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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

What is American Transcendentalism?

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EmersonThoreau2

Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where is the New Humanism?

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humanism

In 1967, Pope Paul VI, in the landmark encyclical, Populorum progressio, called upon experts to help forge a “new humanism” — one that that goes beyond mere material concerns to encompass higher values and transcendent aspects of human nature, so as to promote development of “the whole man.” This plea was renewed by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now again by Pope Francis in his address to the European Parliament (23 November 2014). There is regrettably little evidence of any sustained and coordinated response — or perhaps any response at all — to the past pleas. This makes one wonder how much good it will do for Pope Francis to ask again.

Clearly the ball is in the court of philosophers and intellectuals. Therefore I’d like to pitch a prospectus, as it were — to encourage scholars to pick up this lost thread, consider it, and possibly even eventually get, say, the Templeton Foundation or the EU government to fund conferences or other activity towards this end.

Here are some initial propositions. I offer these as proposals or hypotheses only — as topics for discussion, debate, and dialogue — not as dogmas.

  1. Human beings have, in addition to a body and a biological nature, an interior life. This constitutes one important meaning of the word soul (Greek: psyche), as logically distinct from two other senses of the word, viz., as an animating spirit, and as some element of the person which survives biological death. This sense of soul as interior life is a phenomenological, empirical reality, experienced by each person. We cannot see another’s interior life, but our conversation with others, as well as their conversation and artistic and literary productions, suffice to convince us that others have an interior life basically the same as our own. Understood in this sense, the human soul is a proper object for collective and scientific study.
  2.  To say that human beings have a soul in this sense does not commit us to any particular religious or metaphysical view or belief system.
  3. Human happiness depends more on the state of ones soul (in the sense we’ve stipulated) than on one’s body. Let’s be clear: both ‘physical’ and ‘soul’ happiness are important. We merely propose that the natural ordering is such that the latter is more important. To illustrate the point, a person might be rich as Crassus, yet very unhappy; or poor as Diogenes, yet as happy as a person may possibly be.
  4.  Happiness of soul is, almost by definition, moral in nature. By moral we don’t mean moralistic, but rather that whole dimension of life that pertains to meaning, and includes arts, intellectual development, and culture generally, as well as ethical actions.
  5.  It would appear even from the most casual survey that integral to moral development is love. By love here we mean something distinct from eros or romantic love, and more like unselfish or disinterested love, agape. This is also different from compassion and sympathy. Associated with this higher love are man’s vast creative potentials. Thus the great works of art and literature which we ascribe to genius are typically motivated by or connected with this transcendent love (see e.g., Sorokin, 1954).
  6.  The very nature of human moral development, and hence moral happiness, is such that it can only come about primarily, if not exclusively, as a result of personal effort. Nobody else — no government, parent, teacher, or friend — can, per se, make another person more moral or morally happy. Indeed part of moral happiness is the sense that one has personally overcome obstacles, met challenges, performed difficult tasks, etc.
  7. It would appear that human beings possess an innate sense of moral goodness (Conscience). That it is innate is evidenced by (1) that our moral sense is ubiquitous, such that virtually everything we see or do is judged in moral terms of good or bad; (2) there is remarkable similarly in standards of good and bad across cultures; and (3) we see this sense operating even in children; if you tell a child, “be good,” the child knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to get into a discourse with a child on whether morality is innate or accidental, universal or relative. It as though one said, “You know that sense you and we all have that tells us what is right and wrong?  Well start paying attention to it!” A look comes over the child’s face like, “Oh right. Now I remember what being good is all about.”
  8.  Man is also a social animal, instinctively, like other animals, concerned with the welfare of other members of the species. This means that ones own moral development and the assisting others’ moral development are interpenetrating and inseparable.
  9.  It follows from the preceding points that the most important way one can help others is to promote their moral welfare. Certainly material assistance figures into this. But once the basic necessities of life are met, to help others with their moral development becomes a more pressing concern than, say, raising the minimum wage by 5%. Thus it is that, at least in better times, human beings have cooperated socially to produce libraries, museums, art, symphony orchestras, public parks, gardens, and so on.

Everything stated thus far here seems uncontroversial. These are basically common sense notions to which it would seem most people would agree, especially those well educated and with a moderate degree of ‘cultural literacy.’ Yet one would be hard pressed to find anything like an acknowledged consensus in the academic world, much less in popular culture, that would confirm that we all do share this view. (Such would not have been true 100, or even 50 years ago, when the suggestion that ‘we ought to culture ourselves’ would be taken as obvious.)

  1. Now we take things a step further, and enter a more controversial realm. That is to suggest that not only do human being have a soul, but that this soul immortal. We can neither prove nor disprove this proposition. That this premise seems a consistent feature of religion, and that human beings across cultures seem intent on having religion, must be taken as legitimate evidence in favor of the premise, even if it isn’t conclusive. Pascal’s wager-type reasoning might also be applied: if we do have an immortal soul, we would be very ill-advised to ignore the fact; and this far outweighs the potential disutility of incorrectly believing in an immortal soul. If this proposition is true, then, taken along with points 8 and 9 above, it has considerable bearing on our responsibility to help one another. This is difficult ground to safely navigate to be sure. For the sake of saving immortal souls the Catholic Church once tortured and burned heretics! But such distorted interpretations as this do not per se negate the principle that if human beings have immortal souls then this has important implications for our social duties to one another. Having mentioned this possibility, however, the remaining comments below will pertain only to the less controversial points 1–9 above.

A Secular Transcendental Humanism?

What is sought is a humanism that is both secular, in the sense that is suitable for use by civil institutions and is more or less universally agreed on within society, and transcendental, in the broad sense that it includes aspects of human nature that are not biological and material. To achieve this is by no means a remote possibility. In fact, we can refer to examples that already exist. Platonism is one such example. New England Transcendentalism — which in a sense is Platonism come to America — is another. New England Transcendentalism ought very much to interest us, inasmuch as (1) it was founded on, and remained closely connected with, the Renaissance and classical philosophical traditions of Europe, and (2) was very much a conscious and articulate reaction to modernism. This literature is especially strong in its treatment of the theme of self-culture as a moral imperative. (It’s really a pity that professional philosophers today do not give more respect to American Transcendentalist writings!)

Finally, in the writings Carl Jung, despite their frequent obscurity, one can find at least some elements of a secular transcendental humanism. Jung’s work offers a bridge between modern science and traditional religions. It makes no appeal to religious doctrine, but relies on scientific and empirical data to argue for the existence of a human soul that is real, nonmaterial, sacred, and incomprehensibly great. By no means would I suggest that Jung’s theories in themselves supply a new humanism; only that they supply some suggestions, and more importantly that they demonstrate the possibility of a philosophy that bridges the gap between science and religion.

To re-iterate what was initially said, I propose that there ought to be a conference dedicated to this theme. This wouldn’t be very hard to accomplish. I’m constantly surprised at how many books are published each year collecting papers presented at this or that philosophical conference, assembling teams of experts to address topics of much less moment.

References

Pope Francis. Address to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, France. 25 November 2014.

Pope Paul VI. Encyclical Letter. Populorum progressio (The development of peoples). Vatican City, 1967.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter. Sollicitudo rei socialis (The social concern).Vatican City, 1987.

Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter. Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth). Vatican City, 2009.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. Chicago, 1954 (repr. 2002).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.

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The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul

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Plato Athens

THIS is the first of a series of articles which argue that Plato’s Republic is mainly a work on psychology, not political science: an allegory for the politics and right government of the human soul or psyche, not a treatise on civil government.

This is not a new idea, but an old one, and many modern classicists (e.g., Annas, 1999; Waterfield, 1993) support it.

To be clear, this doesn’t deny that the Republic contains important political insights.  The proposal is only that it is more valuable as a work on psychology, and that more attention should be devoted to teaching, reading and studying it at that level than presently occurs.

The first order of business is to present the supporting evidence.  Here no attempt is made to convince or persuade, only to inform, so that readers decide for themselves.

  1. First, there are the ancient titles of the work.  Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that it had two Greek titles: Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). The word politeia means systems of government, political regimes, or, in an equivalent sense, constitutions.  The word Politeia doesn’t make clear whether the topic is constitutions of cities, souls, or both.  The second title, peri dikaiou, however, is less ambiguous.  While sometimes translated as On Justice, that’s incorrect (the Greek word for justice is dikaiosune, not dikaiou).  A more suitable rendering in English would be On the Just (or Righteous) Person.
  2. Second, we have to consider that Plato’s overriding concern in all his works is to teach philosophia, the love of wisdom, as a means of saving the individual soul from its fallen condition of folly and unhappiness. Every one of his works serves this purpose. It would seem a little strange for Plato to suddenly drop this great work to write a treatise on civil government.
  3. Third, we have statements by Plato throughout the Republic which imply that the good man, not the good state, is his main concern. The conversation in Book 1 is clearly centered on what justice is for an individual person.  In Book 2, Socrates, frustrated at having made little progress, proposes to use the city-soul analogy  as a way of making the dynamics of an individual soul “larger” and more easily investigable  (2.368d). Throughout the extended analogy Plato takes pains to continually draw our attention back to dynamics of the individual psyche.
  4. Many specific provisions of the Republic’s ideal city-state would be, if taken literally, implausible or absurd. Examples include eugenics, a caste system, wives and children in common.  All these implausible and “dystopian elements” of the Republic become no longer troublesome if we accept that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and we are not therefore required to interpret every detail literally.
  5. History has judged Plato the greatest philosopher the West has produced.  Read as a psychological allegory, the Republic is work of towering genius, and conforms to this view.  But read literally, the Republic makes Plato look rather silly and naive in places.
  6. Plato is also universally recognized as a not just a philosopher, but a literary master — a poet whose art and imagery are essential in conveying his meaning. His writings are all set in the form of dramatic dialogues. Much of Plato’s philosophy is given in the form of myths related by the characters of the dialogues. Plato himself originally aspired to be a tragic poet. Aeschylus was his role model. He was immensely pious. He prayed for inspiration, appealed to the Muses, and was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It is disastrous, therefore, to try to understand Plato at a purely literal level — which is what political scientists have done.
  7. Perhaps most importantly, there is what we may call heuristic evidence. Once one understands that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and reads it at that level, it simply works. One gains insight, one feels a sense of depth and meaning in the work; it stimulates the imagination and promotes self-knowledge. None of these things occur when one reads the Republic as literal political science.
  8. The use of allegory to convey subtle psychological and moral themes (e.g., in the works of Homer and Hesiod) was quite familiar to Plato and his readers.
  9. It would make sense for Plato to use the analogy of a city as a singularly useful analogy for exploring the dynamics of the human psyche. A large literature in psychology (for reviews see Rowan 1993; Schwartz 1995; Lester 1995, 2007) argues persuasively that any adequate view of the human mind must take into account its plurality, i.e., that normal mental function involves what can be thought of as multiple subselves, subpersonalities, part-egos, complexes, thought patterns, characters, etc. The existence of this pluralism, and frequent conflicts among components, is an obvious and fundamental feature of the human condition; the need to harmonize them is a requirement for happiness and healthy personality function. Every human being is confronted with the difficult but supremely important task of governing the elements of ones own mind.
  10. In short what I propose is this: to apply a characteristically Platonic method of exegesis to Plato’s Republic.  The specific method is that of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo’s extensive writings supply what is arguably our best example of Greek psychologically-oriented allegorical exegesis.  In Philo’s case, the method is applied to the Old Testament (mostly the Pentateuch).  The key of this method is to associate every principle figure and event in the Old Testament with some corresponding entity or element of the human psyche or soul (Uebersax, 2012).  It is a very simple and obvious —  and, when put into practice, very persuasive — approach. It yields abundant insight into human nature.  From the pragmatic viewpoint, then, if from no other, the approach is valid.  There are sufficient thematic parallels between the Republic and the Old Testament to justify applying this method to the former.  That is, there’s much similarity between the task of raising a mythical polis from discord and chaos into an ordered republic, and leading tribes of Jews from bondage in Egypt, supplying them laws, and bringing them to the Promised Land.  Moreover, Philo himself frequently alludes to the theme of a city-soul in his works, and in ways that suggest a direct connection with Plato (for example, sometimes in the same paragraph he alludes to Plato’s chariot allegory).

This is a sufficient outline of the thesis to prove and the categories of supporting evidence. I will flesh this outline out, developing the arguments and supplying supporting evidence, in forthcoming articles.

In closing, I would like to add that my attitude towards modern political science interpreters in general is not hostile, and my comments shouldn’t be understood that way. On the contrary, precisely because there is an analogy between the politics of the individual psyche and external government, we can use the Republic to gain certain insights about the latter. The problem only comes when the focus on political science becomes so dominant that the psychological meaning is obscured. The fault, really, is due to the field of psychology, which has ignored the Republic, rather than the field of political science. But in any case, we must remove the automatic connection in the public mind that Plato’s Republic is a work on civil government. We must replace this with a growing understanding of its psychological and spiritual significance. It is, after all is said and done, a sacred work, a scripture of the ancient Greek religion, an expression of the perennial Wisdom tradition, and should be understood as such.

I scarcely with to assert this dogmatically, however.  More appropriately, I propose it as a hypothesis.  If it is correct, then over time it will prove its worth.

Recent writers who have most strongly endorsed the psychological reading of Republic are Waterfield (1993) and Annas (1999).  See also Hoerber (1944).  For an excellent review of the literature see  Blössner (2007).

Update: For further discussion on this topic see Uebersax (2014a, b).

References

Annas, Julia. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press, 1999. (See Ch. 4, The Inner City, pp. 72–95.)

Assagioli, Roberto. Psychosynthesis. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.

Berne, Eric. Games People Play. New York: Grove Press, 1964 (repr. 2011).

Blössner, Norbert. “The City-Soul Analogy.” In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 345–385.

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Lester, David. “A Subself Theory of Personality“. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013)

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. 2014a. Accessed 17 December 2014 from < http://www.john-uebersax.com >.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  2014b. Accessed 17 December 2014 from < satyagraha.wordpress.com >.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993. (See especially his cogent discussion in the section of the Introduction titled, “Reading Republic“.)

Selections from Emerson’s Essay ‘Intellect’ (1841)

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sage of concord

A careful reading of his essay ‘Intellect’ supplies a clearer understanding of what made Emerson ‘tick’.  He is better seen not as an essayist, poet, or philosopher, but as a sage.  Yes, even in modern times the world supplies sages and bards – men and women able to communicate exceptional, even supernatural wisdom and insight.  Emerson’s appeal is universal because what he wrote was inspired by a source higher than the logical mind.  He was one of those rare individuals who not only  heard and recognized the voice of his Muse or Genius, but was able to write down what it told him without censoring, editorializing, or distorting the message.  Emerson’s essay on Intellect is especially valuable because here we have an inspired genius writing about inspiration and genius.

Much speculation has been raised about Emerson’s method of composition. One common view is that he recorded inspired thoughts that came to him more or less spontaneously – during walks, reading, or reflection – in his voluminous journals.  When it came time to write an essay, he simply culled relevant passages from his journals.  This often gives his essays the appearance of a series of disconnected but provocative sayings.

If so, then more so than with most authors, the essence of Emerson’s thought can be presented as individual aphorisms.  Here are examples from ‘Intellect’.

Source:  Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  Intellect (1841). In: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 2. Essays: First Series.  New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-1904. (pp. 324–347).

The first questions are always to be asked, and the wisest doctor is graveled by the inquisitiveness of a child.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:325)

In the fog of good and evil affections, it is hard for man to walk forward in a straight line.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:326)

What am I? What has my will done to make me that I am? Nothing. I have been floated into this thought, this hour, this connection of events, by secret currents of might and mind, and my ingenuity and wilfulness have not thwarted, have not aided to an appreciable degree.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)

Our spontaneous action is always the best. You cannot, with your best deliberation and heed, come so close to any question as your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before sleep on the previous night. Our thinking is a pious reception. Our truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)

We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away, as we can, all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas. They catch us up for moments into their heaven, and so fully engage us, that we take no thought for the morrow, gaze like children, without an effort to make them our own. By and by we fall out of that rapture, bethink us where we have been, what we have seen, and repeat, as truly as we can, what we have beheld. As far as we can recall these ecstasies, we carry away in the ineffaceable memory the result, and all men and all the ages confirm it. It is called Truth. But the moment we cease to report, and attempt to correct and contrive, it is not truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328–9)

Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions, and have a separate value, it is worthless.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:329)

All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)

The differences between men in natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)

All men have some access to primary truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)

In common hours, we have the same facts as in the uncommon or inspired, but they do not sit for their portrait.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)

The intellect is a whole, and demands integrity in every work. This is resisted equally by a man’s devotion to a single thought, and by his ambition to combine too many.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:338–9)

Truth is our element of life, yet if a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth, and apply himself to that alone for a long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself, but falsehood.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)

The world refuses to be analyzed by addition and subtraction.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)

Neither by detachment, neither by aggregation, is the integrity of the intellect transmitted to its works, but by a vigilance which brings the intellect in its greatness and best state to operate every moment.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:340)

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:341–2)

Happy is the hearing man; unhappy the speaking man. As long as I hear truth, I am bathed by a beautiful element, and am not conscious of any limits to my nature. The suggestions are thousandfold that I hear and see. The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress to the soul. But if I speak, I define, I confine, and am less.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:342)

One soul is a counterpoise of all souls, as a capillary column of water is a balance for the sea.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)

If Aeschylus be that man he is taken for, he has not yet done his office, when he has educated the learned of Europe for a thousand years. He is now to approve himself a master of delight to me also
.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)

The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344–5)

Emerson the Platonist

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Emerson_220x220

“THE mind of Emerson may best be studied from the standpoint of Platonism. If one examines the chief centers of his teaching to be found in his conception of nature, soul, love and beauty, art, and mythology, he will find that Emerson in his most characteristic utterances is indebted to Plato and the Platonists. In those great intellectual teachers Emerson found a body of thought which he so thoroughly appropriated that to understand the character of his mind it is necessary to watch it consciously forming itself in keeping with the main trend of Platonic speculation.”
~ John Smith Harrison

“Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.”
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)

People today have often heard that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the eminent 19th century American Transcendentalist, was influenced by Indian (Vedantic) religion.  Less well known, though, is that he was even more influenced by Platonism.  Emerson was an avid reader of Plato all his life.  In Emerson’s Collected Works [CW] Plato or Platonism are mentioned over 300 times.  His personal journals [J] contain over 250 references.  And he refers almost as often to later Platonists like Plutarch, Plotinus and Proclus.

Understanding Emerson’s deep debt to Platonism, one he readily admitted, is important for a full appreciation of Emerson’s message and its relevance for today’s troubled world.  One of the unfortunate trends of higher education in recent decades has been a systematic denigration of the Western Tradition.  We are told that the Western Tradition is the source of all the evils of society:  capitalism, slavery, war, repression of natural instincts, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. – the list goes on. But this view is founded on ignorance and prejudice.  An impartial study of the Western Tradition shows that it is founded on the perennial philosophy and the ancient religious beliefs of humankind common to humanity.  Plato, for example, drew heavily from more ancient religious sources – Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Egyptian religion, etc.  A great deal of his philosophy, in fact, is expressed in myth, not logical arguments.

For too long people have looked at Emerson and Transcendentalism and merely taken it for granted that it constitutes a rejection of the Western Tradition, and a decisive turn to the East.  This is a modern revisionist view, and simply does not correspond with the facts.

We can identify at least three distinct themes of Platonism reflected in Emerson and other American Transcendentalists:

1. A view of man. The essence of the Platonist view of man is that we, as human beings, have a two-fold nature.  We are, of course, material creatures, living in a temporal, material world.  But at the same time we have an eternal nature, which exists outside of time.   We must, first of all, reject the modern materialistic view that sees man only as a collection of atoms, a machine.  But we must not reject our material nature altogether or try live as world-denying ascetics.  What we seek is to live an integrated life. having, so to speak, a foot on both realms – material and eternal, earth and heaven.  We are as a Sacred Tree, a Cosmic Priest, uniting heaven and earth.

2. A view of Nature.   The material world as it appears is, in a sense, a reflection of deeper spiritual realities, eternal Forms in a Platonic Ideal realm.  Nature has spiritual meaning.  Nature is constantly teaching us spiritual things.

3. Self-cultivation.  From Platonism, Transcendentalism derives its emphasis on the individual responsibility for self-cultivation, especially cultivation of ones moral and intellectual life.  Distinctly Platonic is the emphasis on building the strength of the intellect in the service of spiritual growth.   Well is the story told that engraved on the door of Plato’s Academy a sign read, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Emerson and Transcendentalism offer a great deal in themselves for modern readers.  But Transcendentalist writings may also serve to increase interest in Platonism, the Western Tradition, and the perennial philosophy. If more people read Plato today we would have fewer arguments about religion.  Plato is a common element of Christianity and paganism, orthodoxy and esotericism.  He unites East with West.  He harmonizes moralism and naturalism.

While a definitive treatment of Emerson’s Platonism has yet to be written and would be valuable, that is not the goal here.  (If I am unable to write a longer piece soon, perhaps I can add to this article incrementally as the opportunity presents itself.) For now at least, let these few remarks, along with a few quotes by Emerson, and a Bibliography, suffice to get this idea out on the web.

Quotes of Emerson

The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe; the infinitude of the Asiatic soul and the defining, result-loving, machine-making, surface-seeking, opera-going Europe,—Plato came to join, and, by contact, to enhance the energy of each. The excellence of Europe and Asia are in his brain…In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two elements…. A man who could see two sides of a thing was born.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:53-54)

AMONG secular books, Plato only is entitled to Omar’s fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, “Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.” These sentences contain the culture of nations; these are the corner-stone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals or practical wisdom. There was never such range of speculation.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)

Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,—at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind. How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night, to be his men,—Platonists! the Alexandrians, a constellation of genius; the Elizabethans, not less; Sir Thomas More, Henry More, John Hales, John Smith, Lord Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Sydenham, Thomas Taylor; Marcilius Ficinus and Picus Mirandola.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:40)

Society is glad to forget the innumerable laborers who ministered to this architect, and reserves all its gratitude for him.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)

Plato absorbed the learning of his times,—Philolaus, Timaeus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and what else; then his master, Socrates; and finding himself still capable of a larger synthesis,—beyond all example then or since,—he travelled into Italy, to gain what Pythagoras had for him; then into Egypt, and perhaps still farther East, to import the other element, which Europe wanted, into the European mind.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)

Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:43)

We are to account for the supreme elevation of this man in the intellectual history of our race,—how it happens that in proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars; that, as our Jewish Bible has implanted itself in the table-talk and household life of every man and woman in the European and American nations, so the writings of Plato have preoccupied every school of learning, every lover of thought, every church, every poet,—making it impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him. He stands between the truth and every man’s mind, and has almost impressed language and the primary forms of thought with his name and seal.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:44-45)

At last comes Plato….; he is the arrival of accuracy and intelligence. “He shall be as a god to me, who can rightly divide and define.” This defining is philosophy. Philosophy is the account which the human mind gives to itself of the constitution of the world.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:47)

We have two needs. Being and Organization. See how much pains we take here in Plato’s dialogues to set in order the One Fact in two or three or four steps, and renew as oft as we can the pleasure, the eternal surprise of coming at the last fact, as children run up steps to jump down, or up a hill to coast down on sleds, or run far for one slide, or as we get fishing-tackle and go many miles to a watering-place to catch fish, and having caught one and learned the whole mystery, we still repeat the process for the same result, though perhaps the fish are thrown overboard at the last. The merchant plays the same game on ‘Change, the card-lover at whist, — and what else does the scholar? He knows how the poetry, he knows how the novel or the demonstration will affect him, —  no new result but the oldest of all, yet he still craves a new book and bathes himself anew with the plunge at the last. The young men here, this morning, who have tried all the six or seven things to be done, namely, the sail, the bowlingalley, the ride to Hull and to Cohasset, the bath, and the spyglass, they are in a rage just now to do something: these itching fingers, this short activity, these nerves, this plasticity or creativeness accompanies forever and ever the Profound Being.
~ Emerson, J 6.5- 6 (1841)

[John] Locke is as surely the influx of decomposition and of prose, as Bacon and the Platonists of growth. The Platonic is the poetic tendency; the so-called scientific is the negative and poisonous. ‘T is quite certain that Spenser, Burns, Byron and Wordsworth will be Platonists, and that the dull men will be Lockists.  Then politics and commerce will absorb from the educated class men of talents without genius, precisely because such have no resistance.
~ Emerson, English Traits, ‘Literature’ (CW 5.239-240)

Of Plato I hesitate to speak, lest there should be no end. You find in him that which you have already found in Homer, now ripened to thought,—the poet converted to a philosopher, with loftier strains of musical wisdom than Homer reached; as if Homer were the youth and Plato the finished man; yet with no less security of bold and perfect song, when he cares to use it, and with some harp-strings fetched from a higher heaven. He contains the future, as he came out of the past. In Plato you explore modern Europe in its causes and seed,—all that in thought, which the history of Europe embodies or has yet to embody. The well-informed man finds himself anticipated. Plato is up with him too. Nothing has escaped him. Every new crop in the fertile harvest of reform, every fresh suggestion of modern humanity, is there. If the student wish to see both sides, and justice done to the man of the world, pitiless exposure of pedants, and the supremacy of truth and the religious sentiment, he shall be contented also. Why should not young men be educated on this book? It would suffice for the tuition of the race.
~ Emerson, Society and Solitude, ‘Books’ (CW 7:198-199)

We cannot prove our faith by syllogisms. The argument refuses to form in the mind. A conclusion, an inference, a grand augury, is ever hovering, but attempt to ground it, and the reasons are all vanishing and inadequate.  You cannot make a written theory or demonstration of this as you can an orrery of the Copernican astronomy. It must be sacredly treated. Speak of the mount in the mount. Not by literature or theology, but only by rare integrity, by a man permeated and perfumed with airs of heaven, — with manliest or womanliest enduring love, — can the vision be clear to a use the most sublime. And hence the fact that in the minds of men the testimony of a few inspired souls has had such weight and penetration. You shall not say, “O my bishop, O my pastor, is there any resurrection? What do you think? Did Dr Channing believe that we should know each other? did Wesley? did Butler? did Fénelon?” What questions are these! Go read Milton, Shakspeare or any truly ideal poet. Read Plato, or any seer of the interior realities. Read St Augustine, Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant. Let any master simply recite to you the substantial laws of the intellect, and in the presence of the laws themselves you will never ask such primary-school questions.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Immortality’ (CW 8: 346-347)

The savans are chatty and vain, but hold them hard to principle and definition, and they become mute and near-sighted. What is motion? what is beauty? what is matter? what is life? what is force? Push them hard and they will not be loquacious. They will come to Plato, Proclus and Swedenborg. The invisible and imponderable is the sole fact.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Poetry and Imagination’ (CW 8:18)

For Plato, it would be pedantry to catalogue his philosophy; the secret of constructing pyramids and cathedrals is lost, and not less of Platonic philosophies.
~ Emerson, J 7.62 (1845)

It seems as if the day was not wholly profane in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains; the waving rye-field; the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical, steaming, odorous south wind, which converts all trees to wind-harps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames, or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sitting-room,—these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.
~ Emerson, Essays, 2d series, ‘Nature’ (CW 3:172)

I cannot recite, even thus rudely, laws of the intellect, without remembering that lofty and sequestered class who have been its prophets and oracles, the high-priesthood of the pure reason, the Trismegisti, the expounders of the principles of thought from age to age. When at long intervals we turn over their abstruse pages, wonderful seems the calm and grand air of these few, these great spiritual lords who have walked in the world,—these of the old religion,—dwelling in a worship which makes the sanctities of Christianity look parvenues and popular; for “persuasion is in soul, but necessity is in intellect.” This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius and the rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and literature, and to be at once poetry and music and dancing and astronomy and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams the soul lays the foundations of nature.
~ Emerson, Essays. 1st Series, ‘Intellect’ (CW 2:345-346)

In what I call the cyclus of orphic words, which I find in Bacon, in Cudworth, in Plutarch, in Plato, in that which the new Church would indicate when it speaks of the truths possessed by the primeval church broken up into fragments and floating hither and thither in the corrupt church, I perceive myself addressed thoroughly. They do touch the intellect and cause a gush of emotion which we call the moral
sublime; they pervade also the moral nature. Now the universal man, when he comes, must so speak. He must not be one-toned. He must recognize by addressing the whole nature.
~ Emerson, J 4.154 (1836)

You shall not read newspapers, nor politics, nor novels, nor Montaigne, nor the newest French book. You may read Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Hindoo mythology and ethics.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Inspiration’ (CW 8:295)

And as man is the object of Nature, what we study in Nature is man…. For Nature is only a mirror in which man is reflected colossally. Swedenborg or Behman or Plato tried to decipher this hieroglyphic, and explain what rock, what sand, what wood, what fire signified in regard to man.
~ Emerson, Natural History of Intellect, and Other Papers, ‘Country Life’ (CW 12: 164-165)

The purple light of Plato which shines yet into all ages, and is a test of the sublimest intellects.
~ Emerson, J 3.419 (1834)

Aristotle Platonizes.
~ Emerson, J 3.489 (1835)

I read the Timaeus in these days, but am never sufficiently in a sacred and holiday health for the task. The man must be equal to the book. A man does not know how fine a morning he wants until he goes to read Plato and Proclus.
~ Emerson, J 6.213 (1842)

Bibliography

Bregman, Jay. “The Neoplatonic Revival in North America.” Hermathena, No. 149 (Special Issue: The Heritage of Platonism), Winter 1990, pp. 99–119.

Brown, Stuart Gerry. Emerson’s Platonism. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 325–345.

Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reading. Haskell House, 1941 (rev. 1962).

Dombrowski, Daniel A. Thoreau the Platonist. Peter Lang, 1986.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Centenary Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1903–4. [Cited as CW, followed by volume no. and page(s)]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Houghton Mifflin, 1909–14.  [Cited as J, followed by volume no. and page(s)]

Flanagan, G. Borden. “Emerson’s Democratic Platonism in Representative Men.” In: Alan Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (eds.), A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, University of Kentucky, 2011, pp. 415–449.

Harrison, John Smith. The Teachers of Emerson. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American SelfCh. 7, The Platonic Quest in New England, pp. 189–211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997). (An earlier version appeared as: Daniel Walker Howe, The Cambridge Platonists of Old England and the Cambridge Platonists of New England, Church History Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470–485.)

Pollock, Robert C.  A Reappraisal of Emerson. Thought, Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 1957, pp. 86–132. Reprinted in: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58) and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48).

Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California, 1995. (See especially. pp. 65f.)

Van Anglen, K. P.  “Greek and Roman Classics.”  In Joel Myerson and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, Oxford University, 2010, pp. 3–8.

Woelfel, James. The Beautiful Necessity: Emerson and the Stoic Tradition. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May 2011), pp. 122–138.