Power, Poise, and Place:

Toward an Emersonian Theory of Democratic Citizenship


After more than a century in which setting constitutional limits on political power has dominated the field of democratic theory, active citizenship has resurfaced as a legitimate topic of theoretical reflection.(1) Before this, one would have to go back to Rousseau and Hegel to find major political theorists who placed citizenship at the center of their work.

Today's debate over the contours of democratic citizenship is dominated by three perspectives. Liberal political philosophers, led by John Rawls, have argued that the duties and virtues of citizenship should be derived from prior institutional principles of justice. A good citizen is someone who possesses the virtues needed to act according to these principles and feel at home in a society whose institutions are ordered by them. Republican and communitarian critics of this liberal view such as J.G.A. Pocock, Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre object that this is not enough to ensure stability or justice. In addition to the liberal virtues of tolerance and a commitment to play the role of the loyal opposition, citizens also must be committed to certain substantive ideals. For the more historically-minded republicans, these are universal ideals of excellence and public service. For communitarians, they are the specific moral or religious ideals of particular communities within the larger liberal tradition.

I want to step outside this intramural debate in order to focus more directly on the democratic content of citizenship. What skills, habits, and dispositions do citizens need to generate political power democratically and to share in democratic public life? I call the conception of political virtue that I favor Emersonian. "Let us be poised, and wise, and our own today," Emerson urged, "amidst this vertigo of shows and politics."(2) It is this notion of "poise" while handling political power that gives Emerson's reflections on the virtues of the democratic citizen their distinct value.

Why burden democratic citizenship with Emerson?

While Oliver Wendell Holmes's 1884 characterization of Emerson as a poetic idealist who "accepted his martyrdom with meek submission"(3) probably has been beaten back for the last time, there is still no scholarly consensus on Emerson's status as a political theorist. Some of his defenders, such as Len Gougeon, emphasize his opposition to slavery(4) or, as Christina Zwarg does, his friendship with Margaret Fuller(5) as signs of his political egalitarianism. Others, such as George Kateb and Stanley Cavell, emphasize his commitment to the values of individuality and autonomy,(6) choosing to place Emerson among liberal moralists rather than political theorists. A third, more critical set of commentators, for example, David Leverenz and Christopher Newfield, has found Emerson all too ready to defer to patriarchal and corporate forms of authority rather than elaborate his own theory of popular political participation.(7)

Given these competing interpretations, it would be surprising to find that Emerson had a coherent democratic theory. He did not, and there are several reasons why. Emerson's political views were not entirely consistent and his feelings toward active political engagement were ambivalent. Instead of exploring these contradictions and trying to reconcile them, however, Emerson tended to rely on the idea of Nature as an independent synthesizing force of its own. We will see how this affected his understanding of power in the next section and his ability to formulate an egalitarian conception of democratic citizenship.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Emerson remains a valuable resource for democratic theory because he insisted on the importance of generating, not just constitutionally limiting, political power in a democratic society. Emersonian citizens, I will argue, possess an appreciation of the strengths of character needed to sustain this dual process through hard times.

Emerson himself did not always display this kind of democratic character. Sometimes, especially in his journals, he wrote as if democratic citizenship was a painful chore and public figures personally abhorrent.(8) My point is that even though Emerson did not formulate a full democratic theory and did not always relish democratic politics, this does not mean that an Emersonian theory of democratic citizenship, with the help of others such as Dewey and Royce, cannot be constructed. In this essay I identify three elements in Emerson's work - power, poise, and place - that a theory of democratic citizenship can make good use of and that cannot be found in contemporary republican and communitarian writings.


1. Power

As Michael Lopez has noted, "The search after power, the goal of empowerment, remains consistent through Emerson's essays" even though the forms that power takes vary considerably.(9) This is true of his understanding of political power as well. It comes in many forms and can be transmuted in several ways. Before examining Emerson's attempts to come to terms with the dynamism and fluidity of political power and its relationship to other forms of power in Nature, we must, as Lopez does, take special notice of the positive valence that Emerson places on power in all its forms. To understand Emerson's interpretation of political power, it is necessary to start with the hold that all power has on us: "And what activity the desire of power inspires! What toils it sustains! How it sharpens the perceptions and stores the memory with facts."(10)

Unlike democratic theorists today, Emerson underscored the creative and inventive role that the desire for power plays in democratic politics. He was certainly aware of its dangers in The Conduct of Life ("This power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin."(11)), but he believed that without this desire for power there was no predicting and influencing the future a constructive way. "The same energy in the Greek Demos drew the remark, that the evils of popular government appear greater than they are; there is compensation for them in the spirit and energy it awakens."(12)

It is this desire that Emerson wants to use to mine unequally distributed intellectual and economic resources in the service of a more inclusive democracy. However, to get to this point, Emerson had to struggle with the notion of natural inequalities. The results were not entirely successful.

Journal entries in late 1822 mark out a position against natural equality that Emerson tried to come to terms with long into his adult life.

I believe that nobody now regards the maxim 'that all men are born equal,' as any thing more than a convenient hypothesis or an extravagant declamation. For the reverse is true -- that all men are born unequal in personal powers and in those essential circumstance, of time, parentage, country, fortune. The least knowledge of the natural history of man adds another important particular to these; namely, what class of men he belongs to -- European, Moor, Tartar, African? Because Nature has plainly assigned different degrees of intellect to these different races, and the barriers between are insurmountable.(13)

Emerson did struggle with this view, sometimes mightily.(14) In English Traits he held that "Race in the negro is of appalling importance"(15) even though at an Abolitionist rally in 1845 he had doubted their "hopeless inferiority" in light of the "facts collected in the United States and in the West Indies."(16) In private the long journal entry quoted above was repeatedly qualified. "Slavery," he wrote, "is an institution for converting men into monkeys."(17)

The more Emerson felt that racial inequalities were the product of institutions like slavery, the more active he became in the abolitionist movement.(18) However, his faith in Nature kept him from abandoning his earlier views entirely, despite "the impossibility of arriving at satisfaction on the historical question of race."(19)

Differences between rich and poor gave rise to another ambivalence. In "Self-reliance" he wrote that the "mob" that "goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men" repelled him.(20) Jacksonian democracy was "nonsense" propped up by "public opinion."(21) "The mass," he claimed in The Conduct of Life, "are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee,"(22) and Emerson was quick to justify their economic misfortunes according to a simplistic doctrine of natural economic growth.(23) However, he was unable to leave it at that. Alongside the famous passage from "Self-Reliance" in which he grudgingly gives up his "wicked dollar" to the poor "through miscellaneous popular charities,"(24) we find seemingly contradictory sentiments like this passage from his 1841 lecture, "Man the Reformer."

...The state must consider the poor man, and all voices must speak for him. Every child that is born must have a just chance for his bread. Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor. Let us begin by habitual imparting. Let us understand that the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be ever so rich.(25)


On the equality of men and women, Emerson was again of two minds. Despite his admiration for Margaret Fuller and the influence of his second wife Lydian, Emerson was unwilling to abandon the idea of woman's angelic nature. "Woman only can tell the heights of feminine nature, & the only way in which man can help her, is by observing woman reverentially & whenever she speaks from herself & catches him in inspired moments up to a heaven of honor & religion, to hold her to that point by reverential recognition of the divinity that speaks through her."(26) However, no sooner had he written this, than he slipped back into the negative stereotype of the obtrusive housewife: "In every woman's conversation & total influence mild or acid lurks the conventional devil."(27)

At once a divine inspiration and the carping voice of social conformity, woman in Emerson's eyes falls short. As Jeffrey Steele says, "Man the Reformer" reveals Emerson's preference for a powerful masculine spirit over woman, the "puny, protected person guarded by walls and curtains, stoves and down beds, coaches, and men-servants and women-servants from the earth and the sky."(28) Even though Emerson believed that the Women's Movement and the Antislavery Movement were equally deserving of his support in the mid-1850s, he also believed that women did not want an equal role in public affairs at that time.(29)

Is there an Emersonian conception of equality? We could, of course, settle for something like the equal potential for self-reliance -- that "unattained yet attainable self" Emerson suggests all individuals can and should strive for. There is something of the poet and the hero in all of us he argued in Essays: First Series.(30) Even the masses, he claimed in "Considerations by the Way," if they can be decomposed, have this potential: "To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad heart in the observer, but, simply that the majority are unripe, and have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion."(31) If we choose this conception of Emersonian equality,(32) then we are likely to set aside Emerson's particular views of natural racial, economic, and gender inequalities as unworthy of him.

One alternative to this reading of Emerson is that his blindspots and inconsistencies represent a bias in the underlying concept of the "attainable self." Exactly what is to be attained through self-reliant thought and action? Self-reliance is not a universal value but rather a cultural value that is specific to early nineteenth-century patriarchal, commercializing society. Even if Emerson was unhappy with the emerging mass society,(33) he still resisted experiments that called into question possessive individualism, in particular socialist experiments and a more fluid, feminist conception of identity.(34) The underlying concept of equality that his more specific conception of an equal potential for self-reliance rests upon is, on this reading, deeply flawed.

There may be a kernel or two of truth in these readings of Emerson. He sometimes did think of self-reliance as a Kantian ideal that all rational persons were capable of striving for, especially in thought. Regardless of where they started, they could do a better job thinking for themselves. They could improve their Nature, even if they could never achieve equality of results. At other times, he seemed simply to refuse to take feminist and socialist values seriously, hiding his cultural biases behind the concept of Nature.

However, I am suggesting another way to read Emerson's appeal to Nature that emphasizes its place within his democratic theory of power. In this sense Nature represents the external reality of raw materials and uncultivated ground to which individuals stand in creative antagonism, and also the products that people create out of these natural sources as well as their own capacities, skills, and dispositions that they bring to this relationship with Nature.(35) Nature, then, provides a variety of resources, including our own abilities, out of which power can emerge and be shaped. When tapped in this way, Nature generates additional sources of power that will follow certain "laws," and when power is used in accordance with these laws by people with the "desire for power," the possibility of generating political power and a more inclusive political domain exists. The process of generating political power from Nature and other intellectual and economic resources is not a simple progression, but it does follow certain patterns, and these are what Emerson calls laws of power.

Emerson's laws of power do not predict with certainty. They connect the cooperative generation of political power to other natural and human resources through the medium of human character. This is not an esoteric secret. Even ordinary citizens can see how intellectual and economic power works its way through densely knotted limbs, succeeds itself along new circular lines, and never swings too far in one direction before moving back in the other. Once they have grasped these laws of power and seen how power depends in part on human character, Emerson believed, they will be in a position to generate greater political power and a more inclusive political domain.

This ability to grasp the laws of power is itself rooted in Nature, but it is not merely a matter of drill and sheer concentration(36) anymore than it is a radiant quality of individual greatness that enables citizens to make use of intellectual and economic resources. The more citizens honestly discuss their own shortcomings and personal stakes, the more capable they will be to grasp the laws of power, tap into intellectual and economic resources, and finally expand the political domain within the shifting boundaries of these laws.

In the essays "Compensation" and "Circles" Emerson describes these patterns or laws of power.(37) In the former essay he claims that "each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole." This built-in "polarity" can be traced back to human nature. It is not just that human beings are made up of contradictory traits, but that actions and compensatory reactions originate in our orientations toward ourselves and others. When we have done someone an injustice, for example, we speak fearfully, and the fear that we will be called to account soon makes us hated for what we did. We condemn ourselves in our own words -- not explicitly, but in our tone and phrasing. Only when we are aware of the fact that our own powerful acts produce a true image of our own worth, can we speak more plainly and honestly. Power's compensatory swings begin with our own fearfulness, and by grasping its psychological origins we are in a better position to control it.(38)

In "Circles" Emerson then extends this analysis of power along a second axis. In opposition to the law of polarity is the law of "swift circumscription." Every action has a tendency to be superceded by a greater action; every object is impermanent. Again, what drives this process is something deeply rooted in human character. "We thirst for approbation, yet cannot forgive the approver. The sweet of nature is love; yet if I have a friend I am tormented by my imperfections." As the circles of our friends are redrawn so that we do not have to confront the fearsome thought that old friends might see through us, we rationalize our actions by underlining the others' shortcomings. An even wider circle is then needed to avoid our imagined deficiencies, and we soon forget that it was our own deficiency, our own fear of disapproval, that forced us outward in the first place.

There is no way out of this process of "swift circumscription" and no way to avoid power's "polarity." When Emerson says that "Life is a search after power," however, he doesn't mean, as Hobbes did, that we are at the mercy of these natural laws. On the contrary, by grasping how power naturally works, we can better adjust our "efforts to obstacles."

All power is of one kind, a sharing of the nature of the world. The mind that is parallel with the laws of nature will be in the current of events, and strong with their strength.(39)

According to Emerson, Nature is a rich source of material to be used by creative human powers and at the same time a harsh, determining force in our lives: "...all kinds of power usually emerge at the same time; good energy, and bad; power of mind, with physical health; the ecstasies of devotion, with the exasperations of debauchery."(40) Nature's magazine of powers, good and bad, are there to be used. Properly used when Nature resists our efforts, these powers take us deeper into, not beyond, our ordinary experience.

In one sense, then, Emerson was a determinist but not a fatalist. "Thus we trace Fate, in matter, mind, and morals, -- in race, in retardations of strata, and in thought and character as well....If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate."(41) Necessity hoops us in, but our capacity to tap into natural forms of power makes freedom possible. What powers are at our disposal and how are we to use them to counter our fate within the laws of polarity and circumscription?

Emerson often praised cat-like dexterity and plain hard work. In these acts he claimed to find "the miraculous in the common."(42) Human beings are equally capable, he argued, of making useful products if not equally pleasing poetry. Consistent with this, Emerson was quick to find fault with those who accumulated wealth and power parasitically and did not, Locke would say, leave enough for others to use productively.

Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth.(43)

When unequal private wealth does not contribute to the "common wealth" in this material sense, it is unnatural.

What troubles Emerson so much about giving a "wicked dollar" to charity is that it represents a kind of political alienation for the giver, not so much dependency for the receiver. If you have the money, it is much easier to pay someone else to take care of the anonymous poor than it is to understand their lives yourself. But when intellectual and economic powers are used in cooperation productively, the process can be of value to rich and poor alike.(44) What it takes to do this is not a selfless commitment to philanthropy or utopian socialism, Emerson believed, but a certain kind of poised, cooperative effort.

Can the poor afford to wait for this direct relationship with their benefactors? Is it really their responsibility to help others overcome their political alienation? What guarantee do they have that once the rich and poor alike have understood Emerson's laws of Nature, they will be better off economically or politically? Emerson does not take up this line of questioning. Instead, he asks another question that he thinks is prior to these. What kind of character will be needed by all democratic citizens if they are ever going to be ready to take up these matters? Without it, no statute or constitutional provision can protect the weak from economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement.


2. Poise

"Experience" was written in 1844 when Emerson was coming to terms with the death of his son and the need to take a stronger public stand against slavery. It was a time when poise was more than a matter of political etiquette for him.

For Emerson poise became that peculiar political virtue that enables citizens to handle themselves and the things they have formed out of Nature when they do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. Democratic politics is precisely the kind of experience Emerson describes when he says that we find ourselves in mid-stride on a staircase and with no clear memory of how we came to be there. This is the feeling democratic citizens continually experience as they are forced to change the rules of the game on themselves in order to cope with unforeseen circumstances and ironic twists of fate.

The distinctive feature of Emersonian poise is the way that it enables citizen to responds to this fearsome challenge. Poise is an orientation toward power - "the vertigo of shows and politics" - that enables citizens to express their desire for power creatively and cooperatively without losing sight of the subtle ways in which this peculiar desire also clouds their vision and makes them tone deaf to the dynamics of power in a democratic society. Emersonian poise enables democratic citizens to engage in the pervasive power struggles that run through democratic politics, sometimes openly and other times covertly, without losing their balance or their ear for the sound of the "switch" in their own voices.(45) "There is a sort of climate in every man's speech," Emerson wrote in his journal, "running from hot noon, when words flow like steam & perfume -- to cold night, when they are frozen."(46) Poised democratic citizens must be able to register the entire range.

Just as philosophical inquiry depends upon the Socratic virtues of honesty and a willingness to submit one's own arguments to critical scrutiny, so democratic political dialogue depends upon this Emersonian virtue of poise. Its correlative vices are, on one side, a communitarian self-absorption with identity politics and, on the other, a liberal impatience with the process of political dialogue. The former blinds citizens to the operations of power that maintain the boundaries of their community; the latter encourage citizens to assume that silent acquiescence always means assent.

Political virtue, according to republicans and communitarians, is the ability and disposition of citizens to overcome self-interest for some greater political good. They disagree about what the greater political good is and how an attachment to it can be created. They share, unwittingly, a naive attitude toward power. In this section I will be concerned with republican views and how they differ from the orientation toward power embodied by Emersonian poise. In the next section I will take up the communitarian position.

Republicans argue that political participation has an intrinsic value that is greater than the value of other competing goods.(47) That intrinsic value may be an individual agonistic one: competing for political recognition in itself is more exciting and challenging than the pursuit of private wealth or theoretical knowledge. Another possibility is that political participation is valued more highly because it is the most gratifying form of collective activity. Discussing and addressing public issues together has an intrinsic value higher than participating in family or economic activities.

To realize the intrinsic values of political participation, other interests have to be limited. That is, republican citizens have to have the skills to participate in politics, and they have to be disposed to use these skills even at the expense of their economic and social interests. These abilities and dispositions that constitute republican political virtue can be nurtured gradually through participation in voluntary associations or, if need be, ingrained through an austere military regimen. In either case, the rhetorical and deliberative republican skills of political engagement and the attachments to honor, glory, and political debate do not come naturally. Furthermore, they are not skills and dispositions that all can or should aspire to. Republican citizenship, since Machiavelli, is active but not egalitarian.

Unlike republican political virtue, Emersonian poise does not rank political participation above other human activities or reserve it for a chosen few. Emerson himself never romanticized politics. On the contrary, he believed that "Every actual state is corrupt" and legislation an "after-work, a poor patching" that is better repealed than left standing.(48) At the same time he was able to recognize and respond to urgent political demands. Witness his reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law and Webster's defense of it.

These things show that no forms, neither constitutions, nor laws, nor covenants, nor churches, nor bibles, are of any use in themselves. The Devil nestles comfortably into them all. There is no help but in the head and heart and hamstrings of a man. Covenants are of no use without honest men to keep them; laws of none but with loyal citizens to obey them.(49)

Emerson does not categorically reject laws and political institutions, but he forcefully underscores their limits as adequate instruments for solving deep social conflicts. This ambivalence towards politics in Emerson results from his understanding that power takes shape in the hands of democratic citizens and that they can neither do without it nor give themselves over to it entirely.(50)

For example, to face the poor and do one's share with one's own hands takes more poise in the Emersonian sense than to pay someone else to do the work. It takes poise to join with the poor, without sermonizing, and understand how the dominant forms of power oppressing them can be harnessed constructively. Thus, poise is not a political virtue in the sense that republican civic virtue is; it is not a capacity to resist economic and social interests for the sake of political participation. Poise is a way of getting closer to the effects of power in order to see the potential for using it constructively as well as understand its debilitating statist tendencies. To repeat, Emerson does not reject philanthropic institutions categorically, and Emersonian poise does not require that we reject state-run welfare programs in a mass democratic society. What poise involves is firsthand experience with the institutions designed to help the poor so that these problems can be addressed more knowledgeably as they arise. This holds for donors and taxpayers as well as administrators and bureaucrats; they cannot hope to understand the way power operates through these institutions and within the economy more broadly without encountering those they want to help where they want to help them.(51)

Furthermore, to be effective, this act of composing oneself to come to grips with power cannot be done alone.(52) Emerson's treatment of "representative men" illustrates how poise should work as a form of collective resistance against the beguiling images of powerful experts and leaders.

Even the most-admired public figures are flawed, Emerson argued, and we should not think of them as role models. "Bonaparte," for example, "was the idol of common men because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men." At the same time, "this exorbitant egotist narrowed, impoverished, and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him."(53) The Emersonian model of poised resistance to this idolatry is the

...sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, always like a cat falls on his feet...(54)

This is no recluse. His "professions" put him in touch with Nature, but also require that he master the art of conversation. He knows how to buy and sell, how to engage the reading public, how to hear as well as speak with his congregation, and finally how to represent them in debate on the floor of Congress. Emerson wants citizens to recognize the complexity of power through a wide range of on-site conversations.

When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates us from the oppression of the last speaker to oppress us with the greatness and exclusiveness of his own thought, and then yields us to another redeemer, we seem to recover our rights, to become men.(55)

Because "Our conversation with Nature is not just what it seems,"(56) we must be willing and able to engage with "each new speaker." In an age of specialized knowledge democratic citizens should avoid condescending to those they think know less than they do and uncritically deferring to experts. How can ordinary citizens contest expert knowledge and also avoid the arrogance that their own professions sometimes breed? Emerson's solution is not mysterious. Only someone who has conversed with farmers, with congregants, with students, and with legislators on an equal footing and in their own terms is going to have this kind of poise. To hold our own ground, we must be "a bundle of relations, a knot of roots."(57) Self-reliant citizens should depend upon others in this sense. They need sources of encouragement but also honest sounding boards that enable them to hear how they sound to others.

Taken literally, of course, Emerson's longing for "sturdy" citizens who can switch jobs was increasingly obsolete when he wrote and is now only relevant for laid-off workers who are bounced from one entry level job to another.(58) What is still useful in Emerson's vision of this catlike figure is the notion that he, unlike Napoleon, represents the dialogical skills that democratic citizens need to engage others whose experience differs dramatically from theirs. You do not have to be a farmer, merchant, teacher, or elected politician to converse with these people. What you have to be is someone ready to listen carefully to what they have to offer and listen hard for the sounds of condescension in your own voice as you question them.

Sometimes this will be easier than others. For example, when you depend directly on the voluntary cooperation of another to satisfy your own interests; you can't just go your separate ways without giving something up that is important to you. But Emersonian poise also pertains to situations where it is not immediately clear that people share each other's fate. Where the issues are national or international in scope, then it is not at all clear that Emerson's talkative "lad" could persuade those who are not his neighbors that they are all in it together. Can poise really do us much good where the parties are not already on speaking terms and committed to a common enterprise such as teachers, school board members, and parents faced with the need to raise money for educational programs in the same school district?


3. Place

Emersonian political virtue begins locally in a geographical and in a psychological sense. A poised citizen is someone capable of picking up on local accents and customs different from her own that can either obstruct or facilitate more cosmopolitan ends. In this respect Emersonian poise differs radically from contemporary communitarianism which sheers off the jagged edges of actual political experience. The localness of Emersonian political virtue, then, is not a matter of being faithful to the ethical norms of a small community. It refers to a way of taking in and being engaged with the political world, what John Dewey would call "experiencing"(59) political power, starting with the first circle of relations that surround us and gradually moving out from there.

To make the contemporary relevance of local Emersonian poise clearer, however, we have to extend Emerson in directions later mapped out by Dewey and Josiah Royce.

In late January 1841, Emerson delivered the lecture, "Man, the Reformer," his response to the "challenge of George Ripley's Brook Farm commune and to Orestes Brownson's critique of transcendentalism."(60) According to David Jacobson, in this lecture Emerson argued that "...the site of politics is local" and "...he consistently advised his readers to attend to the issues of their own community before going far and wide in search of political causes."(61) Unlike these nineteenth-century communitarians, Emerson's localism was not hostile to either larger political causes or national political institutions. Consider, for example, Emerson's encounter with the Fugitive Slave Law. He begins his March 7, 1854 address regretfully acknowledging in an aside that he had never really witnessed slavery and qualifying his own authority to speak on this subject as an expert. "The one thing not to be forgiven to intellectual persons is not to know their own task, or to take their ideas from others and believe in the ideas of others. From this want of manly rest in their own, and foolish acceptance of other people's watchwords, comes the imbecility and fatigue of their conversation. For they cannot affirm these from any original experience..."(62)

Just as Emersonian poise is a prerequisite but not a substitute for effective institutional solutions to poverty and oppression, so too is local engagement a prerequisite but not a substitute for an understanding of and involvement in national issues. National politics can be heady, and to avoid being either enchanted or repelled by power on such a large scale, Emersonian poise must be developed locally first.

John Dewey recognized this relationship between citizenship and place: "Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem, to find and identify itself." Dewey ended this passage on what it means for citizens to find themselves as a body politic by invoking Emerson.

We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.(63)

Local participation does not simply educate the public by giving it access to more fine-grained information. Local participation is the "medium" out of which a coherent public identity grows because it is here that citizens learn how to ask each other political questions about who they are and what forms of power they value. Without these questions, access to more information is meaningless.(64) Without this locally educated "immense intelligence," frustration will quickly set in, strategic openings will be exploited too forcefully, tempers will flare, and quieter voices will be ignored. Emerson's language in the passage Dewey refers to is less explicit than Dewey's - he prefers the images of climatic and alluvial change to direct discussion. But "society" is still for him a "troop of thinkers" and what attracts "capital or genius or labor" is "a city like New York, or Constantinople."(65)

The local character of political virtue is also captured by Josiah Royce's concept of provincialism. The "new and wiser provincialism" that Royce advocated was, he claimed, "no mere renewal of the old sectionalism." Rather than dividing people, provincialism "makes people want to idealize, to adorn, to ennoble, to educate, their own province."(66) Then it can work as an antidote to three political problems, and in this way provincialism directly engages power.

First, argued Royce, by giving citizens objective reasons for taking pride in their local institutions, provincialism enables them to give strangers a share in this common wealth. Royce calls this assimilation, but it is not assimilation in the homogenizing and self-denying way we tend to think of it today. By becoming more loyal to their local democratic institutions -- the libraries, the public parks, and the schools as well as the elective offices -- citizens become more capable of "assimilating to our own social order the strangers that are within our gates."(67) Provincialism enables citizens to convince strangers already in their midst that the demands of local democratic citizenship are worth it. Provincialism gives citizens the wherewithal to persuade others to become fellow-citizens when they could remain resident aliens. It is the poise citizens need to resist the temptation either to exclude or denigrate the other.

The second danger that provincialism wards off is what Royce called "leveling" or social conformity. Provincialism, he believed, helps citizens identify this destructive form of power and counteract it through the pride they have in the local cultural institutions they have built.(68) Similarly, provincialism can counteract the "greatest danger of popular government," that is, the "spirit of the mob."(69) Cautiously relying on the work of Le Bon, Royce suggested that the mob psychology that can undermine order in democratic society can be avoided by pride in the value of one's local political institutions. Unlike assimilation where provincialism generates a new form of creative power, in the cases of leveling and mob psychology, provincialism serves as an antidote to destructive forms of power. In these two cases provincialism represents the poise not to be carried along with the crowd -- that is, not to conform to its pedestrian or violent ways.

The local nature of poise that allows citizens to take advantage of their latent "immense intelligence" can be distinguished from the communitarian virtues that philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre have called attention to. For communitarians, roughly speaking, individual identity and the effective pursuit of individual conceptions of the good depend upon membership in a community that has more in common than simply a set of liberal procedures for solving problems of distributive justice. Without the support of a substantive moral or religious community a person cannot sustain coherent individual life plans and support schemes for redistribution.(70) Conversely, political virtue in these substantive communities should enable citizens to support the basic structure of the community not just for its own sake but also for the sake of their own individual projects and identities.

Unlike civic republicans, communitarians do not value political participation as the highest form of human activity. They value political order because without it their deeper, shared moral commitments and their individual conceptions of the good would be unrealizable. What communitarians and republicans share is a conception of political virtue that is inattentive to the peculiar dynamics of power. Republicans glorify the exercise of power, whereas communitarians romantically yearn for a community in which the power to include will never have to be used to exclude. The latter's vision of a harmonious political community or a set of harmoniously interconnected communities myopically overlooks the way that forming and sustaining even the most law-abiding communities always involve violence or the threat of violence against those, inside and out, who do not share the community's moral commitments.(71)

How exactly does poised participation in local politics cultivate a more critical orientation toward power? As I have already suggested, awakening democracy's "immense intelligence" is a matter of teaching citizens how to ask the right questions. The city neighborhood famously described by Jane Jacobs suggests one possibility. Children growing up within this environment learned how neighbors who were also strangers took care of, interrogated, and disagreed with one another civilly without any professional duty bearing down on them. More generally, Christopher Lasch has suggested, neighbors learn how to ask questions of one another, make arguments, and agree to revisit their disagreements. This "quasi-public forum" and other neighborhood meeting grounds do not constitute voluntary associations in the Tocquevillian sense because they do not exist to serve a single purpose. They have the more diffuse end of encouraging the political virtue of "decency" in conversation.(72)

Lasch has been fairly criticized for idealizing these local institutions and the folks who frequent them. Simply coming out in favor of decent conversation is hardly enough, given the mixed record of the populist movements Lasch aligns himself with.(73) But the political virtue of Emersonian poise does not require this kind of idealization of "provincial" life. To cope with the alluring and frightening complexities of power on a larger scale, democratic citizens need an education in power that makes sense of their immediate world. There is no guarantee that they will gain this poise and their "immense intelligence" awakened by confronting the political conflicts that run through their own backyards. Sometimes the locals get it wrong and the elites Lasch excoriates for abandoning faith in them do step in just in time. I am only suggesting that without this experience the dangers Royce describes (widespread nativism, conformity, and demagoguery) are more likely to get the better of both. The elites Lasch presumptively criticizes are more likely to be of help when they also have had a share in creating and maintaining the local institutions Royce praises. For example, simply holding public hearings on new administrative regulations without having had some experience trying to make local institutions work may only polarize the local community and encourage violent local opposition.(74)


5. Conclusion

More still remains to be done if Emerson's treatment of power, poise, and place are to form the basis of a theory of democratic citizenship. Staying focused on local politics becomes harder as the news media trivialize local concerns and transform national politics into entertainment. Spotting the faraway local forces that drive seemingly abstract conflicts requires that citizens can understand thick descriptions of these conflicts when they are given to them by people on the ground over there. However, only their own local political experience can prepare democratic citizens to understand these descriptions and critically discuss issues such as the war in Bosnia or the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that will have effects on many of them sooner or later. Otherwise, they can only repeat the platitudes and cliches that pass for a national debate, as reports from the front sail by them.

Democratic citizens should be able to discuss the generation as well as the constitution of power without denigrating their opponents as power grabbers and deluding themselves that they are somehow above power politics. This kind of civility and self-awareness depends upon a degree of humility that can be learned. Democratic citizens are educated, not born; and their education is an education in the protean ways power courses through their own lives.

It is also an education that begins on familiar ground. Democratic citizenship doesn't stop here, but it must start here. Only on this local terrain do citizens have a chance to experience the compensatory and circular patterns of power and learn that through these convoluted patterns they do often depend upon the willing cooperation of those they disagree with on seemingly more abstract issues. It is this kind of experience that will give them the imagination to see how larger circles of power are bound together.

Finally, democratic citizens must be capable of discussing differences in power and morality, and this includes listening to how they sound to each other in the heat of these conversations. Everyone does not have to speak in the same stripped down vernacular. It is hard to imagine what such a political esperanto would sound like. Instead, they should strive to listen for the accents in their own voices that they had not been aware of before and that their opponents often had good reason to notice.

Emerson's skills as an orator have long been appreciated.(75) It is not clear what kind of listener he was. If his journal entries are any indication, he spent a lot of time talking silently to himself when in the company of those he found fault with, and rehashing this silent conversation in his mind later. The skills and attitudes of a democratic citizen are much different. Such a person is not just poised and anxious to hold forth on great public issues, and prepared, in words Emerson used to describe Montaigne, "to shoot the gulf."(76) The democratic citizen I have in mind is attentive to the way power echoes in his or her own voice and can be used to forge political connections with others, however tenuous and temporary.

Emerson sometimes reached out in this way in letters, statements of public support, and even monetary contributions. That he also often found this psychologically hard to do does not diminish the importance of this kind of political virtue for democrats today. It reminds us just how demanding democratic citizenship can be. Again from "Experience":

Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart! -- it seems to say, -- there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power.(77)

In Richardson's words, this is an essay about "the impossibilities, miscarriages, and mortgagings of power," but it is not a "defeated essay." While "the fire within may be modest," it may still be "sufficient" to illuminate the complex centrality of power in democratic politics.(78)

1. Notes


I am grateful to Martin Benjamin, Al Damico, Don Koch, Charles McCracken, Katherine McCracken, and especially Greg Garvey for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.

1.Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, "Return of the Citizen: A Survey of Recent Work on Citizenship Theory," Ethics, Vol.104, No.2, January 1994, pp.352-81.

2. 2.Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Experience" in Essays: Second Series, reprinted in Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), p.479. Hereafter, Es and Le.

3. 3.Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), p.408.

4. 4.Len Gougeon, Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 1990).

5. 5.Christina Zwarg, Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). Cf. Jeffrey Steele, The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

6. 6.This line of interpretation, arguably the most popular today, began with Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953). See especially, George Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995) and Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

7. 7.David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Christopher Newfield, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

8. 8. "Even when Emerson engaged in political struggle with characteristic passion, his journals and letters reveal the distrust tinged with irritation that forms of collective action continued to evoke in him even when they seemed clearly necessary." Maurice Gonnaud, An Uneasy Solitude: Individual and Society in the Work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p.408. I am indebted to Greg Garvey for reminding me of this contradiction in Emerson's life.

9. 9. Michael Lopez, Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), p.10.

10. . "Education" reprinted in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2nd ed., ed. Joel Myerson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), vol. 10, p.129.

11. . "Power" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.976.

12. . "Power," p.975.

13. 13. November 8-14, 1822, reprinted in Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p.19.

14. 14. Even though he wrote to President Van Buren in April 1838 protesting the relocation of the Cherokee, "Like many other moralists and reformers, he was not yet convinced that blacks and other minorities were altogether equal in their ability to compete in society. If they were not self-reliant, any effort to establish their social equality through external agitation and moral suasion would be for naught. This thorny question would plague him for some years." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson's Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p.xix.

15. 15. "Race" in English Traits, Es and Le, p.792.

16. 16. Speech to an Abolitionist rally on August 1, 1845 on the First Anniversary of West Indian Emancipation, reprinted in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, p.36.

17. 17. April 10, 1837, Emerson in His Journals, p.160.

18. 18. Len Gougeon, Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990).

19. 19. "Race," Es and Le, p.794.

20. 20. "Self-Reliance" in Essays: First Series, Es and Le, p.272.

21. . September-October, 1827, Emerson in His Journals, p.65.

22. 22. "Considerations by the Way" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.1082.

23. 23. "Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply." "Wealth" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.999.

24. 24."Self-Reliance," Es and Le, pp.262-63.

25. 25. "Man the Reformer," Es and Le, p.149.

26. 26. March-April, 1843, Emerson in His Journals, p.304.

27. 27. May 2_?, 1843, Emerson in His Journals, p.306.

28. 28. Quoted in Jeffrey Steele, The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p.102.

29. 29. See the comments on Emerson's 1855 lecture, "Woman," before the Boston Women's Rights Convention in Christina Zwarg, Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp.259-61.

30. 30. "History" in Essays: First Series, Es and Le, p.239.

31. 31. "Considerations by the Way," Es and Le, pp.1082-83.

32. 32. For example, Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

33. 33. Mary Kupiec Cayton, Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

34. 34. In Feminist Conversations, Zwarg argues that Emerson was much more sympathetic to Fourier's vision of socialism and Fuller's more fluid, relational conception of the self.

35. 35. Nature, in Es and Le, p.8.

36. . Emerson emphasizes drill and concentration in the chapter on "Power" in The Conduct of Life.

37. 37. I have discussed these laws of power elsewhere and how they might be applied to contemporary issues and events. See Intimacy and Spectacle: Liberal Theory as Political Education (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). The argument there is that liberal theorists have appropriated only one side of Emerson, the oculocentric individualist, and have ignored his potential as a democratic theorist of power. Emerson's place within what I call the liberal tradition of humanistic corporatism is similar in some respects to the critical interpretation offered by Christopher Newfield, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America, who uses a related term, "corporate individualism," to describe the liberal tradition.

38. . Emerson invokes the law of compensation or polarity in both the essay on "Politics" in Essays: Second Series, Es and Le, p.565 and the chapter on "Power" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.977. An indicative phrase in the former, and repeated slightly altered in the latter, is "Wild liberty develops iron conscience."

39. 39. "Power" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, pp.971-72.

40. 40. "Power," Es and Le, p.976.

41. 41."Fate" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.953.

42. 42 Nature, Es and Le, p.47.

43. 43. "Wealth," Es and Le, p.989.

44. 44. On Emerson's non-transcendental conception of use, see Lopez, Emerson and Power, Chapter 2.

45. 45."You kin feel a switch in his hand when he's talkin' to yuh." Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), p.78.

46. 46. November, 1848, Emerson in His Journals, p.399.

47. 47."The Republican revisionist reading has replaced Lockean liberalism with civic humanism. Part Aristotle, part Cicero, part Machiavelli, civic humanism conceives of man as a political being whose realization of self occurs only through participation in public life, through active citizenship in a republic. A virtuous man is concerned primarily with the public good, res publica, or commonweal, not with private or selfish ends." Isaac Kramnick, "Republican Revisionism Revisited," American Historical Review, Vol.87, No.3, June 1982, p.630.

48. 48.Emerson, "Politics" in Essays: Second Series, Es and Le, p.563 and "Culture" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.1020.

49. 49.Emerson, "The Fugitive Slave Law," reprinted in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2nd ed., ed. Joel Myerson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), Vol. 11, 219ff.

50. 50."Human life is made up of the two elements, power and form, and the proportion must be invariably kept if we are to have it sweet and sound." Emerson, "Experience," Es and Le, p.481.

51. 51.Habitat for Humanity's homebuilding program is an example of this kind of proximate help.

52. 52. The danger of "self-centeredness" for virtue ethics in general is discussed in David Solomon, "Internal Objections to Virtue Ethics," in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol.XIII, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, eds. Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp.428-41.

53. 53.Emerson, "Napolean; or, the Man of the World" in Representative Men, Es and Le, p.745.

54. 54. Emerson, "Self-Reliance," Es and Le, p.275.

55. 55.Emerson, "Circles" in Essays: First Series, Es and Le, p.408.

56. 56.Emerson, "Illusions" in The Conduct of Life, Es and Le, p.1116.

57. 57.Emerson, "History" in Essays: First Series, Es and Le, p.254.

58. 58. I am indebted to Charles McCracken for raising this objection. In the lecture, "Man the Reformer," Emerson shows a clear preference for agrarian work and hopes that if more people benefited from it, "the advantages which arise from the division of labor" could be usefully reclaimed. Es and Le, p.139. The journal entry for April 7, 1840 expresses a similar view. "I see with great pleasure this growing inclination in all persons who aim to speak the truth, for manual labor & the farm. It is not that commerce, law, & state employments are unfit for a man, but that these are now all so perverted and corrupt that no man can right himself in them, he is lost in them, he cannot move hand or foot in them. Nothing is left him but to begin the world anew, as he does who puts the spade into the ground for food. When many shall have done so, when the majority shall admit the necessity of reform, of health, of sanity in all these institutions, then the way will be open again to the great advantages that arise from division of labor. & a man will be able to select employments fittest for him without losing his selfdirection & becoming a tool." Emerson in His Journals, p.236.

59. 59. Dewey's theory of experience is complex. The central insight, for my purposes, is that experience involves a reciprocal relationship between energetic doing and receptive undergoing. When the two are combined with imagination so that they form a bounded whole, Dewey seems to think experiencing is on the right track, aligned with Nature. See John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree Books, 1980) and Experience and Nature (Chicago and Lasalle, IL: Open Court, 1994).

Similarly, in Nature Emerson believed that while "the axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things," this opacity can be overcome so that "the "miraculous" can be seen "in the common." Es and Le, p.47. Later in "Experience," he was much less sanguine about achieving such a perfect alignment with Nature.

60. 60. Richardson, Emerson: Mind on Fire, p.345.

61. 61.Emerson's Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p.81.


62. 62 Reprinted in Emerson's Antislavery Writings, p.73, and textual commentary, p.170. At other times Emerson seemed to be uninterested in this need for local concreteness. See his earlier address on the Fugitive Slave Law also reprinted in this volume, p.53 and textual commentary on p.164., "Address to the Citizens of Concord" on May 3, 1851 that served as a campaign stump speech for John Gorham Palfrey, a member of Congress on the Free Soil ticket. In this address Emerson begins with a mild regret that he has been forced into politics by recent events despite "a duty to shun" such activities. Then, in the second paragraph he grounds his subsequent remarks. "We do not breathe well. There is infamy in the air. I have a new experience. I wake in the morning with a painful sensation, which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of that ignominy which has fallen on Massachusetts, which robs the landscape of beauty, and takes the sunshine out of every hour."

63. 63.John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1927), pp.216, 219.

64. 64.See Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), pp.162-63.

65. . "Power," p.973.

66. 66.Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1924), p.245.

67. 67.Josiah Royce, Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other

American Problems (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1908), p.71.

68. 68.Ibid., p.79.

69. 69. Ibid., p.91.

70. 70. For example, Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); also, Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit, eds., Communitarianism and Individualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

71. 71. Robert M. Cover, "Violence and the Word," Yale Law Journal, Vol.95, 1986, pp.1601-29.

72. 72.Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, pp.99, 117-28.

73. 73.It is important that the historical record on populism be kept straight and Lasch's theoretical arguments often threaten to understate the unhappy chapters in this record. See Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion (New York: Pantheon, 1995). However, it is also important to avoid collapsing Lasch's arguments for localism with communitarian and republican arguments which, as I have suggested, do not focus on the need for a political education in power. For two examples of this kind of overkill, see Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp.122-40 and Richard Rorty, The New Yorker, January 30, 1995, pp.86-90.

74. 74.See, for example, the mainstreaming and inclusion of handicapped students in public education in Joel F. Handler, The Conditions of Discretion: Autonomy, Community, Bureaucracy (New

York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1986).

75. 75.Donald E. Pease, Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

76. 76. Putting words in Montaigne's mouth, Emerson wrote, "So, at least, I live within compass, keep myself ready for action, and can shoot the gulf, at

last with decency." "Montaigne; or, the Skeptic" in Representative Men, Es and Le, pp.698-99.

77. 77.Emerson, "Experience," Es and Le, p.492.

78. 78.Richardson, The Mind on Fire, p.403.