“The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.” (354)
I have taken this quotation from Emerson’s essay on “Friendship”, of which it is the closing lines, but the same thought appears in some guise in each of Emerson’s writings, and I might have picked any essay at random to find it. At the core is his emphasis on what is absolute, on, not the hatred, but the deplorability of partiality. The friend must never provide for infirmity in his friend, but must treat him as a god—thus both are deified. Such, at least, is the Emersonian promise. But as my last two posts have noted, and others before them, Emerson sees that our world is not absolute, but partial. Society intermingles with individuality, infirmity with firmity, conformity with self-reliance, convention with justice. We might summarize an Emersonian formula: the absolute provides a firm response to the skeptic—if only we could grasp the absolute!
Yesterday I had an experience that served as a proof of concept, or at least an exemplification of the difficulties to be faced in the struggle against partiality. I met, in person for the first time, a person I have communicated with online for some time. Both of us would, I think, consent to being called Emersonians, if by that is meant a commitment to intensely personal creative misreadings of Emerson. We talked for roughly an hour and a half, covering a motley array of topics close to each of us. It was among the best conversations I can remember, and I would with great confidence call my interlocutor a friend.
Yet this conversation also served to make apparent the truth in Emerson’s insistence on the ineluctability of partiality. For even in this discussion among two Emersonians, I saw how we engaged in bits of social jockeying. I know I said things that downplayed those aspects of myself that are least “sophisticated” (at least in my mind), and I felt, at times, the same intent behind his words. For he would say something bold and worth saying, and then step back to correct, in advance, a misunderstanding—a misunderstanding to which I had not succumbed, but to which he could not trust me not to succumb. What is this but providing for infirmity? I can certainly say that this conversation had less of that than most, but even the slightest amount is enough to destroy absoluteness and guarantee partiality.
One topic we discussed was the importance of writing, the disappointments of meeting in person someone we know only by writing. For in writing you can simply write the society out of it. In reading the writing of another, you can have an encounter that occurs in solitude—a friendship without society, in short. But in meeting the person, society will not be kept out. Even in the best circumstances, conversation is partial. Even there, society intervenes.
“We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day together, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” (522)
Communication, for Emerson, takes place at long distance, or ought to. Emerson’s essay “Manners” is on etiquette, on fashion, and Emerson extracts what he can from the theme. It is a shifting, unstable ground, different in each part of the world, and in the same part at different times, but Emerson tries to locate what honor he can. What is good in fashion stems from self-reliance and a sort of primal power. “In a good lord, there must first be a good animal, at least to the extent of yielding the incomparable advantage of animal spirits.” (515) Fashion molds this animal nature, but does not eliminate it.
But ultimately, Emerson cannot say much in favor of manners. They are purely a social lubricant. “They aid our dealing and conversation.” (517) Yet, as the quote above shows, dealing and conversation is not Emerson’s home—it is a place of which he is greatly skeptical, which should be entered only occasionally, as a long distance voyage from one’s own island—an island which must “in all things” remain inviolate. Or, in other words, communication is, or ought to be, long distance.
Not only that, but it is, I suspect, in part to avoid the trappings of manners that Emerson prefers long distance communication. “Moral qualities rule the world, but at short distances, the senses are despotic.” (523) Amoral manners are required to preserve beauty when we see each other at close range—better not to be at close range at all, and preserve the absolute rule of morality. This is really one of Emerson’s most anti-social essays: morality is individual, manners are social, and manners only interfere with morality.
“My gentleman gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall. He is good company for pirates, and good with academicians; so that it is useless to fortify yourself against him; he has the private entrance to all minds, and I could das easily exclude myself, as him.” (516)
This antisociality manifests itself also in Emerson’s brief moment of touching upon other minds skepticism. The worry of other minds skepticism is, roughly, that the consciousness of an individual is a sort of bubble, a region to which its possessor has access first-hand, and all others only second hand. But if I can never experience what lies inside the mind of another, how can I have knowledge of another’s mind?
Much like in the essay I discussed yesterday, Emerson offers a resolution to the problem. The gentleman “has the private entrance to all minds”—the gentleman, in short, is not plagued by this skepticism. But this invocation of the gentleman comes at the start of Emerson’s essay, before the major reversal comes. I place this reversal at the point where Emerson says, “The persons who constitute the natural aristocracy, are not found in the actual aristocracy.” (527) But even more than the failure of society to pick out its gentlemen, there may be a paucity of gentlemen altogether, indeed there may be a total absence. For the gentleman here is another of Emerson’s fantasies, alongside the scholar in “The American Scholar”, for instance. The best we mortals are allowed is to “sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” We do not get a resolution to this skepticism; we must leave the island of consciousness inviolate.
“And nature advertises me in such persons, that, in democratic America, she will not be democratized.” (503-4)
Emerson is a philosopher of democracy in just the same experimental sense that he is a philosopher of self-reliance. In his philosophy of self-reliance, an unyielding emphasis on the sufficiency of one’s own self, on honesty to that self-sufficient self, coexists in tension with—but incomprehensible apart from—a thorough mistrust of the self one possesses at a given moment. So too with democracy: Emerson’s advocacy of democracy coexists with its adversary and partner, his hatred of the majority, the crowd, the herd, and his love of the individual.
Thus, in speaking of the man of character (in his essay “Character”), Emerson can confidently state that what shows itself in such a man is that nature—which here stands in for the man’s character—will not be democratized, that nature is unyielding even where it is a minority of one. This man expects all events to follow his lead, to go as he desires. They are not up for negotiation by public debate, and they are not to be resolved by democratic vote. “The hero sees that the event is ancillary: it must follow him.” (499)
A remarkable passage in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” sees the narrator simply assume that Bartleby has left the office—this is his master plan to dispense with the irritating, useless Bartleby. But he begins to suspect his plan will not work—he is right—and he realizes it is because Bartleby is not a man of assumption, cannot be assumed out of existence.
Emerson’s man of character, by contrast, is the sort who could make such assumptions, and be followed in them. The narrator of “Bartleby” is too prudent, is the sort of man who “cannot see the action, until it is done.” (499) Indeed, it is much more Bartleby, whose assumption is that the world will conform to his preferences, who has this power of assumption. Without asking the fascinating questions there are to be asked about the relation between Melville’s otherworldly characters and Emerson’s man of character—because I am incompetent to answer them—I think we may at least liken Emerson’s man of character to a perhaps healthier Bartleby, characterized by this power of what we may call efficacious assuming.
But is this not inherently undemocratic? Are we not seeing Emerson in a moment where he lusts for the powerful man who draws others in his wake? Is this not much more tyranny than democracy?
“The men who carry their points do not need to inquire of their constituents what they should say, but are themselves the country which they represent: nowhere are its emotions or opinions so instant and true as in them; nowhere so pure from a selfish infusion.” (496)
I am afraid this too is a question I am incompetent to answer. But, unlike the questions about Melville, I can at least take a few faltering footsteps, heading into the forest of the passage just quoted. Emerson makes a move something like that of Plato in The Republic: he psychologizes the city. A persistent theme in Emerson, so persistent that it served as a book title, is that of Representative Men, of men who stand in for the whole of Man, of humanity. (We may, and must, lament the absence of women in this picture.) But there is, at the same time, the idea of the representative as appears in a representative democracy. That is what the above quote brings out. Emerson is here indulging in a recurring fantasy: that of the completed man, the impartial man, as it were. I call it a fantasy because, in his soberer moments, Emerson recognizes that there are no such men (or women). “What greatness has yet appeared, is beginnings and encouragements to us in this direction.” (508) It is always a hope, always in the distance. Not in the future, but in the distance, something we may begin to move toward, but do not reach.
This is Emerson’s experimental philosophy reappearing. This ideal of representativeness to which we may consecrate ourselves, is always beside us, in the distance, but never quite attained. And it is here, if anywhere, that the reply to the critic of Emerson who sees him as fundamentally undemocratic must lie. I do not know how to flesh out this reply. I feel it in my fingers, slipping through them the harder I clutch. I see it at the periphery of my vision, moving as my eyes move to keep itself just out of reach. One day I may grasp it—perhaps a future post will realize this grasping. But for now it is only a tantalizing semi-vision.
“The sufficient reply to the skeptic, who doubts the power and furniture of man, is in that possibility of joyful intercourse with persons, which makes the faith and practice of all reasonable men.” (506)
I cannot help but end with yet another reflection on the skepticism that lingers at the margins of Emerson’s philosophy, at the margins of life. Emerson here sounds so confident in the ability to overcome skepticism. But, as ever, his apparent confidence varies inversely with his actual confidence. In the possibility of joyful intercourse with persons lies the reply to the skeptic. Such an easy reply! Yet Emerson cannot make the reply. He may point out its sufficiency, but almost immediately we has launched into his superficially hopeful, desperately skeptical end to the essay, beginning with this: “Could we not deal with a few persons,—with one person,—after the unwritten statutes, and make an experiment of their efficacy?” (507)
Here it all comes together. Democracy, the ideal democracy, is the state in which all engage in this project with all. Yet Emerson here questions whether we may even manage this with one person. Manage what? Manage to become representative, to deal with others in the manner ordained by the “unwritten statutes.” Even should this interaction exist between two people, we could reply to the skeptic, if not yet achieve true democracy. But that is itself dubious. Emerson leaves us in solitude, and does not show us the way out.
“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (487) Why should it be unhappy to discover that we exist? Consider how, in “Experience”, Emerson defines ‘happiness’: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” (478) But to know that you exist, that you act, that you might have acted differently—how is this possible without leaving a “crevice”? So there is an inherent unhappiness in our awareness. Much of the Emersonian task—and the Nietzschean task to come—is to recover joy in the face of this unhappiness.
Immediately preceding Emerson’s recharacterization of the image of the Fall is a reflection on skepticism: “The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (487) There is a skeptical undercurrent running throughout the essay, as when, earlier, Emerson writes what I find the most wonderful sentence in perhaps his entire corpus, “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (480) Here then is a source of skepticism: for no course of action can we have absolute certainty—each is beset by some objection. Were we Cartesians about actions, refusing to act without such assurance, we would all be lumps.
And yet, and yet, does not Emerson tell us what is spiritual just a few pages earlier? Does he not say, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence” (475)? Just as Descartes resolved his skepticism by an appeal to God, Emerson seems to turn to the divine—only he locates it within the self. There, in self-reliance, we find the stable ground for action, the possibility of certainty. Descartes’ solution was a cop-out; Emerson is not so sanguine. For Emerson finds, lurking beneath the spiritual, the self-evidencing, a still deeper skepticism. It is here, on this shifting ground, that he must find his affirmation, must plant his foundation.
Let us return to the Fall. “Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” (487) Specifically, we suspect our perception of the world: we see through lenses tinted by our values. “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” (487) And then comes the crucial point: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” (487) Our evaluations are something creative: they make objects—say, a good man or an evil man—where there was none before. Here is idealism, and one can easily nod here, yes, yes, we know Emerson is an idealist—and in this fashion nod off. But Emerson is not just espousing a tired idealism. He is locating beneath it a disturbing skepticism: all our creativity in valuing, all our self-reliance, all our self-evidencing spirituality—all this may be in error.
That is why “the whole frame of things preaches indifferency.” (478) What is real, in the sense of mind-independent, does not support our values. It is Epicurean, random. What is creative and divine is something mind-dependent, something with no basis beyond ourselves. It is our “Fall” to have come to know this, to be unable to reify our values naively. The possibility of self-reliant affirmation remains, but no longer may it be done self-consciously—happily, if you will. For the crevice is always there, and skepticism leaks in, lingers at the margins. Can it be turned into an affirmation? Well, that is the question, isn’t it?