[This story was written and published in the 1980s, telling the heart of the story of my experience at Yale in 1970-1, at the beginning of the path onto which my work on — and devotion to — The Parable of the Tribes took me.]
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time. It’s about my disillusionment, and the tale begins with my father. No, it’s not that my father disappointed me. Far from it. But in a strange and wonderful way, he set me up to be disappointed.
My father was a scholar, and I grew up with my thinking sanded smooth by coming up against his critical mind. Whatever I could defend, he would respect. Whatever he could not defend against my arguments, he’d gracefully abandon. His positions were important to him, but he would surrender them to the truth. Such was his integrity.
I grew up assuming that my father’s spirit was characteristic of all scholars, and that it would be my destiny to work in academia with men and women like him as my colleagues. It was around 1970 that I learned I had committed the fallacy of over-generalization.
This was a time when the social fabric was unraveling in a way that laid bare some fundamental questions about order and justice, about freedom and civilized society. The cities in the U.S. had been burning, the war in Vietnam continued to grind on, and I was tormented with the question of why civilization brought forth so much destruction and alienation.
My searching brought me to a searing moment of epiphany in which I felt I’d been vouchsafed a part of the answer. It was a vision that brought together all that I’d learned before about the world. And I committed my whole being to articulating what I had seen.
I was then about to begin graduate studies at one of our great Eastern universities.
Fortunately, I thought, my project would serve the declared purposes of the program I was entering, so immediately upon my arrival I began to seek the freedom to carry out my work under its aegis. My requests, however, fell upon deaf ears until I sent my message in a language administrators could not ignore: for the second semester, I signed up only for independent studies.
That got their attention, and led the heads of the program to request the meeting I’d vainly been seeking since my arrival. It was decided that the two men in charge –both world famous scholars– would come to my house for lunch.
After the hardboiled eggs, I brought out my file drawers and made an impassioned presentation of my project. The chairman’s eyebrows knitted in puzzlement. Then a light came into his eyes. “It sounds,” he said, “like you’re developing a Weltanschauung.” (That’s German for a worldview.)
“Yes,” I answered, “you could say that. I do feel I’ve found a way of putting the pieces together.”
He paused a moment, and then spoke up in the tone of one who has found a solution to a problem. “Well, how about Emerson?” he asked, referring to Ralph Waldo, one of the established gods in the American pantheon of thinkers. “Emerson was also interested in a Weltanschauung. Why don’t you do your graduate study on Emerson?”
I looked at his face for signs of humor, or even malice. Surely he was joking. But no, he was dead serious. It’s great to study the likes of Emerson, the implication seemed to be, but it’s hardly thinkable to try to do the likes of what Emerson did, to see the human condition whole for oneself.
When I balked at taking up his suggested “modification” of my plan, it was suggested that I write up a proposal for them, explaining what I wanted to do and why they should let me. Over the next weeks, I took up this task with passion and, when I handed in my brief I felt a surge of hopefulness. So carefully had I addressed all their stated concerns that it was hard for me to imagine on what basis they might defend any refusal of my petition.
In the event, however, that proved no problem. Two months went by, and they didn’t even answer. When at last I accosted one of them on the street, all he could say was, “We couldn’t let you do that.” That was all the reply to my arguments I ever got.
So much for their integrity.
As far as I could tell, the positions that mattered to them had less to do with the truth of their arguments than with the power of their place in the hierarchy. To defend the latter, they had no need for the former to be defensible.
I left the great university and traveled west, back across the continental divide.
Eventually, I completed my book. Eventually, it was published (as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution).
My book was not, of course, about Emerson’s Weltanschauung. But Emerson does appear once in it. I quote a passage where he laments how the organization of society has weakened “this great fountain of power,” the whole person. “The state of society,” Emerson writes, “is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about, so many walking monsters– a good finger, a neck, a stomach, but never a man.”