Emerson and His Critique of So-Called Me-First Individualism

Sorry that it’s been so long since I posted last. The end of the quarter kind of consumed me, and then decompressing for the last two weeks made me oblivious to most things too. I am now in Austin, Texas for the week before Christmas with my partner, Kristen, visiting her family.

I caught an article this morning at Salon.com on Emerson and the Transcendentalists as “America’s Me First Generation.” I guess that it is a review of a book only half-mentioned in the article, though the tone of the whole piece is like that of a conversation you might have with someone who just read the book and is interested in talking about the subject of the book, and not the book as a subject.

The jist is that Emerson, who famously wrote that essay most of us read in High School, Self-Reliance, and similarly self-focused Transcendentalists were at odds with more socially-focused Transcendentalists.

This was the puzzle that the Transcendentalists faced: It is hard to remake a human being without also changing the society around him, but it is even harder to change a society when the human beings in it remain their old, recalcitrant selves

To this end, Miller represents or furthers a representation of Emerson as a beginning to what is today recognized as an abhorrent “me-first” or “me-me-me” attitude qua consumerist demand.

Some of us have even managed to convince ourselves that individualism is the only viable route to social justice, sharing Emerson’s faith in self-reliance as the consummate virtue

This is just poor argument of equivocation though. It is accurate to say that Emerson advocated a kind of way of life that turned on the individual rather than society. It’s even fair to say he brought this across as a way of making life better for people. Where Miller throws Emerson out the window is when she, like the author she seems to be reviewing, connects this notion of the individual to so-called individualism. Emerson is a very hostile to this individual, which Miller echos when she writes that he and other Transcendentalists both objected to “the materialistic, status-conscious ruthlessness of life under the reign of industrial capitalism.”

Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance is a critique against this individualism, which is a herd-mentality, to borrow from Nietzsche, the only person who seems to have read Emerson in the 19th Century. The trust in and reliance on ourselves that Emerson talks about is not the naive, self-made capitalist-Objectivist. For Emerson the motives driving this formation of the individual were as outside of the self as the authority from which Kant, in “What is Enlightenment,” says we must release ourselves, lest we remain unenlightened and spiritually/intellectually immature.

All I can say for now, because I’d like to post this now though I have to go, is that Emerson undermines the contemporary feel-good individualism that Miller would like to agree really starts with him. I will try and update this post this week with some

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