Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”
— Walt Whitman
A while back, a coworker lent me a book called Self-Reliance, “The Wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson as Inspiration for Daily Living.” Edited and introduced by Richard Whelan, who says that he loves Emerson’s essays and has read them many times over the years but found eventually he could get the same and even better experience by just reading the many sections he had underlined over the years. He writes:
I came to think of the essays as gardens in which the underlined passages were magnificent flowers — and all the rest a rampant and choking growth of nineteenth-century rhetorical weeds and vines that were best rooted out and cut back. It was then that I realized that an abridged edition of the essays could introduce Emerson, and make his down-to-earth wisdom accessible, to a readership that might otherwise be put off by his sometimes long, difficult, and over-written passages.
—Richard Whelan, Self-Reliance
(He then goes on to answer expected charges of “irreverence and impertinence” by quoting Emerson.)
The 200 page trade paperback certainly does look approachable and I liked the idea that some of the key ideas would be highlighted in this Cliffs Notes-like version.
I really enjoyed the book. I think I understood maybe 50% of it, but in the half that I could wrap my mind around, it provoked a lot of thought and excitement. Heating the water and coming to a boil.
Whelan mentions turning to Emerson when he felt sad or discouraged and would count on the essays as if a friend to “utter the right words of solace or encouragement.” I thought the passages in the book were inspiring, but not necessarily reassuring. I happened to be reading it at the time that my daughter was born eleven weeks premature and spent eight weeks in the NICU at Children’s Hospital, and didn’t find it to be very consoling in that situation. (She’s doing fine now, thank you.)
I think Whelan’s book served the stated purpose: it was an accessible introduction. I ended up buying it even though Emerson’s writings are long since in the public domain and available many places online.
And then I moved on to look for more Emerson and found on Amazon a reasonably-priced 850 page collection, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, introduced by Mary Oliver.
Thoughts on Copyright
The reasonable price for such a large book is no doubt because of the essays being in the public domain. It’s much more cost-effective to repackage and reprint them.
I very much want for people to make money for their intellectual and creative work, but we have to find better ways than intellectual monopoly and control of costless bits. You can be sure some middlemen (middle persons?) would still like to have exclusive rights to Emerson’s works and would love to charge us monopoly prices for them, but would that be to society’s benefit? Especially when Ralph is long dead. Do you suppose if there had been a Ralph Emerson Company and an Emerson World theme park and cute mascots that his work would still be under copyright? That Congress would have earlier started granting perpetual copyright on the installment plan?
(Alternate cite to guard against future link rot. Professor Peter Jaszi is credited with using that wonderful turn of phrase in testimony on the subject.)
When Walt Disney has been dead for as long as Emerson, will his work still be locked up by copyright? Isn’t it better to have free access to great works like this? (Disney itself has much benefited from pulling work out of the public domain for derivative use. Is it too much to expect that they should allow work to return to the public domain for further cultural enrichment? Well, of course it is. They’re a business. But it shouldn’t be too much to expect that our representatives should have some regard for the public good and tell companies like Disney that no, they can’t have all the cookies in the jar.) Even if you disagree on the greatness of Emerson’s work (or Disney’s, for that matter), I hope you value that it is readily available (or should be!) for discussion and derivative works.
I’ve confused the issue by bringing Disney and Mickey Mouse into the discussion. I think Emerson’s work is much more important, but I’m annoyed at how our copyright laws are being corrupted by companies like Disney so I seized the opportunity for a tangential rant. Not only are they hoarding their own “property,” but they are denying the public domain of so many other works that would have become free.
“Property” is a poor choice of words to describe ideas and intellectual work, implying that knowledge and bits can and should be owned and should be treated like physical property. It is also often used to conflate patent, copyright, and other laws to our detriment. On that subject, I like this:
What the Constitution says is that copyright law and patent law are optional. They need not exist. It says that if they do exist, their purpose is to provide a public benefit — to promote progress by providing artificial incentives.
They are not rights that their holders are entitled to; they are artificial privileges that we might, or might not, want to hand out to encourage people to do what we find useful.
It’s a wise policy. Too bad Congress — which has to carry it out on our behalf — takes its orders from Hollywood and Microsoft instead of from us.
If you appreciate the U.S. Constitution’s wisdom, don’t let “intellectual property” into your ethos; don’t let the “intellectual property” meme infect your mind.
Practically speaking, copyright and patent and trademark law have only one thing in common: Each is legitimate only as far as it serves the public interest. Your interest in your freedom is a part of the public interest that must be served.— Richard Stallman, Don’t Let “Intellectual Property” Twist Your Ethos
Back to RWE
Anyway, what prompted this whole post was that I’ve picked up this new book to start reading and right away am confronted with this in the introduction to Nature:
Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
And it looks like I’m in for a good ride, even if I only understand (or think I understand) so little of it.
“Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?”