I'll admit to being a voracious reader, ever since I was about 3 or 4. Now, 20 years and a minor in philosophy later, I am tackling some of the great American thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau and most recently Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I find that both of these authors speak to me for various reasons—Thoreau with his love of wildness and meaningful solitude, and Emerson with his Transcendentalist philosophical outlook. However, the latter's writings/lectures on Man the Reformer and The Young American seem remarkably applicable today, and I wish today's conservatives would take note.
For example, take note of this quote from his lecture "Man the Reformer," delivered to the Mechanics' Apprentices' Library Association in Boston, Jan. 28, 1841:
But there will dawn ere long on our politics, on our modes of living, a nobler morning than that Arabian faith, in the sentiment of love. We must be lovers, and at once the impossible becomes possible. Our age and history, for these thousand years, has not been the history of kindness, but of selfishness. Our distrust is very expensive. The money we spend for courts and prisons is very ill laid out. We make, by distrust, the thief, and burglar, and incendiary, and by our court and jail we keep him so. An acceptance of the sentiment of of love throughout Christendom for a season, would bring the felon and the outcast to our side in tearsm with the devotion of his faculties to our service. … Let our affection flow out to our fellows; it would operate in a day the greatest of all revolutions. It is better to work on institutions by the sun than by the wind. The state must consider the poor man, and all voices must speak for him. Every child that is born must have a just chance for his bread. Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor. Let us begin by habitual imparting. Let us understand that the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be ever so rich. [emphasis added]In these days of cuts to Social Security, food stamps and other assistance programs—where gratuitous freeloading remains the exception to the rule—and in direct contrast to the growth of corporate greed, let us take this point of Emerson to heart. [More below the fold.]
I also found Emerson's lecture The Conservative to be quite insightful into the current state of politics. In it, he describes the tension between conservatism and innovation (or liberal progressivism) as being a natural struggle that interacts throughout history, hopefully balancing itself out—although that balance seems in danger with the latent rise of the Tea Party. And yet, back in Dec. 9, 1841, he points out the faults of rampant conservatism with shocking lucidity:
There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking and sure of final success. Conservatism stands on man's confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude; conservatism on circumstance; liberalism on power… Reform is affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth. …I wish more people in politics to act with the same philosophical detachment that Emerson exudes, with political debates and government being an arena for constructive, dialectical conversation, where compromises and agreements are reached for the good of the lowly people, rather than the current corporately sponsored oil-and-water situation that exists, especially between Congress and the President.
And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine. Nature does not give the crown of bits approbation, namely, beauty, to any action or emblem or actor, but to one which combines both these elements; not to the rock which resists the waves from age to age, nor to the wave which lashes incessantly the rock, but the superior beauty is with the oak which stands with its hundred arms against the storms of a century, and grows each year like a sapling… [emphasis added]
Another of Emerson's warnings of strict, patriarchal conservatism can be found in The Young American, an 1844 lecture to the Mercantile Library Association in Boston:
The patriarchal form of government readily becomes despotic, as each person may see in his own family. Fathers wish to be the fathers of the minds of their children, and behold with impatience a new character and way of thinking presuming to show itself in their own son or daughter. This feeling, which all their love and pride in the powers of their children cannot subdue, becomes petulance and tyranny when the head of the clan, the emperor of an empire, deals with the same difference of opinion in his subjects. Difference of opinion is the one crime which kings never forgive. An empire is an immense egotism.These readings really "clicked" with me, and I thought I'd share them, in the hopes that others would enjoy and benefit from them. If so, I highly recommend reading the originals (I'm reading the Library of America single-volume edition of Essays and Lectures).
I wish to conclude this musing with the conclusion to The Conservative, which I think can be a rallying encouragement to progressives and reformers still today:
In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial plant, but grew here on the wild crab of conservatism. It is much that this old and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born.Edit: changed italicized passages to bold for easier readability and added a second "emphasis added" where needed.