Appreciating the Impersonal in Emerson:

(That’s what friends are for)




Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance arguably fits within the tradition virtue ethics that concerns itself with answering questions about cultivating those excellences conducive to leading a good life as defined by a certain conception of human perfection.  Writing for an aspiring democracy, Emerson assumes that the pursuit of self-reliance is available to all, given certain political and economic freedoms.  Thus, his perfectionism does not entail the politically elitist view requiring that society arrange institutions to benefit a few excellent people.  Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance, at its core, enjoins everyone to pursue his or her own unique excellence, even in the face of social disapproval.  Emerson is more concerned to provoke individuals to value their own excellence than he is with detailing some specific conception of the good life to which all ought to aspire.  Self-reliance is more a way of pursuing one’s excellence than it is a substantive ideal or good.[1]

Many in the virtue tradition maintain that the cultivation of excellence requires the cultivation of affective and perceptual capacities for ethical response.  What is more, as Aristotle points out, virtuous people take pleasure in virtuous action.  Virtuous people cultivate a direct appreciation for the occasions of virtuous action.  This concern with appreciative response, instead of the application of rules, ties naturally to virtue ethics’ emphasis on the importance of concrete exemplars for those who train in virtue.  If I am unsure of how to act, I can try to vividly imagine how some moral hero would handle the situation. 

On the face of it, Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance would appear to advocate appreciation of one’s own excellence, as more important than appreciatively regarding moral heroes.  Whatever else it might be, self-reliance is an individualistic ideal wary of the all-too-human tendency to worship greatness in others and thereby denigrate one’s self.  While not altogether false, taking self-reliance to be about “self-assertion” misses the fact that self-reliance is a method of thinking in impersonal terms more than it is the bold assertion of one’s own particular virtues.[2]  The objects of such value appreciation are ideals that transcend the particularities of one’s personal life.  Second, Emerson believes that a certain kind of ideal friendship is vital for sustaining self-reliant living.  Self-reliant friends model impersonal values, thereby promoting their mutual appreciation of such values.  While Emerson is lukewarm about the use of heroic exemplars in his version of perfectionism, he whole-heartedly celebrates friends as exemplars.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s celebration of friendship sits uneasily with the idea that self-reliant living involves an impersonal attitude that overlooks particulars in favor of transcendent ideals.  To put the tension bluntly, how can I love my friends as these particular others when I appreciate them primarily as exemplars of impersonal ideals?  My goal in this paper is to make Emerson’s claims about friendship and impersonal value appreciation as coherent as possible.  Emerson’s account of friendship is a kind of test case for the plausibility of his theory of self-reliance.  I will argue that with some modifications and clarifications, Emerson’s account of impersonal value appreciation entails a plausible, if demanding, ideal of friendship.

Section I introduces a model of appreciation of impersonal values, drawing on some recent work by Stephen Darwall.  In section II I discuss Emerson’s account of the socially induced shame that inhibits self-reliance, bringing out the role that friends and moral exemplars play in cultivating self-reliance. I illustrate these points by developing a fictional example inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “To Ramona.”  Section III explains the precise sense in which the appreciation of excellences of character is an impersonal attitude by briefly explaining Emerson’s ontological account of value.  Section IV concludes by arguing that Emerson’s ideal of friendship would be more plausible on its own terms, and more consistent with his ontology of value, if it acknowledged certain kinds of human vulnerability. 

I) A Model of Value Appreciation

Recently, Darwall defends what he calls the “Aristotelean Thesis” according to which the “best life for human beings is one of significant engagement in activities through which we come into appreciative rapport with agent-neutral values, such as aesthetic beauty, knowledge and understanding, and the worth of living beings . . .”[3] Agent neutral values provide reasons for anyone to act or judge in the appropriate way, whereas agent-relative values give reasons only in virtue of characteristics of particular persons.  For example, you have an agent neutral reason to pay your taxes because anyone has a reason to follow the law.  You have an agent-relative reason to enter the cooking contest because you desire to be the best cook in your county.

  Darwall distinguishes between two kinds of agent-neutral values:  “merit” and “worth.”[4]  He says that “traits or actions are worthy of admiration, they have merit, because they respond appropriately to matters of importance or worth.”[5]  “Worth” is a notion that refers to “a kind of significance, importance, or ‘mattering’ that something can have by virtue of being appropriately deemed intrinsically significant or important . . .”[6]  A character trait or an action has merit—is worthy of admiration—because it is an appropriate response to something that has worth.  Thus, to take Darwall’s example, parenting has merit because it is an appropriate response to the worth of children.  Non-moral examples will work as well.  Playing a folk song well has merit, is worthy of our admiration, because such playing is an appropriate response to the worth of a tradition of folk music. 

For Aristotle, the fact that a person takes pleasure in virtue is a sign that they are acting from a virtuous character.  Aristotle claims that virtuous people directly appreciate excellence in action, whereas merely continent people are somewhat pained by the performance of such virtuous actions.[7]  Aristotle’s point about pleasure in virtuous acts can be extended more widely to any excellence in thought or action:  intellectual, aesthetic, and practical as well as moral. The good scientist directly appreciates excellence in inquiry; the good artist directly appreciates creative excellence, and so forth.[8] 

Let’s consider a couple of salient observations about Aristotle’s view that the cultivation of virtue is tied to the appreciation of merit by drawing on some of Darwall’s ideas.  First, Darwall claims that value appreciation is a kind of direct quasi-perceptual appreciation of the value to which it responds.  That is, value appreciation is an intentional, de re appreciation of merit or worth.[9]  Pleasures are involved, but they are not object-less states of sensation or feeling.  A person has experiences of folk music, biological inquiry, and just social institutions as worthy of appreciation. 

Second, value appreciation is an appropriate response to excellence in people who perform meritoriously.  Consider, Ramona, a budding folk musician.  She works in a disciplined way to master the art of folk music. Her practice, study, and performance have value, in part, because these are fitting responses to the valuable art form of folk music.  Ramona’s appreciation of her art is one integral component of her excellence qua artist.  If Ramona only plays music to impress her friends with little or no appreciative regard for the music, we can justly question the authenticity of her playing.  Even if Ramona holds beliefs about the value of folk music, for example, that it enhances the lives of those who play it or who listen to it, we can justly criticize her vocation if she has little or no appreciation for the music.   Furthermore, it is appropriate for us to respond to Ramona’s playing with esteem or admiration because such playing is a meritorious response to a worthy art form.[10]

It is possible to appreciate objects of dubious values.  Wicked people appreciate vicious acts, aesthetically dull people appreciate banal artwork, and mediocre scientists appreciate trivial research projects. Obviously, value appreciation presupposes some account of what makes objects worth appreciating.[11]  I now turn to Emerson’s special insights about the appreciation of our own merit, especially the socially induced shame that inhibits such appreciation.

II) Our shameful predicament and its sources


As already noted, the difference between the continent and virtuous person is that the latter directly appreciates virtuous action whereas the former does not.  No doubt there are degrees of continence and virtue.  As the continent person trains in virtue she will foster some degree of appreciative regard for virtuous acts.  Over time such appreciation will become more consistent, eventually arising effortlessly.  Consider a case in which someone’s excellence is tainted because although they appreciate their own merit, they dismiss that same merit because of low self-regard.  Such a person resembles the virtuous because they have some degree of appreciation of merit.  However, this person is not quite like a continent person on the path of virtue because their negative self-evaluation hinders any further growth in virtue.  She suffers from a kind of dual consciousness, simultaneously appreciating and yet rejecting her merit.

Emerson maintains that too often many of us are in precisely this shameful predicament.[12]  His writing on self-reliance is in large part an effort to wake up those who suffer from this dual consciousness that results in the dismissal of excellence and merit.  Here is the relevant, much quoted, passage from “Self-Reliance”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.  Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”[13]  Shortly after this passage Emerson writes, “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.”[14] This shame, Emerson maintains, springs from our fearful conformity.

Let’s say Ramona has some creative insight about a song that she may write.  She responds to that insight with some degree of immediate appreciation.  The “gleam” is not immediately snuffed out, but exists in embryonic form inside her consciousness.  However, very quickly, without notice, she dismisses her insight because it is hers.  Ramona’s negative attitude towards her merit is not the conclusion of reasoning from the belief “if an insight is mine, then I should dismiss it.  This insight is mine.  Therefore, I should dismiss it.”  Ramona’s dismissal of her own insights is the result of a (socially inculcated) habit—a kind of knee-jerk negative response to her own merit.  Ramona’s secondary act of reflection is a way of experiencing or feeling her merit as of disvalue.  Her failure to appreciate her own merit is, therefore, more about a way of emotionally regarding herself than it is about formulating beliefs according to evidence and arguments. 

Ramona can only find her way out of this self-loathing if she first avows her shameful dismissal of her own thoughts.  She then needs to understand that the sources of these negative responses come from outside of her—they are the result of social expectations that she has unthinkingly internalized.[15]  She would benefit from a new context of personal relations that would enable her to affirm her worth.  A trustworthy friend who cares about Ramona’s actual and potential perfection might help awaken Ramona from her unthinking self-loathing. Whether this friend is a real person outside of her, or it is simply Ramona’s own efforts to befriend herself, someone must care enough about her potential in order to provoke her to notice her gleam of light.[16]  Emersonian friendships are ones in which the friends appreciate actual or potential perfections in each other. 

Bob Dylan’s song entitled, “To Ramona,” illustrates well this provocative role of the friend, in this case a lover.[17] 

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth.
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
On back to the South.
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand.
Yet there's no one to beat you,
No one t' defeat you,
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.


The lover, let’s call him Bob, expresses compassion and concern for Ramona.  He is not covetous—bent on possession.  Ramona is at a critical juncture in her life, deciding whether to return back to the south or to follow her own creative instincts wherever they might lead.  Bob suggests that her real enemy here is her “thoughts of herself feeling bad.”  Ramona’s self-image is negatively charged by her acquiescence to the views of others.  Consider the next verse,

I've heard you say many times
That you're better 'n no one
And no one is better 'n you.
If you really believe that,
You know you got
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.
From fixtures and forces and friends,
Your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you,
Making you feel
That you must be exactly like them.


Ramona’s shame comes from internalizing conformist attitudes embodied in social forces and the expectations of her intimate “friends.”  These friends are the antithesis of genuine Emersonian friends.  They shamefully dismiss excellence in themselves and in others.  These circles of friends mutually sustain interpretations of each other that lock everyone into a kind of Leveling Mediocrity.  Emerson explicitly condemns such mediocrity in “The American Scholar.” He writes,

I believe man has been wronged; he has wronged himself.  He has almost lost the light than can lead him back to his prerogatives.  Men are become of no account.  Men in history, men in the world of to-day, are bugs, are spawn, and are called the “mass” and “the herd.”[18]   


Leveling Mediocrity easily feeds into “Hero Worshipping”—the idea that only a few great people are equipped for excellence.  Emerson goes on to suggest this when he writes that the common are “content to be brushed like flies from the patch of a great person.”  Emerson suggests that an acknowledgement of a kind of impersonal value shareable by all is implicit in self-denigrating Hero Worshipping.  The reason the mediocre consent to being brushed aside like flies is “that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified.  They sun themselves in the great man’s light, and feel it to be their own element.”[19] The fact that the “mediocre” acknowledge meritorious qualities in a great person means, at the very least, that they value those qualities.  Emerson’s comment that the mediocre consent to being brushed aside because they acknowledge some “common nature” shared by both hero and the mediocre implies the hope that Hero Worshipping may transform into a proper pride in excellences that one finds in oneself.[20]  It would be worse to be stuck in the mindset of Leveling Mediocrity with no acknowledgment of human greatness.  Notice that Bob suggests Ramona is close to the worst sort of Leveling Mediocrity.  She pretends to believe that no one is better than her and she is better than no one.  Such an attitude may represent a kind of debased egalitarianism that celebrates crude forms of human happiness and well being.[21]  (For example, as mall shoppers we are all equally worthy of the best products at the best price.  Or, as consumers of education, we are all entitled to credentials insofar as we pass standardized tests). 

III) Impersonal Excellence

One might think that the solution to the shameful predicament into which too many of us have fallen, is to adopt a kind of Promethean attitude towards one’s merit.  We might, in a Nietzschean moment look at our life and pronounce, “Thus I willed it” with a special emphasis on the “I.” Undoubtedly, the self-reliant person should regard such a pronouncement as a provisional affirmation of her value, lest she mistakenly endorse unworthy qualities.  But, the idea here is that a healthy dose of pride in one’s own excellence is frequently indispensable for restoring self-reliance.  This line of thinking is reasonable within limits.  Explicit affirmation of one’s own merit is primarily necessary when one suffers bouts of self-doubt and shame.  To be sure, just because a quality is praised, whether by oneself or others, does not mean that one is justified in assuming one has an excellent quality.  Just as it is wrong for Ramona to assume that she does not possess merit because her (bad) friends dismiss it, so too is it wrong for Ramona to assume that she has merit simply because her qualities are admired—whether by herself or others.[22][23]  Therefore, those who would overcome shame by avowing their own merit must continually assess the reasonableness of their merit judgments.   

But Emerson suggests that the truly self-reliant has no need to explicitly affirm her own value—she appreciates excellent qualities wherever they manifest. Consider just one example from the essay “Spiritual Laws.”  Emerson emphasizes the fact that each person has a unique vocation.  This might suggest that the self-reliant individual should be focused on her uniquely irreplaceable contributions.  Early in the essay, Emerson writes, “Each man has his own vocation.  The talent is the call.  There is one direction in which all space is open to him.”[24]  But by the end of the essay Emerson is clear that he does not mean to imply that personalities are the objects of reverent appreciation.  Rather, it is the universal values and ideals instantiated in those personalities that should be revered.  He writes,

Let a man believe in God, and not in names and persons.  Let the great soul incarnated in some woman’s form, poor and sad and single, in some Dolly or Joan, go out to service and sweep chambers and scour floors, and its effulgent daybeams cannot be muffled or hid, but to sweep and scour will instantly appear supreme and beautiful actions, the top and radiance of human life, and all people will get mops and brooms; until, lo!  Suddenly the great soul has enshrined itself in some other form and done some other deed, and that is now the flower and head of all living nature.[25]


Emerson advises us to appreciate particular examples of meritorious self-reliance, wherever we might find them—be they in our own life or that of others.  In the context of a passage that suggests that the most humble activities may be ennobling, Emerson’s advice that we should “not believe in names and persons, but rather God” is clearly meant to help us get beyond the motives for social status and approval.[26]  He wants us to celebrate the values we find in the ordinary experiences that we usually dismiss as “common.”  But Emerson also seems to ask that we detach our appreciation of human excellence from any connection with particular persons.  What would this mean?  Consider two ways that we might appreciate a person’s merit.

1)                          Appreciating someone’s merit as instance of some worthy activity.

2)                          Appreciating someone’s merit as an example of his or her special talents and efforts.

I might appreciate Ramona’s meritorious performance in sense “1” when I regard her performance as an example of a worthwhile activity such as folk music.  We can make sense of this notion of impersonal value appreciation in terms of the idea of an “agent-neutral reason.”  Worthy activities or practices-- folk music, democratic political traditions, biology, agriculture--can count as agent-neutral values in the sense that their worth gives anyone a reason to appreciate, promote and protect them.[27] 

But even if the value of a worthy activity such as folk music is impersonal in this first sense, what of the second sense? Shouldn’t we make a place for the appreciation of the diverse particularities amongst people?  Is Emerson advocating that we regard excellences as merely tokens of types?   If I deserve praise for meritorious acts, isn’t it because of the fact that the act originated from me? If you deserve praise, isn’t it because of the fact that you did something meritorious?

            Emerson’s answer to this question is that an accurate philosophical description of human personality and power reveals that it is distorting, at best, to identify excellence or merit within the confines of a person or personality.  Emerson invites us to develop a rich, expansive understanding of the meaning of identity presupposed in the “me.”  This involves two related ontological claims about the sources and prospects of the ideals embodied in our characters.

a. Sources of Self-Reliant Power

            In the essay “Self-Reliance” Emerson asks about whom it is that the self-reliant individual trusts.  The simple answer “me” does not offer a philosophically satisfying explanation.  He asks, “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?”  He then describes the sources of self-reliant genius as “Spontaneity” or “Instinct.” He writes,

We first share the life by which things exist and afterwards see them as appearances in nature and forget that we have shared their cause.  Here is the fountain of action and of thought.  Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied with impiety and atheism.  We live in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.[28]


Think of the various biological, psychological, familial, social, and cultural conditions of Ramona’s self-reliant musical performance.  Ramona needs a body with hands; a functioning brain; a family that provided enough nurture; music teachers; a tradition and community of folk music; and a society that makes it possible for people to pursue musical careers. It would be grossly distorting to claim that her self-reliant playing originates ex nihilo from her alone.  The point here is not just that simply that Ramona ought to have a healthy sense of gratitude and piety to the sources of her being.  It is that her very musical being is, in some ontological sense, a result of complex confluence of causes and conditions. 

b. Prospects

            The basic theme of his essay “Circles” is the impermanence of all human action and practice.  Self-reliant individuals make creative innovations to worthy practices and activities. But these innovations create new forms of value never fully realized in the lives of the innovators.  Emerson writes, “Every man is not so much a workman in the world as he is a suggestion of that he should be.  Men walk as prophecies of the next age.”[29]  In the essay “Experience,” Emerson writes,

When I converse with a profound mind, or if at any time being alone I have good thoughts, I do not at once arrive at satisfactions, as when, being thirsty, I drink water; or go to the fire, being cold; no! but I am at first apprised of my vicinity to a new and excellent region of life.  By persisting to read or to think, this region gives further sign of itself, as it were in flashes of light, in sudden discoveries of its profound beauty and repose . . . But every insight from this realm of thought is felt as initial, and promises a sequel.[30]


Self-reliant innovators create something new, but they also open new possibilities—possibilities they may never to live see realized. Examples abound.  Beethoven transformed classical music paving the way to Romantic musical forms about which his artistry only gives us glimpses.  Einstein gave us relativity theory, paving the way to the quest for a unified theory that he never formulated.  The value of self-reliant thought and action is as much about what it makes possible later, as it is what it accomplishes now.  Upon developing a new way of writing folk ballads, Ramona might proudly declare that this is her meritorious achievement.  But Ramona ought to recognize that her meritorious aesthetic practice slips into a future of possibilities that she will never fully grasp or realize.  With luck, others will claim these as their own when they stamp their own marks on Ramona’s innovations.  At that point, it would be equally one sided to claim that this way of playing music is Ramona’s or those of her musical successors.  The truth is that this music belongs to “everyone” and no “one.”[31]

I have no doubt that Emerson himself believed that the enlarged Self just described reflects a transcendent power or divine being.  Although it is a matter of some controversy, at the very least he seems to be attracted to a kind of absolute idealist metaphysics.  However, some of the main features of Emerson’s value ontology could be translated into a naturalist metaphysics of the sort developed by John Dewey.[32]  Dewey regards ideals as always partially embodied in existence, depending on a conflux of prior conditions, and pointing to a “more” of future possibilities.  I think that we can leave to one side the question of whether this process of idealizing the real is the work of a merely finite human community or some other trans-human divine force. Whatever the ultimate metaphysical truth about ideals, we can still ask about what it would mean to seek to cultivate this impersonal attitude?  Is it a good thing to constantly view one’s life and the people in it, as exemplars of never fully realized transcendent ideals?  A look at Emerson’s account of friendship will help to answer this question.

IV) Impersonal Value and Friendship

Earlier, I suggested that friends play a vital role in helping to overcome socially induced shame.  It would be wrong to conclude that the self-reliant person can discard friends once she has overcome shame.  In the essay devoted to the topic, Emerson claims that friends are indispensable part of his conception of self-reliant living.  Emersonian friends are prepared to goad each other for the sake of their mutual development of excellence.  In the essay “Friendship,” he writes “better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.”[33]  Emerson maintains that friends select each other through a kind of mutual attraction to excellence that they detect in others.[34]  He writes, “My friends have come to me unsought.  The great God gave them to me.  By oldest right, by oldest right, by the affinity of virtue with itself.”[35]  Emersonian friends acknowledge that this excellence involves impersonal value that transcends the confines of the contingent lives within which it flows.  Emerson frankly acknowledges the fact that this type of friendship is undertaken in order to promote ideals of excellence in each other.  In “Friendship,” he writes “Thou art not Being, as Truth is, as Justice is—thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that.”[36] What is more, Emersonian friends are also quite prepared to abandon each other for the sake the ideal.  He says,

Will these too separate themselves from me again, or some of them?  I know not, but I fear it not; for my relation to them is so pure that we hold by simple affinity, and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert it energy on whomsoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.[37]


Emersonian friends are committed to each other in virtue of the contents of their characters.  They recognize that they could be friends with any number of people who embody ideals of excellence.  When friends no longer serve the purpose of promoting ideals, they should be abandoned without regrets. In fact, Emerson virtually celebrates the abandonment of friends for the sake of progress towards ideals.  In “Circles” Emerson writes “For every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better.”[38] 

Emerson does acknowledge that it is not easy to foster his kind of friendship.  The last words of the essay “Friendship” read

True love transcends the unworthy object and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth and feels its independency the surer. 


Emerson goes on to claim explicitly stating this idealized sentiment involves a kind of treachery to the friendship.  Relationships, especially friendships, can only get going on the mutual supposition that the relationship will succeed.[39]  He concludes the essay with this enigmatic comment:  “It (friendship) treats object as a god, that it may defy both.”[40]  This appears to be an unstable attitude.  On the one hand, some degree of idealization is necessary for friendships to grow beyond their embryonic forms.  On the other hand, Emersonian friends recognize that even those friends whose excellences they most admire are only partial embodiments of ideals.  Is it possible to sustain these friendships, at least without a certain kind of self-deceptive “double-consciousness?” It seems like a significant effort is necessary in order to keep the recognition that friends are valuable as models of ideals, separate from the devoted attitude necessary to make the friendship work.[41] 

I think that Emerson’s account of friendship would suffer less from the tensions just mentioned, if such friendship was grounded in a more honest acknowledgement of human vulnerability.    To see this, consider first two sorts of crises that an Emersonian friendship may face.  In the first case, both friends are successfully cultivating some excellence, but one or both friends no longer serve as an adequate model for the other.  The friendship can end with a mutual acknowledgment that both would be better served if they moved on.   In the second case, one friend is declining on the path towards some excellence.  This decline may or may not threaten the growth of the healthy friend.

  In most instances, Emersonian friends in the first case would readily sacrifice the friendship for the sake of further growth towards some excellence.  This seems to be the kind of case Emerson has in mind when, without sentimentality, he advises us to be ready to abandon friends for truth.  The same advice would be justified for some, but not all, examples of the second case.  If, for example, the decline of my friend threatens to poison my own excellence, I might be justified in breaking the relationship on account of a proper sense of self-respect.  But what if my friend’s decline does not imminently threaten me?  Even if there is some risk to me, shouldn’t I help my friend back on the path of virtue?  Earlier, we considered the way in which a friend’s help may be vital for pulling a person out of socially induced shame.  This might give the impression that once one has recovered from shame one is on a one-way trip up the ladder of self-reliant living.  But isn’t plausible that people might fall away from the pursuit of excellence even after they are well on that path? 

All sorts of contingency threaten human excellence—a point Emerson’s partial embodiment theory of ideals can readily grant. The ideal partially embodied in me now, may fade later due to sickness, old age, and ultimately death.  Friends, family, and loved ones are important during the phases of life in which independence is curtailed or destroyed.  I don’t think that Emerson would deny that certain types of intimate relationships are important for these inevitable trials.  However, he seems more interested in a special kind of friendship cultivated during the prime of life.  The problem is that even during life’s prime, people suffer set backs to their pursuit of the ideal that may, with help, be reversible.  Emersonian friends ought to acknowledge these kinds of frailties.  In other words, an Emersonian friend should appreciate not just the potential increases of excellences in herself and her friend, but also the potential diminishment or death of such excellences.  When I look at my friend, I should see both the good and the bad possibilities that transcend her current condition.  The last verse of “To Ramona” expresses this sentiment,


I'd forever talk to you,
But soon my words,
They would turn into a meaningless ring.
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring.
Everything passes,
Everything changes,
Just do what you think you should do.
And someday maybe,
Who knows, baby,
I'll come and be cryin' to you.


In this verse, Bob acknowledges that emotional dependencies may shift.  One day he may fall prey to self-doubt and come “crying to Ramona.”  In other words, we can hardly count on the fact that our quest for self-reliance will be a linear path to greater success.  The sober facts about human frailty suggest the contrary.  Emersonian friends should appreciate this vulnerability as much as they might appreciate their powers and excellences. Perhaps a sober acknowledge of this frailty will enable Emersonian friends to avoid idolizing each other while sustaining a commitment to each other grounded on a realistic sense of their mutual vulnerability.  



V) Concluding Thoughts

 I have argued that self-reliant living involves cultivating an appreciation for impersonal values that are partially embodied in our particular lives.  Many versions of perfectionism maintain that we cultivate lives dedicated to impersonal values, understood as values that give agent-neutral reasons that bear on anyone’s conduct.  Such perfectionisms would encourage cultivating appreciation of moral exemplars of impersonal value.  However, many of them would hesitate to follow Emerson in his insistence that we move beyond a focus on particulars—whether moral heroes or more ordinary inspiring characters-- in order to develop an appreciation for transcendent ideals.[42] Emerson’s account of friendship seems to imply that we be prepared to abandon friends for the sake of transcendent ideals. Nevertheless, I think that his account of friendship can be made more plausible, and in fact more consistent with his overall philosophy, if it acknowledges the fact that one source of friendship is the sheer vulnerability of human ideals.  Such vulnerability is, after all, the reverse side of the possibility for the growth of ideals that are only partially revealed in our finite lives.  Such acknowledgment should motivate Emersonian friends to be more circumspect about their willingness to “hit the road” when a friend falters in her ability to help promote ideals.  The Emersonian friend should think about the extent to which the faltering friend needs the very same help she would want for herself when the pursuit of excellence becomes derailed.  Whether or not Emersonian friendship, even after this revision, leaves out other important aspects of friendship—for example those values associated with particular shared experiences of daily living—involve questions that must await another occasion.  At the very least, I hope to have shown that the impersonal value appreciation at the heart of self-reliance entails a plausible ideal of friendship.






Works Cited



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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (2000) The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York:  The Modern Library)


--(1922) Society and Solitude (Boston;  Houghton Mifflin Company)


James, William (1977) “The Will to Believe” in ed., J. J. McDermott, The Writings of William James (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press).


Kateb, George (2002) Emerson and Self-Reliance (Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.)


Nagel (1986) The View From Nowhere (New York:  Oxford University Press)


Robinson, David M. (1993) Emerson and the Conduct of Life:  Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work (Cambridge:  Cambridge University press)


Saito, Naoko (2005) The Gleam of Light:  Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (New Your:  Fordham Press)


West, Cornell (1989) The American Evasion of Philosophy:  A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison:  The University of Wisconsin Press)


Whiting, Jennifer (1991) “Impersonal Friends,” Monist 74, pp. 3-29.



[1] . In this respect, self-reliance is like integrity.  Both are second-order virtues that apply to a range of some, but not all, first-order virtues. 

[2] As Kateb puts it self-reliance is primarily a “method of intellect” as much as, if not more than, it is a doctrine about non-conformist action Kateb claims that this method of intellect is “the readiness to treat with sympathetic understanding ideas and values that have no sympathy for one another” Kateb (2002) p. 4. Kateb claims that Emerson’s method of intellect is about trying to generously grasp a variety of conflicting views in order to play them off against one another in thought.  One “impersonates” these views in order to achieve a kind of impersonality that allows for a rich and valuable life.  My purpose in this paper is to focus on an Emersonian account of the appreciation of excellence in character and conduct.  Such a appreciation of excellence in character is a species of the more general types of value perspectives that Kateb’s self-reliance as a “method of intellect” would cover.  For the topic of impersonality in Emerson see also Buell (2003).

[3] Darwall (2002) p. 75

[4] Nagel puts the distinction like this “If a reason can be given a general form which does not include an essential reference to the person who has it, it is an agent-neutral reason . . . If on the other hand the general form of a reason does include an essential reference to the person who has it, it is an agent-relative reason Nagel (1986) p. 152-153. 

[5] Darwall (2002) p. 79

[6] Ibid. p. 78

[7] See Aristotle (1985) 1104b6 

[8] Of course, Aristotle’s own account of “virtue” includes much beyond the narrowly “moral,” including the virtues of theoretical reasoning.

[9] Darwall (2002) p. 90

[10] Later, Bob might distinguish between the sad feeling and the appreciation of Ramona’s excellence.   This distinction might occur when be useful if, for example, Bob had some doubts about the connection between what he was feeling and what Ramona was playing.  He might ponder the fact that his emotion of sadness was really due to the fact that he was thinking about an old girlfriend at the time and less due to the fact that Ramona’s song was particularly moving in just that way.  Yes, she was offering an admirable performance that he can admire or appreciate now, but his sad feelings at the time

[11] Emerson assumes, but does not offer full-blown arguments for, the legitimacy of certain moral and political values associated with democratic liberalism. 

[12] At least those of us who enjoy some degree of economic and political liberty in democratic societies are in this predicament.  Emerson is writing for a certain cultured middle-class of American society who he believes fall short of their potentials because they have internalized social values that encourage conformity, banality, and a mundane concern for material success.  Cornell West puts it like this “The Aim of Emersonian cultural criticism—and subsequently, most of American pragmatic thought—is to expand powers and proliferate provocations for the moral development of human personalities.” West (1989) p. 37. West is critical of Emerson’s cultural criticism insofar as it takes for granted (and possibly even reinforces) class and race oppression.

[13] Emerson (2000) p. 132

[14] Ibid., p. 133.

[15] See Saito (2005) pp. 53-54 and Cavell (1990) pp. 47-48 for discussions of Emerson on “shame.”

[16] Important discussions of Emerson on the friendship can be found in Robinson (1993) pp. 36-40,  Saito (2005) pp. 58-59 and Cavell (1990) pp. 58-59,  and Kateb (2003) pp. 96-129.

[17] My use of “To Ramona” has been influenced by Elizabeth Brake’s fine essay.  See Brake (2006).

[18] Emerson (2000), p. 55

[19] Ibid.

[20] In his essay “Heroes” Emerson claims that we must “profoundly revere” heroic natures.  But he is quick to point out that what we learn from the admiring study of heroic natures is that “all these great and transcendent properties are ours.  If we dilate in beholding the Greek energy, the Roman pride, it is that we are already domesticating the same sentiment” Let us find room for this great guest in our small houses.  The first step of worthiness will be to disabuse us of our superstitious associations with places and times, with number and size.” (232). It is clear that Emerson enjoins us not to worship, nor even really to emulate, heroes but to understand that our insights and abilities are cut from a common clothe with theirs.

[21] One thinks here, of “the last men” that confront Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[22] Whiting (1991) makes a related point.  See p. 10.

[23] To be sure, the proud appreciation of one’s own merit may have some value, but this value is dependent, ultimately, on the fact that one possesses some meritorious quality.  Consider the analogy with integrity.  It is generally a valuable to stick to one’s moral commitments in the face of significant challenges.  But obviously whether this is a good thing in particular cases depends on whether or not one has sound moral commitments. 


[24] Ibid. p. 177

[25] Ibid. p. 189

[26] This is not to say that your admiration is not, in certain contexts, a fitting object of value appreciation.  Insofar as your admiration reflects a virtuous quality in you, then that quality is indeed an appropriate object of value appreciation.  But notice that this is different from appreciating your admiration because it is directed at me.

[27] Consider now the sense in which self-reliance is a deeply personal commitment.  Commitments to worthy activities are personal in the sense that the fact that one is committed to a value gives an agent-relative reason for pursuing the activity.  Given that Ramona has decided that she wants to be a folk-musician, she has an agent-relative reason for practicing music, collecting albums, and the like.  What is more, Ramona might have a personal commitment to self-reliant living that gives her agent-relative reasons.  Think of self-reliance as an ideal about how to pursue one’s commitments—a kind of second-order ideal.  The self-reliant person pursues her chosen vocation with bold initiative, unafraid to innovate even when doing so risks disapproval.  She is even willing to abandon her cherished vocation, should she find new sources of creative inspiration.  So, the fact that Ramona adopts the ideal of self-reliance gives her agent-relative reasons for taking risks in her song-writing, perhaps by bending or violating established norms of proper performance.  To the extent that Ramona has consciously adopted self-reliance as an ideal of living, she will also cultivate an appreciation for her personal qualities. Because it is an ideal of character that tells one how to pursue one’s values, self-reliance seems to be the source of agent-relative reasons.  It seems to be inextricably tied to features of a person. 

[28] Emerson (2000) p. 139

[29] ibid., p. 254

[30] ibid, pp. 319-320

[31] Even if the possibilities that a person’s meritorious action points to remain unrealized, there is a sense in which these potentials are real features of her innovations.  Nevertheless, the metaphysical question of how to handle the status of these unrealized possibilities cannot be dealt with here.

[32] Dewey develops this view of ideals in a number of places, but most especially clear is his formulation in A Common Faith.

[33] Emerson (2000) p. 210

[34] His view seems close to Aristotle’s notion that a friend is “another self.”  In the best sorts of friendships are founded in the friend’s mutual love of virtue in each other.  In the best friendships, friends admire virtue in each other, and strive to perfect that virtue.   See Whiting (1991) for an interpretation of Aristotle’s view that I think fits Emerson as well.  According to Whiting the ground of our concern for friends is the “substance or content of another’s character,” p. 11. 

[35] Emerson (2000) p. 203

[36] ibid., p. 204.

[37] Ibid., p. 203.

[38] Ibid., p. 255.

[39] William James treats this sort of case in his essay “Will to Believe.”  He writes,  “The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come.  But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you have done something apt . . . ten to one your liking never comes” James (1977).

[40] ibid. p. 214.

[41] This of course, is a variant on the so-called “paradox of hedonism.”

[42] Aristotle, for example, takes impersonal theoretical contemplation to be an important part of the good life, but this is balanced by commitments to particular friends and political communities necessary for the cultivation of practical reason.