Perspectives on Political Science: “Ralph Waldo Emerson: America’s Prophet of Expressive Individualism”
By Jacob C.J. Wolf
“This essay argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson is America’s prophet of expressive individualism—foreseeing, and calling into being, a new understanding of the individual. Far from being a defender of the intellectual status quo, Emerson was a moral revolutionary—and his Self-Reliance is not a restatement of the Protestant ethic before him, but a repudiation of it. Emerson sought to replace the older, more-constrained forms of individualism with a new, “expressive” form of individualism, premised on the innate goodness of the individual (rather than on an individual’s sinful nature). Whereas his forebears thought the human person was elevated through participation in institutions and through submission to social and moral rules, Emerson believed such attachments nothing more than chains upon human individuality. Moreover, Emerson’s thought had a distinctly Nietzschean side to it, and his moral philosophy entailed something like Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. Nothing—not religion, society, or tradition—could dictate how one ought to live. One should, Emerson believed, live wholly from within and not according to pre-established social or religious paradigms. This essay concludes with a reflection on the paradoxical relationship between Emerson’s individualism and his pantheism and ponders whether expressive individualism can truly serve as the cornerstone of society.”
Jacob C.J. Wolf is an Assistant Professor of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University. Wolf’s research pertains generally to understanding how cultural and political presuppositions affect the practice of religion in America. His goal, in both his teaching and writing, is to better understand how a sincere Christian in the context of modernity one can be. His interests include religion and politics, history of political philosophy (especially French political philosophy) and American political thought and development.
Professor Wolf is a JMC fellow.
Learn more about Jacob C.J. Wolf >>
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