Circumstance and principle

I. Politics as Animal

In a representative passage of “Politics”, Emerson writes,

A cent is the representative of a certain quantity of corn or other commodity. Its value is in the necessities of the animal man. (562)

Much of the essay is has something of an exculpatory tone: Emerson opposes the moralization of politics, and does so because of the animal origins of human politics. While he never makes the connections to animals we might now find obvious (e.g. to hierarchical social structures in other apes), there is a constant theme of animality running through the discussion. Political parties, for instance, are the products of “benign necessity” (563):

Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. (564)

Even if the consequences of a party’s policies and actions are, in the final count, harmful, there is something mistaken in critiquing them in a specifically moral manner, as if the instinctive protection of one’s own interests could be controlled. A common theme in the western discourse on the human/animal boundary is precisely that of the distinction (whether in degree or in kind) between the instinctual, unthinking animal and the rational, instinctless human. Emerson’s highlighting of what is instinctual in politics, against this backdrop, is a clear implication of politics being something animal, and his further reference to the east wind and the frost suggests an even less volitional region of nature.

Moreover, for Emerson, this animal underpinning of politics is not merely exculpatory and ineluctable: it is desirable. Given the choice between animal behavior that is local, relative to only very close circumstances and human behavior in accordance with absolute principles, Emerson takes the animal. He distinguishes between parties of circumstance (animal) and parties of principle (human), favoring the former:

Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment, degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. (564)

The danger of allowing the human into politics is that what will be allowed in will, in fact, be what Nietzsche would later call the “all too human”. Better an abolitionist movement based on the animal perception of the sheer intolerability of slavery (better, slavery in 19th century America)than one based on the notion of, say, “equal rights”. [It is worth noting that Emerson, toward the start of his essay, notes two roles of government: the respect of persons, and of property. He comes down, after a fashion, on the side of property, on the side of interests rather than ideals.]

Parties of circumstance, by contrast, even where they are diametrically opposed in what they favor, “are identical in their moral character,” and “can easily change ground with each other, in the support of many of their measures.” (564) They are not beholden to a principle fixed a priori—in this way they capture what is fluid in nature.

Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it… (559)

This fluidity is essential for Emerson. As an experimental philosopher, Emerson returns again and again to a central fear: a fear of the hand that reaches out of the past to grip us by the throat. In politics, as everywhere, this fear recurs for him, so he is anxious to insist that “every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (559)—that is, all politics is circumstantial, and none should be taken as a principle. About our government and its laws, we are restricted in what we may say: “They are not better, but only fitter for us.” (563) Emerson’s fear of principles here is the fear of shackles. Animal politics, for Emerson, promises freedom.

II. Politics as human

I had intended, as the idea for this essay first arose, to detail not just what is animal in Emerson’s view of politics, but also what is distinctively human. What I have just written is entirely from the first half of the history, and as it feel into place for me, I came to expect Emerson’s inevitable reversal. Emerson would only go into such detail about what is animal in politics if he needed to do so as a form of preparation for an investigation of politics on the other side of the human/animal boundary. Emerson confounded this plan, as he is wont to do all plans that would corral him.

Emerson does, to an extent, locate a human side to politics that is not merely the “all too human” face we saw before. For instance, he calls “absolute right” the “first governor,” and claims, “every government is an impure theocracy.” (566) Every government aims at bending its law to the will of the wise man, but since, “the wise man, it cannot find in nature,”

…it makes awkward but earnest efforts to secure his government by contrivance; as, by causing the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or, by a double choice to get the representation of the whole; or, by a selection of the best citizens; or, to secure the advantages of efficiency and internal peace, by confiding the government to one, who may himself select his agents. (566)

Here is a vision of government as aspiring to an ideal, an absolute, to which only a human can aspire. It finds its figurehead in the image of the wise man. But the wise man cannot be found in nature—perhaps this means we are to take the wise man as above nature, or perhaps merely as unreal. Yet Emerson does speak, later of “the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government, is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.” (567)

The circumstances surrounding the wise man’s appearance, however, are curious. I cannot take it as anything but significant that the wise man is “principal”—but not “principle.” Right from the beginning of the essay, Emerson connects the “man of strong will” and the “man of truth” (559) with the fluidity above discussed. What characterizes the wise man is not some special universality, some absolute principle, but (a) the choosing of what is fit for oneself, and (b) the refusal to insist on extending this judgment to another:

Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. (566-567)

All of the animality of the first half of the essay comes rushing back. The wise man is characterized by a refusal to say that a course of action is “better” (a turn of phrase that, because it makes no reference to any individual, suggest universality)—rather only that it is “fitter for himself.” Often times, this may lead to collaboration between him and his neighbor, but this collaboration is only “for a time,” and there is always the risk of shifting to conflict in which neither merits moral condemnation.

I hardly want to say that Emerson identifies the wise man with the animal. There is a distinction to be drawn, though I do not pretend right now to know how to characterize it. What I do claim is that, given a choice between the animal and the human, the circumstantial and the principled, between property and person, Emerson chooses, again and again, the first term of the two, and when turns to finding what valuably human in politics, he models his picture on the animal. We are left with a wise man of resolutely animal origin, perhaps with something added—but not, above all, anything personal.

Essay on skepticism

It is impossible to gain knowledge by trusting an authority, however reliable that author­ity might be. I claim no empirical discovery or novel philosophical view with this pronouncement; what follows is no defense of any claim to truth. It is something more urgent, less articulate, a cry. It is an insistence on a certain standard I have found I require—my cry is ethical in nature. ‘Knowledge’ is a success term, and the success entailed by its application is not easily attained. To the one content with lower standards, who considers knowledge much that I regard as mere belief, I have little to offer by way of persuasion, for my insistence takes at bottom this form: this is who I am, this is what I require. What follows is a confession. Allow me to explain myself.

I resist mistaking the scaffolding for the building. The acquisition of knowledge requires much trust, but this trust provides only tools useful for action, including the action of seeking knowledge. It provides no knowledge itself. And what, in any event, is trusted when one is a student? A jumble of useful errors and half-truths—only rarely does a genuine truth show its face among them, and then mostly by mistake. Even these out of place truths, the pupil cannot distinguish from the falsehoods. All he knows is that they are useful. Let him, then, be an instrumentalist. I do not, then, detest learning. I merely claim that it may have but two positive outcomes: first, it may make new actions possible, and second, it may teach one how to seek knowledge. Surely this is praise enough for tutelage.

Seneca’s 59th letter details for Lucilius the dangers of reputation. To possess a good reputation is to be at risk for complacency, to take oneself as finished when one is but a work in progress. The man of good repute risks taking flattery for truth, to the point of believing his virtue is adequate where it is lacking. But what is the application of ‘knowledge’ to cases of mere trust but a form of self-flattery? To believe myself to possess knowledge, to believe myself capable of attaining knowledge with such a minimum of movement—with the turning of a page—is to submit myself to unpardonable lethargy. It is to prostrate myself before the leering face that promises rest.

The days are past when the solitary individual could claim knowledge across vast domains. The benefit of specialization is the explosion of knowledge possessed, collectively, by humanity. The price is individual skepticism, the restriction of any given individual’s knowledge to a region whose size is nothing next to the vastness of the universe. It is the irony of the rapid growth of humanity’s knowledge that the human’s knowledge becomes ever less and less. What knowledge is now generated, is known to one or only a few, and in increasingly common cases, to none. Every evidential step in a large, collaborative research project may be perfectly justified, but if the ability to traverse these steps is spread across many individuals, if no one individual may follow them all, there is no one who possesses the knowledge that results. It was said that knowledge was justified true belief, until Gettier showed the identity to be inexact. I propose to take a step further: most justified true belief is not knowledge, and most knowledge is not belief of any kind, because it does not reside in any mind.

I do not mean to fetishize experts as those who know, as some privileged class who, in some small domain, become thus untouchable. Rather, if trust does not yield knowledge, there is less incentive to trust, and more to challenge, said experts. No doubt that strange human ritual, in which one is required to display his party membership credentials, will never be eradicated—a lamentable, but ineluctable, situation. This will always favor acquiring beliefs through trust, but for the sake of reputation, not of knowledge. It is still a victory, if a small one, to remove one incentive to trust. It eases the path to that enlightened state in which one prefers critical thought to truth.

The fear of death, in one of its manifestations, is the fear of never understanding this strange universe into which I was thrust. The desire for oneness with this universe likewise becomes the desire to etch in my mind the perfect representation thereof. And the cruelty of death is to strip me of this possibility. All movements in this direction are converted by the fact of death into so much scurrying. The low curiosity that knowing to discovering becomes a failure to face up to my own mortality. Better, then, a skepticism that forbids me any illusion about the length of my reach. Better a skepticism that forces me to select, to be particular and partial. Better a skepticism that dissipates all dreams of universality, all attempts to be all, which is to say, all attempts to be nothing. I confess: I need my skepticism.

Fools of Nature

Emerson’s loftiest prose appears when he is in the throes of skepticism. Emerson’s opti­mism is but the palliative for his pessimism. Emerson’s hope is most insistent when he most clearly sees the grounds that rule out hope. Should I browse, then, the final page of Emerson’s “Nature” (1844) and find that, “The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger” (555)—should I find this, then I know, or may reasonably infer, that what precedes such a height is Emerson plumbing the depths.

The essay begins with an image of immortal, eternal, impartial nature, nature the judge who sees humanity and finds it wanting. Such nature is ahistorical, memoryless, a never-ending “tyranny of the present.” (542) “Here no history… is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.” (541) Yet there is something mocking about this landscape, the mockery of its judgment. “If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature. If the king is in the palace, nobody looks at the walls.” (545) This nature seems to serve as illumination of the absence of any satisfactory humans. Humanity is too condemned by its own partiality. Emerson is quite clear that he turns to this image of majestic nature for “relief” (545), for something erect to counteract fallen man. But this nature is mocking, and unsatisfying. “But it is very easy to outrun the sympathy of readers on this topic, which schoolmen called natura naturata, or nature passive. One can hardly speak directly of it without excess.” (545)

Moreover, while this image of nature is supposed to provide relief from the endlessly disappointing partiality of the world, it is not clear it can even do this, for Emerson denies any division between the natural social. “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” (548) The fate of nature is tied to our own fate: if we are disappointments, so is nature. So it is: “There is in woods and waters a certain enticement and flattery, together with a failure to yield a present satisfaction. This disappointment is felt in every landscape.” (553) The language Emerson uses here, that of the failure of satisfaction, is not accidental. Rather, it highlights the joint fortunes of nature and humanity, for humanity too fails to satisfy: “Our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions.” (542)

This doleful vision lacks only one final twisting of the knife. It comes in the relation between the knowledge of this vision and our ability to act. “A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate.” (551) To recognize this world for what it is is to sap the ability to act. If there is a villain in Emerson’s essay, it is the “sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret.” (549) But what has Emerson been in this essay if not precisely this character? Has he not been stressing to us, again and again, not just here but in every essay, our inevitable partiality? What does he have to say for himself?

Emerson has a solution to the problem he has made so vivid. It is what Nietzsche would later call the “Wille zur Dummheit”—the will to stupidity (Beyond Good and Evil, §107). I was selective in my quotation just above; let me now be more just:

And when now and then comes along some sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret;—how then? is the bird flown? O no, the wary Nature sends a new troop of fairer forms, of lordlier youths, with a little more excess of direction to hold them fast to their several aim; makes them a little wrongheaded in that direction in which they are rightest, and on goes the game again with a new whirl, for a generation or two more. (549)

Or, more bluntly: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” (549) Life is, in short, founded on error. To act is to err, for without error, we could not act. A clear sight of the paltriness of what we do would kill any justification for doing it. We can speak only when we do not see our speech to be partial, yet, “It is partial, but he does not see it to be so, whilst he utters it.” (551)

What this essay details is the battle in Emerson between his sharp-eyed and error-ridden moods. Dewey liked to mock the correspondence theory of truth as the “spectator theory of knowledge”—yet Emerson has more right to apply the epithet to his sharp-eyed man, for that man truly cannot act, and must be a spectator. Dewey wanted a pragmatic theory of knowledge, one that linked knowledge ineliminably to action. Emerson, by contrast, is tied to the spectator theory of knowledge, and thus what might be called the error theory of action. It is the curse of the human—so I believe Emerson shows us—to be forever caught between the knowledge that reduces us to spectation, and the error that allows us to act. We oscillate between the two, without escape. Such is our partiality. We cannot flee from this partiality into nature, for nature too can only provide suggestions. In the end, all that remains is to act, but to act is to make the error of taking up a suggestion with the belief that so taking it up will, finally, bring satisfaction. Well then, “are we tickled trout, and fools of nature?” (553) We are. There is no way around it.

I confess that I find more of value in Emerson’s skeptical moods than in his optimistic moods. The problem of life I face, vanquishing sometimes, but never permanently, is the problem of acting when I feel so unshakably that all there is to life is paltry. I have looked long enough for a solution to this problem that would tell me that life is not paltry to retain any hope of a satisfactory answer—or even a suggestive one. Better to hear that the world is so, and to be taught the value of error, that I might bring myself to the point where the error within me is as strong as the knowledge, and their struggle in turn bring me some few lofty moments.

Daybreak meditation, §103

In an earlier post, written as I was reading Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, I was perplexed by an apparently social strand in his thought—something about his project seemed to re­quire the modification of social institutions, seemed to suggest that such institutions had a role to play in creating the “higher type” of human. My recent purchase, from a used bookstore, of Morgenröte—a much more pleasant way to practice my German than rather mindless online studying—has led to the renewal of these perplexities. That seems as good an excuse as any to write.

§35 of Morgenröte lays out Nietzsche’s intellectualist view of feelings (cf. this post for my reflections on that passage). He writes: “Aber Gefühle sind nichts Letztes, Ursprüngliches, hinter den Gefühlen stehen Urteile und Wertschätzungen” (But feelings are nothing final, original, behind feelings stand judgments and evaluations)—that is, feelings are secondary to judgments. But what is most interesting to me, at least today, is not the mere fact that feelings follow judgments, but that for Nietzsche feelings are something inherited.

I find this especially interesting in light of my recent semi-immersion in ancient Stoicism, who also take an intellectualist standpoint. Behind every sense of being harmed or benefitted lies a judgment. Remove the judgment, and the harm itself is removed. Thus Marcus Aurelius: “How easy it is to repel and wipe away every disturbing or inappropriate thought, and recover at once a perfect calm” (Meditations, bk. 5, ch. 2) and “Do away with the judgment, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone.’ (Meditations, bk. 4, ch. 7). But on this Stoic picture, the relationship between judgment and feeling is immediate, or nearly so: I can effect the change within myself.

What Nietzsche adds to this picture is inheritance, which applies only to feelings. The starting point for §35 is the phrase, “vertraue deinem Gefühle!” (trust your feelings!). Nietzsche undermines this by arguing that feelings are the inheritance of someone else’s (often false) judgments, and not the result of one’s own judgments. To trust my feelings, then, would be to trust the judgments of, most proximately, my parents, since their judgments I have inherited as feelings. Where the unified mind of the Stoic gives me complete control over my feelings, or nearly so, Nietzsche makes me more beholden to my past, my genealogy. His intellectualist view spans generations.

It is this temporal aspect to his intellectualism that underlies §103. This passage is devoted primarily to distinguishing two ways of denying morality. The first denies that the moral motivations people ascribe to themselves are what is truly motivating them; the second denies “daß die sittlichen Urteile auf Wahrheiten beruhen” (that moral judgments are based on truths). Nietzsche clarifies that he is of the second sort, though he grants that in many particular cases the first sort is also right. This is all well and good, but the most interesting portion of the passage comes at the end, when Nietzsche writes:

Wir haben umzulernen, — um endlich, vielleicht sehr spat, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.

This doesn’t translate smoothly. A rough, very literal translation goes: “we must relearn, in order, finally, perhaps very late, to achieve still more: to re-feel.” The Hollingdale translation runs, “We have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.” I cannot do better.

Nietzsche’s suggestion of the practical upshot of his denial of morality is that we need to think in a different, new way about what we traditionally considered in moral terms. Just before this suggestion, he makes it clear that he does not think that all of the content of morality is wrong (i.e. the things we should and should not do)—rather, the moral framing is wrong, and those bits of the content that we preserve, we should preserve “aus anderen Gründen als bisher” (for other reasons than hitherto). The “relearning” consists, then, of learning these new grounds, and the end result, which will come “perhaps very late,” is a new array of feelings, distinct from the moral feelings we have felt hitherto.

This suggestion at once raises two thoughts in my mind. First, I run up, again, on the notion that Nietzsche is making a fundamentally social proposal. If the final benefit of the relearning is a modification of our feelings, this benefit will not lie with those (e.g. Nietzsche) who overthrow moral judgments. Instead, it will come “perhaps very late”—that is, many generations down the line. Nietzsche’s proposal is a large-scale, long-term project. Earlier I was perplexed by the thought that Nietzsche seemed to require social institutions that promoted the development of the higher type—here that perplexity takes on more definite content. One specific aspect of these institutions must be that they teach, not morality, but the new judgments. Since judgments are inherited as feelings, that will lead, eventually, to the inheritance of new, non-moral feelings—a condition I take it Nietzsche thinks is conducive to the development of the higher type.

At the same time as the shape of the requisite institutions comes into clearer view, however, the perplexity deepens. For what §35 makes clear is that our inherited feelings are not to be trusted—will this not be so as well for those beneficiaries of our new judgments? Should they not equally mistrust their non-moral feelings? And if they cannot trust the feelings they inherit from our judgments, why are we so concerned about this inheritance?

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —


A perceptive commenter on my earlier post about The Anti-Christ challenged my taking this intellectualist interpretation of Nietzsche. I have not addressed his criticisms here. I ought to, and may perhaps devote a post to this task soon. But I will say now that, at least in the two passages I have looked at here, Nietzsche does take the view that judgments are inherited as feelings, and does, in a way not free of internal tension, seem to want to use this relationship between judgment and feelings to enact a shift in the feelings of future generations via a change in the judgments of this one. Does this sit uneasily with Nietzsche’s critiques of intellectualism pointed out by my commenter? I cannot yet say.

Gifts and morality

“Gifts” is Emerson’s shortest essay, a mere four pages in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. Even still, as is characteristic of Emerson, it contains the greater portion of his thought, escaping well beyond its putative subject. In particular, I think this essay on gifts is a useful proxy for Emerson’s distaste for morality, or at least for moralism.

There are, I think, two crucial sentences in the essay. First: “Necessity does everything well.” (536) Emerson is looking for necessity—one of Emerson’s central moves is to identify the freedom of self-reliance with a rigid sort of necessity, for after all only one action will be true to the individual, and hence self-reliant—but he does not find it in our conventions of gift-giving. In these conventions, we are expected at particular times to give others gifts—Emerson mentions Christmas and New Year. We might readily imagine a sort of necessity here: at these times, you must give gifts, at least if you are to preserve your social graces. This might be better phrased impersonally: at these times, one must give gifts—for after all it hardly matters who you are. This, I take it, is rather like the must of morality—think of Kant’s categorical imperative and his insistence on universalizing maxims: impersonality is the order of the day.

So there is a sort of necessity, but for Emerson it is misplaced. “If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” (535) There is necessity up to the point that some gift must be given, but no further. This loss of necessity leads to Emerson being “puzzled”, and then the opportunity is lost—but what opportunity?

Emerson does have an image of the ideal gift: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (536) Such a gift is inherently personal, but then, Emerson wants to say, it cannot be governed by the impersonal “one must”. For how does “one” give a portion of “oneself”? The very idea is nearly if not strictly incoherent.

The problem resides, ultimately, in the idea of morality as a sort of service. Emerson could well accept the contemporary (but controversial) view that all morality is just an evolved lubricant for social interactions, coopted (since we have the brains to coopt it) to make life generally as pleasant as possible for as many as possible. Morality is just a sort of etiquette, on this view, which is why gift-giving, hardly a “moral” issue when morality is treated as venerable, may serve Emerson as a proxy.

The problem with service is that service is impersonal. Its value lies in the consequences and not in its cause. For this reason, insofar as morality is a sort of service, a consequentialist view of morality seems required. But now we get the second crucial sentence in Emerson’s essay: “They eat your service like apples, and leave you out.” (538) Service, by its very nature, leaves out the individual, for the individual is the cause, but the value lies in the consequences.

Emerson makes a motion, in his essay, to respect that there is something essential—as there surely is—in this sort of service, but it is a dismissive motion. “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.” (538) The motion is dismissive because Emerson is after something greater, an interaction in which people are not mere sources of consequences, valued only insofar as they cause the right consequences. In this interaction, which elsewhere in Emerson falls under the heading of “conversation”, the mutual meeting of two self-reliant individuals, “No services are of any value, but only likeness.” (538) Conversation lasts as long as, and no longer than, the likeness persists. In such interactions, there simply cannot be any question of morality, of service: etiquette is entirely left out of the equation.

This, I hope, shows how Emerson’s vision of self-reliance excludes morality altogether.


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