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Fifty years ago, the scholar Quentin Anderson (1912–2003) published a powerful and ambitious book—The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History. It attacked Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as “provincial narcissists” who left a bad stain on American culture, a deposit of antinomian egotism that was to take both right-wing and left-wing forms in the decades to come.

The right-wing strain, deriving particularly from Emerson, led to anarchic heresies such as “visionary capitalism,” which denied all moral and social obligations—the idea, as Anderson’s teacher Mark Van Doren put it, that “self-reliance was a sufficient virtue, comprehending all other virtues.” (“Self-Reliance” was the title of one of Emerson’s most famous essays.) When married to the Social Darwinism ascendant just after the Civil War, Emerson’s “self-reliance” contributed to the ideology of ruthless, heroic capitalists, a foreshadowing of Ayn Rand's thought: The race of life is to the strong, shrewd, emotionally detached, and amoral, and the devil takes the hindmost. (Anderson points out that Nietzsche read and praised Emerson, not vice versa.)

But Anderson also illuminated another long-term influence of these three writers, especially Whitman—an illumination that was as unwelcome to liberal and left-wing readers in 1971 as it is fifty years later. He saw Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as inspiring a liberationist radicalism that has recurrently disfigured American politics, literature, education, and even character formation. After Whitman published his polymorphous sexual self-celebration (“Song of Myself”), a line of subsequent writers and thinkers has praised it, amplified it, and made it more explicit: novelist Henry Miller (1891–1980); the pseudo-scientific sexual liberator Dr. Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956); the poet-shaman Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) and the “Beats”; and the sexual-anarchist theoretician Norman O. Brown (1913–2002), whose gospel of guiltless, infantile sexuality is utterly lethal to all inherited and settled ideals of personal character, moral obligation, and social and civic behavior. The writers in this line of affiliation and descent mounted an attack on Western assumptions about personality and identity, a purposeful dismantling of the traditional character structure. 

In a 1974 introduction to a volume on Walt Whitman, Anderson wrote that Whitman was “a genius in his understanding that a rejection of Christianity in behalf of an emotional egalitarianism would have to begin with a rejection of the idea that the self was internally structured by conscience,” perhaps the linchpin of civilization. He noted that “Christianity offers its account of such an internalized power long before Freud, founding duty upon a divinely implanted conscience.” The sexual anarchists hated this tradition, and today they hate it still. Our hyper-sexualized society continually celebrates novel “liberations” from all forms of sublimation, reticence, inhibition, restraint, and modesty.

But Anderson also showed that apparently more benign forms of liberalism are rooted in and nourished by the same radical assault on traditional rationality and norms of character, personality, identity, privacy, and moral conduct. In his 1992 book Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money, he argues that the “historical fact appears to be that American intellectuals show a reluctance or inability to admit that any limitation of the goal of ‘self-fulfillment’ is implied by membership in the community.” He quotes John Dewey’s biographer Neil Coughlan as saying that Dewey is “the philosopher par excellence of American liberalism; he shared with it the root conviction that we can have both self-defined self-fulfillment and social justice for all.” But these two aims are clearly antithetical: If “diversity” means that my personal definition of success, value, or pleasure cannot be critiqued or limited by any external moral, social, or civic norm, then there can be no shared, binding “equity” in society, no binding idea of obligation or justice—no real res publica. With their “profoundly subversive [and] pervasive undersong,” Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman purposely dismantle the American republic of Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and John Marshall; John Dewey purposely dismantles the normative intention, content, and integrity of the American common school. We are still suffering from the effects. 

Thus our current “Great Awakening”—secular and radical rather than religious and democratic—with its slogan “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” is animated by both the Dewey and the Norman O. Brown streams of articulate passion and longing. “Diversity” and “equity” are propositions inconsistent with each other—one self-celebratory, the other moral. Yoke-fellows they are not. Logical contradictions are not resolved by slogans: The law of self-contradiction has not been nullified or repealed by the passage of time or the noise of raised voices.

In the efflorescence of the imperial self from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman to Kinsey, Norman O. Brown, celebratory promiscuity, and the LGBTQ movement, the moral personality withers and deteriorates. But Anderson was also clearly aware of those right-wing, Randian variants. As early as 1992 he noted that such persons of “recent times as Donald Trump and Michael Milken are figures robbed of almost everything but money, too bleached by its presence to figure in narrative as distinctive human characters” (Making Americans). We have, alas, lived to see trumpery on the large screen of history, but Anderson’s point about moral personality remains true.

In 1949, George Orwell sent Aldous Huxley a copy of his new book, the dystopian novel 1984. In a letter, Huxley said that while he recognized the contemporary relevance of Orwell’s novel, he thought that in the long run, the prophecy he had made in Brave New World (1932) would prove to be more accurate. He expressed dread at the likelihood of the “really revolutionary revolution . . . in the souls and flesh of human beings” whose “bodies were henceforth to become the common sexual property of all and whose minds [were] to be purged of all the natural decencies, the laboriously acquired inhibitions of traditional civilization.”

Anderson made his dogged critique of imperial selves in the interest of personal responsibility, social sanity, and “the laboriously acquired inhibitions of traditional civilization.” Both arrant trumpery and much of our current “Great Awakening” are lethal to that civilization, of which we are the beneficiaries and should be the guardians.

M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism.

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