Electronic Archives of Liberal Religion
Adler, Felix: An Ethical Philosophy of Life, "Chapter III: Emerson"
Ethical Press, 1986 reprint. Original copyright 1918.
I find on looking backward that my development proceeded with the help of a series of definitions fixing my attitude toward teachers who made a special appeal to me, and toward great historic tendencies past and present. I was helped both by what I was able to appreciate in them, and, where I diverged, by what they forced me to think out for myself. Here let me acknowledge a passing debt to Emerson. As in the case of Kant, a strong attraction drew me toward Emerson with temporary disregard of radical differences, -- although the spell was never so potent or so persistent in the latter instance as in the former. I made Emerson's acquaintance in 1875. I came into touch with the Emerson circle and read and re-read the Essays. The value of Emerson's teaching to me at that time consisted in the exalted view he takes of the self. Divinity as an object of extraneous worship for me had vanished. Emerson taught that immediate experience of the divine power in self may take the place of worship. His doctrine of self-reliance also was bracing to a youth just setting out to challenge prevailing opinions and to urge plans of transformation upon the community in which he worked. But I soon discovered that Emerson overstresses self-affirmation at the expense of service.
For a time indeed I reconciled in my own fashion the two contrary tendencies. The divine power, I argued, flows through me as a channel -- hence the grandeur which attaches to my spiritual nature. But the divine power manifests itself in redressing the wrongs that exist in the world, and in putting an end to such violations of personality as the sexual and economic exploitations which disgrace human society. So for a time I continued to walk on air with Emerson, and had my head in the clouds, -- the clouds in which Emerson enveloped me.
Out of this false sense of security, this quasi-pantheistic self-affirmation, the experiences of the next few years effectually roused me. I came to see that Emerson's pantheism in effect spoils his ethics. Be thyself, -- he says, not a counterfeit or imitation of someone else. Be different. But why! Because the One manifests itself in endless variety. Penetrating below the surface, however, one finds that in this kind of philosophy the value of difference, to which I attach essential importance on ethical grounds, is nothing more than that of a foil. According to Emerson life is a universal masquerade' and the interest of the whole business of living consists in the ever-renewed discovery that the face behind the different masks is still the same. Difference is not cherished on its own account. And here, as in the case of the uniformity principle of Hebraism, I found myself dissenting.
Emerson is a kind of eagle, circling high up in the ether -- non soli cedit.
Emerson with his oracular sayings might have served as a priest at Dodona or led the mysteries at Eleusis. Yet, withal, he is genuinely American, -- a rare blend of ancient mystic and modern Yankee, -- a valued poet too, but as an ethical guide to be accepted only with large reservations.
Felix Adler. An Ethical Philosophy of Life, "Chapter III: Emerson" Original copyright 1918, reprinted by Ethica Print 1986. .