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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Ralph Waldo Emerson watch.

Talk about top billing, folks: John Updike mentions the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History in the second sentence of his New Yorker review of books commemorating the bicentennial of our most famous Unitarian ex-clergyman.

The key passages, worth our extended consideration, are these about Emerson's August 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address and his July 1838 Divinity School address:

Both addresses were, beneath their flowers of rhetoric, inflammatorily hostile to the host institution, from which Emerson had graduated in 1821, thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. Harvard, in Professor [Kenneth S.] Sacks's analysis, was a bastion of Unitarianism, which had become the religion of the ruling élite of Boston. Unitarianism, which in 1819 was called "the half-way house to infidelity" by a professor at the rival Andover Theological Seminary, and is now seen, with its sister the Universalist Church, as the ultimate in liberal Protestantism, by 1837 had acquired an aristocratic and conservative bias that disdained populist revivalism and, closer to home, so-called Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement derived from the mystic streak in Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle.

If you're looking for a well-written guide to this aristocratic Unitarianism, pick up a copy of The Unitarian conscience: Harvard moral philosophy, 1805-1861 by Daniel Walker Howe. The book describes not just the philosophical tradition Emerson was rejecting, but the political, literary, and ethical culture that dominated Boston. Back to Updike:

According to Sacks:
Harvard-Unitarian culture found spiritual and intellectual confirmation in empirical proof, scientific progress, and material success. Emerson acknowledged understanding derived from observation of external phenomena, but believed that the more important truths are eternal and intuitive, emerging from within. Ostensibly a struggle between the schools of Locke and Kant, after 2200 years it still pretty much came down to Aristotle versus Plato. But Emerson's scholar wasn't the elite Guardian of Plato’s Republic; it was instead Socrates, son of a stone mason.

European Romanticism, rephrased for the American democracy, posed a revolutionary threat to a rationalist élite. At the same time, it upset Christian orthodoxy, even the attenuated Unitarian form. Emerson's Divinity School address, amid its offenses, reduced Jesus to a sublimely typical man. . . . To the future ministers, Emerson, having vividly sketched the dismal state of the contemporary church—"It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good, and the fear of the bad"—said, "Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity." He admonished them "to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." That the terrain to which his auditors are released is dauntingly featureless did not curb Emerson's own delight in solitary freedom. . . .

Provocative stuff!

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 30 July 2003 at 5:44 PM

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