Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On Bronson Alcott's Orphic Sayings

Robert Peel, Harvard student of Perry Miller the 20th century premier anthologist and historian of Transcendentalism, said of Bronson Alcott: “In Hindu society he would undoubtedly have been accounted a mahatma, a saint, by the many; eager disciples would have flocked to such a teacher to drink at the limpid wells of his serene and unworldly wisdom. But in the United States of America, already at that time judging success largely in extrovert terms, Alcott was a practical failure, a ludicrous misfit, the reductio ad absurdum of the Transcendental ethos.”

Today’s Wikipedia says, “Amos Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799 – March 4, 1888) was an American teacher, writer, philosopher, and reformer. As an educator, Alcott pioneered new ways of interacting with young students, focusing on a conversational style, and avoided traditional punishment. He hoped to perfect the human spirit and, to that end, advocated a vegan diet before the term was coined. He was also an abolitionist and an advocate for women's rights.”

It also says he was the father of “Louisa May, who fictionalized her experience with the family in her novel Little Women in 1868.” At least it didn’t lead with that sentence, which might be the extent of most people’s knowledge of the man today if there is any knowledge of him at all.

On a more personal level, Emerson said of Alcott: “He is an idealist, and we should say Platonist, if it were not doing injustice to give any name implying secondariness to the highly original habit of his salient and intuitive mind. He has singular gifts for awakening contemplation and aspiration in simple and in cultivated persons. Though not learned, he is a rare master of the English language; and, though no technical logician, he has a subtle and deep science of that which actually passes in thought, and thought is ever seen by him in its relations to life and morals. Those persons who are best prepared by their own habit of thought, set the highest value on his subtle perception and facile generalization.” High praise indeed.

Thoreau simply said he was “the sanest man I ever knew.” And Margaret Fuller called him "a philosopher of the balmy times of ancient Greece—a man whom the worldlings of Boston hold in as much horror as the worldlings of Athens held Socrates.”

Of his many writings, there is one in particular that was most ridiculed in his day: Orphic Sayings. They appeared in the transcendentalist journal Dial between 1840 and 1842. Although Octavius Brooks Frothingham, a prominent Unitarian preacher, wryly called them “an amazement to the unintiated and an amusement to the profane,” not surprisingly something named The Boston Daily Evening Mercantile Journal called them “the quintessence of folly and extravagance.”

Even Perry Miller in his 1950 anthology of Transcendentalist writings had this informative but sly editorial comment: “At the time Alcott wrote them, he was working in his garden in Concord and occasionally wondering how, if ever, he would pay his debts: he was reading Hesiod, More, Cudworth, Goethe, and Coleridge. The value of the “Orphic Sayings” for the American tradition is probably not anything that they say—assuming that they say something—”

Now you can read them and see for yourself.

click on pic for link to amazon

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