Emerson & James in Defense of Individual Greatness

In 1850 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a book that he called Representative Men. In this book he explains that great individuals represent possibilities of higher ways of being. These extraordinary individuals have the power to inspire others to reach for equal greatness in themselves through their heroic encouragements. As to humanities indebtedness to these great individuals he says, “Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them… The race goes with us on their credit.” This emphasis on individual greatness as the driver of human progress gives Emerson’s ideas a particularly, although not exclusively, American flavor. It is interesting here to note that Emerson was influenced by the philosophy of George Hegel. Hegel, like Emerson, also believed in a transcendent Absolute intelligence and saw the advancement of humanity in terms of increasing manifestation of this absolute mind in society through time. Karl Marx was a contemporary of Emerson and was also influenced by Hegel, but where Emerson saw individual greatness as the driving engine of cultural progress, Marx saw social and economic forces as the main shaper of human destiny.  Emerson’s thinking became foundational to the American free-market economy, while Marx’s ideas became the roots of socialism.

William James similarly saw individual greatness as the source of cultural change. In his essay Great Men and Their Environment James directly examines how extraordinary individuals affect the progress of cultural evolutionary. He opens the essay with the question what are the causes that make communities change from generation to generation? And he concludes that, the difference is due to the accumulated influences of individuals, of their examples, their initiatives, and their decisions. James believed that the genius of Darwin was his recognition that individual difference is the source of change in the process of evolution. The environment plays a role in evolution by determining which individual changes will survive and thrive, but the environment is not the cause of those changes. Here again we can note that James had a quarrel with Hegel (He had a similar argument with Emerson) this time over Hegel’s belief that a transcendent Absolute mind was gradually manifesting into reality. For James this led to an unacceptably deterministic view of evolution. His belief that individual choice was the driver of evolution and his almost militant allegiance to freewill allowed him to navigate passed any determinism.

Both Emerson and James honored and encouraged greatness in all human endeavors, but they held spiritual greatness as the most transformative form. Spiritual greatness is the domain of the mystic and according to Emerson leads us into the world of morals or of will. “I count him a great man,” Emerson says, “who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error.” The mystic is a saint whose life becomes a living example of goodness and moral clarity for the world. Along distinctly similar lines James writes in The Varieties that “The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers… the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness. Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wave-crest or of a flood, they show the way and are forerunners.”