Edward Emerson wrote the foreword to his late father’s collected writings. It begins:
Like all great thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson was ahead of his time. We, rather than the people who surrounded him, are his true contemporaries. He speaks our language, lives in our scientific age, and addressed himself to the solution of our problems. [emphasis added]
Emerson consciously dealt with eternal issues. Nonetheless, many of his insights were particularly suited to a pre-industrial age. Emerson’s 19th-century world was an age of the individual.
In the 20th century, the emergence of the industrial age was accompanied by a decline in the “relevance” of Emerson. He was relegated to school assignments. In the 21st century, a post-industrial age, Emerson is arising anew, speaking to our hearts and minds, our lives and work.
Emerson’s legacy endures for all time. Its recognized relevance and applications will fluctuate with changing times.
The MadMen Challenge
The brilliant AMC program, MadMen, recreates, with memorable verisimilitude, the life and work of America in the 1960s. Though notionally centered on Madison Avenue in New York City, it evokes universal experiences and emotions.
Part of the show’s allure arises from its presentation of long-lost cultural and economic facts of life–facts of life taken for granted by the characters. As viewers in the 21st century, we know what they cannot: how things will turn out.
At once fortified and limited by omniscience and hindsight, we see ourselves and others in the twists and turns of the plots. Some characters are trapped in the past. Others are prisoners of the present, following every fashion (as when the plasticine Roger Sterling embraces LSD). Now and again, we witness the struggles of the first responders, those striving to divine the uncertain call of the emerging future.
What About You?
In your life and work, is your primary reference point from the past? The present? The future?
Perform a thought experiment: looking ahead 50 years, what things are you doing today, taking for granted, that you can imagine will surprise, disappoint or even shock those looking back?
When there’s another iteration of MadMen, several decades hence, looking back on our time, what role will you play?
Will the next generation recognize you as a first responder to the call of the future? Who are your true contemporaries?
Who are you serving?
Are You a First Responder to the Future?