Home > Emerson R. W., Joyce J., Literature, Philosophy, Prose > Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites

Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites

In a hospital, as it is getting on to be late at night, Buck Mulligan, usurper, participates in the time-honored tradition of postlapsarianism:

Mr Mulligan however made court to the scholarly by an apt quotation from the classics which as it dwelt upon his memory seemed to him a sound and tasteful support of his contention: Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites, ut matres familiarum nostrooe lascivas cujuslibet semiviri libici titillationes testibus ponderosis atque excelsis erectionibus centurionum Romanorum magnopere anteponunt: while for those of ruder wit he drove home his point by analogies of the animal kingdom more suitable to their stomach, the buck and doe of the forest glade, the farmyard drake and duck. (Ulysses, Gabler edition, pp. 329-330)

The Latin in this passage—my choice for the single funniest line in the oft-hilarious Ulysses—may be translated roughly as: “Of such a kind and so great is the depravity of our generation, O Citizens, that our matrons much prefer the lascivious titillations of Gallic half-men to the weighty testicles and extraordinary erections of the Roman centurion.” (From Gifford and Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated)

Most precisely, to speak of the postlapsarian is to speak of the time after the fall from the Garden of Eden, i.e. the time post-lapse. I am using it more broadly to speak of any tale of a fall from a higher state of existence to a lower one. Mulligan’s postlapsarianism is fairly mild: once there was a time when matrons rightly preferred extraordinary erections to lascivious titillations, but we have decayed since that time. Mulligan’s form is mild because it admits the possibility of recovery: there is no principled reason why the valuations of the matrons could not reverse again and undo the decline. Stronger forms of postlapsarianism do not admit this possibility: the Garden of Eden is not re-attainable, at least not on Earth.

I want here to look at a use Emerson makes of a weak postlapsarianism in his Divinity School Address. I want to understand how such a position seems incompatible with Emerson’s position, and to explore the possible reasons why Emerson might have chosen to use it regardless. I am using the version of the essay found in the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures (pp. 73-92); all page references are to that volume (but not to that essay, necessarily).

Emerson is addressing a divinity school’s senior class, so he has been charged with the task of giving them advice that will be helpful in their future careers as preachers. (This, at least, is primarily what Emerson focuses on.) Midway through the essay, he writes:

From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. (83)

Emerson explicitly opposes faith to the “sleep of indolence” and the “din of routine” (84), so we can see right away that Emerson’s faith is not quite faith as is generally understood. Rather, for Emerson, it is a sensitivity to the divine law that pervades all things, but which can never be adequately formulated or grasped. But Emerson is not thereby apophatic about the object of faith; rather he sees it as partially, temporarily grasped in creative acts—precisely those that rise above “the din of routine” that threatens to drown faith in conformity. Emerson later rails against imitation: the creative act that grasps the divine law cannot be repeated, and to imitate it is to confess inferiority, to relinquish one’s own right to grasp the divine for oneself, through one’s own creative acts. The enemy of faith, then, is trust.

Emerson, in his address, is trying to enlist the Church, through its future leaders, to embrace this notion of faith, instead of a particular set of doctrines. (Whether Emerson’s call here is compatible with the very idea of a church, is certainly debatable, but it is not my issue here. Nietzsche, that great Emersonian, argued at length for the negative position.)

The immediate purpose of Emerson’s use of this tale of decay is obvious from the very next sentences: “On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached” (83). (By “the faith of Christ is preached,” Emerson means the view that there is a doctrine of Christ that can be taught and followed—a form of imitation.) By telling a tale of decay, Emerson simultaneously accomplishes two things. First, he lends a sense of urgency to his call: look at the state of things! Second—and here the distinction between strong and weak postlapsarianism is crucial—by suggesting that the tale is one of decay, he implicitly suggests that a non-decayed state is recoverable. That is, he promises his charges that success is a possibility. A similar promise of a return to Eden would, by contrast, ring hollow.

But is this weak postlapsarian tale really compatible with Emerson’s overall position? Emerson is commonly seen as a philosopher of democracy, not without cause, but he has a strikingly elitist side that is just as essential to his thought. (The constant tension in his writing between democratic ideals and elitism is one of the prime exemplars of what Emerson means when he says, in “Self-Reliance”, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A prime source of Emerson’s greatness of mind is his refusal to find a consistent resolution to this tension; instead he let the two contradictory drives coexist and push his thought forward.) In “The American Scholar”, this elitist tendency comes out in a striking passage:

Men in history, men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’ In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say,—one or two approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened; yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature. (66)

(I nurture a pet thesis that Nietzsche and Emerson are the same soul in two bodies. This is, of course, hyperbole, but when I read passages like this in Emerson, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic.) Here Emerson gives away his hand (admittedly in a distinct essay—he’s not incautious with his rhetoric!): it is not just “men in the world to-day” but also “men in history” who are “bugs” and “spawn” and “herd.” Imitation—equivalent to the absence of faith—is always present and always dominant. What Emerson calls the “soul-destroying slavery of habit” (89) is not at all a new phenomenon, just now gaining prominence.

What, then, licenses Emerson to utilize such a tale, false by his own admission? What justifies it, I think, is that Emerson is magnifying a very real phenomenon. Recall the relation between creation and imitation I mentioned above. It is creative acts that are imitated. Faith manifests itself in the world in the initial creative act, ever-repeated, for the faith of Christ—which means, in all honesty, not so much anything specifically Christian, but rather Emersonian creativity—is never “preached” but always requires further preaching. It is these creative acts that are imitated, and become habit. Shakespeare says, brilliantly, originally, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and now we use it in our day-to-day lives for nothing so momentous as Hamlet. Faith, then, constantly decays into habit. Even our own creativity can turn into our own habit, when we do one new thing and then rest our laurels, only ever managing to imitate ourselves.

It is not so much, then, that Emerson is falsifying matters by speaking of the decay of faith into soul-destroying habit. In the passage with which I began, Emerson is simply magnifying the phenomenon to a historical scale. In fact, the decay happens constantly in our lives. It is a danger always to be guarded against. What is won does not long stay won, but must be won ever anew. This magnification heightens the felt urgency of this, and moreover reveals the task as collective. The future priest should not solely fight against the conformity in himself, but provoke his congregation to faith as well. Moreover, the magnification is also legitimate in that there is something historically relevant. The Christian church models itself on the creative acts of a particular individual, Christ. Emerson, speaking 1800 years after these acts, recognizes the vast expanse of history between Christ’s teaching and those listening to the address he is giving. And, in this historical span, there is indeed decay. But, as Emerson would surely grant, this decay is not anything new—it almost certainly began immediately after Jesus died, if not before. Even the New Testament itself would, for Emerson, be a testament to such decay, at least in part. Emerson neglects to mention this, since it would detract from the rhetorical force of his address, but it is easily inferable from what he has said.

Emerson’s postlapsarian narrative should not be taken as Emersonian doctrine. Early in the essay, Emerson explains his view on the purpose of teaching, a view that follows directly from the opposition between faith and conformity. He writes:

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. (79)

Emerson here admits his impotence. He cannot lead anyone into the temple. There are no beliefs that he can transmit that will make someone creative. Creativity is not received secondhand. Emerson’s use of his story of decay, then, is not to impress upon people: how depressing our current state is! Rather, he is capitalizing on the prevalence of sentiments of that sort as a means of provocation. He is subverting existing sentiment (and the sentiment that one’s time is a fallen time is surely always prominent) to his own ends, as a way of pointing others toward their own ends. For those of ruder wit, some other means of provocation might be preferred, but Emerson knows his audience.

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  1. 2013/07/10 at 09:37

    I really like this article, dyssebeia! The way you introduce this postlapsarianism and the way it develops into serious questions about ourselves, art, Christianity and history. It’s food for thought.
    As is your Emerson quote on the herd: that sounds extremely Nietzschean, if I may say so. As does the idea that Christianity is in a postlapsarian state that started when the New Testament was first written down.
    (It’s good to know that I can start reading Emerson as soon as I’ve finished reading Nietzsche.)
    As an afterthought: this comparing history with the development of an individual is something I also recognise from reading Nietzsche. Quite often it’s unclear if we’re talking about humanity or Nietzsche. I’ve wondered if our necessary anthropomorphism makes us see ourselves in the course of history.

    • 2013/07/10 at 10:28

      Thanks pipteinpteron! Every so often in reading Emerson, I come across a passage that seems strikingly Nietzschean (and vice versa in reading Nietzsche). The same soul? Perhaps not. But certainly they were kin. I’m excited to know you’ll be reading Emerson after Nietzsche. I hope you write about it.

      I haven’t read any Nietzsche in a while, so I don’t remember exactly how he uses history (except in the Genealogy, which I think is doing different things than what you’re talking about). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a similar magnification going on in Nietzsche. He certainly knew how to apply his rhetorical tools with great skill. I think that, insofar as he does what you say, he probably recognizes it as somewhat illusory and uses it self-consciously and directedly. But that’s speculation, I suppose.

  1. 2013/07/10 at 20:30

Kindly perturb

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