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Friday, November 27, 2009

Blaming Emerson 


During our stroll around Charlottesville this afternoon, we stopped by the New Dominion Book Shop on the pedestrian mall in the old part of town, and I bought -- appropriately, I would say -- John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. After arguing that the Founding Fathers were fundamentally pessimists, at least about human nature and the ability of governments to do anything about its worst instincts, Derb points the finger:

The optimistic rot set in as Calvinism gave way to Unitarianism in the later eighteenth century. Th 1805 election of Henry Ware Sr., a Unitarian, to the Professorship of Divinity at Harvard University prepared the way for the great liberal-optimist flowering of the Transcendentalist movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Henry Ware Jr., the professor's son, was friend and mentor to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism, and a person who, in my opinion, ought to be burned in effigy at the commencement of every conservative gathering.

Hmm. Burning Emerson in effigy. I admit, I had not thought of that, but it could be fun. There are not nearly enough effigy burnings for my taste -- somehow it fell out of fashion -- but restarting the tradition with Emerson might be just what we need to restore its patina of respectability.

9 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Nov 27, 06:12:00 PM:

Would that be the 1805 election of Henry Ware, Sr.?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Nov 27, 06:36:00 PM:

Oops. Thanks. My typo, not Derb's.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Nov 27, 06:36:00 PM:

I imagine you are familiar with this quote from you bud George Will: “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”  

By Blogger SMGalbraith, at Fri Nov 27, 08:29:00 PM:

After arguing that the Founding Fathers were fundamentally pessimists, at least about human nature .

Well, I'd say they were realists more than pessimists.

Designing a government with the belief that "Men are not angels" is a pretty good way to start things off.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Fri Nov 27, 10:31:00 PM:

There is no such thing as a disillusioned Puritan.  

By Blogger Kurt, at Sat Nov 28, 01:13:00 AM:

Oh, please! Give me a break. Conservatives might take issue with the EARLY Emerson, but eventually he was disabused of his youthful idealism. The later Emerson was a pragmatist; his writings occasionally flirted with relativism, but he was no relativist. Part of what makes Emerson an interesting writer is that even his most transcendental works can be used to support positions taken by either liberals or conservatives.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Sat Nov 28, 05:36:00 AM:

"Part of what makes Emerson an interesting writer is that even his most transcendental works can be used to support positions taken by either liberals or conservatives."

Must have been writing BO's campaign speeches.  

By Blogger Kurt, at Sat Nov 28, 01:01:00 PM:

That could be--on the other hand, I'm quite sure he would have been dismayed by the sort of agenda that BO was trying to hide behind that ambiguous rhetoric. Emerson mostly avoided the political issues of his day. "We are incompetent to solve the times," he wrote in 1860. The first time he ever voted in any presidential election was when he voted for Lincoln.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Thu Dec 03, 12:31:00 PM:

I'm not sure resurrecting itself as the party of pessimists and curmudgeons was what Reagan had in mind for Republicans. Clear eyed pragmatists, surely. But optimists as well. He was all about Morning - not Mourning - in America...

But if Derbyshire must go blaming externalities(I would suggest rather blaming the No Nothings over Emerson, but what do I know), then he should make his straw man of the Rural Cemetery Movement: those dewy eyed 19th century reformers who failed to accept our bone yards as the noisome, pestilential places they had always been and reinvented them a places for peaceful contemplation.

And also Frederick Law Olmstead, who had the effrontery to make us value unproductive public parks instead of developing valuable urban real estate. Next thing you know, there were Republicans creating national parks, busting trusts and sewing the seeds of the Nanny State under the guise of promoting the general welfare. Conservatives who conserve!

Surely, Mr. Dewey, here is where the right went wrong.  

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