Mirror of Zen Blog

Developing Individuals

The masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Conditions by the Way”, in Essays and Lectures

And he goes on:

Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a dozen dessert apples. Nature works very hard, and only hits the white [of the bull’s eye] once in a million throws. In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a century. The more difficulty there is in creating good men, the more they are used when they come. All revelations, whether of mechanical or intellectual or moral science, are made not to communities, but to single persons. All the marked events of our day, all the cities, all the colonizations, may be traced back to their origin in a private brain. All the feats which make our civility were the thoughts of a few good heads.

Emerson was not — shall we say — politically correct. He spoke straight to the heart of the matter, in every single word he employed. For this reason, he was considered to be extremely controversial for his day, even scandalous in his views. The well-known story of his “Divinity School Address” epitomises the predicament of his truth-telling, especially for the doctrinally-inclined:

On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, to deliver the school's graduation address, which came to be known as the "Divinity School Address". Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God: historical Christianity, he said, had turned Jesus into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo". His comments outraged the establishment and the general Protestant community. He was denounced as an atheist and a poisoner of young men's minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years.


To revere such a voice as Emerson’s — especially an expression so trained on the development of autonomous, free-thinking, unchurchable souls — might seem to be slightly out of step with the Buddhism which helps us to transcend our narrow, constructed sense of selfhood. But Emerson was, in fact, pointing to the work that every individual must do in order to free themselves first from the iron straitjackets of nation, sect, tribe, political party — the gross prisons of the individual soul. He knew full well the impoverishment of a false identity inherited from groups either genetic or sectarian, and tore asunder any chain that imprisoned our “true self”. For these reasons, I experience a love for this man which is visceral, and is experienced as quite nearly physical in nature. So much of my own paltry expression has been shaped — even compelled! — by his vision!

When I first visited his house in Concord, Massachusetts, I wept nearly the entire time I walked through. I spied nearly every floorboard closely, losing myself in the curls and knots of wood, absolutely mesmerised that my pupils were processing the very same shapes and marks that the Great Man had seen during his decades in that building. There is a desk there that is said to be where he wrote some of his greatest essays (and which of his essays is not great?). I squatted in a corner for what might have been an hour; my eyes took in every grain in the wooden desktop surface, every carved edge, the stand, the legs. The guard there thought me crazy, perhaps, because she kept re-entering the room to see if this man was possibly crazed to linger so long, so oblivious to the coming and going of several tour groups which needed the space to stand in and receive their guidance from a tour guide. I remained in that house until closing time. I did not want to leave.

When people would say that I must certainly be proud to have attended the Harvard Divinity School, because of having had access to this or that scholar, or the entire “Harvard experience”, for me the reason for such an opportunity lies far deeper: To have attended the same school that graduated Ralph Waldo Emerson — and which later banned him for three decades for his fearlessness — is an honorary I cherish most of all. In fact, though accepted at both Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary (the latter my other “favorite”, due to another fearless hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I chose Harvard Div precisely due to its connection to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hands down!

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