Capitalist Vistas: Walt Whitman and Spontaneous Order

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

Capitalist Vistas: Walt Whitman and Spontaneous Order

Thomas Peyser

In his 1959 introduction to the still widely used Riverside Edition of Whitman's poetry and prose, James E. Miller, Jr. sums up some of the contradictory images of Whitman then in circulation by writing, “Walt Whitman was a socialist, a communist, a subversive; Walt Whitman was a snob, an aristocrat, a chauvinist.”1 There is, to be sure, a certain Cold War flavor to these dichotomies, which turn Whitman either into a suspicious fellow traveler or a drum-beater for the American Way, but it is interesting to note that the notion of Whitman as an essentially libertarian figure does not arise in Miller's survey. Indeed, in the past four decades, Whitman has become ever more firmly entrenched as an icon of the American left.

If an official declaration of this fact were needed, Richard Rorty provided one with the publication of his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, a book focusing on the role—in his view, the pivotal role—that Whitman and John Dewey played “in creating the image of America which was ubiquitous on the American Left prior to the Vietnam War.”2 He sees both as the key “prophets” of a “civic religion centered around taking advantage of traditional pride in American citizenship by substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country's principal good.”3 Detecting “little difference in doctrine between Dewey and Whitman,”4 he enlists them in defense of “the thesis that the state must make itself responsible for [a morally and socially desirable] redistribution [of wealth].”5 Further attributing to Whitman ideas current on the left, Rorty construes him as a strict social constructionist, someone who disparages the idea that certain political or economic arrangements arise naturally and necessarily, and who thus sees society not as an organic growth resistant to tampering, but rather as a mechanism that can, as it were, be programmed to carry out the tasks we find desirable. “[E]verything around us and within us,” he writes, is “one more replaceable social construction,” and thus no claims for the naturalness of any set of arrangements can be entertained; orders are to be distinguished only by their capacity to approximate the results we desire from them.6 “For Whitman and Dewey, a classless and casteless society is neither more natural nor more rational than the cruel societies of feudal Europe or of eighteenth-century Virginia,” even if they would not hesitate to find the former infinitely superior, given their ethical convictions.7

As I hope to show, each of Rorty's assertions seriously distorts the meaning of Whitman's writings, but Whitman's general availability for the purposes of the left is not difficult to understand. People often tend to project back into the past the constellations of thought that exist in their own day. Certain aspects of Whitman's work, most notably his career-long celebration of eroticism, are undeniably more in keeping with the cultural program currently associated with the left, and the salience of such aspects quite naturally primes readers to find signs, however muted, of Whitman's allegiance to the political and economic views prevalent on the left today. Indeed, I suspect that the current tendency to see Whitman as fundamentally opposed to the capitalist order derives not from an insistence on the part of scholars to recreate anyone whose works they like in their own image, but rather from their failure to imagine that logically unrelated ideas that happen to be bundled together today might have formed themselves into quite different groupings in the past. What I want to argue here is that, although, in cultural matters, Whitman does indeed share many of the views of today's cultural left, when it comes to his political and economic views, he has much more in common with the right. In particular, I will focus on the way that the idea of spontaneous order, the order that arises from the interaction of free individuals in society, appears as a unifying thread in Whitman's chief works, informing both his explicitly stated political views and the very way he fashioned his poems.

Democratic Vistas is widely and rightly regarded as the greatest of Whitman's prose works, and in it we find extensive evidence of his sympathy with ideas broadly in accord with Hayek's vision of social evolution and the kind of order that evolution produces. Later we will focus on the way the very form of Whitman's poetry suggests his affinity for the idea of the spontaneous order present in modern societies, but it is worth noting that even when writing an essay, Whitman was impelled to create something that mirrors the complex, apparently disorderly character of the world he is analyzing. When we think of the essay as a form, it seems the very model of order that comes from above, that is, from an individual who carefully orchestrates all elements appearing within it: the author is usually at pains to make sure that all contradictions are eliminated, and that everything in the essay is there in order to contribute to a specific goal, to prove the validity of an articulated (or at least articulable) thesis. To be sure, Whitman indeed does have a number of clearly stated points to make, but so constitutionally averse is he to authoritarian ordering that it seems he cannot help but try to liberate the essay from its usual strictures, and to make of it an image of reality itself, refusing to prune away all the mess, noise, and dissonance so evident in the world at large. Preparing his readers for the kind of work that they are about to encounter, Whitman writes,

First premising that, though the passages of it have been written at widely different times (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders), and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another—for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question—I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others.8

Here Whitman claims to make a virtue of what more traditional essayists would regard as the defects of their enterprise: that (whatever their words on the page may claim) they are not entirely of one mind about the ideas they are promoting, that their thoughts have changed during the course of composition, that not all of their points neatly line up with one another, or that some may flatly contradict others. Rather than attempting to conceal these ambivalences, Whitman embraces them, believing that they somehow cohere in his “realization and convictions”; rather than depend on an abstract logical coherence, Whitman founds his sense that Democratic Vistas is a whole on the fact that all of his words are just that, his, that they emerged from a single human mind, and that, however much some parts contradict others, they issue in conviction and action. There is a refreshing honesty at work here, since it is probably true that if we refrained from having a conviction or acting on one until each and every doubt we have about that belief or act were dispatched, we would never do or believe anything at all. Refusing to offer a simplistic picture of the world or of the mind that faces the world, Whitman reveals his belief that order may exist even where disorder seems to reign, and that that order may not have the smooth lines or polished regularities favored by those who see order only where all parts have been bent to a single purpose.

A certain vagueness, in fact, is called for by the very nature of the topic Whitman takes in hand; his theme is the vistas presented at what he conceives as the very early days of democracy, and like any vistas, they are full of distant obscurities. The dedication that Hayek composed for The Constitution of Liberty9 could serve equally well for Democratic Vistas: “To the unknown civilization that is growing in America.” This is no mere coincidence, for both men share an essentially evolutionary view of society, believing that human beings and even the institutions that they create are part of a system far more vast and complicated than anything they could contrive, comprehend, or control. Thus, although reflection can apprehend the trends that have brought civilization to its present state, it cannot with any certainty delineate future states towards which civilization is tending, as these will depend on contingencies it is impossible to predict, changes that will bring about corresponding adjustments in other parts of the system in an ever-evolving dynamism.

Whitman announces his evolutionary view this way: “Law is the unshakable order of the universe forever; and the law over all, the law of laws, is the law of successions; that of the superior law, in time, gradually supplanting and overwhelming the inferior one.”10 Averring that “the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future,” he describes the future development of society in terms that strikingly parallel the spread of a genotype through the process of natural selection, except, of course, that what is being spread is not genetic information, but new customs, beliefs, and practices that lead to enhanced success among the populations that adopt them. He imagines an epoch, “long ages hence,” when

the democratic principle... with imperial power, through amplest time, has dominated mankind—has been the source and test of all the moral, aesthetic, social, political, and religious expressions and institutes of the civilized world... has sway'd the ages with a breadth and rectitude tallying Nature's own— has fashion'd, systematized, and triumphantly finish'd and carried out, in its own interest, and with unparallel'd success, a new earth and a new man.11

Comparing social development to natural processes, Whitman even indulges in a rather odd kind of anthropomorphism, imaging “the democratic principle” as an entity with its own interests, standing above the interests of the human beings who, in seeking their own satisfaction, bring into being a whole system of social organization that they themselves do not aim at. Again comparing the system thus established to natural phenomena, especially on the score of its being able to maintain and reproduce itself without the aid of authoritarian management from above, he writes, “as matters now stand in our civilized world, [democracy] is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once established, to carry on themselves.”12

Clearly Whitman would be happy to do away with the period that intervenes between now and the time when “a new earth and a new man” will be born, but his basic orientation precludes him from believing that an instantaneous transition is possible. Consequently, he casts a skeptical eye on attempts to direct social evolution—at least in a free society—through what would soon be called “progressive” measures and reforms, and this skepticism is particularly marked when one considers the reforming zeal in America at that time, a zeal heightened by the ultimate success of what only a few decades before the Civil War was often regarded as the product of extremist fantasy: abolitionism. Whitman speaks favorably of the kind of top-down reforms advocated by Progressives only in reference to societies whose members do not accept freedom as a fundamental principle. Perhaps obliquely commenting on the need to continue Reconstruction, then in progress, Whitman states that “until the individual or community show due signs, or be so minor and fractional as not to endanger the State, the condition of authoritative tutelage may continue, and self-government must abide its time.”13

If Whitman felt that the overarching question of self-rule could be settled only by the passing of time, he also believed that attempts to tinker with institutions in order to produce particular outcomes would fail to reform society as a whole. By the time he died in 1892, Progressivism had entered the mainstream of American political thinking, but although he had withdrawn from active participation in the ideological debates of the day, records of his conversation in his last years, dutifully recorded by his disciple Horace Traubel, suggest that his ideas regarding social evolution did not alter in old age. He disdained special reforms that were presented as panaceas for social ills, arguing instead for what could only be brought about by immense developments beyond human control, reform “for the whole man— the whole corpus—not one member—not a leg, an arm, a belly alone, but the entire corpus.” Speaking in particular of Henry George's “Single Tax” on landlords and other “speculators,” he said, “I know it is argued for this [reform] that [the Single Tax] will bring about great changes in the social system.... But I don't believe it—don't believe it at all.” When reflecting even on abolitionism, a movement whose goals he entirely embraced, Whit-man was struck by reformers’ inability to comprehend the entirety of the field of relations in which human action occurs: “Is that not the attitude of every special reformer? Look at Wendell Phillips—great and grand as he was.... He was one-eyed, saw nothing, absolutely nothing, but that single blot of slavery. And if Phillips of old, others today.”14

In matters of political and social evolution, then, Whitman hewed to an essentially “non-interventionist” position, as indeed one might conclude from his assertion in the very first sentence of Democratic Vistas that “the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom.”15 Given this basic orientation, however, it is necessary to address what might seem a paradox in Whitman's vision, namely the vitally important role he assigns to the poet, whose efforts, he claims, are essential to the fruition of democracy. For Democratic Vistas, in addition to surveying contemporary conditions in the United States and the prospects for democratic life, is in many ways fundamentally a literary manifesto, a call for the kind of poetry that Whitman believes has the power to transform civilization and acclimate human beings to the new order. At times, when describing the function of poetry in society, not only does he strain credulity by ascribing to the poet tremendous social influence, but he also seems, at first glance, to make of the poet precisely the kind of godlike lawgiver that democracy has rendered obsolete.

To the ostent of the senses and eyes, I know, the influences which stamp the world's history are wars, uprisings or downfalls of dynasties, changeful movements of trade, important inventions, navigation, military or civil governments, advent of powerful personalities, conquerors, &c. These of course play their part; yet, it may be, a single new thought, imagination, abstract principle, even literary style, fit for the time, put in shape by some great literatus, and projected among mankind, may duly cause changes, growths, removals, greater than the longest and bloodiest war, or the most stupendous merely political, dynastic, or commercial overturn.16

Even here, however, when Whitman makes the most extravagant claims about the socially transforming power of a new literary style, he insists that that style must be “fit for the time,” suggesting that the “literatus” does not have it in his power to bend the world in whatever direction he wants. Thus there is no call for castigating authors of the distant past for failing to promote democratic principles whose realization lay far in the future. Even Shakespeare, “luxuriant as the sun,” cannot for Whitman truly be a poet for all time; he is, rather, very much of an age, “artist and singer of feudalism in its sunset, with all the gorgeous colors, owner therof, and using them at will.”17

It is certainly tempting to dismiss Whitman's pronouncements about poetic power as an example of any person's inclination to understand his or her labor as absolutely essential to civilization. However, by examining the likely provenance of Whitman's views we can come to an enhanced understanding of the place he assigns literature in the much broader context of the evolution of social arrangements. Moreover, even those who are reluctant to accede to Whitman's ideas about the heroic stature of creative writers can find in Whitman the outlines of a theory about the central role of culture and values in the maintenance of any social order. Indeed, if we replace the word “poetry” with the word “culture” in many of Whitman's statements, we arrive at a far more credible picture of the way beliefs—perhaps even beliefs that are hardly ever articulated—cement the highly complex web of relations present in the spontaneous order.

In the English tradition, the locus classicus of the claim that poets create order not only in their poems but also in the world at large is found in Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Defense of Poetry” (1821):

The most unfailing herald, companion and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is Poetry. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.... Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.18

This kind of thinking is very much in evidence in earlier essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose works were one of the main conduits through which the currents of European Romanticism reached Whitman as he was preparing to launch himself on his poetic career. In “The American Scholar” (1837), Emerson wrote:

It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago. As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it. To ignorance and sin, it is flint. They adapt themselves to it as they may; but in proportion as a man has any thing in him divine, the firmament flows before him and takes his signet and form.19

Although not focusing specifically on the poet, Emerson here suggests an authoritarian, rather than evolutionary, idea of transformation. Novelty in the world is not the result of a complex dynamic far beyond the power of particular individuals to direct, but rather it comes from those whose divine qualities allow them to impose themselves upon the order that confronts them and to alter it through sheer, overmastering spiritual might. The potentially chilling aspects of this view, with its elevation of the exceptional man over the masses who are incapable of anything save bowing to superior power, crops up from time to time in Emerson's essays, as it seems to do in the closing words of “Experience” (1844), words that might stiffen the resolve of a would-be despot: “the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”20

In the last years of his active writing career, however, Emerson seems to prune away such authoritarian attitudes, and comes much closer to the ideas that suffuse Whitman's poetry and writings about the function of exceptional innovators—especially poets—in the evolutionary processes that elude orchestration by any individual or institution, entities which, far from standing above events and directing them, gain what efficacy they have from their submission to and alignment with impersonal powers greater than they. Indeed, in his great late essay “Fate” (1860), whose title quite clearly points to limitations on the power of human beings to mold their destiny as they will, Emerson reverses his notion of what makes exceptional people great. No longer are they those who can make the world take their “signet and form.” Rather, they are the ones who are most powerfully stamped by their times.

Certain ideas are in the air. We are all impressionable, for we are made of them; all impressionable, but some more than others, and these first express them.... The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later.... So the great man, that is, the man most imbued with the spirit of the time, is the impressionable man,—of a fibre irritable and delicate, like iodine to light. He feels the infinitesimal attractions. His mind is righter than others, because he yields to a current so feeble as can be felt only by a needle delicately poised.21

Whitman voices very similar views in Democratic Vistas, where he adjures leaders not to impose their own ideas, but to align themselves with the times: “The master sees greatness and health in being part of the mass; nothing will do as well as common ground. Would you have in yourself the divine, vast, general law? Then merge yourself with it.”22 In Song of Myself, Whitman repeatedly disavows the idea that he is a lawgiver standing above the mass, insisting, “It is you talking just as much as myself—I act as the tongue of you;/ Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen'd,”23 and, in a departure from the claims of originality one often expects in Romantic poets, he maintains that his thoughts “are not original with me;/ If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing.”24 He even demands that his thoughts be discarded, as if any attempt to freeze a way of thinking into permanent law were a threat to freedom. “I teach straying from me,” he writes, remarking: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”25

It is worth noting that these views take their place in “Fate” within the late Emerson's somewhat Hegelian vision of the course of social evolution, a vision in which democracy is not so much an expedient solution to human problems that, had lawgivers happened to favor different arrangements, could have been solved some other way; democracy, rather, is a necessary, and possibly final, adjustment to the unalterable forces created when large numbers of human beings are brought together in a polity. After noting that inventors like Fulton and Watt had developed the steam engine by accommodating their machines to a force previously regarded only with dread, Emerson casts his eye on the very long term evolution of political forms.

It has not fared much otherwise with higher kinds of steam. The opinion of the million was the terror of the world, and it was attempted, either to dissipate it, by amusing nations, or to pile it over with strata of society,—a layer of soldiers; over that, a layer of lords; and a king on the top; with clamps and hoops of castles, garrisons, and police.... The Fultons and Watts of politics, believing in unity, saw that it was a power, and, by satisfying it, (as justice satisfies everybody,) through a different disposition of society,—grouping it on a level, instead of piling it into a mountain,—they have contrived to make of this terror the most harmless and energetic form of a State.26

Keeping this Emersonian context in mind, we can better understand just what Whitman feels the “literatus” must accomplish, for Whitman, in spite of his manifest enthusiasm for democratic political institutions, believes that the basic outlook of the American people has not yet really caught up with their free political and economic institutions. He detects a kind of spiritual time lag in America, and asserts that, in cultural matters, the people have not yet successfully disentangled themselves from long entrenched European traditions. He claims that “feudalism, caste, the ecclesiastic traditions, though palpably retreating from political institutions, still hold essentially, by their spirit, even in this country, entire possession of the more important fields, indeed the very subsoil, of education, and of social standards and literature.”27 Consequently, Democratic Vistas at times reads like a jeremiad, as Whitman simultaneously celebrates key elements of spontaneous order—especially free political and economic institutions—while castigating the people for clinging to prejudices based on class and religious affiliation (“caste” and “ecclesiastic traditions”). “For my part,” he writes,

I would alarm and caution even the political and business reader, and to the utmost extent, against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry, etc.... do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success.28

Insisting that “society, in these States, is canker'd, crude, superstitious and rotten,”29 Whitman repeatedly embraces the tumult, the creative destruction, evident in the United States, while lamenting the people's reluctance to abandon a concept of humanity in which race, religion, and status play central roles: “I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business materialism of the current age, our States. But woe to the age and land in which these things, movements, stopping at themselves, do not tend to ideas.”30

Perhaps because of the frequently noted hostility to capitalism prevailing in the academy, critics have tended to misapprehend Whitman's basic orientation, especially in economic matters. Therefore, instead of seeing Whitman as someone who wants, as it were, to outfit his readers with the spiritual equipment that accords with free institutions, critics have used Whitman's dissatisfaction with America as evidence of his fundamental dislike of capitalism, although people making such claims need to argue away a good deal of countervailing evidence. A representative example is Richard Pascal's essay on “Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth.” Even though Democratic Vistas is notably lacking in passages concerning the disparity of incomes evident in free societies, or the plight of the poor, Pascal sees a calculating disingenuousness behind Whitman's professions of enthusiasm for the general material prosperity promoted by capitalism. He acknowledges that, “for all their spiritual shortcomings, Whitman admits, America's myriad worldly interests do function effectively as a complex network and hence serve a unifying purpose. Into the ’Vistas’ creeps, from time to time, a modicum of admiration for the ’complicated business genius.’” According to Pascal, however, “such comments have something of the tone of an agnostic paying lip service to the official deities of the state,” and Whitman includes them “[r]ealizing, perhaps, that many of the readers he wishes to influence would not respond happily to suggestions that the values exalted by the world of business and industry are less than progressive.”31 To be sure, in Whitman's view, people who think that getting rich is the final, or only, goal of human life are spiritually stunted, but that in itself is not enough to mark Whitman as a closet adversary of market forces. One can find more than a modicum of admiration in a passage like this one:

I perceive clearly that the extreme business energy, and this almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States, are parts of amelioration and progress, indispensably needed to prepare the very results I demand. My theory includes riches, and the getting of riches, and the amplest products, power, activity, inventions, movements, etc.32

Indeed, as one might expect in an essay whose first paragraph includes a glowing reference to J.S. Mill's “profound essay on Liberty,”33 Democratic Vistas displays a sophisticated understanding of the order deriving from the protection of private property, and even a certain disdain for people who fail to prosper once they have been unshackled from feudal restraints, and who themselves might have little stake in the maintenance of order.

[A] great and varied nationality, occupying millions of square miles, were firmest held and knit by the principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners. So that, from another point of view, ungracious as it may sound, and a paradox after what we have been saying, democracy looks with suspicion, ill-satisfied eye upon the very poor, the ignorant, and on those out of business.34

At the root of Whitman's sense of what remains problematic about modern civilization, then, is not poverty or inequality of incomes, but rather the prejudices, especially those encouraged by organized religions, that encourage both a clannish separation of human beings into mutually suspicious groups and an otherworldliness hostile to happiness here on earth. As Richard Rorty observes, the “most striking feature” of Whitman's “redescription” of America is “its thoroughgoing secularism.”35 While this is true insofar as it applies to Whitman's rejection of Christianity, the whole question of Whitman's relation to religion requires a good deal more qualification, as it goes to the heart of his poetic enterprise and of his vision of what the literatus can contribute to social evolution. For Whitman, in spite of his reservations about particular creeds, clearly and repeatedly states that religious impulses are essential to democracy, that they provide a key component of “adhesiveness” in the mod-ern—or indeed any—order. In Democratic Vistas he speaks of religion as the “sole worthiest elevator of man or State,” “breathing into the proud, material tissues, the breath of life. For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there.”36 As the ecumenicalism of the preceding sentence suggests, Whitman everywhere strives to engage people's religious yearning with the fulfillment of democratic ideals, while at the same time disengaging it from the sectarian supernaturalism that had been its chief object. In an attempt to temper religious fervor by redirecting the people's veneration away from the otherworldly and towards the things of this world, he argues that

side by side with the unflagging elements of religion and conscience must henceforth move with equal sway, science, absolute reason, and the general proportionate development of the whole man... to prevent fanaticism. For abstract religion, I perceive, is easily led astray, ever credulous, and is capable of devouring, remorseless like fire and flame.... We want, for these States, for the general character, a cheerful, religious fervor, endued with the ever-present modifications of the human emotions, friendship, benevolence, with a fair field for scientific inquiry, the right of individual judgment, and always the cooling influences of material Nature.37

In his desire to shift the focus of religion away from the supernatural, an eternal realm of fixed values in comparison to which the world must always be found wanting, and to focus instead on the particulars of life as actually lived, Whitman partakes in a very widespread enterprise evident in much of Romanticism generally. Although not deeply read in Hegel, Whitman did once remark, “Only Hegel is fit for America—is large enough and free enough,”38 and the concluding words of Hegel's The Philosophy of History suggest the reasons for his affinity.

That the History of the World, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is [the] process of development and the realization of Spirit—this is the true Theodicæa, the justification of God in History. Only this insight can reconcile Spirit with the History of the World—viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not “without God,” but is essentially His Work.39

Hegel is not very frequently linked with Hayek, in part because the latter generally accepted the view of Hegel as an advocate of authoritarianism, a view popularized by Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies, but Hayek's thoughts on the future of religious veneration and its relation to the workings of spontaneous order not only accord with Hegel's sense of God's immanence in history, but also offer a vantage from which we can understand the religious element of Whitman's poetry. Suggesting that the whole idea of supernatural lawgiver might result from people's failure to understand that order is a spontaneously generated property of human interaction, Hayek writes,

The conception of a man-like or mind-like acting being appears to me rather the product of an arrogant overestimation of the capacities of a man-like mind.... The source of order that religion ascribes to a human-like divinity—the map or guide that will show a part successfully how to move within the whole—we now learn to see to be not outside the physical world but one of its characteristics, one far too complex for any of its parts possibly to form an “image” or “picture” of it.... Yet perhaps most people can conceive of abstract tradition only as a personal Will. If so, will they not be inclined to find this will in “society” in an age in which more overt supernaturalisms are ruled out as superstitious?

On that question may rest the survival of our civilisation.40

If we turn to Whitman's most explicit dismissal of religious traditions, found in his masterpiece, Song of Myself, we can see it as an almost systematic application of such thinking, as the poet attempts to understand all religion (“It is middling well as far as it goes,”41 he opines) as a symptom of an immature evaluation of the world. Dissatisfied with what creeds tell him, he then undertakes a comically iconoclastic survey of world religions, treating them as if they were only suggestive subjects for more daring and modern works of art, rough guides for the creation of a new way of being in the world.

Magnifying and applying come I,

Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,

Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,1025

Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson;

Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,

In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix engraved,

With Odin, and the hideous-faced Mexitli, and every idol and image;

Taking them all for what they are worth, and not a cent more;1030

Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days;

(They bore mites, as for unfledg'd birds, who have now to rise and fly and sing for themselves;)

Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself.42

For Whitman, religion has played a role in the education of humanity, providing a fundamental orientation that nerved human beings for their work in a world of whose operations they had no valid theoretical understanding. As earlier religionists could not understand order as one of the inherent characteristics of the physical world, the sages and personal gods the poet claps in his portfolio offered a necessary assurance of some metaphysical source of the order they saw around them, as no other source was conceivable.

That this supernaturalism has now become an encumbrance is evident when Whitman turns away from it to examine the world formerly seen only as evidence of a creative force lying outside it. Veneration of a metaphysical source of order has caused people to undervalue what lies before them, leading Whitman to insist that “[t]he supernatural [is] of no account” and that “The bull and the bug [were] never worship'd half enough;/ Dung and dirt [are] more admirable than was dream'd.”43 Acknowledging that religion once provided sustenance, he himself discovers

... as much, or more, in a framer framing a house;

Putting higher claims for him there with his roll'd-up sleeves, driving the mallet and chisel; 1035

Not objecting to special revelations—considering a curl of smoke, or a hair on the back of my hand, just as curious as any revelation.44

It is even tempting to see in this section the outlines of an implied theory of the origins of religious thinking, as he compares normal human beings to traditional divinities or applies to them formulae borrowed from Christian teachings. He considers “Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me than the Gods of the antique wars,” and is transfixed by

... the mechanic's wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born; 1040

Three scythes at harvest whizzing in a row from three lusty angels with shirts bagg'd out at their waists;

The snag-tooth'd hostler with red hair redeeming sins past and to come,

Selling all he possesses, traveling on foot to fee lawyers for his brother, and sit by him while he is tried for forgery.45

As Thoreau had done in Walden by writing, “In a pleasant spring morning all men's sins are forgiven,”46 Whitman redescribes the salvation that Christians ascribe to a divinity working for the eventual redemption of humankind as an inherent property of existence and action. It is as if humanity as a whole had perpetually suffered from the ignorance Whitman sees in himself in “Song of the Open Road”—“I am larger, better than I thought,/ I did not know I held so much goodness”47—and as a result the magnanimity of which people are capable prompted them to imagine divine beings outside nature to account for it. Turning away from such divinities, Whitman attempts to instill in his readers what he calls “a cheerful, religious fervor,” but one that has as its object not a personal god, but rather the natural course of human activity.

Of all the habits of thought that Whitman sees as stemming from traditional religious thinking, perhaps none is more troublesome, in his view, than the idea that the world is moving towards a goal whose character has been already established by scriptural authority. His attack on human beings’ inveterate teleological inclinations seems particularly important as we try to situate him within a tradition of thinking about spontaneous order, since his hostility to the idea that human beings must consciously bring their surroundings into conformity with a preexisting plan suggests his belief that society has evolved and will continue to evolve in ways that defy even the most elaborate attempts to impose order from above with particular goals in mind, as his rejection of at least certain strands of Progressivism confirms. The problem with Progressivism is that it is not radically progressive enough; by establishing certain standards as a measure of society's approach to a stipulated goal, it neglects unforeseen contingencies and may well discourage novelties whose innovative power is not yet recognized by social planners. Of course not all social planners are Christians, but from the perspective offered in Whitman's work they still exhibit a liking for teleology that marks them as the heirs to religious thinking of which they may think they have divested themselves.

To counter such ingrained tendencies, Whitman frequently puts before his readers the limitlessness of time and the unpredictability of what developments are ahead.

I tramp a perpetual journey—(come listen all!) 1205

My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods;

No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair;

I have no chair, no church, no philosophy;

I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, or exchange;

But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, 1210

My left hand hooking you round the waist,

My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.48

“See ever so far,” he writes, “there is limitless space outside of that,/ Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that.”49 Even more explicitly disavowing the importance of imagining a resting point at which human arrangements can be judged perfect, and standing up for infinite progress that is nonetheless non-teleological, he writes,

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end; 30

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now;

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. 35

Urge, and urge, and urge;

Always the procreant urge of the world.50

Again making clear his antipathy towards the parts of our religious inheritance that compel us to see some foreordained end (heaven or hell) as a standard by which we judge earthly existence, Whitman attempts, like his great teacher Emerson, to turn attention to the here and now. As Emerson writes in “Self-Reliance,”

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.... But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present.51

If the goal of Whitman's poetry is to accommodate human beings to the world by imbuing the impersonal, evolutionary forces of the spontaneous order with the grandeur that made personal gods seem fit objects of veneration, perhaps his greatest obstacle is the hankering after stability that the ceaseless dynamism of such an order everywhere frustrates. In addition to the alarming economic realities from which governments often try to protect the people—unpredictable fluctuation in prices, the hardship faced by workers thrown out of outmoded trades and forced to find a place in new ones, sudden reverses in the fortunes of individuals, families, or whole regions—there is what can be seen as an almost aesthetic component to people's suspicion of modernity. Orderliness of a kind whose symmetries and regularities can be defined and enumerated ranks high on many people's list of qualities desirable both in works of art and in societies, and those in the grip of such predilections are likely to bestow the word “chaotic” on everything from a painting by Jackson Pollock to the conditions that prevail in free markets.

With such widespread attitudes in mind, we can see in Song of Myself Whitman's attempt to offer his readers an aesthetic education that will let them appreciate the apparently disorderly order of modernity, and this education is accomplished above all by the poem's formal qualities. Lyric poetry, with its repertoire of rhyme, meter, and stanza structure, is usually thought of as the most elaborately and precisely patterned of literary forms, and thus might seem the genre least suited to capturing the hubbub evident on the ground of a free society. Indeed, for generations now the novel, with its apparent capacity to absorb all manner of materials and styles, has been viewed by critics as the modern literary genre par excellence, and its emergence as a leading form has frequently been tied to the rise of modern capitalist culture. Nevertheless, in Song of Myself Whitman fashioned an entirely new kind of poem that brought to the lyric a striking formal elasticity and even wildness that turn it into something roughly analogous to the emergent social forms that are its subject.

To argue that a poem, or indeed any linguistic artifact, mimics the characteristics of a spontaneous order may seem odd. The fact that in order to communicate at all an author must, at a bare minimum, submit to grammar would seem to rule out intelligible texts from the class of items that can be considered spontaneously ordered. Song of Myself certainly does not resemble, for example, the computer-generated gibberish designed to foil email filtering systems, such as the following: “fastidious herr flanagan ignominious brandenburg calumniate aitken counteract barney blood conjugal canal implausible indecisive pastime.” Indeed, even this nonsense is not truly spontaneous, since the legibility of words themselves relies on preexisting rules ensuring that a particular set of phonemes will represent a particular idea. Moreover, even if we overlook the rule-following inherent in the use of words and syntax, we might be inclined to demand that a text whose order we are willing to call spontaneous be nothing but a chain of randomly juxtaposed sentences whose content need not be regulated by what we know of the world: “The third llama erected in fifty-first-century Manchester was shoe polish. Apparently the weather turned spatial. However, drywall is good enough. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Even if we threw out the obligation to include nonsensical sentences, we would still end up with a text displaying infinitely less order and discernable intent than Whitman's poem does.

Far from scuttling the proposition that Song of Myself approximates a spontaneous order, such observations lead us to a more precise analogy between Whitman's poetic form and the social structures described by Hayek and others sharing his general orientation. What we have just seen is that orders may be at one and the same time spontaneous with regard to certain criteria but not with regard to others. After all, even the randomly generated list of words above is not spontaneous all the way down to the ground, as it relies on lexical conventions (to say nothing of the conventions of orthography). Similarly, the sentences about shoe polish llamas and spatial weather follow the rules of syntax, but display a spontaneous disregard for conventional meanings, just as a random list of sentences that stuck to sensible assertions would still be free from rules of rhetoric. Each step on the ladder of intelligibility (from lexicon, to syntax, to semantics, to rhetoric) offers a platform for the creation of texts whose elements have not been coordinated in the way that the higher-level rules demand. Thus, to apply Hayek's description of social structures to this textual model, “it is possible that an order which would still have to be described as spontaneous rests on rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design.”52 Spontaneous orders, in Hayek's sense, are not called upon to reconstitute themselves from the bottom up at every moment of their existence; instead, they may build themselves upon a lower level of rule-abiding behavior. Thus, for Hayek the paradigmatic spontaneous order, the economy, arises from the interaction of planned, goal-driven activity by individuals and organizations. Corporations aim to achieve particular ends, and are administered so that those ends may be achieved; the economy created by the interaction of corporations, individuals, and other organizations aims at nothing, and no central administration is required for it to function.

To understand Song of Myself (or any other text) as an attempt to translate, as it were, the form of a spontaneous order into the language of a literary work, one need not therefore demand that it display spontaneity of every kind at every moment. What is required is that the poem be seen as a compilation of discrete textual units that, while displaying ample signs of organization within themselves, are juxtaposed in a way that defies the strictures of rhetorical or thematic cohesion. Certainly in Whitman's poem those units are not the individual sentences that make up the poem; if they were randomly rearranged, we would have a curiosity on our hands, but not a work of any considerable literary power. Better candidates are the fifty-two chunks of text that Whitman, in later editions of Song of Myself, set off as numbered sections (or “chants,” as many Whitman scholars refer to them). These sections vary in character—there are narratives, catalogues, meditations, parables—but they each display an internal cohesion lacking in the poem as a whole. Although the very first and very last sections do smack of an introduction and a conclusion, respectively, the sprawling middle consists of units that, like the fifty-two cards of a standard deck, could probably be shuffled about without damaging the integrity of the poem or seriously altering its overall effect.

To be sure, the correspondence between the poem and the spontaneous order cannot be perfect; by definition, a spontaneous order is not designed, and obviously Whitman himself, guided by his characteristic principles of selection, decided what would and would not find its way into his work. Moreover, the poem, unlike a spontaneous order, does appear to have an aim, as I have suggested: to accommodate humanity to a world lacking the hierarchical securities of what Whitman sees as a lingering feudalism. The very fact that Whitman wants us to like his work, and to feel at home in the messy but elusively coherent world it depicts, makes Song of Myself something other than truly spontaneous. A spontaneous order has no designs on us; it simply is. Surely these are not negligible qualifications, but they do not prevent us from seeing the poem as Whitman's attempt to provide a textual model for the kind of world we in fact inhabit, and to offer us a sentimental education that complements the education of the intellect put forward by the likes of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and Hayek.

Those approaching Song of Myself for the first time, especially if they are used to more traditional kinds of lyric poetry, are likely to feel disoriented. More than 1,300 lines long, it contains no single, overarching narrative, respects neither chronology nor geography, moves freely between concrete particulars and exalted meditation, and exhibits very little in the way of a uniformly logical organization. Whitman even works the reader's likely confusion into the poem, declaring at the end, “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,/ But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.”53 Early in the poem he gently mocks readers intent on abstracting a theme from the work, which, he suggests, aims not at implanting a lesson in the reader's heart but rather at changing the way the reader views the world.

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems; 25

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:

You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.54

He asks us to imagine the poem, then, not as a message that we need to decode in order to arrive at its meaning, but rather as almost a kind of economy, a vast interlacing of elements that, without yielding an articulable theme, do form a system that somehow coheres, and that can be held in the mind, as in a solution, as a satisfying aesthetic whole. There is, then, a latent hostility in the poem to the idea of engineering parts to make a specific contribution towards some foreordained conclusion, and for this reason the poem accords with the notion that the world is an ever-evolving network of relations that is not aimed towards a particular goal, and whose “meaning,” if it makes sense to talk of one, consists only of its ceaseless, unpredictable development.

It is hardly surprising that many of Whitman's commentators have been unable to resist imposing a kind of plan or outline on the apparent chaos of the poem. James E. Miller, Jr., for example, asserts

it is useful, if one does not attempt too rigid an application, to outline the poem in terms of the traditional mystical experience:


Even if we accept as valid Miller's structure of the mystical experience, and take into account his own admission that this plan cannot accommodate every particular, it seems doubtful at best that such outlines really do contribute much towards our experience of the poem, especially since it seems likely that a reader given a section of the poem and then asked to identify its place in the scheme would not hit on the right answer very often. (Whitman's dismissal of religious traditions, for example, can be found in what Miller sees as the fifth section—“Union [emphasis on faith and love]”.) To be sure, a sufficiently clever critic could mount an argument explaining why any given line belongs in any given thematic grouping, but that is more a testimony to a critical rage for regularized order than to the allegedly inherent, if elusive, orderliness of Song of Myself.

Rather than challenging us to wedge the multifariousness of Song of Myself into a traditional concept of ordered experience, Whitman asks us to reconceive orderliness itself, and to entertain the idea that order of some kind exists even where no one authority is guiding or directing the events of the world, or when the poet has refused the task of hammering his materials into some shape of regular outline. In this respect he resembles his contemporary, Charles Baudelaire, who, like Whitman, drew inspiration from the variegated texture of modern urban life. Noting the paradoxical coincidence of order and disorder in the metropolis, Baudelaire asserts that the modern artist “marvels at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom,” and has as his task “seeking out and expounding the beauty of modernity,” “this transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphosis is so rapid.”56 These statements read like a gloss on Whitman's “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a meditation on the bustle of lower Manhattan in which the poet is inspired even by those aspects of the modern city that appall many critics of modern life: “Burn high you fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!”57 The poet sees “perfection” in the unregulated activity of the city, even though the city defies our attempts fully to comprehend what is going on in it and what all the activity is tending toward:

Thrive cities—bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,

Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual


We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also.58

One can get a better idea of the way Whitman sees harmony in the midst of turmoil by sampling a slightly more than sonnet-sized excerpt of Song of Myself, taken from one of the extended “catalogues” that punctuate the poem, great lists that aspire to capture the astonishing variety of America without either insisting we see that variety as tending towards a univocal purpose or despairing at the sheer incoherence of phenomena.

The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck;

The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other;

(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths, nor jeer you;) 300

The President, holding a cabinet council, is surrounded by the Great Secretaries,

On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms,

The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold;

The Missourian crosses the plains, toting his wares and his cattle;

As the fare-collector goes through the train, he gives notice by the jingling of loose change; 305

The floor-men are laying the floor—the tinners are tinning the roof—the masons are calling for mortar;

In single file, each shouldering his hod, pass onward the laborers;

Seasons pursuing each other, the indescribable crowd is gather'd—it is the Fourth of Seventh-month— (What salutes of cannon and small arms!)

Seasons pursuing each other, the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground;

Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface; 310

The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe;

Flatboatmen make fast, towards dusk, near the cottonwood or pekan-trees;

Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river, or through those drain'd by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansaw;

Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahoochee or Altamahaw;

Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them; 315

In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport.59

In spite of the characteristic emphasis on the everyday facts of commerce and labor, nothing could be further from the spirit of these lines than, to pick an example from far afield, a similarly expansive piece of Soviet propaganda in which workers of all kinds are seen as united by their labor to glorify the State. Each of Whitman's vignettes preserves its subject's sharp individuality, and their unity resides not in some common aim, but rather in the way each of them, regardless of region, race, or class, engages in an ongoing drama of self-realization—sometimes, to be sure, as in the case of the prostitute, with pathetic results.

In his poetry and prose, then, Whitman provides something of a training ground for the development of a new kind of aesthetic appreciation, an appreciation that he hopes will carry over from his readers’ experience of the poem into their experience of the world, a world from which the traditional signposts of hierarchical—or, as Whitman tended to say, feudal—order have been largely eradicated. For the aesthetic wholeness of Song of Myself resembles the wholeness of a spontaneous order, a wholeness that, although its general character can be grasped by the reflecting intelligence, incorporates teeming particulars, many of whose links to one another are not readily apparent, and that resist the comprehensive mastery that would allow them to be marshaled in support of an overarching program. Both Song of Myself and the spontaneous order constitute wholes that, to adopt the terms of Whitman's description of the city in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” can be loved, even if they cannot be fathomed.