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2012 Fall Issue 3 (October 5, 2012)

Emerson, Religion, and Democracy

October 6, 2012

By: Ben Strauss

 

Last Thursday, Mark Cladis, a professor of religious studies at Brown University, gave a talk on Ralph Waldo Emerson in Leighton Hall in which he discussed Emerson’s thoughts on religion, virtue and democracy.

Cladis began the talk by discussing how religion was essential to Emerson. “[R]eligious inspiration is at the heart of Emerson’s work,” he said, and it influenced his views on virtue and democracy.

At the same time, Cladis said, “Emerson was the great American practitioner of suspicion.” While Emerson contributed to the tradition of suspicion of any influence outside the self, he also argued for critical retrieval of information from religion.

Continuing to speak about Emerson’s views of democracy and religion, Cladis mentioned how “Emerson’s account of democracy was deeply rooted in his religious practices,” and that there were three virtues of a democratic culture and character: self-reliance, work and acceptance.
Emerson believed “these virtues correspond to the character of democracy” and that “democracy is more than elections, it also entails the characters of its citizens.”

Preaching on the topics of great national concern in his day, Emerson wrote and gave lectures about the character of the young American democracy, Indian removal and slavery.
In his conclusion, Cladis talked about Emerson and the 2012 elections. Cladis said that to Emerson, “a poorly considered vote was no vote at all.”  Emerson considered the vote “sacred and costly, an obligation to express vision on democracy.” As an extension of theis idea, Cladis talked about honoring the sacrifices people made to expand the right to vote to women and African Americans.

The talk was well attended by Carleton students. Christian Edwards ’14 said, “[T]he point that he made about democracy being a cultural creation was a thought provoking one.”  
Edwards also wondered if Emerson would think “being engaged in democracy with one’s full potential would be an act of piety.”

“Emerson is correct in suggesting that a successful democracy cannot function purely as a result of a particular political framework,” said Lorenzo Najt ’13. “[I]t also requires from its citizens a set of virtues that empower the self as much as society.”

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