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Fr. 755

January 24, 2017

As his preferred instantiation of democratic tradition and virtue, Jeffrey Stout cites an ethical position of Emersonian inspiration, Emersonian perfectionism. By the latter, he means:

Each human being has a vocation to ascend into higher forms of excellence. On this point, Emerson agrees with the perfectionism in Plato and Augustine. But Emerson rejects their picture of a singular fixed point of perfection in which all human beings implicitly seek rest—the transcendent Good for Plato, the Triune God for Augustine. There is no fixed goal, no rest. Each of us is on a staircase. Yours differs from mine. We can see a few steps below us and a few steps above. Above you, there is a more excellent version of who you are, calling you upward. This is your higher self. Turning your back on it would be a violation of sacred duty. Ascent, however, requires abandonment of your established self. The higher self congeals out of the highest intimations of excellence you can intuit from where you stand. Excellence and sacred value are the kinds of goodness that matter most for living well (Interview with The Other Journal).

For most individuals, the movement from lower self to higher self comes through the outside influence of a role model whom we wish to emulate. Yet achieving one’s higher self also means eventually bringing that emulative phase to an end. If “imitation is suicide”, as Emerson so famously claimed, then the model must at some point or other be killed off:

If we are lucky, often in late adolescence, someone else’s excellence will trigger in us a desire to be excellent. We will begin by imitating that. The imitation is suicide in two senses. It requires a killing off of our merely conforming self. But it also requires a killing off of the very self merely modeled on this excellence that is awakening us. And we realize that to be excellent in the way that this teacher or poet is excellent is not to be either sunken in mere conformity to the background culture or a mere copy of this awakener, but an original. The best teachers intimate that this is really what they are hoping for. (idem.)

Certainly, this requirement has as its primary effect that we combat conformity through personal expression and resistance to type, even the influence exercised by a role model. But this requirement bears a striking secondary effect which is worth pointing out. If one holds that Stout is wrong to promulgate an Emersonian perfectionism and so resists having their ethical life framed in such terms, they nonetheless instantiate certain Emersonian values in avoiding conformity to the type envisioned by Emerson and Stout. Such that proving Stout wrong about democratic life is tantamount to proving the author right about the universal reach of Emersonian perfectionism. Killing off circles back on itself.


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