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  • Emerson and the Dissatisfactions of Progress
  • Peter Zogas (bio)

In a journal entry from early July 1839, Emerson records that “the Past has baked my loaf and in the strength of its bread, I break up the old oven.”1 This remark is indexed by the word “Reform,” and was made as Emerson had begun to organize material for his first collection of essays in earnest. It emphasizes the formative power of the past while still recording the oppositional relationship to the world and its history familiar to us from Emerson’s famous question from three years earlier, Nature’s “why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”2 Reading the two side by side reveals a tension that Emerson encountered between his adherence to an individual’s autonomy and his confrontation with post-Enlightenment theories of historical development that threaten the self’s radical agency. Emerson developed the logic of an oppositional engagement with the past out of theories of universal history that were prevalent in the nineteenth century, and in doing so challenged the conflation of history and progress as mutually constitutive concepts. While Emerson would hold to a generally progressive outlook throughout his life, during the late 1830s and early 1840s he began to conceive of progress less as a linear trajectory guaranteed by history than as a moment of negativity that helped to authorize the moral stance of the individual. And this moment became one of the [End Page 209] means by which Emerson began to think of how his project as a scholar could engage with reform-oriented thought.

Emerson’s aphorism signals indebtedness and resistance simultaneously, and it suggests that for him an individual’s relationship to the past could never be entirely stable. He returns to it in his 1841 essay “The Conservative,” though slightly altered to implicate the reader—“The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven” (CW 1: 189, emphasis mine). Here the aphorism helps Emerson to frame the debate between conservatism and innovation, which he presents as the perpetual struggle within each individual that marks the process of thought. He sets an allegiance to the existing form of life and society against the need to accommodate innovation, and the essay presents this as a truism of human nature: “Such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a correspondent depth of the seat in the human constitution. It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason. It is the primal antagonism, the appearance in trifles of the two poles of nature” (CW 1: 184). In “The Conservative,” an individual’s political thought emerges from antagonisms that attempt to mediate between what is known, particular, and material and what is anticipated, abstract, and ideal.

Emerson finds moral progress to be the necessary outcome of this perpetual internalized struggle between conservatism and innovation, which he later allegorizes through a consideration of property rights. He describes a young man entering into a world in which each individual has a right to a portion of the earth—a law that conservatives hold “is juster than it was when we were born”—but in arriving at such a late hour, the young man finds that all of the earth’s land has already been apportioned: “They have, it is most true, left you no acre for your own, and no law but our law, to the ordaining of which, you were no party” (CW 1: 190, 192). To the question “Who put things on this false basis?” Emerson answers: [End Page 210]

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Reason Against Unreason. Chromolithograph by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1882.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-28456.

[End Page 211]

No single man, but all men. No man voluntarily and knowingly; but it is the result of that degree of culture there is in the planet. The order of things is as good as the character of the population permits. Consider it as the work of a great and beneficent and progressive necessity, which...


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