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Emerson: Free-Thought in America

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Sources

    Manuscript
  1. [Details to follow].
    Canon Sheehan on the Internet
  1. http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.
    Editions
  1. Canon P.A. Sheehan, 'Emerson and Free-Thought in America,' The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, ser. 3, vol. 5 (October 1884) 613–623.
  2. Canon P.A. Sheehan, 'Emerson and Free-Thought in America,' Early Essays and Lectures (London 1906) 39–52.
    Literature
  1. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  2. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  3. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  4. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  5. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for a Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205-11.]
  6. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientiarum (London 1620).
    The edition used in the digital edition
  1. Robert Browne, Emerson: Free-Thought in America in Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Ed. Robert Browne. , Dublin, Brown & Nolan, Nassau Street (October 1884) series 3volume 5page 613–623

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Created: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913) (1884)

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Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition: E880000-005

Emerson: Free-Thought in America: Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan


p.613

America has become, during the last quarter of a century, the object on which the eyes of the intellectual world have been fixed, with all the interest that attaches to a novel and critical experiment. Up to that period she had virtually taken not only her religious systems, but all her ideas on philosophical science, from the Old World. She had mutely acknowledged her indebtedness to the great intellects whom the combined thought of Europe had canonised as men of ‘light and leading,’ in their respective departments. Her universities were fashioned after Oxford and Göttingen, and their students sat at the feet of Old World professors, and accepted their teachings with the deference that is due to learning and the sanctities of tradition. Meanwhile, in the mechanical arts, America had asserted her independence. She took the moulds of European inventions, improved upon them, broke them, and cast them aside as worthless and antiquated. And whilst her schools and colleges were accepting European ideas and traditions, there was scarcely a mill in America that had not reached a full half century of progress beyond the best-appointed and best-conducted factory in Leeds or Sheffield.

Such a state of things could not last. A nation of fifty million inhabitants, with infinite possibilities before it, and with all its intelligence quickened into activity by the interfusion of races, with their specific principles and traditions, could not remain in leading strings to any other people, nor maintain a rigid and senseless conservatism in those very things in which the human mind demands


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absolute and unconditional freedom. Hence, during these latter years, the mind of America has ascended from mechanical to philosophical experiment, and, with the facility begotten of wealth and independence, has explored every system of thought, and revelled in the creation of new and fanciful theories in the world of mysticism.

What then is to be the leading system of thought in the great Western Republic? How will its progressive ideas develop themselves? It starts on its career free and untrammelled by prejudice or superstitions. It enjoys the most perfect freedom, not only in its political life, but even in that social life which amongst ourselves has laws more despotic, and decisions more magisterial, than state constitutions. Nature has thrown open her treasury, and already dowered its children with superabundant wealth, and promises of inexhaustible supplies. America inherits free all the blessings of the civilisation which nineteen centuries with an infinite expenditure of thought and labour have accumulated; and she commences her career without a single care for all those sad and terrible possibilities which hamper progress in the Old World. What is to be the issue of the new civilisation? Will it become licentious in its freedom, and reap in the near future the sad consequences of the violation of that political and intellectual discipline which, like the laws of nature, avenges itself upon its transgressors? Will it run riot in speculation and conjecture about the mighty mysteries of mortality, and end, like the Old World, in dreary scepticism? Or will it accept theology as an exact science, with its truths revealed and absolute, and preserved inviolate in its temple, the living Church? Will its strong democratic spirit eventuate in that freedom which ‘slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent,’ or will it issue in a revolution which will dwarf the revolutions of the Old World by its colossal wickedness? Will its aristocracy of wealth and intellect draw away more and more from the masses, and ignoring all Christian obligations seek to establish feudalism and an oligarchy, until the inevitable disruption that will fling them and the people in common ruin? Or will they admit a common brotherhood, and coming down to the level of poverty and ignorance, throw the glamour of intellect and wealth over the forced asceticism of the people? To reduce the question to its broadest terms, will the future religion of America be the cultus of ‘sense and science,’ the Neo-Paganism, in


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which the God of Sinai, with His commandments, ‘Thou shalt,’ ‘Thou shalt not,’ and the meek Saviour, with His beatitudes, shall find no place? or will the pure Christianity of Catholicism, the conserving element in European society, be the active and vigorous agent of the new civilisation of America? The question is interesting, doubly interesting to us, for assuredly the most powerful auxiliaries on the side of Christianity in the New World, are the exiled children of our race.

There are two things indicative of the mental and moral genius of a people: its habits of thought and its habits of life. These two agents act and re-act on each other; licentiousness of thought producing laxity in moral principles, and easy virtue begetting the utmost liberality in matters of belief. We will glance at both, and see if, to borrow an expression from Matthew Arnold, ‘the stream of tendencies’ in modern America makes for righteousness or not. We shall put aside for a moment the Catholic Church in America, and consider the systems of religious thought that lie outside it.

The whole history, then, of Protestantism in the States at the present time, may be described as the history of a desperate and critical struggle with that Agnosticism which has followed, not very logically indeed, from the theories of the evolutionists. Owing to the absence of copyright, and the consequent enterprise of publishers, all the Agnostic literature of the Old World has become the property not only of the thinking, but even of the reading public of America. When we are told that the poetry of Matthew Arnold adorns the tea-papers of the New World, that the publishers have issued a popular edition of his works, that the treatises of the International Scientific Series have been cheapened and simplified, that sociology and kindred subjects are matter for study and debate in the homeliest literary societies, and that a vulgar lecturer, like Ingersoll, can always command an audience of three or four thousand persons in every city of the States, we must be prepared to admit that materialism is a growing creed in America, and that it will need the strongest efforts of Christian faith and Christian scholarship to resist it. The causes that have led up to such a disposition in the public mind are manifold. In tracing and classifying them we shall best understand how deeply laid are anti-Christian ideas, upon what forms of investigation or imagination they are founded, what influence external causes have exercised


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upon them. From the depth and strength of the foundations alone can we conjecture to what stature the temple of Unbelief and Unreason shall rise. The future shall be measured by the present and the past.

The sources then of Free-thought in America may be stated thus.

They are historical changes, speculations in philosophy, the absence of definitive dogmas in all the Protestant communions, wealth boundless and luxury unrestricted, weakness from within, and aggression from without. We will limit this Paper to a consideration of the first two of these causes which are also the most important.

The dark, intolerant spirit brought over by the Puritans in the Mayflower, and which is best known to us through the sombre pages of Hawthorne, might be said to have been broken by the great War of Independence. The principles involved in the famous Declaration, and which were simply the expression of the collective feelings of the people, were found to be inimical not only to foreign domination, but also to the class and creed ascendency which had hitherto obtained in the New England States. The right of every man to worship his Creator as he willed was made the cardinal doctrine of the New Republic, and it broke for ever the power of the fierce bigots who rigidly upheld their ancestral beliefs against Catholic and Quaker by appeals to the branding iron and the pillory. A reaction was inevitable. Intoxicated with freedom, the people rushed from the gloomy doctrines and unbending discipline of Puritanism into extreme licence of thought as the Jews of old, freed from the terrors of invasion and death, revelled in sensuality and idolatry. And events on the European Continent were giving to the mind of America a bias in the same direction. The American Revolution was immediately succeeded by that in France. An invisible bond of sympathy existed between them; and although in their motives, their objects, and especially in their results, they were essentially different, they agreed at least in their hatred of tyranny, their demand for freedom, their insistence on social equality, their impatience of any thing or person, who would attempt to limit human freedom, or coerce human thought. And the ideas that led up to the French Revolution, the Deism of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, were wafted to the New World, and became the foundation of that Unitarianism, which for so many years was the prevalent belief in America, which counted


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amongst its professors the most eminent men in science, art and literature, which founded one of the great American universities, and which prepared the American mind to receive with facility all those conjectural theories of existence on which the modern philosophies are founded. For Deism marks the extreme limit of religious belief. It has its place in the outer spaces of the realms of faith. It stands on the horizon-line of the creeds. Beyond it are the regions of speculation and conjecture. It needs but a single step to fall from it into the abysses of unbelief. And one did fall; fell too like an archangel, drawing hosts of gifted minds with him. The history of his intellectual life will contain a summary of the second cause of the growth of unbelief which we have cited under the name of philosophical speculations.

Beyond comparison the first name in the annals of Unitarianism, as well as the first in American literature, is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and we introduce his name here, for we believe, that his life of lofty spiritual, if not Christian thought, and his character of quaint and earnest simplicity, have had a charm for the young intellects of America, the potency of which can only be measured, when its effects are clearly understood. He might have removed for ever his own strong indictment against his nation that it had no distinct national literature, had he not selected as the basis of his philosophy that German idealism, which originated with Kant, was developed by Hegel, and still holds pre-eminence amongst all other systems in the German schools. His tour in Europe in 1833, and his visit to Carlyle at Ecclefechan1, became turning points in his professional and literary career. He was seized with the ambition of effecting for America what Carlyle had effected for England — to create in all minds the belief that what the world was seeking for centuries was to be found in Germany — a perfect system of philosophy which would satisfy every demand of the human intellect, and every craving of the human heart. He became the interpreter of German transcendentalism to the mind of America. And no professor by the Elbe or Rhine ever disclosed to receptive minds the mysteries of the new philosophy with such passionate earnestness, or preached the naturalism that underlies it with such faultless eloquence. Rhetoric, in fact, is not only the handmaiden, but the mistress of this vague philosophy. To hide an obscure thought in a cloud of words, or to present a familiar idea in strange and


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beautiful language — this appears to be the main end of German philosophy. ‘Know you not,’ says St. Paul, ‘that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost.’ ‘You touch heaven,’ says Novalis, ‘when you lay your hands on a human body.’ Here is the same truth arrived at by different ways, and clothed in different language. And scattered here and there through the writings of idealists, we find some such precious thought in the very richest of caskets; yet we may pass over whole pages of heavy reading without finding a single idea worth preserving, or a single principle that could sustain human hope, or brighten the sombre mystery of life. It is a philosophy of phrases: and we know how in our hurried lives, men sometimes found their religion on an epigram. It is said that the first requisite for a successful politician is to be able to invent nicknames for an adversary; and before now a neatly-turned expression has overthrown governments in France. Epeolatry2 is the fashion of the day. The wisdom of the world is apparently exhausted; and all that can be done with its worn out material is to break it up, and remould it in new casts of thought.

Yet the play of splendid intellects around mighty problems of nature and mind has in it something highly fascinating to the young and the undisciplined. To leave behind, for a moment, the solid ground of Christian philosophy, founded on Divine revelation, and to ascend into cloudland with the gods — to see mighty mysteries of life and death, time and space, God and the universe, duty and immortality, treated as freely as the astronomer swings his globe, or the navigator his sextant: all this is very daring and attractive to the young. And when the brilliant speculations of these leaders are floated through the world, and through the ears of men, in liquid poetry, and prose that is as firm and measured as the tramp of a conquering army, it is not easy to resist the temptation of worshipping their brilliant but erratic intellects. We know how Carlyle was sage and prophet to half the young intellects of England in his time; how he drew all London to his lectures on ‘Heroes,’ and how silently and respectfully they listened to this uncouth Scotchman telling them, in his broadest Doric, that there was only one thing worth worship in the universe, that is, strength and success; how he held spell-bound the students of Edinburgh University in his famous address as rector; and how a single phrase of that address was made the text of a hundred sermons.


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Yet the influence of Carlyle in England was not equal to the influence of Emerson in America. Nor will it be half as abiding. A far more subtle intellect had the latter, and a far firmer grasp of the principles on which all philosophers are united, and the principles on which they specifically differ. And strange to say, he never acquired that obscure and Germanised style for which Carlyle will be for ever remarkable. Not quite so pure, his style has all the clearness and precision of Lord Bacon's. His sentences are generally short, crisp, and full of meaning. It is only when he speaks of the majesty and beauty of nature that he broadens out into stately and harmonious lines, that remind one irresistibly of the prose-poems of Ruskin. And his essays and addresses are absolutely bristling with sharp, pungent epigrams, each with its grain of wisdom put as neatly as our cumbrous language will allow. The author of the Novum Organum3 would not have been ashamed of such sayings as these: ‘Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness.’ ‘Nothing divine dies.’ ‘All good is eternally reproductive.’ ‘Words are signs of natural facts.’ ‘Children and savages use only nouns or names of things, which they continually convert into verbs, and apply to analogous mental acts,’ &c., &c., &c. And Ruskin, in his most inspired moments, might have written of nature thus:

‘But, in other hours, nature satisfies the soul purely by its loveliness, and without any mixture of corporal benefit. I have seen the spectacle of morning from the hill-top over against my house, from day-break to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformation: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind. How does nature deify us with a few and cheap elements? Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie: broad noon shall be my England of the senses and understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams. Not less excellent, except for our less susceptibility in the afternoon, was the charm last evening of a January sunset. The western clouds divided and subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable softness; and the air had so much life and sweetness, that it was a pain to come within doors. What was it that nature would say? Was there no meaning in


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the live repose of the valley behind the mill, and which Homer or Shakespeare could not reform for me in words? The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background, and the stars of the dead calices of flowers, and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost, contribute something to the mute music.’

But it is with his thoughts we have principally to deal, and they are manifold and brilliant. Wisdom flashes everywhere through his writings — wise thoughts that have never touched us before, and thoughts as familiar to us as our daily prayers. It is a feature of genius that it can present to us our own ideas, yet so changed and coloured that we can scarcely recognise them. The thought that we see from only one direction presents itself to the mind of a great thinker under every aspect. And under every aspect it is shown us, until we declare it unfamiliar and original. Like the story of Faust, which is totally different as it comes from the hands of Marlowe, and Goethe, and Bayley, or the sweet legend of ‘the Falcon,’ which is one thing in Coventry Patmore's verses, quite another in Tennyson's drama, all our wise fancies come back to us in the pages of Emerson, but so glorified and etherealised that we cannot recognise them. The commonplace in his hands becomes brilliantly original. Every page of his writings sparkles with the wisest thoughts and the wittiest conceits, and conjectures as lofty as ever disturbed the mind of Plato are compressed with Scriptural conciseness into a single line. Hence, a generation of American scholars has sat at his feet, and accepted his teachings as the sum and essence of all that is worth knowing in ancient and modern philosophy. And hence, too, to him more than to any other teacher of his time is to be ascribed the fact that the best intellects of America have been swept clear of every vestige of revealed religion, and left blank to receive the new impressions that have been made by the theories that of latter years have been pushed to the front in the name of science.

For Emerson, let it be said, was not a philosopher in the same sense as Plato or Bacon. He is an eclectic; but by far the most brilliant of eclectics. He did not create so much as collect. His warmest admirers cannot discover a trace of system in his writings. The sincerest critic amongst his friends, M. Arnold, has declared that he can never be considered a great philosophical writer on account of his method, or rather want of method, in


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writing. And yet it was apparently his ambition to construct such a system. He commenced by removing all traces of the Divine Revelation of Christianity. Speaking of Carlyle he says, evidently in sympathy with him, ‘that all his qualities had a certain virulence coupled in his case with the utmost impatience of Christendom and Jewdom, and all existing presentments of the good old story;’ and in the introduction to his Essays he says; ‘The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in Nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works, and laws, and worship.’ But although he succeeded so far as to remove Christianity from the minds of many, the religion which he was to found, the worship he was to originate, the world has not as yet seen. His religion or philosophical system was essentially negative. Whenever he attempts to construct, he drifts of necessity into pantheism as absolute as that of Spinoza. His lofty idealism leads inevitably to this. He cites approvingly the words of Turgot: — ‘He that has never doubted the existence of matter may be assured he has no aptitude for metaphysical inquiries.’ It is the common opinion of all metaphysicians, that, as Sir W. Hamilton says, ‘The study of mind is necessary to counterbalance and correct the study of matter.’ But Emerson declares that never yet has there been made a single step in intellectual science that did not begin in idealism. It is a necessity. The moment the mind turns inward upon itself, and stands face to face awe-stricken with its own creations, it begins to regard all external things as dreams and shadows. It is with us as with the monk in the Spanish convent — the men and things that pass before our eyes, appearing and disappearing, are but pictures and shades; the paintings on the walls, that is, our own ideas that are ever present, are the only realities. Hence he holds that there is a necessary affinity between

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idealism and religion. Both, he thinks, put the affront upon nature. ‘The things that are seen are temporal,’ says St. Paul, ‘the unseen things are eternal.’ The uniform language of the churches is: ‘Condemn the vain unsubstantial things of this world; they are fleeting and shadowy. Seek the realities of religion.’ Plotinus, he says, was ashamed of his body. Michael Angelo declared that external beauty is but the frail and weary weed, in which God dresses the soul, which he has called into time. Like his German friends, Emerson has struck upon a truth, but from what a different stand-point from St. Paul's, and with what different conclusions! He will not rise, like the latter, to the ‘house of many mansions,’ nor will he accept the doctrine, that what is ‘sown in corruption will be reaped in incorruption.’ He flouts Nature, because he has not read its meaning, nor will he believe the interpretations which Faith puts upon it. But has he not gone too far? He who has written so beautifully of Nature, has he come to despise her? No. He sees he is drifting too far in the dangerous current. And although he avows himself an idealist, and holds that all culture tends to idealism, he shrinks from the consequences. ‘I have no hostility to Nature,’ he says, ‘but a child's love to it. Let us speak her fair. I do not wish to fling stones at my beautiful mother, nor soil my gentle nest.’ What then? Nature must be underrated and despised in the religion of idealism. No, he says, but Nature itself must be idealised. But how? Mark the consequences. ‘The mind,’ he says, ‘is a part of the nature of things, the world is a Divine dream, from which we may presently awake to the glories and certainties of day. There is a universal soul in all things. It is within and behind man's individual life. Intellectually considered we call it reason. Considered in relation to Nature, it is Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man, in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language as the Father. That Spirit creates. That Spirit is one and not compound. That Spirit does not act upon us from without, that is, in Space and Time, but spiritually through ourselves. Man has access to the entire mind of the Creator — is himself the Creator and the Finite. I am part or particle of God.’ This, of course, is the purest pantheism, and thus what is called Natural Religion in its worst and lowest sense, was put before the thinking mind of America in its most subtle and attractive form. The consequences are apparent. All Revelation is rejected, save such as comes intuitively from

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man's own consciousness, or is produced from the contemplation of external nature. The Sacred Scriptures like the Koran or the Veda are simply the histories and legends of a fairly cultured race. The Hebrew prophets are ranked with the priests of Vishnu and Buddha. Christianity is only another form of the universal religion of mankind, and its Divine Author is classed with Confucius and Plato. All divinely revealed doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are allegories and myths, and God Himself has no distinct personality, but is the soul which pervades all things, and is incarnated in Nature. Thus the young intellect of America has been taught, and taught by a master, whose personal character added weight to every word which he spoke. Unlike Carlyle, his idol, Emerson was essentially an optimist. In the very attitude of modern society towards all great spiritual questions, and in which the English philosopher could only discern traces of inevitable spiritual dissolution, the American recognised elements of hope for the future. Probably because he himself was so very sanguine, and knew so little of men, he brought himself to believe that his countrymen would be weaned more and more from the pursuit of wealth and position, and come to live more and more the fine life of the Spirit, in which he believed all true happiness to be found. In this he was egregiously mistaken. Once in a century perhaps, some great hopeful mind like his may be able to wrap itself up in its own ideas, and live a calm life full of all serenity and dignity. But the world at large demands something more positive and real than this. Theories however splendid will not satisfy the eternal cravings of the human mind for the knowledge that is not born of itself; and the grandest Pantheistic conceptions may natter the vanity, but will never meet the wants, of men. Yet a character like Emerson's, so delicate and so elevated, had a lesson of its own for the refined and impressive minds that gathered round him, and took from him the ideas that were to serve for dogma, and the discipline that took the place of virtue. But of them, and in consequence of his influence over them, we may ask in his own words: ‘Where dwells their religion?’ And answer again in his own words, ‘Tell me where dwells electricity, or motion, or thought, or gesture? They do not dwell or stay at all.’ And the divine secret is reduced to the common platitude that religion is the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil, souffrir de tout le monde, et ne faire souffrir personne.4

P. A. SHEEHAN