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Emerson on Tipping Charity

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Over at the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres lists Emerson as a famous opponent of tipping, and offers this quote as evidence:

I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, yet it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Unless I've deeply misunderstand my all-time favorite rambling essay, though, Emerson isn't talking about tipping at all. He's talking about charity. And he's morally opposed to it! Full passage:
Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee thou foolish philanthropist that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at the college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousandfold Relief Societies; though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Indeed, a little earlier in the essay, Emerson scoffs at Abolitionists - not because he is pro-slavery, but because he is anti-charity!
If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbados, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.'
Thus, Emerson's view of tipping is presumably that it is better than charity, because at least you're helping someone you actually know on the basis of merit (good service) rather than need.

Normally, I'll admit, I don't really care what some famous guy really said. But Emerson is such a great stylist, he makes me care. And how can you fail to revel in the fun of quoting Emerson on the evils of quoting?

[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Emerson transcended the limitations of the ramble to bring the art to the highest levels.

Cut his essays into more manageable bits and he would have been a formidable blogger.

Emerson is a brilliant stylist. I would love to be able, like he and Nietzsche did, write entire books and essays without quoting anyone, relying on people's knowledge to make my references understood. But what publisher would put up with that? Who could write like either one of these great writers and be published?

One could look to blogs as the new frontier -- but I still find myself quoting people on my own blog!

Nathan Smith writes:

The Transcedentalist I admire is Thoreau. I think he has some claim to be a libertarian hero. In "Civil Disobedience," he intimates a theory that people ought to be able to opt out of the social contract. It would be fascinating to try to put that into practice. What would be the public choice implications of a society with an opt-out clause? Henry David Thoreau meets James Buchanan...

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