Sentences — September 12, 2008, 7:07 pm

Weekend Read: “Nature Seems to Exist for the Excellent”

emersonbookcover
“It is natural to believe in great men,” begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men: Seven Lectures. After the past twenty-four hours of reassuringly well-lit conversations between Charlie Gibson and the possible forty-fifth president of the United States, what possible benefit could one take from pondering those remarkable qualities that certain members of the historical record have exhibited? I do not know.

That said, should you reach your fill of talking points delivered with a boldness unburdened by fact and a forcefulness untrammeled by circumspection, you could do worse than returning to Emerson’s very different kind of interrogations:

If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it would not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of the Gautama, the first men ate the earth and found it deliciously sweet.

Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome.

You can download a PDF of 221 similarly wholesome pages, or you can read it online. I propose the essays on Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon and Gœthe as your weekend read.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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