08/24/2010 04:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Memes, Mind and The Examined Life

According to Richard Dawkins and his followers, we live in a world of imitation, of copying everything and then replicating anything we touch in order to belong and to survive. It is a world of memes; we are memetic creatures, they argue. On the other hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of self-reliance and the examined life urges us to stop being memetic and instead discover our true nature, which is not to be a creature whose life consists merely of passing along our DNA and memetic habits to the next robotic generation.

It is unhappy and also inaccurate that Emerson is too often seen now as our faded national cheerleader, a kind beatific figure giving us nice sound bites of greeting card advice. In fact, when serious readers actually sit down and read his essays carefully they will discover a very tough and uncompromising philosopher of nature and the human condition.

A few years ago now, at a Yale gathering, the critic and Emerson scholar Harold Bloom was talking about Emerson with then Yale President Bart Giamatti. Bloom complained that Emerson was too often regarded as being sweet. Giamatti replied, "Sweet? Emerson is sweet as barbed wire." And so he is.

His piercing intelligence and uncompromising truth-telling leave us more naked than clothed in comforting sentimentality. He said in "Spiritual Laws," "If, in the hours of clear reason, we should speak the severest truth, we should say that we had never made a sacrifice." Sentimentality argues the opposite, that we constantly claim for ourselves satisfactions for all the sacrifices we have made for the benefit of others.

But if we begin right there, with that statement from Emerson, and if we look inward with honesty and genuine humility, we might just begin to discover what Emerson has meant to those who over the years have regarded this unique American philosopher as an important teacher and guide.

Emerson tells us that the only way to confront a world descending into chaos is to first look truthfully at ourselves, to awaken from our memetic sleep and to examine our lives. It won't give us control of the world, but it will give us control of our reactions to what it presents. But the process isn't easy. As Emerson warned, "Tell men to study themselves, and for the most part, they find nothing less interesting." That should be a challenge and not an excuse to stumble along in our memetic existence.

At this date in our national and global journey, it is evident that we are in trouble. Chaos is more evident than order, and solutions and control (law and order) are in short supply or are repressive. Nature and humanity both seem hostile as we find ourselves drowning in disasters.

These facts, and I think they are facts, lead me to suggest that we as human beings need to back off for a time and reflect seriously about who we are and what we're doing to ourselves and the planet. We need to withdraw for a time and take a deep breath. And here is where Emerson becomes truly useful.

Emerson has been our national conscience for over 150 years. His fundamental recommendation to us is this: before you step out into the world to act, find out who and what you are first. Don't be in such a hurry to start banging around in the marketplace of ideas and action. Think of yourselves at a railroad crossing. Stop, look and listen because a runaway train may be coming round the bend.

Emerson's lifetime of work, both in books and lectures contains this railroad crossing theme.
He urged us not to be in such a hurry, to take our time, to find our own talents and natural powers and then and only then start developing them. He said, "We create the taste by which we are enjoyed." And talent is the call.

But first we have to discover ourselves and learn what the human condition is all about.
Many materialist thinkers today talk a good deal about what they call the Evolutionary Algorithm: Darwin's idea that if you have Variation, Selection and Heredity, then you will have design out of chaos without the aid of mind.

Emerson, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. Since Mind is at the center of the universe, then finding our connection to that mind is the first and crucial aim of life. He also said that envy is ignorance and that imitation is suicide and that imitation means the loss of personal identity in a world choking with conformity.