It would be a vast understatement to say that Emerson is one of my favorite thinkers. Luckily, I was in touch with and set up an interview with Professor Richard Geldard, author of “Emerson and the Dream of America,” “The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and four other books on Emerson. Prof Geldard is also good friends with Robert Rochardson, author of “Emerson: Mind on Fire” – which might be the best book I’ve read in 3-4 years.
At present, he resides in New York and serves as the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Philosophical Research.
Needless to say I was grateful to have the opportunity to chat. The premise – as my interviews lend themselves – was to pose potential issues and opportunities of transhumanism through the lens of great thinkers of the past – in this case Emerson.
Emerson on Development / Transcendence
My topics with the Professor went directly to Emerson’s perspective on transcending our present capacities and his stance on the mind.
Emerson, as Prof Geldard states, sees the body as a an office in which the mind works, and even as an office where his mind worked (apt for a writer and philosopher) – but that he was not a dualist in the Cartesian sense. In terms of “transcending” our capacities and conditions, Emerson believes humans to be capable of this in the present, and that we have all we need to connect to the universal mind.
In terms of his potential perspective on “enhancing” the mind in terms of preventing memory loss, Prof Geldard believes Emerson would have both been very curious (as was his tendency as a philosopher, and as a person), and cautious.
When posed with such a vague question as “What is your perspective on enhancing the human mind?” – it seems that curiosity and caution are rational responses. Making things specific, I asked what he might have thought of an enhancing implant that allowed humans to learn faster – specifically if it was tested and proven to work as effectively and consistently as – say – penicillin. Prof Geldard stated that in this circumstance, Emerson might have been quite congenial with the idea (though “messing with the mind” is something he’s of course maintain skepticism about – as we probably all should).
In terms of technological / scientific development, Emerson was generally congenial. He saw the advent of steam and other technologies not as innately detrimental, as Thoreau might have viewed them. He saw improvements in the human condition as potentially welcoming – and Prof Geldard believed that there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have been tremendously supportive of modern medicine, especially with so many people close to him dying from now-preventable diseases (including his first wife, his first child, and his best friend – Thoreau).
Emerson and Later Thinkers
My conversation with Prof Geldard eventually led to modern science – and Emerson’s own curiosity with the sciences – such as biology. The Professor stated that Emerson wasn’t all that surprised by the work of Darwin, because he had come up with a similar conception of the development of life on his own 30 years earlier – probably thanks to a deep influence of Goethe and Goethe’s writings on plant life.
Geldard also believes that Emerson may have felt similarly to the ideas of Einstein – being congenial with the idea that reality is consciousness and not matter. Geldard himself is fascinated with quantum physics and believes that this shift in our understanding of the nature of reality itself would have been equally fascinating to Ralph Waldo as well.
Ralph Waldo Resources
Before ending an interview, I have a habit of asking what other roads I might explore, what other books I might read, and what other experts I might speak with. Professor Geldard gave me this advice, and these sites to explore.
If you want to understand Emerson, read “Self Reliance” (what is considered THE Emerson essay), “Experience,” and “Spiritual Laws.”
RWE.org – Includes oodles of information on Emerson, in addition to a concordance of terms.
I wanted to say thank you to Professor Geldard for taking the time for the interview and sharing his thoughts. I believe transcendentalism to be more than valuable as a lens to bring with us as humanity moves forward technologically – and getting a slice of this perspective from a true expert is something I’m grateful for!
All the best,