A thought entering the New Year

The following quote from the opening paragraph of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” seems like a good subject for reflection in the upcoming year:

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. 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 cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow 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.”

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I have often commented in my essays here that there are times when I feel that my moral commitments and my scepticism about modernity and progress and my advocacy for animal rights make me feel a bit ridiculous especially in a world of such suffering and urgency. Animals, after all, are still seen largely in the abstract as goods not as individual beings.

I suspect sometimes that part of this feeling of absurdity has to do with my alienation from the positive empiricism that is the dominant tradition in public (and academic) life. This ridiculousness has nothing to do with the lack of value in the causes themselves, but to a feeling of being out of step with modern thought and modern life. I don’t reject empiricism, I just am striving to find a way to break its stifling hold on aspects of my thought and expression.

Original thought and sentiment do matter. I think this quote speaks to the need -perhaps in all of us- to think our own thoughts and express them for our own sake, as well as the sake of the world we cherish.

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