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A God for Bloggers

    Ralph Waldo Emerson on his 200th birthday this spring is “closer to us than ever,” writes the great Harold Bloom.  He is a man for bloggers to embrace most especially, not for Emerson’s glory but for our own understanding of a transformative moment we are living through. 

     Poet, public intellectual, performance artist and incomparable diarist, Emerson (1803-1882) has glory enough.  It’s we who need his encouraging frame around bloggery–this still strange and marvellous exercise in democratic media.

     Dave Winer reported in Scripting News yesterday that I’d been ranting about Emerson’s prophetic grasp of the bloggers’ emergence.  But then Dave said he didn’t get it.  So here goes, Dave.  Doc Searls, as a non-tech and spoken-word kinda guy, I think you can help us out here.  Come one, come all.

     Here’s my point.  When we talk about this Internet and this blogging software, this techno-magic that encourages each of us to be expressive voices in an open, universal network of across-the-board conversation, we are speaking of an essentially Emersonian device for an essentially Emersonian exercise.  Starting with the electronics.  “Invent a better mousetrap,” as Emerson wrote, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”  Well, here we are.

     Here’s Emerson in a paragraph: blue-eyed, slope-shouldered, with an Indian nose that formed the gentlest of hatchet faces, he was a child of the Boston Latin School and the youngest member of the Harvard class of 1821.  He was a Christian minister who left the church in his mid-thirties to be a professional talker and writer, a “diamond dealer,” someone said, in moral and ethical ideas.   His friend Henry David Thoreau kept the vegetable garden at Emerson’s Old Manse in Concord, the same house where the young Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his classic early stories.  We all know fragments of Emerson: the Concord Hymn about “the rude bridge that arched the flood” and “the shot heard round the world,” which Robert Frost thought was the finest of American poems.  We all know that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and other bits of the essay Self-Reliance, and that “to be great is to be misunderstood.”  Or the warning that: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one if its members.” 
Melancholy and enthusiasm are contrasting strands through all Emerson, but there is no summing up this man who disagreed with himself and both perplexed and dazzled his friends.  Walt Whitman loved it that nobody could tag Emerson’s thinking: “no province, no clique, no church.”  Whitman felt “a flood of light” about Emerson, an impression of pure being.  Hawthorne said Emerson “wore a sunbeam in his face.”

     In the booming energy of blog world, we are glimpsing the fulfillment of an Emersonian vision: this democracy of outspoken individuals. 

     “Trust thyself,” was Emerson’s refrain.  “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” 

     Speak your own convictions, and your own contradictions, he urged. Claim your own ideas before someone else does.  “I hate quotations,” begins another of the famous aphorisms.  “Tell me what you know.”  Which is what the great bloggers keep doing.

     “In all my lectures,” Emerson boiled it down, “I have taught one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man.”  Bloggers, do we recognize ourselves?

     We are glimpsing also, through individual voices on the World Wide Web, the fulfillment of Emerson’s universalism and his confidence in cultural connectivity.  The definitively American thinker was a globalist before there was such a thing.  He was anti-racist and anti-nationalist, a student of Persian poetry and Buddhism, an inspiration to Thomas Carlyle and Jawarhalal Nehru.  Not because he was a multi-culturalist but because he thought the human mind and heart were capable of immense and innumerable expansions.  “There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us,” he wrote in the essay: Circles.  And now with the Web we understand more nearly what he meant.

     Ahead of the evolutionary and cognitive scientists, Emerson believed there was one human brain, one universal mind. 

     We are, almost all of us, in range of Aristotle’s intellect, Emerson fancied.  “The mind is one,” he wrote in the essay, History:   “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.”

     When he speaks of “access to this universal mind,” he could be describing the leveling effect of Google search engines.  He encompasses the idea of distributed intelligence, and the ideal of networked computers as a democracy of end-users.

     “Democracy has its root,” Emerson wrote, “in the sacred truth that every man hath in him the Divine reason.”  Even though “few men since the creation of the world live according to the dictate of Reason, yet all men are created capable of so doing.  That is the equality and the only equality of all men.”

     The electronic liberation of information is giving a new kick to Emerson’s theory and hope.

     Emerson celebrated consciousness, the miracle of self-awareness in each and every one of us. He would still today be fighting the scientific reduction of its magic.  In his journal, at age 23, he sounded like many a burbling blogger:There is a pleasure in the thought that the particular tone of my mind at this moment may be new in the Universe; that the emotions of this hour may be peculiar and unexampled in the whole eternity of moral being.” 

     Emerson was himself a sort of group blogger in The Dial, a magazine he founded with Margaret Fuller in 1840.  He designed it as a compendium of the “good fanatics,” like Thoreau, Alcott and Channing in his Concord circle. “I would not have it too purely literary,” he wrote to Fuller, venting a blogger’s ambition.  “I wish we might make a Journal so broad and great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every interest and read the law on property, government, education, as well as on art, letters, and religion.”

     Emerson’s purpose in The Dial, he said, was “to give expression to that spirit which lifts men to a higher platform, restores to them the religious sentiment, brings them to worthy aims and pure pleasures, purges the inward eye and reconciles the practical with the speculative powers.” In short, he said, in a perfect distillation of himself, the magazine must become “one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.”  

     When I first read that line in the mid-1990s, it was like a thunderclap in my ears.  The din of mourners and polemics, 150 years after Emerson coined the phrase, was deafening in Bill Clinton’s 
America.  The mourners were mostly in the print press (mourning, for starters, the decline of their own medium).  The polemicists like Rush Limbaugh were hammering away on the airwaves.  But by then I had found in my own public radio talk show that “cheerful, rational” space for public conversation across an Emersonian range of gab.  Emerson’s couplet caught the spirit of it: “The music that can deepest reach, And cure all ill, is cordial speech.” 

     The next trick will be to use audio capacity on the Web to add the timbre of “vox humana” and integrate the mosaic tiles of blog wisdom in authentic conversation.

     Emerson encourages me.  “Bad times have a scientific value,” he wrote.  “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”

     Harold Bloom and others say that we are all Emersonians by now, willy nilly, for both good and ill. 

     I start more narrowly.  My modern Emersonian is, first, a non-dogmatic believer with an alert interest in the inward and the invisible mysteries of a spirit-driven creation. 

     I want to embrace bloggers in general as Essential Emersonians: radical democrats and individualists, sick unto death of our imprisonment by mass media, mass emotion, the retribalization in our time by mass labeling, mass marketing, mass following, sheepish mass everything.  That modern Emersonian is nonetheless cheerfully banking on the reawakening of individual conscience, individual ambition, individual possibility.  

       The modern Emersonian celebrates the astonishing advances of biological sciences and evolutionary history confirming what Emerson knew intuitively was the unity of our polyglot and multi-colored species.  

     The modern Emersonian celebrates also the Internet technology that can sustain a free, democratic, global conversation as intimate and as broad as the chatter of Emerson’s venerable Saturday Club in 

     The modern Emersonian is, in short, an ecstatic melancholic, an unquenchable optimist in a darkening world, aware that the big trick for grown-ups is to look unblinking at the torture and tyranny, the pandemic disease and progressive brutalization of people and the planet and know that is not the whole story and that this is no time to give up.

{ 16 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | June 21, 2003 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Check this out.

  2. Anonymous | June 21, 2003 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Right, instead of today’s “mass emotion” and “mass following”, let’s all follow Emerson’s vision and his emotions.

    You write about how Emerson dislikes quotes, yet our whole article is one big quote about how much you wish you were Emerson.

  3. Anonymous | June 22, 2003 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Bravo, Christopher! Eloquently said! I’ve loved Emerson ever since I was a teenager. Let’s feel pride for adding our outspoken individualism to the “collective mind”!

  4. Anonymous | June 22, 2003 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    “[F]ew men since the creation of the world live according to the dictate of Reason,” and sadly we have scant need to update that observation on the basis of evidence available in the blogosphere. Indeed, quite the opposite. Maybe there is a solution, but unless and until technology actually facilitates reasoned discourse, it’s hard to share your enthusiasm.

  5. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    What a splendid post!

  6. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Yes, that Robert Manning of Boston, a would-be Emersonian groping for the tools with which to be one. Congrats, Chris, on your new web-site and double congrats for the fine Emerson essay. If we can believe Old Waldo’s essay on Compensation we can take hope that for each of the nasty things going on today in the world, especially in Washington, there is or will be a benign opposite.

  7. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    why the question mark?

  8. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Emerson’s multiculturalism was gleaned from the racist scholarship of the British Raj: he never experienced the living traditions from which the Indian thought he professed to admire emerged. In that sense, yes, he is an exemplary postmodern American, as is that Emersonian contempt for “mass culture,” which translates rather directly, I think, into a contempt for ordinary human beings … a very un-Christian failure of human solidarity. But I find very little to be proud of in acknowledging that fact. More thoughts at:

  9. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    A beautifule piece! thanks!

    Along with Nehru and the other luminaries you mentioned, a certain german philosopher by the name of Nietzsche was also quite fond of Emerson’s writings in his early years!

    Once again thanks for a wonderfully uplifting piece!


  10. Anonymous | June 24, 2003 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    A thought-provoking piece, thank you. I am ready to see as Emersonian the proliferation of individualistic expression that blogs have permitted. I don’t think the idea of a distributed “mind” a la Google matches what Emerson described, however; in fact a distributed, populational mind is the opposite of his notion of a central, essentialist mind to which everyone have access. He’s a mainframe thinker (how’s that for an anachronism) in this population-thinking world.

  11. Anonymous | July 14, 2003 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    From the Cautionary Tales Dept: The euphoria infused in these comments reminds me of the reaction of many in the mid-1980’s who came across “computer conferencing” at the other end of their dial-up modem connections. Think of The WELL, or Participate on The Source.

    It was, truly, completely, something new under the Sun of free expression. In many settings, anyone could start a discussion topic, on any subject, and those who found it were welcomed to join in, thus creating a community of minds linked by interest alone.

    For professionals trained in the dynamics of groups and for visionaries who were in concert with Emerson’s insight into common human experience, this was a platform for creative collaboration and expression with potentially universal reach outside the frame and control of institutional publishing and communications. Removed of process, time, space, and ultimately language constraints — even at a mere 300 baud (and this was all happening well far apart from the Internet and Usenet) — this global connectivity opened the door to advancing human understanding to a previously inaccessible level: whether among a small group developing policy; people sharing personal experience in support groups, or people with previously unconnected but shared politics coordinating global strategy.

    When the Internet connected the isolated islands of commercial online services and BBS networks where conferencing was active in the mid-1990’s, the door opened large, and it remains opening, soon to get a supreme kick as AOL provides blogging to its millions of subscribers.

    In a previous response here, J.A. Marrit reacts to Chris’ post this way: “…unless and until technology actually facilitates reasoned discourse, it’s hard to share your enthusiasm.”

    The important goal is to determine whether and how technology might conceivably advance reason itself. As it happens, in those 15 pre-web years literally thousands of dedicated practitioners, many of whom were motivated by the very Emersonian tenets expressed here, deliberately designed their collaborative spaces to create a better common understanding for the people in their groups, whatever their size or purpose.

    How have they done? I think it is fair to say modestly well. They are still at it. Still bringing groups together, creating useful collaborative spaces, many of which are now infused with blogs. But they also now work with a highly informed sense of technology’s limitations when it comes to affecting relationships among people.

    For the purposes of assessing the presence of Emerson in the blogosphere, they might say, “Yes, he’s still out there, and more clearly apparant than at any time previously, and so there for anyone interested in bringing him into his or her orbit.”

    Reasoned discourse, in other words, will have to speak for itself.

  12. Anonymous | July 31, 2003 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. Thanks for the insights. I haven’t read Emerson in years and now feel compelled to visit him again.

  13. Anonymous | August 13, 2003 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Chris, I respect your opinion, but I disagree.

    I see few bloggers as individualists. There is a herd mentality. People afraid to go against the grain.

    And how can you not see the elitist undercurrent that pervades the blogosphere?

    Thank God as more “common folk” start blogging the din of their elistist voices will grow fainter in my ears.

  14. Anonymous | February 15, 2004 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Great to back and pull-on the mantle, but Emerson was a minister, and spoke to others trying to “save” them, but alas, decided to save himself by lecturing and publishing.Today we have the ghastly expansion of blowggers, and everybodies is saved?

  15. Anonymous | September 16, 2005 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Very nice site!

  16. xps converter | February 7, 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    very helpful. mark here

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