Emerson & Life's Inherent Dignity

Thoughts on Conviction 4:
"Respect for Human Dignity & Reverence for the Sanctity of Life Provide a Baseline Ethical Standard"

By Anita Patterson

“The first [connection between Nichiren Buddhism and American Transcendentalism] is a respect for human dignity, a reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life. Both discover limitless possibility and the ultimate value in life itself. Both express belief that all life is endowed with an inherent dignity, that life in all its manifestations is unique, irreplaceable, and worthy of respect.” (Daisaku Ikeda, 2004)

I am especially drawn to this quote from Mr. Ikeda, having been inspired by his 2013 Peace Proposal where he calls for a new spiritual framework, founded on respect for life’s inherent dignity, that will help us to recover hope and strength. Mr. Ikeda’s statement made me wonder how I, as a teacher, can help students to cultivate reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life, and under what conditions our universities and other educational institutions will allow such respect for human dignity to flourish. 

In “The American Scholar,” Emerson takes a good, hard look at the nineteenth-century workplace, and finds that, rather than being uplifted and inspired by the dignity of their labors, Americans were instead being worn down by dull routines that robbed them of their humanity. Emerson’s nightmarish description of American industrial capitalism gone awry, in an increasingly commercial and materialistic society that placed no value on human dignity, is worth quoting here at some length. “Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things,” Emerson says. “The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.”

Emerson knew, as Mr. Ikeda reminds us, that respecting life’s inherent dignity means respecting the dignity inherent in even our most mundane daily tasks. Further, this respect can be considered a “ministry” that awakens our reverence for the mystery, and sanctity, of all other living beings. In “The American Scholar” he insists that the scholar should labor to prevent the terrifying loss of respect for dignity in a marketplace driven by forces that would, if unchecked, enslave us to the things and machines we work with. Losing sight of our human dignity and harmonious interdependence, Americans would lose all hope.

How does education restore our reverence for life’s inherent mystery, possibility, and value? The office of the scholar, Emerson says, is “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” A good teacher, in other words, will show students how to expect the unexpected, raising their spirits, so that classroom learning becomes more than just a routine and a means of getting a job in a marketplace where souls are “subject to dollars.” Scholarship, in this best and highest sense, will lead us to look beyond the obvious, humdrum world of appearances we think we already know. “I hear therefore with joy whatever is beginning to be said of the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen,” Emerson concludes. “Let us be generous of our dignity as well as of our money.”

I am grateful to Mr. Ikeda for clarifying this shared emphasis on respect for life’s dignity in Nichiren Buddhism and in Emerson, and I’d like to thank him, and all those involved in the Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue over the years, for proving that education helps us, in times of darkest uncertainty, to advance on a path to world peace.

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Anita Patterson is Associate Professor of English at Boston University. Her publications include Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race and the Politics of Protest (Oxford University Press, 1997).

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