July 24, 2010

Brownson: But we give it up

The literary societies at Dartmouth College gathered to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson speak on July 24, 1838, about a year after Emerson's "Divinity School Address" at Harvard. "Literary Ethics," as the speech was titled, was soon published in pamphlet form, eliciting a critical response from fellow Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson (who, famously, later converted to Catholicism).

Brownson begins his review by attempting to summarize the speech. Realizing he was failing due to Emerson's own meandering thoughts, his review turns to parody. His attempt at summary ends abruptly:

But we give it up. We cannot analyze one of Mr. Emerson's discourses. He hardly ever has a leading thought, to which all the parts of his discourse are subordinate, which is clearly stated, systematically drawn out, and logically enforced. He is a poet rather than a philosopher —  and not always true even to the laws of poetry.

Emerson's speech was really about the role of the scholar in society. He suggests a form of asceticism or personal sacrifice. He says, for example, a "lust of display" is "fatal to the man of letters." And, as always, Emerson says humankind has not progressed as far as it should intellectually. He concludes:

Be content with a little light, so it be your own. Explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize, nor accept another's dogmatism... Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as shall not takeaway your property in all men's possessions, in all men's affections, in art, in nature, and in hope.

*The above image of Brownson depicts him in his later years, as painted by George P. A. Healey in 1863. The original is in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian.

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