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Reviewed by
Richard A. S. Hall
Fayetteville State University
Society and Solitude, Twelve Chapters Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. H. G. Callaway. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.

Howard Callaway’s new edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Society and Solitude is an invaluable contribution to both the primary and secondary literature on Emerson. Its contribution to the primary sources is its use of the original 1870 edition of Emerson’s text, though with modernized spellings to facilitate the reader’s understanding. Its contribution to the secondary literature consists in the scholarly apparatus of page-by-page annotations, an introduction, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Callaway’s Society and Solitude is a worthy companion to his earlier edition of Emerson’s The Conduct of Life.

Like Stanley Cavell, Callaway treats Emerson not just as a poet, seer, and religious thinker—as important as these roles are—but as one of America’s premier philosophers. He rightly believes that a better understanding of Emerson the philosopher will deepen our understanding of him as a man of letters. Callaway’s aim is to advance our understanding and appreciation of Emerson’s philosophy in the context of both the American and European philosophical traditions. He does this through his copious and thorough annotations of Emerson’s text and his editorial introduction, both of which alone are worth the price of the book.

Like Gibbon’s footnotes in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Callaway’s footnoted annotations, which are conveniently located at the bottom of each page, are not to be missed. Here Emerson’s obscure and obsolete words are defined, his recondite allusions to historical persons and events are identified, and those philosophical ideas informing his text are noted and clarified. Thus, in his annotations, Callaway has provided the reader with a lexicon for, and both a historical and philosophical commentary on, Emerson’s text. No less valuable is Callaway’s introduction to the book, which could well stand alone as an important essay in its own right on Emerson’s philosophical thought, and to which I now turn.

In his introduction, Callaway artfully weaves together those distinctively Emersonian themes familiar to readers of Emerson—among which are individualism, freedom, law, and art—and how they figure and develop in Society and Solitude. He shows the paradoxes and tensions in Emerson’s thought together with their resolution in this book. The central tension here, as the book’s title suggests, is that between society and solitude. Emerson craved [End Page 118] solitude, associated with his advocacy of individualism and self-reliance. It has been said that reading Emerson is like overhearing one soliloquizing to himself on a mountaintop. Solitude for Emerson is the domain fitted for abstraction, theory, and the simplicity and unity of thought. However, these virtues are compromised if solitary existence is taken to extremes. Extreme solitariness invites intellectual claustrophobia and solipsism. The necessary corrective to the destructive excesses of solitude is participation in one’s larger society and culture. In this way the truth of the insights and ideas born in solitude may be tested and evaluated by informed public opinion, and what began as abstract theory may be fulfilled in practice. In Society and Solitude Emerson resists his own strong inclination toward solitude by demonstrating the necessity of tempering solitary existence with social engagement. Emerson’s nod to society is suggested by his putting “Society” first in the title of his book.

Callaway goes on to show that enfolded within the central tension between society and solitude is Emerson’s epistemological distinction between Reason and Common-Sense Understanding. Emerson’s Reason is borrowed directly from Coleridge and indirectly from Kant. Reason, which theorizes, simplifies, and unifies, is a function of solitude. His Common-Sense Understanding is derived from the Scottish Common-Sense Realists and, more broadly, from the British empiricists. Common-Sense Understanding, which is empirical and practical, is exercised socially.

Callaway notes that the tension between society and solitude also envelops the tension in Emerson’s thought between law and freedom. The concept of law, particularly moral or natural law, is a principal category of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson, taking his cue from Montesquieu, asseverates the universal dominion of law under which all things—gods, men, and nature—fall. Laws, moral and physical, operate through and govern the relations among things. Scientific law, like the laws of physics and the moral law—as it pertains, for example, to the principles of justice—necessarily constrain us at every turn. We have no choice but to be governed by physical law; and though we do have the choice of flouting moral law, such as treating our neighbor unjustly, we do so at our own peril. Yet Emerson affirms the paradoxical doctrine of the “necessity of freedom” equally with affirming the rule of law in both the natural and moral realms. How, then, does he make room for the “law of freedom” within the context of the pervasive and unalterable rule of law? He does so by allowing that physical laws and the facts of the natural order, though they strictly circumscribe what we can do, do not prescribe what we ought to do. Now the scope of what we can do widens with the increase of [End Page 119] human knowledge and technology, thereby widening the scope of what we may (but not must) choose to do. It is here in the expanded opportunity for choice, in the opening up of new practical possibilities for human action, that human freedom is possible, though still circumscribed.

This might be illustrated by the practice of farming, the subject of a chapter in Society and Solitude. The farmer is necessarily constrained in his work by the changes of season, the vagaries of weather, and the condition of his soil. However, advances in agricultural science and technology make it possible for farmers to do things hitherto impossible and so increase their choices among, for example, a greater array of fertilizers, seeds, and machines. This, though, increases the burden of their responsibility since choices will be better or worse than others and the consequences of any choice will be largely outside their control. The farmer’s freedom of choice, though real, is itself nevertheless determined and curtailed by the laws of nature. Moreover, the moral or natural law is no less imperative than the physical law. Here again we are free indeed to flout the moral law as revealed in its uncompromising demand for justice, benevolence, and wisdom, but to do so is to court disaster. Retribution flows ineluctably from violation of the moral law. On the other hand, to obey the moral law is, as necessarily, to reap its cognate rewards. The law of freedom is exercised as well in the human creation of positive laws and polities, but these cannot escape the jurisdiction of natural law. In brief, Emerson finds authentic freedom in choosing to follow the dictates of reason and virtue.

Emerson associates the principle of law with the Oversoul or Universal Mind which works through nature and the minds of human individuals. The Universal Mind, working through ineluctable laws, is for Emerson the sole creator of all beautiful and useful things as well as the fine and practical arts, and it is the ultimate source of the reconstruction of both society through reforms and nature through technology. Now the human artist or artisan, in order to create something authentically beautiful or useful, must submit herself to the dictates of the Universal Mind. Such submission, though, seems to compromise Emerson’s famed doctrines of individualism, self-reliance, and freedom. Moreover, if one ever becomes of one mind with the Universal Mind, either through ordinary experience or special revelation, then whatever any individual person thinks or knows is rendered redundant—knowing what the Universal Mind knows trumps whatever anyone else knows personally since that personal knowledge is truncated and inadequate. And given the sovereignty of the Universal Mind in all things, how are the differences in our Common-Sense and scientific understanding of the world to be explained? [End Page 120] How is the sheer variety of styles, genres, and forms in the fine arts to be accounted for if each work of art is ultimately but the creation of the one Mind that formed nature? On Emerson’s telling, the human creators are simply the media through which the Universal Mind operates. By analogy, a piano produces its distinctive sound regardless of which key is pressed, but that sound will be heard as different pitches depending on which strings are struck. The relations between individual human minds and the Universal Mind and between individual artists and Nature’s Artist are, metaphysically considered, but instances of the old metaphysical conundrum of the one and the many, of monism versus pluralism.

However, Callaway notes that in Society and Solitude, and elsewhere, Emerson goes some way in resolving this tension—which can never be fully resolved—between personal and universal knowledge. For one thing, individuals are inexpugnable; submission to the dictates of the Universal Mind presupposes that there are already individuals to submit. And, each individual has no choice but to go through his own mind to arrive at the truth found in the Universal Mind, to which his own mind is but an inlet. In other words, self-trust is a necessary precondition for ascertaining universal truth. In Society and Solitude, Emerson emphasizes the importance of the universal and its merit of comprehensiveness with respect to both the content of knowledge and works of art—yet without neglecting the individual who provides a corrective to the abstractness and complexity to which the pursuit of universalism tends.

On his reading of Society and Solitude, Callaway nicely draws out the implications both for knowledge and for the relation of the individual to society of the ever-persisting tension between the individual human mind and the Universal Mind. The epistemological implication is that any plausible hypothesis that the individual might arrive at in solitude under the sway of reason must, for purposes of verification and emendation, be brought to the bar of the Common-Sense Understanding and common experience embodied in society. However, it is critical for Emerson that the publication of hypotheses and beliefs, for the purposes of verification and qualification, must be free and open. The process of evaluation must not be tainted by personal bias, distorted by manipulation for ulterior ends, or shadowed by intimidation. It must be free of the cult of organization, adhering solely to the established canons of reason and evidence. Otherwise, the intellect is chained and truth suppressed–with a resulting impoverishment of the world. The implication for the relation of the individual to society is that—paradoxically—to become fully individuated (or, in Abraham H. Maslow’s terms, “self-actualized”) we must each find our place in society and submit our ideas and ideals to scrutiny [End Page 121] and evaluation, thus escaping the solipsistic and stultifying prison of the isolated self. Callaway reveals that the individual mind’s becoming one with the Universal Mind is paralleled in the public evaluation of privately held hypotheses and in the process of self-individuation through social interaction. Callaway sums up Emerson’s stance in Society and Solitude this way: “Emerson is both individualist and universalist, and in a corresponding sense both radical pluralist and universalistic monist; he aims for the greatest possible universality” (xxxi).

One merit of Callaway’s introduction is his demonstrating how the tensions in Emerson’s thought between individualism and universalism, freedom and law, Understanding and Reason, the many and the one, pluralism and monism are all enfolded within the organizing tension between society and solitude and how they are reconciled in Society and Solitude. Callaway remarks on the sea-change Emerson’s thought underwent between the writing of the pre-Civil War The Conduct of Life and that of the post-Civil War Society and Solitude. Emerson now submits his persisting emphasis on reason and individualism—in a word, solitude—to our appreciation of the necessity of Common-Sense Understanding and pluralism—in a word, society.

Another, and considerable, merit of Callaway’s discussion is his explaining this shift in Emerson’s thought in terms of the new sociopolitical situation brought about by the end of the Civil War. Emerson’s reconstruction of his philosophy as represented in Society and Solitude mirrors the national reconstruction undertaken after the war. In his chapter entitled “Farming,” Emerson reaffirms Jefferson’s agrarian ideal. For him, reconstruction was to be achieved in part by Americans emulating the example of Cincinnatus and returning to a wholesome bucolic existence. Their return to the farm would mark a conservative reversion to tradition and normality. Further, farming would necessitate their engaging directly with the forces of nature and submitting to nature’s laws, a welcome “reality check” after the turmoil and dislocation of the war years. Callaway’s introduction also makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding, of the larger Anglo-American culture, historically considered, of which he was a unique representative. He puts Emerson’s nonconformism in the broader historical context of the English Civil War, the Puritan settlement in New England, and the American Revolution.

In sum, Callaway’s edition of Emerson’s Society and Solitude is an indispensable volume in the bourgeoning contemporary literature on the Sage of Concord. It deserves an honored place on the bookshelf of Emerson scholars—particularly for its accurate 1870 text and editorial introduction— [End Page 122] and in the school room for the use of students who should profit especially from its copious annotations, as well as in the library of general readers who wish to understand the meaning of Emerson in his historical context. The Edwin Mellen Press should be commended for good service to Callaway and Emerson—having produced a handsome book with a daguerreotype of the elder Emerson on a pale blue cover.