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Was Ralph Waldo Emerson Our First Motivational Speaker?

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

Let me admit at the outset that “motivation” is a spongy word and that “motivational speakers” are easier to recognize than to define. Nonetheless, I think there is value in seeing the phenomena in a wider historical perspective. Hence, the question, first articulated when I was trying (yet again) to make Emerson’s words resonate to my American literature classes: “Was Emerson Our First Motivational Speaker?” After all, the noisy culture swirling around all of us—teachers and students, professional thinkers and ordinary citizens—is awash with motivational speakers whose public appearances, videotapes, and books promise to make us better salespersons, corporate managers, spouses, parents, or whatever. Indeed, the wisdom dispensed, whether addressed to the soul or the wallet, is that you can change your life—and more important, that you can do so on the cheap.

Emerson did not have an easy path in mind when he defined the scholar as “Man thinking” or when he called upon his fellow citizens to resist the dictates of social obligation; but it’s easy to see how many of his more quotable maxims could give that impression: “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string”; “Insist on yourself; never imitate”; “Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Such proclamations, delivered from the lectern rather than the pulpit, are the very stuff of which uplift (and needlepoint wall hangings) are made. Small wonder that Emerson always attracted a large following. His first series of essays was never out of print or demand, and he made the rounds of the lecture circuit surrounded by the frenzy and adulation now lavished on rock stars. In an age sans radio, sans TV, sans computer-generated extravaganzas, oratory occupied the center stage, and Emerson’s lectures shot out the lights. He helped audiences to feel, at least for an evening, that there was a Shakespeare buried deep inside each of them—and that if they would only fully recognize their potential, greatness was practically assured.

Emerson was, in fact, many Emersons, but given the one just described, it is easy to see why many have written him off as too airy by half, an impossibly giddy Romantic, a “Transcendentalist” (surrounded by sneer quotes), or a moral pabulum dispenser. Joseph Epstein, probably our most supple personal essayist and until recently the editor of The American Scholar, dismissed him as a “gas bag”—and this in the pages of a journal that took its very name from Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar.” Some composition theorists, I am told, take a particular delight in demonstrating that the typical Emersonian paragraph is little more than a string of topic sentences cobbled together by spit and sealing wax. Perhaps so, but try telling that to the masses of Americans who have more Emerson coursing through their veins than they may realize. For it is Emerson (along with his problematic disciple, Henry David Thoreau) who has defined many of the postures we recognize, for better or worse, as distinctly American.

Let one example stand for many. It is hardly a secret that nothing takes the starch out of genuinely subversive writers more than turning their words into “required reading.” This is certainly the case with Emerson—not only in terms of his obligatory appearance in high school textbooks, but also in the more concentrated attention he receives in college-level American literature survey courses. Young eyes glaze as oceans, or what seems like oceans, of elevated 19th-century American diction wash over them. For a person who argues that books are for a scholar’s idle moments and that Nature is the much more reliable conduit to truth, there are dozens of classical allusions that shoot over the heads of many contemporary readers.

What to do? One solution, of course, is to give Emerson the hook, and have students read somebody they can more easily “relate” to. But this is not only unworthy, but also unwise—for Emerson set into motion conflicts between the Self and Society that are still raging. That’s why I set the following problem for the day when “Self Reliance” is on the docket: “If America took Emerson’s words seriously and was prepared to live by them, would the result be a better or a worse America?” In most cases the class divides right down the middle—half insisting that the “higher laws” Emerson appeals to would produce a more interesting, more creative land while the other half worries about the guy down the hall who figures he can now blast his stereo at 3 in the morning if he has a mind to. My point is not that one side has a monopoly on wisdom and that the other is, at best, naïve, but, rather, that what is at stake is our collective soul—a matter, by the way, that Emerson took seriously.

Granted, Emerson was hardly the first American thinker who urged people to think about their souls. Indeed, one could argue that America’s first motivational speaker was John Winthrop, and moreover, that his most famous remarks, “A Model of Christian Charity,” were delivered before those aboard the Arabella set foot on native soil. His efforts would be replicated by countless others who brooded about Calvinism and the individual [sinful] soul in sermon after sermon, and on virtually every public occasion. As any teacher knows full well, there is no need for sermons on “play.” People get the message without the need to suffer through a learned lecture. By contrast, a work ethic requires constant reinforcement, and that’s precisely what many Puritan sermons did.

But it’s also true that this brand of no-nonsense spirituality produced nervous (some would say, “neurotic”) energy and pinched, intolerant faces. Nathaniel Hawthorne saw this clearly as Hester Prynne collided with her rigid, theocratically driven society. In our day, we can see one aspect of this richly complicated legacy when we browse through catalogues of “educational toys” and another when we remember how the world press delighted in calling us a Puritan country during the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Diaries were a record of their doubts and suspicions of inner sinfulness, not self-congratulating testimonies of how they’re okay and you’re probably okay, too. Unlike Emerson, they did not regard Evil as a purely social construction and again, unlike Emerson, they did not think of corruption as anything that went against self interest, properly defined. I’ve emphasized “properly defined” because the art of Emerson’s argument is in the details. And it is the hard details of how one goes about negotiating his or her way through the world that distinguishes Emerson from his slicker counterparts in the current motivation racket.

Even a short spin on the far right lane of the information highway will make it clear that athletic coaches are in great demand as motivational speakers. Search engines give them a large section all to themselves. Presumably, what works for Division III football and basketball teams can now be packaged for those with pot bellies and short vertical leaps. All the latter type need do is give whatever they’re doing more effort—say, 110 percent or 120 percent instead of whatever paltry percentage they currently put out. I’m no math whiz, but I take a certain pride in telling my classes that a 100 percent effort on their part is all I expect, or indeed, require. But, then again, I don’t figure I’ve got much of a future as a motivational speaker of the muscle-bound type—even if I know, as many of them do not, that the origin of the ubiquitous “No pain, no gain” is none other than Benjamin Franklin.

In other cases, motivational speakers bring the good news that attaining money or spirituality or whatever it is that folks yearn for is easier, much easier, than they had imagined. The toothsome Anthony Robbins offers a step-by-step program that can take you from a life of loose ends to one sharply focused on getting your grappling hooks around Success, and Wayne Dyer, a figure I remember from his Your Erroneous Zone days, has now done the work of digesting no less than 60 great thinkers into a slim book entitled Wisdom of the Ages. Dyer concentrated on one thinker a day, from dawn to dusk, and finished his opus in 60 days flat. No doubt what he calls “automatic writing” helped, along with the single question he posed to each of them: “What would you say to those of us who are here on Earth today?” In Emerson’s case, the answer, not surprisingly, is to “Be yourself and run your life by what you know to be right and in harmony with your spiritual essence.” Next case, please.

Other motivational speakers such as Mark Victor Hansen, the co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, sport whiz-bang web pages that list their appearances on everything from Oprah to the Home Shopping Network. To find out where they’re appearing next, all one need do is click a mouse and the particulars will pop up on the screen.

If these examples have put you in the mood for parody, try wag Stanley Bing’s What Would Machievelli Do?, a primer filled with tongue-in-cheek applications of classical pragmatism gone amuck in the contemporary business world. The irony (is it a double irony?) is that many of Bing’s readers took his playful words as if they were so much gospel.

I suspect that Emerson would not be amused to see the direction that his 19th-century ruminations have taken. Reduced to their lowest common denominator, ideas that once rang with a subversive integrity now seem at once domesticated and de-fanged. That’s why I prefer not to think of Emerson as the patron saint of those who hawk easy solutions to the tough, abiding question of how a good person should live. To answer that question is to know enough to know that one can only pursue the answer—and that what the enterprise requires is nothing less than a lifetime of reading and deliberate, principled action. That, after all, is why we have liberal-education in the first place, so that undergraduates might learn to recognize when somebody is speaking rot. That motivational speakers rake it in not only suggests that a great many people are confused and unhappy, but also that our institutions of higher learning are doing a bad job in teaching our students how to distinguish the Real Thing from its pale imitation.


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