Emerson thought the individual would save society. He believed that it was up to individuals in society to benefit all of society. To do this, he posed that one must trust who they are, be self-aware of their own beliefs, and to be critical of society’s standards.
Again–especially right now, few would argue against such an ideal way of thinking about the power of a single person to create change. In fact, didn’t I say something about this when I urged folks to vote??
But like all us human, Emerson had his flaws. And his flaws were of his time. Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses Emerson’s beliefs about slavery in her book, The History of White People. Emerson was/is thought to be an American thinker who was among the first in this country to write about anti-slavery.
So, Emerson was against slavery. He was particularly against the Fugitive Slave Act. Diving deeper into his unpublished writings and journals, Dr. Painter note his argument against slavery was not one based in humane ideas and equality.
Emerson wrote, “The absence of moral feeling of whiteman is the very calamity I deplore. The capitivity of a thousand negroes is nothing to me.” Essentially, Emerson felt that slavery was a bad look for white men, whom he identified with and idealized with as perched at the top of social hierarchy. He saw slavery as a barrier to the white man’s ultimate advancement, civility, and enlightenment.
Questions: Should his ideas around slavery (which were in alignment with the period of time he was alive) affect his influence on American culture now? Can we separate his ideas about slavery from his ideas about individual strength?