only reply,” he concludes, “to this poor, sceptical ribaldry is the affirming heart. The sentiment of right…fights against this damnable atheism.”     

In coming to grips with the issue of race he read what was then the scientific literature on the subject, including Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844), Knox’s Races of Men (1850), and Types of Mankind, by Nott and Glidden (1854), which included an essay by Louis Agassiz, who was then the premier scientist in America. It is accurate to say that all of these authors favored Anglo-Saxon white people as the most advanced race and black people as hopelessly inferior. 

In some of his journal entries during this time he wonders if this is true, turning the matter over and over in his mind. In an 1853 journal entry he wrote, the black man “is created on a lower plane than the white, & eats men & kidnaps & tortures, if he can.” Yet in a later entry he noted, “You complain that the negroes are a base class. Who makes and keeps them so, but you who exclude them from the rights which others enjoy?” In the view of Emerson scholar, Len Gougeon, “Ultimately, despite the prevalence of the ‘scientific’  findings of his day, Emerson found theories of deterministic racial inferiority simply inconsistent ‘with [as Emerson put it] the principles on which the world is built,’ and he rejected all such theories outright.” 

English Traits

Nell Painter singles out English Traits as an egregious example of Emerson’s racism. The book was written after his second visit to England and consists of observations and anecdotes regarding the character of the English people. While Emerson is not uncritical of English ways, the overall impression is that he is guilty, at worst, of cultural chauvinism. It is understandable that, given his subject matter and his own ancestry, he would find much to prize and praise in English culture and society.

In the opening chapters of the book Emerson describes the ethnic groups that have influenced English identity and society. In doing so, he adopts the language of race, and thus speaks of the Saxon, Celtic, Norman and Nordic “races” that have, successively, contributed to shaping the English character. He has more to say about the Saxon and Nordic groups than the others, giving the impression, perhaps, of a bias in their favor. Far from portraying the English as a pure race, he concludes that “Everything English is a fusion of distant and antagonistic elements.” 

Although he cites the names of several writers who have written on the subject of race, Emerson dismisses the notion that racial characteristics are imperishable and deterministic. Moreover, he says, “you cannot draw a line where a race begins or ends.” Some reckon five races, others from three to as many as eleven. One who isn’t mentioned, but may have had more of an influence on Emerson’s thinking is the German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who promoted the notion of cultural identity, based largely on language. The discussion of race in English Traits has little to do with the racial theories, popular in America, that deemed Jews, Native Americans and African-Americans inherently inferior to Anglo-Saxon white people. 

As far as Emerson’s views of black people are concerned, I believe it is fair to say, based on his journals, that these evolved. Early on, he seems to endorse conventional views of racial superiority, but, as time went one, he clearly distanced himself from his early statements on the subject. Growing up in New England, Emerson did not have much personal contact with African Americans or, for that matter, other ethnic groups. But, as European immigration and the issue of slavery became more prominent in and around Boston, his instinct was to embrace diversity rather than reject it. 

*“Seeing White” Podcast: http://www.sceneonradio.org/episode-34-on-crazy-we-built-a-nation-seeing-white-part-4/

Thoreau’s Philosophy of Self-Cultivation

barry-andrews-in-gothenburg-sweden

Barry M. Andrews in Gothenburg, Sweden

I was invited to deliver a paper at an academic conference on “The Uses and Abuses of Thoreau at 200” in Gothenburg, Sweden the first week in May. My topic was “Thoreau’s Philosophy of Self-Cultivation,” which I summarize in this blog. If anyone would like a copy of the entire paper, I would be happy to send them one.

In the opening chapter of Walden, Henry Thoreau writes, “nowadays” there are “professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,” and he goes on to assert, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” The true philosopher “is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries,” but maintains “his vital heat by better methods than other men.” The “better methods” he alludes to amount to a spiritual practice that he developed and described—under the rubric of self-culture—not only in Walden, but also in his essays, journals, and letters.

In this paper I compare Thoreau’s philosophy of self-cultivation with similar philosophies developed and practiced in Greece and Rome in the West and India and China in the East. Thoreau himself was well-versed in the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans, having studied them in college. The Stoics sought happiness through harmony with nature. Happiness—defined as tranquillity , or the well-being of the soul—was achieved by means of spiritual exercises which included leisure, solitude, contemplation, simplicity, and walks in nature. The Epicureans pursued the enjoyment of life in the here and now. They sought to maximize pleasure by minimizing wants and by engaging in certain kinds of spiritual exercises, including leisure, conversation, reading, proper diet and exercise, and the contemplation of nature. Although Thoreau didn’t claim to be either one, his own philosophy of self-cultivation nevertheless combined elements of both.

Thoreau’s philosophy of self-cultivation also has affinities with similar philosophies in India and China. He was especially taken with the yoga teachings of the Bhagavad Gita which instruct practitioners to release themselves from the petty affairs of everyday life, withdraw to a solitary place and live alone, exercise control over mind and body, dispense with personal possessions, and meditate on the Atman. This may have inspired him to live at Walden Pond and engage in his own choice of austerities. He was also attracted to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius and complied a series of quotations from their writings for a column in the Dial magazine. Confucian philosophy emphasized the cultivation of sage-hood through the practice of virtue and the exercise of conscience. This was in keeping with the virtue ethics taught at Harvard College and contributed to his argument in the essay on “Civil Disobedience.”

While he was influenced by these philosophies of self-cultivation, Thoreau did not personally identify with any of them. He was better informed about them and was more sympathetic towards them than anyone else in his day. He, like his Transcendentalist colleagues, was drawn to the view that such philosophies represented a form of perennial wisdom just as true for us today as it was to the ancients. In the “Monday” chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau surveys the spiritual philosophies of East and West and concludes the following:

There has always been the same amount of light in the world…. Always the laws of light are the same, but the modes and degrees of seeing it vary. The gods are partial to no era, but steadily shines their light in the heavens, while the light of the beholder is turned to stone. There was but one sun and the eye from the first. The ages have not added a new ray to the one, nor altered a fibre of the other.

“That Which Was Ecstasy Shall Become Daily Bread”

EmersonLast year I was invited to submit a paper to a special issue of Religions, an on-line journal, on Transcendentalism and Religious Experience. Titled “That Which Was Ecstasy Shall Become Daily Bread,” the subject of the paper is the nature of Emerson’s mysticism and its subsequent influence on Unitarian theology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Emerson never called himself a mystic, but he believed that we are subject to ecstasies, or revelations of the Universal Mind common to all people. Such experiences represent “an influx of the Divine Mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the Individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the Sea of Life.” This experience—which can only be described as a mystical experience—is at the heart of all religions and common to all people.

Some have questioned whether Emerson was a mystic, since he did not seem to fit the mold of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. What is distinctive about Emerson’s mysticism is that it is non-sectarian, holistic and natural. For Emerson, God is impersonal, not personal, and immanent in the world, not apart from it. His brand of mysticism is best expressed in this passage from his famous essay, “The Over-Soul”: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

Although Emerson realized that moments of illumination are few and far between, he found such moments to be of great significance. He also knew that they could not be summoned at will. Nevertheless, he believed that people could improve the odds of their reception through cultivating the soul. This he sought to do by engaging in the spiritual practices of self-culture. He thought that society would be enriched by those who were able to communicate the wisdom gained in such experiences, but he never considered that illumination was reserved for a certain class of persons. The biggest obstacle is “that the community in which we live will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world.”

This is because daily life is lived on a mundane level. We are accustomed to dealing with the everyday world in a practical, pragmatic way. We get up in the morning and go about our business thinking that this is the only reality there is. Empirical ways of knowing predominate over intuitive modes of thought. It is for these reasons that Emerson felt our life, as we live it, is common and mean, and sought to find a proper balance between the realities of everyday life and the demands of the spirit, in the hope that, as put it in his 1840 Dial essay, “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” “that which was ecstasy shall become daily bread.”

[Excerpted from “Religions” 2017, Vol. 8 No. 4, 75; doi:10.3390/rel8040075]

I invite you to download my paper from the following site: http://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/75

The Spirituality of Henry David Thoreau

In September Harvard Divinity School hosted a program on Henry Thoreau’s religious views. I was on a panel with Laura Dassow Walls, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life; Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Hour of Land. What follows is a shortened version of my remarks that evening.

Barry M Andrews at the Harvard Divinity School on a Panel discussing Henry David Thoreau's Religion

Barry M Andrews at HDS

This bicentennial year at least a dozen books have been published about Henry David Thoreau. This scholarship is a boon to those of us who feel that Thoreau is worth the effort to understand him better and discover more about his interests and subsequent influence on American life and culture.

The danger we encounter amidst the welter of information produced in the wake of this recent scholarship, as Rebecca Solnit points out in her essay on the “Thoreau Problem,” is that we will end up compartmentalizing him, as in Thoreau the writer, Thoreau the abolitionist, Thoreau the naturalist, and so on. Or, worse yet, bifurcating his life between the recluse of Walden Pond on the one hand and the tax-resister in the Concord jail on the other; or between the dreamy Transcendentalist of his youth and the hard-headed scientist of his later years. Thus, we fail to see how the myriad parts of his life are of a piece and hang together.

From my perspective as a minister and a student of Transcendentalism, the thread on which all the beads of Thoreau’s many-faceted life are strung is his idiosyncratic and unconventional faith—a dimension largely unexplored in Thoreau scholarship. Richard Higgins is one of the few to venture into this area. It is a major thread of Laura Walls’ recent biography as well.

Thoreau’s earliest religious views were informed by his Unitarian upbringing. He was baptized and catechized in Concord’s First Parish Church. His mother and father were members there. But he signed off from the church when he was a young man. By the time he entered college in 1833, he was perhaps not a devout Unitarian, but his Harvard education was nevertheless steeped in Unitarian tradition, the school having been a training ground for over a generation of Unitarian ministers. Many of his professors were noted Unitarians. His textbooks expounded the virtues of Unitarian moral philosophy.

However, as a student he was drawn to counter-cultural ideas then in vogue, the so-called “new views” of religion, self and society that were being entertained by a younger generation of Unitarian intellectuals and divines. The Transcendentalists, with whom he came to identify, were generally of the opinion that the religious sentiment is natural and universal in human experience, whereas religious institutions are but parochial and limited forms which this sentiment takes. They also believed that religious truth is known by experience, intuitively, and thus does not depend on religious scriptures or church teachings. They conceived of a natural or absolute religion, shorn of sectarian elements.

Professor Walls has suggested that Thoreau’s purpose in going to live at Walden Pond was “profoundly religious,” and that in writing of his experience he was intending to produce a “scripture for the modern world.” To this, I would add that Walden is not only a religious treatise, it is also a manual of spiritual practice.

Self-culture played a central role in Transcendentalist spirituality. Sometimes termed “the art of life,” for them it meant the cultivation of the soul. “The art of life!” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Was there anything memorable written on it? By what disciplines to secure the most life, with what care to watch our thoughts.” The disciplines he practiced and described in Walden include leisure, self-reliance, reading, contemplation, solitude, conversation, sauntering in nature, simple living and action from principle. By such practices we may, even today, attempt “to secure the most life.”

As for Thoreau’s religion we should perhaps heed his own admonition: “What is religion?” he queried in his journal. “That which is never spoken.” Part of the difficulty we have in describing Thoreau’s religion is that the word “religion” was only then in the process—one accelerated by the Transcendentalists themselves—of being thought of apart from its historical manifestations in the various faith traditions.

What we can say, I believe, is that his religious views were experiential, nature centered, and pluralistic. God, for him, was immanent rather than transcendent. He was, if anything a nature mystic and a pantheist. He was familiar with the Bible since he read it in Greek at Harvard and frequently drew from Biblical language and imagery in his own writings, but—in my view at least—he was not Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Leigh Eric Schmidt argues in his book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, that the Transcendentalists were responsible for introducing the distinction between religion and spirituality, a prominent feature of religious life today. Thoreau eschewed religious institutions, but was a deeply spiritual person. And this is one of the reasons that many people today find him so appealing. He may have been decried as a heretic and an atheist in his own time, but now he is viewed as the avatar of an alternative way of being religious in the world.

Read more about the event on Harvard Divinity School’s News & Events page.

Book Reading and Author Party

Bainbridge Island Library

1270 Madison Ave N, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 (map)

Friday, October 27, 7:00 pm

Open to the public, Reception to follow

 

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul by Barry M. Andrews

Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul by Barry M. Andrews

American Transcendentalism is often viewed as a literary movement—a flowering of works written by New England intellectuals who retreated from society and lived in nature. In Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, Barry M. Andrews focuses on a neglected aspect of this well-known group, showing how American Transcendentalists developed rich spiritual practices to nurture their souls and discover the divine. The practices are common and simple—among them, keeping journals, contemplation, walking, reading, simple living, and conversation. In approachable and accessible prose, Andrews demonstrates how Transcendentalism’s main thinkers, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and others, pursued rich and rewarding spiritual lives that inspired them to fight for abolition, women’s rights, and education reform. In detailing these everyday acts, Andrews uncovers a wealth of spiritual practices that could be particularly valuable today, to spiritual seekers and religious liberals.

Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, Oct. 2017

Why Transcendentalist Spirituality?

People often ask me why I am attracted to the Transcendentalists. For the Greeks and Romans, to be a philosopher was not to craft subtle arguments, but to live a philosophical life. As Thoreau said in Walden, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates.” For the ancients, philosophy was akin to what today we call spirituality. I, too, aspire to live a philosophical or spiritual life, and for me the Transcendentalists offer the best model for doing so.

Their discipline, or praxis, was termed self-culture. For them, culture was not high-brow entertainment, as it is for us today. It did not “consist in polishing or varnishing,” Emerson said. Rather, culture meant cultivation. And the self in question is not the self of modern psychology, but the soul. Self-culture is the cultivation of the soul. Their spiritual exercises included contemplation, solitude, walks in nature, reading, journal writing, conversation, simple living, and action from principle.

Theoria, for the Greeks and Romans, was wisdom gained through contemplation. The wisdom of the Transcendentalists consisted in the belief that there is a cosmos, or unity of nature, including human nature. It is best expressed in these words of Emerson: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

My own spiritual practice has been enriched and guided by what I have learned from the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau above all.