In this wide-ranging interview, Jeffrey Stout reflects upon some of the themes of his 2004 book Democracy and Tradition. He also describes the personal and biographical motivations that have shaped his intellectual orientation, one he describes as “Emersonian Perfectionism,” including the impact that such writers as Emerson and Thoreau had upon his early thought. Stout’s reflections on Walden suggest that its discussion of “sleepers” had the same awakening effect on his young mind as the Clash’s hit rock song “Clampdown” had on mine. When the Clash sang, “The men in the factory are old and cunning / You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running! / It’s the best years of your life they want to steal!” I was brought to life, and we see this same exhiliration in Stout. Even today, Stout describes describes the bright hope he places in the ever-present political potential for sleepers to awaken, challenge the status quo, and imagine and achieve more edifying possibilities for our future life together. Moreover, he calls us to a form of political and ethical responsibility that demands sensitivity, careful discernment of possible consequences (both good and ill), and a willingness to see past our differences and work together in pursuit of social justice.

The Other Journal (TOJ): In Democracy and Tradition, you describe yourself as an “Emersonian perfectionist.”1 Could you briefly explain that term and state the major reasons, both biographical and intellectual, you identify with that tradition?

Jeffrey Stout (JS): The texts that mattered most to me in high school were James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Gandhi’s Autobiography, King Lear, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Walden, and “Self-Reliance.” I think I understood the first four much better than the last two, but I loved Thoreau and Emerson in the way that many late adolescents do. I sensed that they were trying to wake me up, and I was grateful to them for that.

I came back to both of them as a result of my conversations with David Bromwich and George Kateb. Kateb’s The Inner Ocean helped me get past some obstacles to reading Emerson properly. At some point I read Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden, which might be the best book on a book that I have read. By observing him reading through particular paragraphs, I began to understand how to do it for myself. Since then, I have been reading Emerson and Whitman, as well as Thoreau, with deeper understanding and pleasure.

I took the phrase “Emersonian perfectionism” from Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, which is a staple in my seminar on religion and ethical theory.2 My students are always disconcerted by Cavell’s refusal to define the term and his circuitous style. He throws scores of examples at you and mulls them over, gradually inducing you to take every word in every sentence more seriously than you have before.

Each human being has a vocation to ascend into higher forms of excellence. On this point, Emerson agrees with the perfectionism in Plato and Augustine. But Emerson rejects their picture of a singular fixed point of perfection in which all human beings implicitly seek rest—the transcendent Good for Plato, the Triune God for Augustine. There is no fixed goal, no rest. Each of us is on a staircase. Yours differs from mine. We can see a few steps below us and a few steps above.

Above you, there is a more excellent version of who you are, calling you upward. This is your higher self. Turning your back on it would be a violation of sacred duty. Ascent, however, requires abandonment of your established self. The higher self congeals out of the highest intimations of excellence you can intuit from where you stand. Excellence and sacred value are the kinds of goodness that matter most for living well.

Various strands of religious thought come together in Emersonian perfectionism. Among them are an individualist conception of vocation emerging out of the Reformation, belief in continuous revelation of the sacred, an emphasis on spirit as revelation’s vehicle, a rejection of the church’s claim to know which deliverances of the spirit are authentic, and a concern that believing in original sin can be bad for the soul. Christians declare the last two of these heretical, and they charge that the Emersonian emphasis on spirit comes at the expense of the Father and the Son.

It is easy to see why Emersonianism, despite the strongly religious content of its principal themes, rapidly moved outside the churches and in that sense became secular. This tendency was abetted by the anti-slavery practice of “coming out” of one’s congregation—essentially standing up during the Sunday service and excommunicating one’s fellow congregants for their complicity in slavery.

People sometimes get tripped up over the term perfectionism, and Cavell himself isn’t completely happy with it. It is a term that often stands for a vice, and it might seem to imply commitment to maximizing excellence rather than rising into it. Emersonians are concerned with the kind of personal transformation that Western Christianity calls sanctification and Eastern Orthodoxy calls deification. This is very important to keep in mind when thinking about the political significance of our contemporary interest in virtue. On the importance of cultivating the virtues, Emersonians have affinities with Thomists like Alasdair MacIntyre, Methodists like Stanley Hauerwas, Presbyterians like John Bowlin, and secular Aristotelians like Scott Davis, whereas all of these thinkers are at odds with the antipathy for virtue cultivation that one finds in Luther, Pascal, and other “hyper-Augustinians.” Jennifer Herdt’s book Putting on Virtue sheds a lot of light on the early modern sources of this conflict.3

TOJ: Part of an Emersonian perfectionist’s tightrope walk, as you describe it in Democracy and Tradition, is the attempt to balance a robust sense of self-reliance with an appropriate sense of piety, and you define piety as “the virtue of fitting or just response to the sources of our existence and progress through life.”4 How do you understand this balance, and why are both terms important to you? How do they relate to one another?

JS: In Walden, Thoreau refers to his fellow citizens as “sleepers.” As Cavell points out, the term is a pun, referring to both a state of mind and a functional role in the economy: “Each one is a man. [. . .] The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.” The sleepers, being asleep, are neither aware nor vocal; they are also the ones on whose backs the trains run, carrying commodities to and fro.5

The passage continues: “And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.”6 That’s one of the most powerful passages of political writing in American literature.

What Thoreau calls the condition of being a sleeper is what Emerson calls conformity and Marx calls false consciousness. With this in mind, we can begin to see what Emersonian style is for: it is for the awakening of sleepers, the calling of conformists out of their fallen condition into a life oriented toward responsibility, vocation, and excellence. It is Emerson’s calling to issue this calling. Conformists who are walking in their sleep are his poor: the people he serves, the poor in spirit, who need his words to be awakened. In Emerson’s context, the political expression of conformism is being complicit in slavery by engaging in business as usual with the slave-holding states and by obeying the law that requires fugitive slaves to be returned to their masters. But the deeper spiritual issue is failing to take responsibility for every aspect of one’s life, including the religious commitments one was raised to accept.

Self-reliance, he says, is the aversion of conformity. It is easy to misunderstand what Emerson means by self-reliance. The self on which the virtuously self-reliant individual relies is not the self he or she already possesses, a fixed thing, but the self made possible by ascent to the next stair. One is being called to rely upward. The call comes from the self made possible by listening to one’s own genius, which is an individual’s unique power to recognize and realize excellence. This self is expansive and receptive, and it overflows with creative gifts. It is not narrow, closed, or possessive. In it, “all mean egotism vanishes.”7

Self-reliance can be the name of a virtue or a vice, depending on whether one relies upward, by hoisting oneself up toward the higher self, or relies downward, by settling comfortably into the already established self. The latter is a semblance of the virtue, which is to say, a vice. Unfortunately, most critics of Emerson think that this is what he was recommending, and the same is true of most adolescent readers, who think that he is supplying them with reasons for believing themselves to be un-parented.

However, by self-reliance Emerson does not mean a condition of freedom from the influence of other human beings. The self-reliant individual takes full responsibility for herself, but what typically awakens a sleeper is someone else’s genius or the experience of some form of excellence. Taking radical responsibility for ourselves is something we can do only because we have received gifts from others. This is the paradox of self-reliance: I truly come into my own by receiving something that is given to me by someone else.

It’s a paradox, not a self-contradiction. There was nothing self-contradictory in my remark at the beginning of this interview that I was grateful to Emerson and Thoreau for trying to wake me up. The air of paradox dissipates as soon as one learns to distinguish the virtue of self-reliance from its semblances.

Something similar happens with the other virtues. What the adolescent calls courage is often rashness. What the adolescent calls justice is often envy or vengeance.

Piety is the virtue that perfects our responses to the sources of our existence and progress through life. In the classical world, the standard objects of piety were taken to be one’s parents, one’s people, and the gods. For Emerson, the culture into which we are born is a source of our progress through life and so are the teachers, poets, and exemplars who awaken us from conformity to that culture’s unreflective habits. Conformity to a culture’s unreflective habits is the necessary starting point. Without it, we wouldn’t have a thought in our heads, a language, a repertoire of roles, an inheritance of norms and ideals. Acculturation is what puts us into a position where self-reliance is even a possibility for us. Only after we acquire a vast set of unreflective habits can we begin to take charge of ourselves.

If we are lucky, often in late adolescence, someone else’s excellence will trigger in us a desire to be excellent. We will begin by imitating that. The imitation is suicide in two senses. It requires a killing off of our merely conforming self. But it also requires a killing off of the very self merely modeled on this excellence that is awakening us. And we realize that to be excellent in the way that this teacher or poet is excellent is not to be either sunken in mere conformity to the background culture or a mere copy of this awakener, but an original. The best teachers intimate that this is really what they are hoping for.

The virtue that perfects my acknowledgement of my indebtedness to them is piety. It would not be virtuous, however, to be overly deferential toward them. What the virtue of piety requires of me is therefore a kind of acknowledgement that is compatible with the virtue of self-reliance. The resentment often directed at piety in a democratic culture tends to confuse the virtue of piety with one of its semblances, just as the resentment often directed at self-reliance in religious communities tends to confuse a semblance of the virtue with the virtue itself.

The real tightrope in this part of our lives is the difficulty of distinguishing true virtues from their semblances. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that we initially learn the language of virtue and vice from people who are less than perfectly virtuous. Indeed, most of them are sunken in conformity, so their uses of the categories are corrupted. Emersonian style is intended in part to compel us to think much harder about all of the most important words we use.

TOJ: You say that, for Emersonian perfectionists, gratitude, in distinction from loyalty or deference, is the better part of piety. You say that gratitude is “the point where self-reliance recognizes dependence on the natural and social circumstances without which it would be for nothing.”8 Is this recognition of dependence, for you, part and parcel of the “fitting or just response” to the sources of our existence and progress? Do you understand these sources to be “simply” or “only” natural and social? How can one respond justly and fittingly to these sources without reducing them to elements that may be placed under the purview of human technical mastery or instrumental rationality?

JS: Acknowledging one’s dependence on the sources of our existence and progress through life is part of what justice, as I understand it, requires of us. Crowning that acknowledgement with gratitude, where gratitude is due, is an important part of living well. It can be gloriously sweet, or bittersweet, or very painfully sour. Honor your mother and father—doing that properly is an enormous task. It is sometimes delicate and ambivalent, and it is sometimes an unmixed joy. The same holds for all of the other people, including one’s teachers, one’s precursors, and in many cases, one’s rivals and adversaries, on whom one’s progress through life depends. A self-deceptive, self-centered sense of self-reliance often interferes.

Piety belongs to justice. It is just and appropriate gratitude, not unmodified gratitude, that I owe to certain other human beings, living and dead. Because some of the people on whom we depend for our existence and progress through life are also people who have harmed us or are responsible for perpetrating horrors on us or on others, just and appropriate gratitude can be a very complicated matter, psychologically and ethically. There’s also the matter of learning to accept that debts of piety cannot simply be discharged, with the indebtedness now being cancelled, like a paid-off loan.

Nature is, of course, something we all depend on for our existence and progress through life, so piety, as I have defined it, perfects our acknowledgement of that dependence. But I don’t think of nature as a person, so gratitude isn’t literally what piety requires of me in relation to nature. If nature were a person, she would have a lot of blood on her hands. Not thinking of nature as a person permits one to focus appropriately on its beautiful, sublime, and wondrous features and moments. Piety toward nature, because it perfects and expresses a sense of dependence, mainly connects with the sublime, which, as Edmund Burke pointed out, is deeply related to danger and precariousness.

It’s horrendous to respond to the intrinsic beauty, sublimity, and wondrousness of nature by spoiling it or reducing it to something that has merely instrumental value for us. This has more to do with the sacred than with piety per se.

The concepts of the horrendous and the sacred are linked. Something is sacred if it is worthy of reverence. We express reverence positively in certain forms of celebration and express it negatively in certain forms of protection or prohibition. Anything the violation or destruction of which would be horrendous is sacred. The horror we would experience if a newborn baby, a redwood forest, or a great work of art were violated or destroyed reveals that we regard these things as sacred to us. Sacred value is intrinsic, not instrumental. But it’s at the far reaches of the spectrum of intrinsic value, and it’s set off by a qualitative distinction of great importance.

One reason for holding onto the notion of sacred value nowadays is that advanced capitalism tends to reduce everything, including the natural environment and human beings, to objects of merely instrumental value. Religious, democratic, and artistic practices, at their best, help us counter that tendency. Virtuous religion perfects our disposition to celebrate and protect sacred value. Genuinely democratic practices are concerned in large part with preventing and mitigating such horrors as the corporate domination of ordinary people and the destruction of our ecosystem. Art can reveal to us the beautiful, the sublime, and the wondrous in our midst. It can sensitize us to sacred value.

Do I think there’s an appropriate object of piety or reverence that isn’t either natural or social? I assume that’s a subtle way of asking the God question. My worry about monotheism is that it appears to conflate ideals and powers. The monotheistic assumption is that there must be one object that can serve as the ultimate reference point for all of the positive religious attitudes. Monotheists want to say of some power, which supposedly brought about the entire universe and therefore deserves our awe, that it is also ideal. The big bang isn’t much of a lover, and it isn’t going to redeem us from horrors.

I can see the attraction of the monotheistic conflation. Because I think there’s a lot of truth in James’s “The Will to Believe,” I’m not inclined to attribute irrationality to everybody who believes in an Idealized Ultimate Power or some such thing.9 It’s hard to say where the line is between wishful and hopeful thinking, and I don’t want to deprive people of the consolation and hope they need to carry on. But, for reasons related to the problem of evil, after looking at the whole picture as honestly as I can, I don’t find myself believing in God.

Maybe this is what people are trying to say when they respond to pollsters by saying that they are spiritual but not religious. They sense that some things are worthy of reverence, that some things are worthy of awe, and that some things are worthy of piety, but organized religion tends to come with big, unifying pictures that are hard to believe. The more thoroughly the big pictures equate a conception of the most excellent with a conception of the most powerful, the more pressing the conundrum of evil seems. Everybody has to cope with evil, of course, so we all have a problem of evil in the sense of needing to find a way to cope. But the classical problem of theodicy is something nontheists don’t have.

It would be heartening to believe that the most excellent things will “throw the last stone,” as James puts it. Yet I don’t find it comforting, in moments where horrendous evils are bearing down on us most forcibly, that the most excellent things spend eons sitting on their hands while we suffer. I find it liberating to take the whole thing somewhat less personally. I don’t grasp the big picture, and I don’t experience that as a failure or a loss. I’m finite, and I can live with that. My understanding extends only so far.

In the closing lines of a poem entitled “Prodigal,” A.R. Ammons captures what I have just been talking about:

after these motions, these vectors,
orders moving in and out of orders, collisions
of orders, dispersions, the grasp weakens,

the mind whirls, short of unifying
reach, short of the heat
to carry that forging:
after the visions of these losses, the spent
seer, delivered to wastage, risen
into ribs, consigns knowledge to
approximation, order to the vehicle
of change, and fumbles blind in blunt innocence
toward divine, terrible love.10

My only editorial alteration in those lines would be to substitute “sacred” for “divine.”

TOJ: Do you think it is important for other traditions besides Emersonian perfectionism—say religious traditions like those found in the family of Christianities—to strike such a balance between self-reliance and piety? Or do you understand religious traditions, qua religious, as necessarily emphasizing the more deferential aspects of piety? That is, are they all forms of “ossified poetry,” as you say Emerson and Whitman understood the Christian story to be? In other words, do you think it possible for religious traditions to take a page from Emerson and become less deferential and more self-reliant? What might that look like, and can you give any examples from religious thought and culture in which you see such a move being attempted?

JS: Emersonian perfectionism is an offshoot of Unitarianism. It has the spiritual advantages of continuously producing fresh poetic responses to the sacred, the beautiful, the sublime, the wondrous, the ethically excellent, the hope for a decent society, and, of course, to the profane and the horrendous. It has the disadvantages that go along with being organized extremely loosely, often in a way that depends excessively on the personal magnetism of charismatic individuals. Emerson himself was very good at mitigating those disadvantages, but few of the people drawn to this tradition are. Their self-reliance tends to be spoiled by egotism or foolishness in practical matters. The visionary company melts into air.

Organized theistic religion has the advantages that come with having a social shape. Rituals of inclusion and exclusion make membership reasonably clear. Liturgy inculcates a shared disposition to celebrate sacred value. Taboos set up protections against the horrendous, which is a good thing, provided that the horrendous is properly identified. We really shouldn’t murder people, bear false witness against them, or covet their spouses and worldly goods. The Christian forms of theism, in particular, have the advantages of an explicitly articulated set of substantive commitments, condensed in creeds that one recites in front of the group at the point of entry into the community. Being clear about what the group stands for can make it easier to take collective action on behalf of threatened goods and vulnerable people.

But all of these advantages are also disadvantages because of the tendency inherent in all cultural formations to ossify and promote mere conformism. Influential scriptures and traditions present horrors as divinely authorized. They promulgate taboos and conceptions of the sacred that made sense only in the context of patriarchal tribes struggling for survival in an ancient war of all against all. They drape a sacred canopy over myriad forms of domination. They promote cruelty. Ossification tends to freeze all of the bad stuff, as well as all of the good stuff, in place. And it gives a lot of people the impression that revelation of the sacred is something that happened only long ago to people unlike ourselves, rather than something that is continuously unfolding in our presence.

I think of myself as someone whose life is centered in trying to respond appropriately to sacred value and to horrendous assaults on it. I consider it my vocation to ascend into excellence and to help others do the same. You decide whether that makes me religious. I was raised as a Presbyterian, and I still try to serve the Presbyterian community from a distance. But the text revered as sacred in that community and some of the creedal formulas that are central to the liturgy strike me as good examples of ossification. It occurred to me thirty years ago that if I had been born of a Jewish mother and raised as a Jew, I could have remained a member of the Jewish liturgical community, for the simple reason that Judaism does not treat creedal statements in the way that Presbyterianism does.

All that said, I do think that a lot of theists I know exhibit as much self-reliance as many of the non-believers I know. The commandment against idolatry is, in a sense, what brought monotheism into existence. The idea, which I still accept, is that it would be gravely unjust to worship anyone or anything that isn’t actually divine. So suppose God exists and issues that command. This means that among our most important tasks is to determine what, if anything, is worthy of worship. There are many candidates, imaginary and real, presenting themselves to us as divine. It would be arbitrary simply to pick one at random or the one our parents happened to hand on to us or the one that we happened to come across in a moment of crisis. My colleague Mark Johnston has illuminating things to say about this matter in Saving God.11

The commandment against idolatry implies that the true God, assuming there is one, requires us to make a judgment concerning the worthiness of the candidates. Theists who take this demand with utmost seriousness and pursue the sort of critical reasoning the task involves are displaying self-reliance. They differ from me in the conclusions they reach, but they recognize the importance of this task, and they are performing it more or less as I do.

Plato’s Euthyphro shows that a similar task is essential to piety as such. If piety pertains to what we owe to the gods, we need to take responsibility for our judgments concerning who or what, if anything, is worthy of worship and what an appropriate form of worship would be. To behave justly in such matters is to make judgments about worthiness of worship and take responsibility for them. Arbitrarily directed worship would not be praiseworthy if it hit the right target accidentally. It would be incoherent and unjust for a god to demand worship that is both arbitrarily directed and correct. No being that made such a demand would merit the title “god.”

The Socratic arguments in the Euthyphro and the logic of the commandment against idolatry entail that many forms of existing monotheism are unjust, idolatrous, and lacking in self-reliance. But Aquinas understood all of this. His present-day defenders, such as MacIntyre, understand it perfectly well. Protestants like Bowlin and Herdt stand with Aquinas on these matters. And even some of the people who are more indebted to Ockham, like Robert Merrihew Adams, have made room in their thinking for Socratic self-reliance. Adams calls this the critical stance.

The people I have just mentioned are among those who have influenced my own ethical and religious thinking most deeply. They all belong to Christian churches. Some people wonder why an atheist like me would spend his career studying religious ethics. One reason is that the thinkers just mentioned are, in my view, asking the right questions. My differences with them on the existence of God are minor compared with my differences with my atheistic colleague Peter Singer on sacred value, moral absolutes, and the nature of rightness.

As for deference, I believe there are indispensable roles for it to play in human life. To take an obvious case, when someone is clearly the most respected expert on some topic that I know little about and my own plans require me to make assumptions about that topic, then it makes sense for me to defer to his or her judgments, at least for the time being. Most forms of authority consist in the entitlement to some sort of deference from others. Parents have presumptive authority over their children, so do teachers over their students, distinguished artists over the novices practicing in their studios, and seasoned organizers over citizens who have yet to experience a heated political struggle.

So it’s not that we need less deference as such, it’s that we need to free deference from ossified social formations. The democratic thought is that authority often needs to be earned and can in many cases be lost. Holding a particular office in a governmental, corporate, educational, or ecclesial bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily give someone genuine authority. And the rest of us have the authority, indeed the responsibility, to influence and contest what officials decide. Modern democracies are new configurations of authority and responsibility, not ways of dispensing with such things.

On the other hand, hierarchical institutions like to present themselves as more rigid than they actually are. This is one of their devices for exerting power against dissenters. But American Catholicism is a good example of an institution in which the official position on authority distorts the facts about who is actually entitled to deference and who is actually receiving it. Rank-and-file Catholics intuitively understand how this works. They often simply ignore advice coming from their priests and bishops if it seems ossified or like a tool of domination. Just because people still go to the Mass doesn’t mean that they are deferring to the hierarchy’s pronouncements on faith and morals.


1. See Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press in association with Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).

2. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1990).

3. See Jennifer A. Herdt, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 37.

5. Henry D. Thoreau, Walden (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995), 89.

6. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 64.

7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003), 39.

8. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 38.

9. William James, “The Will to Believe” [1897], The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazar, 2009).

10. A. R. Ammons, “The Prodigal,” Collected Poems 1951-1971 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001)

11. Mark Johnston, Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).