Monday, January 28, 2013

"Many a reformer perishes in his removal of rubbish"

"Many a reformer perishes in his removal of rubbish, — and that makes the offensiveness of the class. They are partial; they are not equal to the work they pretend. They lose their way; in the assault on the kingdom of darkness, they expend all their energy on some accidental evil, and lose their sanity and power of benefit. It is of little moment that one or two, or twenty errors of our social system be corrected, but of much that the man be in his senses.

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

It is handsomer to remain in the establishment better than the establishment, and conduct that in the best manner, than to make a sally against evil by some single improvement, without supporting it by a total regeneration. Do not be so vain of your one objection. Do you think there is only one? Alas! my good friend, there is no part of society or of life better than any other part. All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike...

I do not wonder at the interest these projects inspire. The world is awaking to the idea of union, and these experiments show what it is thinking of. It is and will be magic. Men will live and communicate, and plough, and reap, and govern, as by added ethereal power, when once they are united; as in a celebrated experiment, by expiration and respiration exactly together, four persons lift a heavy man from the ground by the little finger only, and without sense of weight. But this union must be inward, and not one of covenants, and is to be reached by a reverse of the methods they use. The union is only perfect, when all the uniters are isolated. It is the union of friends who live in different streets or towns. Each man, if he attempts to join himself to others, is on all sides cramped and diminished of his proportion; and the stricter the union, the smaller and the more pitiful he is. But leave him alone, to recognize in every hour and place the secret soul, he will go up and down doing the works of a true member, and, to the astonishment of all, the work will be done with concert, though no man spoke. Government will be adamantine without any governor. The union must be ideal in actual individualism."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844


  1. The Chronicle had a great article about Emerson a couple of years ago:

    1. I read it quickly - I'll have to come back to it more closely later. I have to say, I always used to hate Emerson's writing because it was so impenetrable. About a year ago I came by a thick collected works of his that belonged to my great-grandad and in the last six months or so I've tried to work carefully through it, and I've appreciated him a lot more than I ever used to. What they say about his inconsistency or failure to provide practical advice may very well be true, but that doesn't bother me quite so much.

      Thanks for the link!

  2. I mostly think that Emerson was a conceited git with an overinflated ego - a common problem amongst Bostonian types of stature during that time period (just think of Holmes' father and his conception of the world with Boston as it's navel). There is something frankly to be said for clarity of prose and how the impenetrable or the obscurantist makes the mundane seem profound. Just my view of course.

  3. Fantastic post, thanks for the information.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.