Since working on the four part trilogy on the Constitutional convention I have been thinking a lot about the role of the president as actor. Those of you who committed to memory the podcast know what it meant in 1787, but what does it mean today? Emerson gives us one hint. From his “Uses of Great Men,” which I’ve slobbered over before, he writes about the power of ideas to spark the imagination. The “activities” he writes about below are the intellectual skills performed by great figures that are like physical ones:
Foremost among these activities are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. When this wakes, a man seems to multiply ten times or a thousand times his force. It opens the delicious sense of indeterminate size and inspires an audacious mental habit. We are as elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and our feet tread the floor of the Pit. And this benefit is real because we are entitled to these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.
When leaders do not excite this in us, but it’s opposite, we feel a shrinkage in our public life and we feel dimmunition in the possible. We starve our imagination which means two things: it is given nothing and worse, we are asked to sit in the dark, smelly place where there is no hope at all of anything arriving. The spigot to the wonder described above is turned off. When was the last time you felt that from a public official?
MORE: The point is one Emerson makes earlier in the work: “The aid we have from others is mechanical compared with the discoveries of nature in us.” This is what a leader has given to them by virtue of their position. The power to spark imagination (Ask not, etc.). A leader or president can be good or mediocre at it, but it’s another category altogether when a leader decides this is a tool not to use. Or a tool to use to limit the imagination– to pull the balloon down from the sky.