Emerson: On Man and God

                                                 And the concept of “majority rules” in Judaism


Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote in his introduction to his famed philosophical book “Guide of the Perplexed” that he, a Jew, will be citing, along with his own views, the opinions of the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle and the views of other non-Jews because “the truth is the truth no matter what its source,” and the truth needs to be stated and understood. Since much of what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote is the truth, it too should be known.

Emerson (1803-1882) was a champion of individualism. He led the Transcendentalist Movement of mid-nineteenth century America. Transcendentalism was a protest against the ideas of the majority about spirituality and intellectualism. It stressed self-reliance over tradition and the acceptance of ancient outdated ideas.

Emerson wrote about the ability of people to realize almost everything, what he called “the infinitude of the private man.” “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.” “Whoso would be a man,” he wrote, “must be a nonconformist.” “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands.” We will “look at the world with new eyes…what is truth?…what is good?” Nothing,” he wrote, is “as sacred (as) the integrity of your own mind.”

He served as a minister in a church as a young man, but later abandoned the tenets of Christianity, rejected the notion of Jesus being divine, miracles, revelation, indeed everything that was not rational. He felt that truth can be learned from nature, not revelation. The following are some of his ideas from the selections contained in “Emerson: On Man and God.”

  • Difficulties exist to be surmounted….  A strenuous soul hates cheap successes. (Elsewhere, he wrote: The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but rising every time we fail.)
  • The great majority of men are not original…when they die they occupy themselves to the last with what others think, and whether Mr. A and Mr. B will go to their funeral.
  • Masses! The calamity is in the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only…. If government knew how, I would like to see it check, not multiply the population…every man that is born will be hailed as essential.
  • The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is day? What is a year? What is summer? What is a woman? What is a child? What is sleep?
  • In going down into the secrets of his own mind (a person) has descended into the secrets of all minds…. The poet, in utter solitude remembering his spontaneous thoughts and recording them, is found to have recorded that which men in crowded cities find true for them also.
  • In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole city of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
  • Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace. If you would know their tastes and complexions, the most admiring of their readers most resembles them. Plato especially has no external biography. If he had lover, wife, or children, we hear nothing of them. He ground them all into paint.
  • I think myself more of a man than some men I know, inasmuch as I see myself to be open to the enjoyment of talents and deeds of other men, as they are not. When a talent comes by, which I cannot appreciate and other men can, I am inferior. With all my ears I cannot detect unity or plan in a strain of Beethoven. Here is a man who draws from it a frank delight. So much is he more a man than I.
  • The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.
  • The test of a religion or philosophy is the number of things it can explain: so true is it. But the religion of our churches explains neither art nor society nor history, but itself needs explanation.
  • Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. 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 we not have a poetry and not a tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?


My comments

            The thrust of Emerson’s teaching is individualism. Individuals with intelligence should realize that the majority of the general population is comprised of people with little education, mired in traditional often superstitious thoughts that they never investigated, and have no ability and desire to study, think, and improve either themselves or society. Intelligent people should not follow this majority. Self-advancement and the improvement of society will only come from thinking individuals. Is this the Jewish view? Doesn’t Judaism insist that Jews should follow the majority?

Actually, Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides agreed with what Emerson was teaching about the need for intelligent people to study the laws of nature to learn how the world functions so that they can improve themselves and society. Maimonides said, for example, that the purpose of the Torah is three-fold: to teach some, but not all truths, and encourage people to improve themselves and society. There is nothing in the Torah that orders Israelites to follow the majority. This idea was developed by the rabbis for practical reasons, for the sake of harmony and to minimize strife.

The rabbis based their teaching on a statement in Exodus 23:2, which was addressed to judges and the court system, and has nothing to do with life in general. The verse warns judges and witnesses, “Do not follow the majority to do evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute to turn aside after the multitude to pervert justice.”

The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, as explained by the biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra, interprets the verse to say, Do not follow the majority to do evil, but do follow the majority to do good. Needless to say, this is a forced reading of the biblical text, which does not even hint that majority opinions should be followed when no evil will result. The rabbis used Exodus 23:2 as a support for their practical view that people should follow the majority.

How should the rabbinical view be understood? The concept “majority rules” only applies when there is doubt, but when certainty exists, the majority notions should not be followed. Conversely, if intelligent people realize that a Jewish practice, for example, is based on superstition, they should not abandon their understanding, but still generally observe the practice so that they will not provoke disharmony in Judaism and so that they do not disassociate themselves from other Jews.