And, Finally, Essays.

by Paul Mathers


I’ve finished the collections of essays! Callooh! Callay! It was a long slog which spanned the excellent to the plain awful. I found all of these final essays to be striking and so I suppose I should get to commenting on them.

On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes, by William Ellery Channing

I had complex feelings about this transcript of a lecture series. This is not, as a flitting glance at the title might suggest, some Marxist thing. Channing is speaking to laborers. He encourages them to seek to better themselves through education and broadening activities. He champions a society which gives ample opportunities for realizing higher aspirations to all individuals within the society regardless of class and standing. He asserts that having an educated lower class is far better for a civilization than having an uneducated lower class and that education improves the quality of life all around for everyone. Sounds great, right? Sounds like everything I would want from an essay on this topic and the sort of thing that I would trot out phrases like “heartily yes and amen” over, right?

Well, he didn’t stop there and, by golly, I wish he had.

I had two major problems with Channing’s message. He has the rosy, optimistic view of humankind that comes from the belief that “People are basically good.” I loathe this view of humankind because I believe it leads to a false hope and sets people up for nothing but disappointment and confusion. I’ve tried to believe that people are basically good. When I did that, nothing made sense.

But the second objection I had was to something I felt was much worse. He said things like (not exact quotes, but these were the key ideas) “Maybe you laborers would have more money if you didn’t drink so much or if you were more frugal.”

You just don’t say things like that to the working class! And you shouldn’t even think things like that! Generally speaking I am opposed to the mis-overapplication of the word “privilege” in our time, but this struck me as the perfect example of it. Perhaps because the people he was a addressing were of a similiar socio-economic milieu to my own. Perhaps I should check my reaction for outrage dictated purely by my own circumstances. Be that as it may, he lost his audience in me at that moment.

The Poetic Principle, by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is one of my favorite authors and, I feel, one of the most important authors in literary history. His influence was immense. So I looked forward to this essay more than any other.

And it was just okay. I mean, it was well written and all. Poe unpacked some beautiful pieces of poetry. He focused on the metaphysical/otherworldly beauty quality, which he felt that, when executed well, was the hallmark of great poetry. It was an enjoyable read… but not terribly surprising given the source.

Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is one of my problem authors. Exceedingly long time readers of my blog will recall the wretched time I had reading Walden. The long and short of it is that I want to like Thoreau. I feel like we are in agreement on so much. I adore the wild and, out of necessity, have built a sense of the greatness of austerity. But he does two things that set my teeth on edge:

1) He expresses points of view in regards to civilization which would, in modern times, be decidedly Libertarian. Which I detest.

2) He isn’t content to merely champion his preferred way of life. He puts down the way of life of people who do not live like him.

He had moments of the latter in this essay, but he seemed to exercise some self-control. What remains is a sort of motivational speech. He encourages the reader to get out and walk, especially in undeveloped areas, to explore and forge roadless paths. The human body is made to walk. I agree with all of this and, in fact, live my life in this manner. It was one of my favorite pieces by Thoreau.

Abraham Lincoln and Democracy, by James Russell Lowell

Lowell’s two pieces are a bit of American apologetics. He waxes superlative and elegiac over Lincoln:

“We have seen Mr. Lincoln contemptuously compared to Sancho Panza by persons incapable of appreciating one of the deepest pieces of wisdom in the profoundest romance ever written; namely, that, while Don Quixote was incomparable in theoretic and ideal statesmanship, Sancho, with his stock of proverbs, the ready money of human experience, made the best possible practical governor.”

Lowell highlights Lincoln’s outside status and makes a remarkably prescient argument that those who seem fit to the office of the president of the United States are usually the ones who should never hold it. He mentions the famous Lincoln/Douglas debate. Douglas’ tendency to rile the basest emotions of the great crowd is contrasted with Lincoln’s clear reasoning. Lowell finds it remarkable that Lincoln won. I found it remarkable that contemporary American rhetoric is exclusively that of Douglas and, I can’t be the first to make this observation, a Lincoln would never be permitted today.

There is some discussion of state’s rights and it gets a little edgy at that point. Lowell is decidedly on the side of Lincoln and The Union, as am I of course. I am not comfortable enough to add a however at this point. I will just say that it was a little unnerving to read a pro-Washington domination argument while my own President was delivering a speech promising reforms to the rampant domestic spying programs (which, to me, brought to mind something I have said for years, “you’re not really sorry if you’re just sorry you got caught”). Lincoln was, it would be very easy to argue and very rare to meet with dissent, one of the greatest men to ever be President of the United States (to me, he and Theodore Roosevelt are the pinnacles).

For me, it brings to mind the Pharisees. When the Pharisees formed, it was a good thing with great intentions and for the purest of reasons. By the time of the Gospels, they had turned into bleak, oppressive legalism. The American Ideal might attribute this to the need for constant revolution or some such nonsense. More accurately, I would say it speaks to the heart of humankind, which is not basically good.

Likewise, it was interesting to read Lowell’s piece on democracy from the vantage point of post-democracy America.

“(Democracy) is supposed to reduce all mankind to a dead level of mediocrity in character and culture, to vulgarize men’s conceptions of life, and therefore their code of morals, manners, and conduct — to endanger the rights of property and possession. But I believe that the real gravamen of the charges lies in the habit it has of making itself generally disagreeable by asking the Powers that Be at the most inconvenient moment whether they are the powers that ought to be. If the powers that be are in a condition to give a satisfactory answer to this inevitable question, they need feel in no way discomfited by it.”

In my own time, we have “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best” form of government. We have what Gore Vidal called a “militarized Republic” under a thin, transparent mask of democracy. 

I think this strikes at my deep feeling over both of the pieces by Lowell. They reminded me of the experience of watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or hearing Newton Minnow’s Television is a Vast Wasteland speech. Someone from the past is saying, “We must be vigilant or these terrible things might happen.” And, from my life in the future, I can look at what they are saying and see that it ended up at least as bad as they feared it could!

And so ends the volumes of essays. And so I get to move on to an author who I am much more comfortable around: Darwin!