A Sympathetic Reading of Emerson’s Politics

William J. Berger
Content Type
Journal Article
Issue Number
Publication Date
The Center for the Study of Statesmanship, Catholic University
Ralph Waldo Emerson has a complicated political legacy owing at least in part to his own intermittent and hesitant political activism, crass racism, and fierce individualism. Despite this, a steady stream of political philosophers have attended to Emerson’s work, with the likes of John Dewey proclaiming him “the philosopher of democracy” (1903). But as his writings continually direct readers inwards—away from social and political life—recovering an Emersonian politics is not a straightforward task. A basic difficulty lies in the fact that Emerson “did not consider himself a political thinker and focused his energies on issues that seem, at first glance far removed from politics. . . . From first to last Emerson regarded politics as one of the practical applications of ethics or moral philosophy, and he insisted that all political questions were, at bottom, moral” (Robinson, 2004: 1). But politics is not just morality scaled up. It raises distinct collective concerns to which individuated moral philosophy cannot speak. As such, imputing a political theory to Emerson is not a simple matter. Jennifer Gurley may best summarize the difficulty of recovering a political Emerson, noting: “of all the nineteenth century American writers we might describe as political, he is perhaps the one who most despised politics, proclaiming they are ‘odious and hurtful’. . .” (Gurley, 2007: 323).
Political Theory, Philosophy
Political Geography
United States