05/31/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Truth or Repose: The Choice

On this day, when Governor Romney secures the Republican nomination for president, we now are offered our November choice. What is it? In Emerson's essay "Intellect" he put the matter plainly for us all:

"God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, -- you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, -- most likely his father's. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being."

Romney is the man of repose and Obama the man of truth in this view of our own inner choice. Romney is the molded son of his father and of the Mormon Church. In these choices he gets rest, commodity (a good deal of it), and reputation, but certainly he has shut the door of truth. He chose dogmatism mixed with accommodation over independence of mind and conviction. Now, in the rough and tumble of the campaign, he tries to hold on, to explain, to persuade, to rationalize, but he is discovering that the country is not bending to his will. We suspect him of being shallow.

President Obama, on the other hand, long ago chose the path of truth as Emerson defines it. Without a father to inculcate ideas into his growing mind, he has kept himself aloof from all moorings. He has discarded dogmatism in favor of finding what is truth in his experience, in lessons learned and mistakes made. More than most Americans he has seen and felt what Emerson calls "all the opposite negations." In that sense he is more pragmatist than idealist and as a result has alienated some in his progressive base, but he has not, as Romney has, vacillated between positions. Obama has a philosophical turn of mind. He follows his own inner counsel.

Even though Obama is not the progressive that many supposed he was, he is a man devoted to finding the true path among alternatives and as such has, I believe, earned the trust of most Americans. A second term may reveal more of the man we have elected. The experience of the first term may serve to bring clarity of purpose and more decisive and necessary action. But in the Emersonian choice between repose and truth, it is clear which way American must turn. Repose is not an option.