What does Emerson’s revolutionary message have to say to the world now? The famous uprisings that set the stage for Emerson in the first Age of Revolution were the American and French Revolutions. Bloodied and often brutalized in these wars, citizens yet emerged with an established political framework and a sense of high promise. In America, leaders had originated documents of an exciting new democratic order, presenting a balance of power in government with the potential, by wider enfranchisement, of an ever-increasing popular voice. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were indispensable foundations for Emerson to build upon the freedoms that they proclaimed.
However, in these days of a second Age of Revolution–most obvious in the Middle East but also in Africa, Latin and South America, and the Far East–the great hopes that the first Revolution inspired appear stymied, at least temporarily. They are stuck in old or new theocracies, kingdoms, and virtual dictatorships, which despite any veneer of democracy in some, in truth quickly extinguish individual rights wherever they may arise, as with the Arab Spring. Without the existence of, and adherence to, documents supporting human values parallel to those of the West, how is Emerson’s revolution useful to the world?
His charge-to-change certainly depended on a favorable context: a fresh young country in a largely unexplored land, victorious in its War for Independence with inspiring words and new laws. But Emerson didn’t begin on the political plane. Much more privately, higher as well as deeper, he began within the individual human soul. That soul, gaining its very identity and purpose from an impersonal “Over-Soul,” or “Moral Law,” was Emerson’s center of rightful power and engine of action. Calling for a constant re-alignment of self with this “Higher Fact” allowed Emerson to make “Self-Reliance” a reliable motto for rightful reform. As America’s Civil War approached, both blacks and women took this message and adapted it to their own needs. The result was what Emerson had long hoped for: self-leadership by the oppressed in the name of morality. Perhaps like Emerson, public intellectuals in countries caught in this seemingly static second Revolution can inspire new leaders in their midst to arise, claim their universal rights and gain supporters. At the same time, they need, and are beginning to receive, outside help to meet the spectrum of wars that are destroying the just aims of this Revolution. Such warfare is forcing the current migrations of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, in effect, a desperate vote-with-the-body in a flight to the West to live their Revolution.
Many of us, East or West, are struggling with our versions of the same inner conflict that encumbered Emerson for most of his life: the battle between inherited private prejudices against blacks and women while publicly standing for the rights of both groups. Worldwide, news articles daily document the grossly inhuman effects of these lasting biases, among educated and uneducated alike. How might we break through this social blindness more swiftly than Emerson did? Fortunately, the number of capable, even stellar models among blacks and women of his day–from Frederick Douglass to Harriett Tubman and Lucretia Mott to the Grimké sisters–has grown exponentially. Demographically, countries once considered “white” are becoming, or have become, “brown” or mixed. Ethnic diversity in any country is no longer a novelty, except perhaps among small, isolated South American tribes. But excellent models and demographic change are external factors. Emerson asks us, as he asked himself, why am I hanging on to any slights of attitude or acceptance toward blacks and women? Placing the question at its heart, the individual soul, he then puts the locus of change on our own conscience, guided by a deep sense of morality, his “Moral Law.” Reaching that point more swiftly through reading Emerson, rather than by chastisements from the press, podium or pulpit, maybe we can be all the more speedily led to break down the inner, perhaps even unconscious, barriers that have long kept us from helping to advance our common humanity and the progress of civilization.
Mr. Emerson’s Revolution is a multi-authored study, edited by Jean McClure Mudge, tracing the life, thought, and social activism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mr. Emerson’s Revolution provides essential reading for students and teachers of American intellectual history, the abolitionist struggle, and the women’s rights movement―and for anyone interested in the nineteenth-century roots of these seismic social changes.