There’s some kind of a series of posts going on about Ralph Waldo Emerson on So Many Books by Stefanie. It’s always a pleasure to read essays or treatises on ideas. Most blogs seem to be mere re-hashing of news with pithy commentary. Yes, guilty as charged on that count. The outstanding blogs of the internet (Registan, Coming Anarchy, Becker-Posner, Awkward Utopia) are about ideas. In that spirit, then, I’d like to re-hash this post from So Many Books:

After Emerson builds his moral foundation, we can then understand what he means when he says

Character is the habit of action from the permanent vision of truth. It carries a superiority to all the accidents of life. It compels right relation to every other man, – domesticates itself with strangers and enemies….it confers perpetual insight. It sees that a man’s friends and his foes are of his own house-hold, of his own person. What would it avail me, if I could destroy my enemies? There would be as many to-morrow. That which I hate and fear is really in myself, and no knife is long enough to reach to its heart.

I love that last line. It gives me shivers.

Would it surprise you to know that Emerson believes that people with the character which he names here are rare, that he thinks that only one appears in any given generation and sometimes not at all? Just because we are not likely to reach the heights of character does not let us off the hook. We must still choose to be moral and even then we will waver, make mistakes and wrong choices. But, if we can live our lives overall with the moral sentiment as out guide, we will be better off and so will everyone else.

What would it mean for our education to make us ask these questions earlier in school and more in depth? What would it mean for our museums to engage us in this way, beyond skeletal organization at exhibitions consisting of a quaint brochure, tombstone tags for the works denoting artist/title/year, and to do so with flexibility? In the end, it will be discussion borne of passion that brings us together, not lecturing.

My suspicion is that Emerson may seem too preachy to the art world of today, in a way too out of touch with the tropes, texts, and discourses so in vogue. For that, we are all a little poorer.

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