Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Few small American towns exude a more winning charm than Concord, Massachusetts. Much of its charm flows from the respectful but unpretentious way it has preserved its past—an uncommon achievement in today’s America. On the northern edge of town stands an evocative reminder of revolutionary Concord: a faithful reconstruction of the “rude bridge” where, in April of 1775, a rag-tag band of American citizen-soldiers repulsed the British effort to seize their supply depot, and fired “the shot heard ’round the world.” And a visitor strolling the town’s peaceful streets has little difficulty conjuring the Concord of antebellum times, when that tiny village generated some of the most interesting literary activity in the nation’s history. In those days, Concord claimed such distinguished residents as Ralph Waldo Emerson (who wrote the “Concord Hymn” quoted above), Henry David Thoreau, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and sometime resident Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose brooding Old Manse, Emerson’s boyhood home, still stands silent watch over the hallowed eighteenth-century battlefield.

As it housed them in life, so Concord also provides their final resting place. All lie within conversational range of one another on Authors Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a rambling old burial ground that winds through picturesque hills and woods just a few hundred feet from the town center. As might be expected, Authors Ridge draws a steady stream of pilgrims seeking to connect with the lives of these eminent writers. But there is also something to be learned from the manner of their burial. For one thing, all are buried with their families, on ancestral family plots. Nothing remarkable about that, you will say. And yet it still comes as a bit of a surprise to be reminded that even writers who exalted the radical freedom of the individual, as Emerson did, were, in the end—before and after all else—other people’s sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. Which is to say that their self-made identities were deeply rooted in conditions and relationships they did not make and could not change. Sleepy Hollow is rich with such insights for students of American life.

A cemetery is always a good place for sober reflection. Infirmity and death are the great levelers, the surest reminders of our dependency, the most painful thorns in the flesh of human pride. As we cannot escape our bodies, so we cannot escape our origins. In death, some part of the truth about us generally comes out. For example, it is only after the hero’s death in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that we find the missing piece in the puzzle of who Jay Gatsby really is, by meeting his grotesque father. At Sleepy Hollow one gleans similar insights. Take the case of Thoreau. In his life, and in his writings, there was no more fiercely independent soul. But the visitor to Sleepy Hollow has to look hard even to find his name, in the middle of a list of Thoreaus engraved on the collective family tombstone, or on his tiny individual stone. The manner of Thoreau’s burial reminds us that his independence was entwined with forms of dependency, something that his writings implicitly denied.

Similarly with Emerson’s grave, though it seems different at first glance. Being a man of comfortable means, Emerson could afford a large freestanding marker. But rather than using a conventional tombstone, he marked the spot with a giant boulder, identified as his grave by a small bronze plaque affixed to the rock. Needless to say, it is a surprising sight—and not an entirely harmonious one. Amid the tidy lots and meticulously carved Yankee tombstones, Emerson’s boulder looks a little out of place, like a grizzly bear at a Junior League luncheon. The stone itself is rough and ragged, as if it had been hauled up from deep in the bowels of the earth.

No doubt, these are just the impressions Emerson would have liked us to receive. His writings consistently linked the values of untrammeled individualism and unconstrained nature, and disparaged the conformism and artificiality of settled village life. Hence, this craggy tombstone would stand as permanent testimony to his intimate connection with the wild energies of nature, and his infinite contempt for a life lived within the safe margins of the conventional and the decorative. One might say, ringing a change on Michelangelo, that such a tombstone sought to free the stone from the sculpture. Perhaps our age, with its self-conscious penchant for parody and self-disparagement, is less sympathetic to such a romantic and self-dramatizing gesture (though I would be more inclined to blame postmodernism’s self-protective unwillingness to have the courage of its neo-romantic convictions). Still, whether one finds Emerson’s tombstone beautiful, arrogant, self-indulgent, ridiculous, or merely strange, one cannot deny that it makes a striking statement.

But there is one significant complication in the statement—or rather, one element in the picture that, when we notice it, subtly complicates the overall effect. Emerson’s grand and scruffy self-representation is flanked by two much smaller tombstones marking the graves of his wife Lidian and daughter Ellen. The two stones are identical in size, symmetrically placed, absolutely conventional in their shapes and engravings. They stand beside and support their man, like reliable and devoted aides-de-camp marching beside their wild and brilliant general. But they are an integral part of the picture. It is not a question of political correctness, but of historical correctness, to insist that these women were indispensable to Emerson’s success. For without the years of domestic felicity and stability provided by Lidian and Ellen, his pathbreaking career as itinerant lecturer, essayist, and freelance intellectual would have been inconceivable.

Any good biographer would point these things out. But there is also a much larger point to be made here, one encompassing not only Emerson’s family arrangements, or the more general relations between men and women in his day, but the entire tidy world of Concord and of the American Protestantism within which Emerson was nourished and against which he rebelled. No man is an island, let alone a freestanding boulder; and Emerson’s brand of heroic individualism silently presupposed—indeed, it took utterly for granted—a profound measure of social order, and a wide range of social, institutional, cultural, and moral supports provided by the family and community life into which he was born. In short, the two smaller tombstones that flank Mr. Emerson’s tombstone do more than commemorate his domestic life. They also remind us of all the social resources Emerson was able to rely upon in exploring the limits of a certain style of radical selfhood. An awareness of them should alert us to the fact that such radical selves are not nearly so radical and unencumbered as they seem. One might even posit that it takes a village to raise them.

Perhaps we appreciate the solidity of those supports in Emerson’s day even more than he did, precisely because of the tenuous status they enjoy in our own. Individualism looks very different played out in the mean streets, broken homes, and moral dissensus of today’s urban America than it did in the gentle walkways of Victorian Concord. It is the burden of what follows to explore some of the reasons why that is so. But to do so, one must address some important questions along the way. How did the Emersonian ideal of the autonomous self arise, and then become so prevalent in American society? Was it implicit in the nation’s very beginnings? Or did it arise out of some detour from those beginnings? If the latter, then when and where did the detour occur? If the former, then what are the implications for those of us who see that the ideal has now become pernicious and destructive?

To begin answering these questions, we must address ourselves to a still-prevalent misunderstanding of American history, one that has grossly overemphasized the nation’s “liberal” political tradition, with its emphasis upon individual liberty and individual rights, to the exclusion of other elements in the nation’s initial cultural makeup, particularly its religious traditions. The hold of that view has already been fading. But it was not so very long ago that most serious students of American politics and society were confident that the United States had been born “liberal” and “modern,” and that little more need be said of the matter. And why not? Everyone knew that the “first new nation” was erected on a solid foundation of anti-aristocratic, anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and anti-papist sentiments. Everyone knew that the political works of John Locke were widely read in the colonies, and that the natural rights language of the Declaration of Independence unmistakably echoed Lockean phraseology.

The most eminent authorities, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Frederick Jackson Turner to Louis Hartz, seemed agreed that the conditions of American life prevented feudal or premodern institutions from succeeding here. Even a conservative like John Adams had lavished his prodigious energies upon a fiercely polemical book celebrating America’s freedom from “canon” (ecclesiastical) and “feudal” (aristocratic) law. It seemed plausible to argue, as Hegel, Goethe, and many others did, that America had come into the world without historical baggage—a living fragment of pure modernity which, having been detached from its compromising antecedents, now could manifest in pure, uncompromised form a regime, founded upon universalized individual rights, that Europe could manifest only partially and fractiously.

But this “liberal” view of American history that “everyone” imbibed was clearly inadequate, as a whole generation of scholars in American history has repeatedly demonstrated. It ignores the distinct and powerful elements of civic humanist or “republican” thinking in colonial and revolutionary America, elements that stressed the individual’s necessary involvement in, and dedication to, the polity. It downplays the wide influence of Scottish moral philosophy, with its emphasis upon the inherent sociality of human nature, and of faculty psychology, which stressed the need to subject human passions to rational and social control. It gives short shrift to the elements of English institutional and legal tradition that profoundly shaped North American colonial life. But most of all, it downplays the immense and pervasive influence of Protestant Christianity, especially as embodied in Calvinistic covenant theology and congregational church polity. Of course, these diverse influences manifested themselves differently in different regions of North America, making large-scale generalizations difficult. But the point is this: the “liberal” elements in early American political thought must always be understood as being propounded in tension with other, far more restrictive—and more communitarian—views of human nature and human society. Protestant Christianity must be regarded as the most important of these forces. To the extent that Protestantism underwrote an emphasis upon individuality, it was in the form of a constrained individuality.

It takes a rather willful eye to miss the moral and communitarian effects of the Protestant tradition upon early America. True, if looked at exclusively from the standpoint of its revolt against the authority of Rome, or its emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers, Protestantism could be seen as an individualistic, even antinomian, deviation from Christian orthodoxy—one that, moreover, carried the seeds of political liberalism in its theological rucksack, awaiting the day when those principles could be planted in secular soil. But this version of the story does not do full justice to historical reality. In looking at concrete instances one nearly always discovers that a fruitful tension exists between the individual and the communal, the liberating and the constraining, in American Protestantism.

One example. Few documents of early American life are better known, or more familiar to scholars, than John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered aboard the Arbella as she crossed the Atlantic, bound for the New World. Although Winthrop described to his fellow Puritan settlers a covenantal community formed by the mutual consent of its individual members, his conception could hardly have been less egalitarian or liberal. He began by emphasizing that social hierarchy and inequality are divinely ordained—and concluded with a vision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a community “knit together in [its] work as one man,” committed to “make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” Notice, too, that Winthrop understood the strength of the community to flow from its faithful execution of its commission and its work—that is, the religious mission of the colony. Its communitarianism did not arise out of a mere dedication to community for community’s sake. The body in question was understood to be that of Christ.

The existence of such strong communitarian sentiments in colonial New England has to be placed alongside the fact that, from its earliest days, Protestant theology laid extraordinary stress upon the dignity, worth, and responsibility of the individual person. Just as the decision to constitute a body politic or form a congregation was meaningless unless built upon the voluntary consent of free individuals, so the decision to submit to God in Christ meant nothing unless it proceeded out of an individual’s utterly uncoerced movement of conscience. But this emphasis upon individual liberty did not mean that Protestants understood the individual as a radically free actor. Instead, it always understood individual liberty as operating under the direction of highly prescriptive and binding moral constraints. Freedom was inconceivable apart from such limits.

Protestants affirmed the primacy of the individual conscience in moral deliberation—but with the understanding that the individual conscience was unconditionally subject to God’s will, a will that could, moreover, be known definitively by every individual through an unmediated encounter with Holy Scripture. It emphasized the individual’s need for conversion, for an active and vibrant faith in the person of Christ, and for devotion to a life of holiness—while recognizing that these were the fruits not of one’s autonomous efforts, but of God’s free gift of saving grace. Reformed theology highlighted the role of grace by reemphasizing the doctrine of original sin, and therefore insisting upon the need for powerful external restraints and checks, particularly those founded in the scriptural texts, upon the naturally self-interested passions and uncontrolled behavior of a fallen and depraved humanity.

To say that a Reformed Protestant ethos permeated the political culture of eighteenth-century America is not to deny that there were any purely “liberal” notions of political freedom in competition with it. Indeed, by the time of the American Revolution, we do see the growing use of a secular language of strictly natural rights, expressed in some of the most famous texts of the period (e.g., Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence). But the emergence of this language does not mean that it displaced all other ways of speaking and thinking about public life. Republicanism, Scottish common-sense philosophy and faculty psychology, English common law and history, Reformed Protestant moral theology and social corporatism—all of these formative strains continued to play a strong and visible role in the debates over the country’s political future.

That said, however, one can observe that the Constitution of 1787 presumed, as George Washington, John Adams, and many others were wont to say, a moral and religious people—but did not do very much directly to perpetuate such a people. It relied on other agencies of society to produce citizens capable of exercising political liberty in a morally responsible manner. While the Framers hoped to make ambition counteract ambition, they understood that thwarting vice is not the same thing as cultivating virtue.

Hence the importance of the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. As Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out, the Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses, far from being at odds with one another, speak with a single voice in support of the conscience-liberty that the Framers deemed indispensable to any religious practices that would shape and refine public morality. Such a view clearly represented an elaboration of the Protestant idea of “constrained individuality.” It is worth noting, too, that one sees this view displayed with equal vividness in the fears expressed by the Constitution’s opponents, who argued that the document was “godless” and took no direct responsibility for the cultivation of a pious and virtuous citizenry.

Either way, though, the Protestant view of the freely choosing individual who is constrained (and thereby made genuinely free) by education and formative training, and especially by the inculcation of transcendent biblical principles, remained a component of the new constitutional order, even if that view had become more of a background assumption than a stated conviction. Even the irreligious were likely to say some of the same things. Thomas Jefferson consistently stressed the critical importance of education as a way of impressing people with their “duties” as well as their “rights.” Writing in 1818 to the commissioners of the University of Virginia, he argued that education would be of the highest importance in generating “habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue”; only education “controls, by force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.” So whether one was speaking of original sin or “innate obliquities,” the practical result was the same: the newly liberated individual, whose freedom from “monkish” superstition Jefferson loved to celebrate, continued to require restraint and discipline if liberal and republican institutions were to survive and flourish. And it was not enough for those constraints to be applied externally, like so many fences and leashes. They needed to be completely internalized as well. The responsible democratic self would have to be (in David Riesman’s famous term) inner-directed, or self-constrained.

Once the new nation was firmly established in its new institutions, the problem of finding effective means of restraint soon became much more challenging. Beginning in the years after the War of 1812, the nation experienced an explosion of economic energy and growth, the fruits of industrial and market revolutions, opening up fresh opportunities for social advancement and individual transformation. The combination of rising general prosperity, expanding economic opportunity, rapid technological change, the increasing democratization of politics, and the ubiquity of popular evangelical Protestantism all tended to accentuate awareness of the “self” as an independent agent—if for no other reason than the weakening hold of other sources of identity. As Alexis de Tocqueville contended, a regime and society dedicated to social equality and social mobility inevitably tended to isolate the individual; and much of Tocqueville’s attention was devoted to the dangers unleashed by this individualism.

Reformers such as the educational pioneer Horace Mann continued to understand the problem as one of implanting the tools of self-regulation, educating naturally anarchic individuals for self-control and self-constraint. But in other cases one sees a subtle change in emphasis, from the inculcation of constraining values to a more wholesale reformation of “the self.” The change correlated with a distinct theological shift, in which the hard-edged Calvinism of colonial days began to be supplanted by a more optimistic and ambition-friendly Arminianism, which had traded in the stubbornly limited horizons of original sin for the more enticing possibility of moral perfection. For example, the Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing, whose 1838 lecture “Self-Culture” became a classic brief for the endless human capacity for self-improvement, argued that God had endowed the human race with the extraordinary power “of acting on, determining, and forming ourselves.” And Horace Bushnell, whose enormously influential child-rearing manual Christian Nurture (first published in 1847) made him the Dr. Spock of his era, saw the role of education less as the transmission of ideas and moral principles than of comprehensive self-making. In his ideal world, a child would be spared the friction and uncertainty of moral struggle by being provided an entire cultural and emotional set, imparted at such an early age as to be preconscious in nature. “The child,” he averred, “is to grow up a Christian, and never know himself as being otherwise.”

No need, then, for the herky-jerky emotionalism of evangelicalism, with its roller-coaster ride of sin and conversion, conviction and repentance, fall and redemption. Proper nurture could bypass the vagaries of nature and chance. No need anymore, either, for the doctrinal rigor and austere intellectualism of Jonathan Edwards’ Connecticut Valley Calvinism. Affects, not ideas, had consequences. Nurture was more important than instruction, feeling than thought, poetry than theology, character than intellect. Jefferson’s original ideal had been transformed by Bushnell into a largely psychological and sentimental education, a view of character formation that substituted properly formed affects and habits not only for external constraints, but for internal beliefs. Like Channing, he saw the goal of education as the construction of the optimal self—the kind of self that would have the power to continue endlessly in the task of its own self-making.

It is not hard to see that the very concept of “self-culture,” by being transformed into the cultivation of affect (or the “moral consecration of sentiment,” in Charles Taylor’s words), and at the same time being detached from a theology of inherent human limitation, ran the risk of making the activity of self-construction and self-refinement into an end in itself. That is precisely what happened in the thought of Emerson, whose Transcendentalism elevated the promptings of his inner nature to a status equal to that of divine revelation in nature, and thereby broke decisively from the older Protestant pattern of constrained individuality. Without a credible intellectual and theological basis for guiding and restraining it, the consecration of sentiment could easily lose its communitarian coziness, and become simply the worship of the imperial self and its vernal-wood impulses.

Boundlessness, not constraint, was the Emersonian watchword; indeed, he exclaimed, “the only sin is limitation.” Like Channing, Emerson believed that human potential was endless: “Before the immense possibilities of man,” he cried, “all mere experience, all past biography, however spotless and sainted, shrinks away.” Such immensity meant one should disdain the staleness of every thought or action that was inherited or derivative: custom, history, tradition, even society itself. The pieties of the past belong to the past; the free mind need not be detained by them, for “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The older view of the free self as a tense equilibrium of countervailing forces had been replaced by the romantic and holistic injunction to “trust thyself”—the very advice a Jonathan Edwards would have strenuously cautioned us against. That our present-day sages would be more likely to warn us against Edwards than against Emerson speaks volumes about the place where we have now arrived.

There was a procession, then, from self-control to self-culture to self-worship. “All religion, all solid things, arts, governments,” intoned Emerson’s great admirer, the poet Walt Whitman, “[fall] into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.” One might say that we have been following those grand roads ever since, from Bunyan to Kerouac. Although we are not yet at the end of them, we are surely far enough along to see where they have been taking us, and the destination looks none too grand. We now live in an environment in which the Protestant idea has been nearly universalized, but at the expense of being truncated and diminished, à la Whitman, into little more than an unrestricted right of individual judgment, unbounded by any limiting principle or any source of authoritative moral rules or prescriptions. This sobering consideration brings us back to some of the questions raised earlier. Is it possible that the Protestant principle itself was flawed from the beginning, and bound to lead us into something like the moral chaos of our own day, with its worship of the sovereign self and its sovereign appetites? Is there a straight line leading from “the shot heard ’round the world” to endemic divorce, gangsta rap, and the North American Man-Boy Love Association?

In an 1892 speech called “The Solitude of Self,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton summarized “our Protestant idea” as “the right of individual conscience and judgment.” But that is only half the story, the sort of half-truth that is worse than a falsehood. The Protestant idea, to repeat, was always one of constrained individuality, which entailed a freely accepted obedience to a thoroughly internalized authority, whose prescriptions were expressed in an accessible and authoritative text. American Protestantism liberated the individual believer from the peremptory authority of the church and aristoi—Adams’ canon and feudal law—but not without putting in their place other sources of authority. This move, of course, hinged a great deal upon the trustworthiness of the Bible, which meant that if the assaults on scriptural authority by Darwinian science, “higher” criticism, and all the rest of modernity’s acids were successful, there would be little left behind in mainline Protestantism other than the affirmation and cultivation of the “separate self.”

One could argue that Protestantism is now paying the price for its textualist ways, its low ecclesiology, and its neglect of the communal and countercultural dimension of the Christian life. On the other hand, one does not need to be a fundamentalist to respond that, whatever the sources of mainline Protestantism’s current woes, an excessive attention to the Bible is not one of them. But the matter is too consequential for us to be content with scoring debating points. The fact remains that our civilization’s most effective pattern for ordered liberty, whether in matters religious or matters civil and constitutional, rests upon the constraining force of foundational texts, such as the Bible and the Constitution. To the extent that such foundational texts become “problematized” into impotence—to the extent that they are deemed to have no clear and fixed meaning available to all, and are thereby removed from the common person’s reach—to that extent will the church and the nation have yielded to new forms of canon and feudal law, administered by the currently ordained “communities of interpretation,” which will feel at liberty to make of a text what they wish.

This is of course precisely what is at stake when judges and constitutional lawyers speak of a “living Constitution” or “the life of the law” as a way of disregarding the clear meaning of a legal text. The crisis of modern literary criticism and the crisis of modern jurisprudence thus have some considerable connection with one another. Democratic liberty depends upon our ability to invest a text with ordering authority, to allow the text to stand as a rock of stability and secure point of reference to which one can repair amid the confusing and disorienting currents of life. But when such texts become rendered endlessly fluid and problematic, they eventually become the property of a hermeneutical class, which then constitutes itself, rather than the text, as the real ordering authority—a government, so to speak, of men and not laws. To point this out is invariably dismissed as philosophically naive, and there is some validity to the criticism. But surely it is infinitely more naive to think that a liberal and democratic order can continue to exist as such when its laws become unintelligible to its citizens—and the moral or religious principles upon which their constraining function depends are left without the support of generally accessible and authoritative texts. Those who are disdainful of such textual clarity ought at least to have the consistency of being equally disdainful of constitutional democracy, and of the rule of law itself.

This question of the fixity, transparency, and transcendent meaning of texts also points toward some of the objections to be made against the current communitarian movement, which arose as an attempt to answer the Emersonian hypertrophy of the self. The Protestant formula of constrained individuality is something very different from the idea of vesting authority in the community qua community. Both oppose the excesses of Emersonian individualism, but they do so in entirely different ways. Recall, in this connection, Winthrop’s emphasis upon the “commission” with which he and his followers were charged. They were asked to surrender their individual ambitions to the community, and bear one another’s burdens gladly. But they did this for Christ’s sake, not for the community’s sake. As one can clearly see from their copious diaries, they sought, and found, the meaning of their own lives by passing them through an immense filter of biblical stories, parables, prayers, and admonitions. It is a very different matter to attempt to constitute community without reliance upon the impersonal authority of a foundational text; and to imagine that one could produce the same effects without the same causes is folly. By failing to recognize this, many communitarians have merely inverted Emerson’s error, rather than correcting it.

One of the most notable weaknesses of the communitarians has been their skittishness about specifying behaviors that are right or wrong, and suggesting sanctions against the latter. Communitarians are in love with the idea of limits, but cannot agree on any limits to observe; they are in love with the idea of community, but find all real existing communities to be fatally flawed (too narrow, too insular, too homogeneous, too intolerant, etc.). Even at its best, communitarianism gives short shrift to the virtues of individualism—particularly of what might be called “individualism rightly understood.” As Reinhold Niebuhr argued, there is a profound moral need for the individual to be able, from time to time, to stand aloof from all social groupings, since all groups are dangerously corruptible, and all are subject to the interest-driven fallenness that governs human associations here below. But he never imagined that this individualism could or should exist without a network of constraints and supports.

So the question remains: Is there a way to restore something resembling the older Protestant settlement of constrained individuality, which navigates between the hazards of radical individualism and suffocating communitarianism? One would like to hope so, and the fate of much of the social policy of the years to come, particularly policy directed at the strengthening of families, will hinge upon that very task. It will be hard to get very far with that question without also coming to terms with some of the specific conflicts over the sources of moral authority that have long separated Catholics and Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants.

But one way to begin thinking about the matter is suggested by the scene in Sleepy Hollow with which we began. The flanking stones of Emerson’s wife and daughter remind us that, for all the ways that we worry ourselves about individualism, it is in some ultimate sense an illusion, for there is really no such thing as an unencumbered self. There never has been, and never will be. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what such a creature would look like. The belief that the individual can live, as Emerson said, “without let or hindrance” means simply that one has forgotten about the sources of one’s being, not that those sources have ceased to exist. In the fullness of time, a reminder of those sources comes to us all.

But another reflection, more charitable and perhaps more valuable, also arises out of the contemplation of Emerson’s tombstone. It is the singular glory of the civilization we call “Western” that it places so high a value on the soul and conscience of the individual person. That this valuation has been allowed to grow beyond all bounds, like a heavenward-aimed Tower of Babel, should not finger it as flawed from the start, unless one is prepared to say that all the growth and constructive residue of history is vanity, and nothing more. (Partisans of that view may prefer to spend their Sleepy Hollow time at Mr. Hawthorne’s tombstone.) Emerson’s belief in the lavish creativity of the individual human spirit, and “the unsearched might of man,” was, like most heresies, an intensification of something true, if not quite true enough. Even the most grand and gloomy pessimists of our age are energized by a sense of Emersonian ambition when they sit down to tap out their dreary tomes (and fantasize about their sales figures). The expansive sense of individual possibility remains a part of who and what we are as a people, even in the most unexpected ways. To wish to extinguish that would be like wishing to extinguish life itself.

There are, however, far better ways to think about individual possibility. Addicted as we now are to the shallow and wasteful dynamic of unending generational rebellion—a dynamic that Emerson himself celebrated and helped to create—we often find it difficult to understand that one can both revere and criticize the actors of the past. But such a complex disposition is one of the chief achievements of a mature adulthood. It is capable of a love that pays homage to one’s antecedents without worshiping them—and knows the steep price of repudiating one’s ancestors, precisely because they are one’s own. Emerson spoke for a noble spark in the human spirit, though one that has ignited a dangerous conflagration by its own excesses. It is important for us to acknowledge that spark, and that error. For Emerson remains a part of our collective past that we should never repudiate entirely. He was a rebellious son, but also a cultural father. And it is generally a good thing to pay one’s respects to fallible fathers—even disturbers of the peace who fancied themselves boulders among stones, or lions among sheep. It is a good thing, because even the rowdiest of sons will come to lie down in the same earth as their fathers, and mothers, and wives. Thus is every individuality constrained, eventually.

Wilfred M. McClay teaches history at Tulane University, and is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. A longer version of this essay will appear in George Carey and Bruce Frohnen, eds., The Conservative Vision of Community, to be published this fall by Rowman & Littlefield.

Photo by Phillip Capper licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.