An Amazing Woman

Margaret Fuller

My wife has been reading a biography of Margaret Fuller (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall), who led a truly amazing life as a member of the better known Concord transcendentalists. She lived in a way as proof that women could stand up to her better known peers, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, etc. Among the many accomplishments of her life was the establishment of a group of women holding regular “Conversations.” This was just one of her many actions to “transcend” the stronghold that men had over civic and other matters that affected how people lived. My wife read me a number of paragraphs and this one struck me as being remarkably prescient and still valid over 150 years later.

Margaret was a skeptic on the topic of progress and a proponent of reform. She found “incompleteness” in the reasoning of her more optimistic Coliseum Club colleagues, as well as the arguments presented at the Transcendental Club session on the same subject—”a meeting of gentlemen she had attended a few months since.” She allowed that society as a whole may have improved, but what of the individual? The very signs of progress others pointed to—innovations such as the railroad and the steamship—created or exacerbated “immense” want in the individual: “the diffusion of information is not necessarily the diffusion of knowledge” she explained, and “the triumph over matter does nor always or often lead to the triumph of Soul.” And “when it is easy for men to communicate with one another, they learn less from one another.” It was time to “reassert the claims of the individual man.” The signs were plain, in the increasing numbers of “men tired of materialism, rushing back into mysticism, weary of the useful, sighing for the beautiful. (p 114)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Using different words and phrases, Fuller is making the same critique of modernity that I do in my books. When technology is found between human actors and the world, we lose some sense of who we are. When technology is always found between us and the world, we lose almost all sense of what it means to be human. Although the technology we have today is greatly more powerful and omnipresent than it was in Fuller’s time, its influence is still the same, only stronger. Her statement about the “ease” of communicating mirrors my and many others criticisms of the shallowness that all the social media induce. It substitutes quantity for quality and reduces meaningfulness.

I would use only slightly different words to make her point about the “diffusion of information.” Given the enormous amount of information available to us today (Fuller could not have imagined the impact of the Internet, for example), we still lack understanding about the way the world works. Progress is increasingly elusive as signs of unsustainability are increasingly replacing the signs of “progress” characteristic of 18th and 19th century thinking.

The last few sentences in the extract from Marshall’s book speak to me about flourishing. I find it fascinating that Fuller saw signs of human emptiness amidst the riches that the rise of modernity had brought forth. I am not sure what she meant by the “claims of individual man,” but it sounds an awful lot like the existentialist search for individual “freedom,” the ultimate condition of human beings.

The last sentence in the quote could have been taken from the forthcoming book I have co-written with my colleagues of the spirituality in business project I have written about. Our book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business (forthcoming from Stanford University Business Press in August 2014), argues for the need to return a sense of the mystical to the humdrum world of business enterprises if both the employees and the firm as a whole are to flourish. The feeling of “weariness” was highlighted in a recent NYTimes column, “Why You Hate Work,” by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porathmay. Here’s the opening paragraph.

The way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.

I would say some of this about the world, itself, beyond the workplace. We are running on empty, maybe still on fumes, but clearly killing off the stuff that made us human in the first place. We are distracted to the point that time and life rush by without much meaning. Many argue that our hyper-consumerism is driven by a sense of emptiness. Not the stuff of flourishing. Maybe if Margaret Fuller had been a man, people would have listened more carefully and begun to make the fundamental changes we still must for flourishing to be a real possibility. Unfortunately for all of us, the voice of women is still, although louder, muted. Maybe that is why the most essential feature of flourishing, care, still lingers in the background of a masculine world culture.

(Image: Margaret Fuller)

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