Main | On Schopenhauer and Being Bald »

on emerson and Imaginary Bookstores  

Monsieur Montaigne,

In your essay entitled, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, you wrote,

Most of the finest actions of the soul proceed from, and need, the impulsion of the passions.

Well, Monsieur, I couldn’t agree with you more. Another wonderful thinker, of whom you are certainly unfamiliar, named Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote,

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Having been born many years after your passing, Mr. Emerson was also interested in your essays. He even wrote his own essay about you – referring to you as The Skeptic. Though his assessment of your writing is certainly thoughtful and well considered, I wish that he had not labeled you in such a way. From my experience, labels, though helpful, can also become counter-productive. Such labels can even elicit a claustrophobic feeling within the person, or the soul, being labeled.

For example, I tend to resist being labeled passionately and with a healthy Emersonian enthusiasm; and, I suspect, quite ironically, that you might respond to Mr. Emerson’s label with an equal amount of disapproval. If the two of you were still alive today, I would love to hear your response to his essay about you. I bet that you would offer him many examples of how you are indeed a great and passionate believer of many specific and undeniable truths. Perhaps you only seem skeptical to Mr. Emerson because you often find it necessary to distance yourself from the foolishness of popular opinion and the arrogance of certain know-it-all thinkers. In a way, perhaps your skepticism is nothing more than a defense – a healthy and passionate defense developed to preserve your humble sort of authenticity. Or perhaps your skeptical response to certain propositions is similar in tone to that of Socrates. As you know, whenever he was faced with a person of inappropriate confidence, Socrates simply sought to open the other’s mind to different and even contrary possibilities. So, while you might appear to some as a skeptic, to others, you might also appear to be a great proponent of humility – someone who passionately celebrates the virtue of an open mind under all circumstances. I think that this is more how I see you.

I wonder if Emerson chose to see you as a skeptical thinker in order to further his own philosophical assertions. And, I wonder if I have essentially done the same thing. Of the many words Emerson wrote about you, for some reason, I have chosen to focus on the term skeptic. Perhaps I too have my own hidden agenda. Perhaps my agenda is to passionately defend and protect the independence of my own spirit. And, because I feel a certain connection to you, Monsieur, perhaps I am trying to defend the independence of your spirit as well. But, now, after having just written the previous sentence, I feel ashamed. Obviously, your spirit and your name need no protecting – especially by me. Maybe I have only just called attention to my own sensitivity to being labeled. Perhaps when people inaccurately label me, I should just remain calm and remember the words of Seneca,

A great soul speaks more relaxedly and assuredly.

It does seem true that, on occasion, it is unwise to waste words on unfounded accusations. I’m sure that, at times, by engaging in a debate, without intending to, I often legitimize my adversary’s assertion. And moreover, in this case, perhaps Emerson isn’t really an adversary. Perhaps he is just unaware of how certain independent spirits don’t like being labeled. I hope I am not quibbling unnecessarily. To clarify, let me just say that, for the most part, I agree with the opinions and assertions of Mr. Emerson. In fact, both he, and his contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, are two of my favorite American thinkers.

Abraham Maslow, another gifted thinker you might have enjoyed meeting, wrote a great deal about highly developed personalities. He referred to them as self-actualizing individuals. From his studies, he understood that many highly evolved personalities resist being labeled and classified. He even wrote an essay on the subject entitled Resistance to Being Rubricized. Essentially, Mr. Maslow, along with another famous American thinker named William James, believed it unwise to attach labels to people – as it interferes with the healthier notion that we are all unique and complex souls with something special to offer the world. If we embrace or accept being labeled, in a way, we admit our own lack of divinity.

Which reminds me of another related topic for discussion. Why must we label wise thinkers and writers the way we do? Why is Socrates found in the Philosophy section of our bookstores, while you are found in the Essay section? And, why are Maslow and James found in the Psychology section? Aren’t many of these thinkers interested in living wise and useful lives? Aren’t many of them talking about the same things? Maybe all of these labels and categories are interfering with our ability to see that many thinkers, no matter where or when they lived, have actually been fascinated by the same underlying concepts. From my experience, the wisest people simply understand that living is learning, and it is important to enjoy the search. If I were to ever own a bookstore, I would likely organize my bookshelves in a more intuitive, less categorized way. I might organize the shelves like so.

I. Wise Writers of Useful Non-Fiction
(Seneca, Montaigne, Emerson, Maslow, James, etc.)

II. Cerebral Writers of Useless Abstract Theory
(Currently Out of Stock)

III. Creative Writers of Meaningful Fiction and Poetry
(Bronte, Hardy, Mallarme, Kafka, Camus, Rilke, Salinger, etc.)

IV. Superficial Writers of Escapist Fantasies
(Currently Out of Stock)

V. Witty Writers for Laughing and Smiling
(Also See Sections I & III)

OK. Maybe that’s enough for today. I hope you don’t mind my distaste for that skeptic label. If you ever wanted to poke fun at Monsieur Emerson, you could tell him that he’s just another one of those American Transcendentalists – a second rate Mystic of sorts.

Brian Crean

Ps. I almost forgot these other sections of my imaginary bookstore.

VI. Geographical Maps & Travel Books
VII. Books about Gardening, Cooking, and Eating
VIII. Picture Books about Art and Photography
IX. Books to Read with Children