Ralph Waldo Emerson was in many ways our last truly public philosopher. At least, until me. About a hundred and fifty years ago, he spoke to business and civic groups all over the country, bringing them the best of his own philosophical thought. I try to do the same thing, in our own time.
Emerson believed in "self-reliance" - in trusting your deepest instincts, and in building for yourself a philosophy and worldview that is strong enough to support your life and work in the world. He drew on many great thinkers of the past, as we can, too. But he reminded us that these great thinkers were just ordinary people like us, struggling with the challenges of life and seeking ways of doing some good in the world. We can do, in our own ways, basically what they did - we can use the resources we have to come up with our own maps of the world that will move us forward. Again, it's not wise to do so alone, with no guidance at all. There's plenty of wisdom already available for us to use. But you need to appropriate any of that great wisdom out there as your own, certifying it in your life, and living it yourself.
The place I went to grad school, Yale, is lucky to have one of the great literary critics of all time on its faculty, Harold Bloom. I've never gotten over the fact that he disdained the Harry Potter books as they were being published, and threw deep shade on J.K. Rowling as an author. But still, in his other views, he's heralded as the best literary critic of our time. And he sees Emerson as the source of much great American literature.
In a new book, The Daemon Knows, Bloom says:
For me, Emerson is the fountain of the American will to know the self and its drive for sublimity. The American poets who (to me) matter most are all Emersonians of one kind or another: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Henri Cole. Our greatest creators of prose fiction were not Emersonians, yet the protagonists of Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James frequently are beyond our understanding if we do not see Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab and Isabel Archer as self-reliant questers.
Emerson brought America a perspective we needed, and still benefit from having and applying well. It's no surprise to me that my father, a high school graduate, had a copy of Emerson's famous essay Self Reliance all marked up with agreements and underlinings. Philosophy of the right sort can reach us all, where we live. And it should.