Creativity and Conditioning in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”
I want to continue looking at the way that Emerson navigates tensions internal to his work, this time looking at the relation between creativity (freedom, the creation of the new) and conditioning (custom, the influence of the past) in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”. As before, I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays and Lectures, pp. 51-71.
A bit into the oration, Emerson sets out a view of creativity:
Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his;—cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority, but springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair. (58)
Creativity is, unsurprisingly, set apart from custom and authority, from doing things the same old way. But in this passage, Emerson makes this contrast extreme: creation is “indicative of no custom or authority”; it springs “spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” The vision of creation espoused here is creation ex nihilo, completely unconditioned by anything that came before. Of course, this is impossible—even the most dogged defender of the existence of free will believes in parenting, after all. Moreover, the passage comes in a section in which Emerson is discussing what influences the scholar. He has completed the section on how nature influences the scholar, and is now discussing the influence of past thought. Moreover, one proper way for past scholarship to influence the scholar is by providing inspiration for creation. Any such inspiration is likely to be indicative of custom and authority.
What Emerson is doing here is, I think, presenting an image of a pure ideal that is unattainable in our world, conditioned as it is, whose application to the decidedly non-ideal world he will show as much as say. Similarly to the distinct movements I isolated in my previous post on Emerson, there are passages in “The American Scholar” that show us how to understand this passage, despite not referring back to it explicitly. One such passage comes two pages later:
The world,—this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order; I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life. So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. (60)
I count three indications of custom and authority in this paragraph, and there may be more. In the first sentence, there is a reference to Plato’s famous analogy of the cave and the shadows on its wall. The world is a shadow, as it is for Plato, but now the source of the shadows, the reality, is “the soul”. Plato’s analogy is thus subsumed under Emerson’s vision of self-reliance. Later, Emerson speaks of his dominion, referencing the biblical notion of human dominion over the earth. Again, in an old reference, Emerson finds himself by inventing a new, creative use of an old source. Finally, in the final sentence, comes a nod to Bacon’s famous “knowledge is power.” Emerson borrows Bacon’s inscription to show how his (Emerson’s) scholar is active, and not aloof and passive. All three quite distinct ideas are run together until they are currents in a single idea, Emerson’s. A page before, Emerson wrote, “one must be an inventor to read well.” Here, he exemplifies his point. The result of his reading of Plato, Bacon, and the Bible is his own invention. It is conditioned, but nonetheless creative.
This notion of unconditioned creativity carries in it another problem: the scholar will, it seems, be abstracted from the world of the moment. Emerson writes:
These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. (64)
Here is the picture of the philosopher, his head in the clouds, disconnected from the world around. Emerson is here praising it, and it goes hand in hand with his view of unconditioned creativity. For all reliance is to be placed by the scholar in himself, and none in the popular cry—this harkens directly back to the notion of creation “springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” But we have already seen that that notion cannot work, and that in any case Emerson believes nothing of the sort. Why does it get reintroduced? For one thing, it provides a platform for Emerson to introduce a countervailing virtue. Here he has displayed freedom. But freedom is not the only virtue of self-trust. Bravery is another:
In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquility, amid dangerous times, arise from the presumption, that, like children and women, his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up. So is the danger a danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin,—see the whelping of this lion,—which lies no great way back; he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth defy it, and pass on superior. (65)
From the standpoint of bravery, the very aloofness of the scholar comes to seem ostrich-like rather than noble. From the standpoint of bravery, the scholar who see himself as part of a privileged class is no scholar at all. The scholar engages with the world around him. Whatever purity, creation, and freedom there is to be found, is to be found in the world in all its details. (Emerson later celebrates the emergence of a literature that explores the common and the low, and not just the high and sublime.) The scholar requires the bravery to face that world, and to see through it. Now we can understand why freedom/creativity should be presented as so pure an ideal initially: it allows Emerson to invoke a second virtue, bravery, by which this freedom finds a place in the world, a place in which it can operate effectively.
Throughout all of this, there is a subtle and profound troping of Plato going on. Plato, of course, separated the shifting, unstable world of becoming from the stable, eternal world of the forms. The appearance-reality distinction was the distinction between fleeting becoming and eternal being. Emerson invokes this distinction heavily. The world of the moment is mere appearance; the brave scholar who faces it sees through it; and so on. Yet Emerson then does something marvelous with it: he turns it on his head. He writes:
Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art, and persuade men by the cheerful serenity of their carrying the matter, that this thing which they do, is the apple which the ages have desired to pluck, now at last ripe, and inviting nations to the harvest. The great man makes the great thing. (65)
In Locke (who is mentioned and extolled earlier in the essay), we get a distinction between primary qualities (length, shape, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, taste, etc.). The former are taken to be more real; the latter less so. Even without Plato’s forms, the appearance-reality distinction survives, with primary qualities occupying the privileged side and secondary qualities the merely apparent face. But Emerson here shows his idealism for what it really is: it is a belief in the primary reality of “secondary qualities”. Great men alter not just matter (greatness is not a crude power to control), but can create new relations. They “give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art.” Emerson likens creative becoming to secondary qualities, those that exist only becomes minds exist to perceive them, and then sets these relations as the primary, poetic reality. Therein consists his idealism, and also his debt to and defiance of Plato (and Locke).
This then, is yet another example of the conditioned creativity that he extols, creativity that occurs in the world and has a definite history without which it would be impossible. That the essay so well exemplifies the position it sets out to defend is a substantial source of its brilliance. It also serves to reveal the essay’s major flaw. After setting out his view of the scholar in the abstract, Emerson closes the essay by relating his picture to specific conditions of the day. This transition makes sense within the context of the essay (Emerson has shown freedom; now he must show some bravery). More even than elsewhere in the essay, Emerson strives to be inspiring in his ending. This is sensible: it is a speech he gave before Phi Beta Kappa, and that context is one in which inspiring endings are appropriate. Of course, this is a custom, and so is ripe for Emerson to exemplify yet again the creativity he has championed. Sadly, he ends up lapsing into the naïve view that he worked so hard to qualify and deepen in the ways I discussed above. It sounds bold, but that is mere appearance: in reality, it is a faltering step, too conditioned, not free enough.
But this misstep mars the essay only slightly: much more than that, it reveals the altitude climbed earlier.