Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Three Reversals in Emerson’s “The Method of Nature”

Three Reversals in Emerson’s “The Method of Nature”

One of Emerson’s favorite rhetorical techniques is the reversal: at one point in an essay, with a particular aim in mind, he says one thing; at a later point, perhaps only a page or paragraph later, he says the opposite. I have already looked at this technique in relation to the transparent eyeball passage of Emerson’s Nature, though there I took into account more than mere reversals. Here I want to look at the masterful use Emerson makes of reversals in “The Method of Nature”, which ranks among his best essays. I want to show how Emerson uses the technique to protect himself and his readers from a dangerous mistake (a mistake that careless critics nonetheless attribute to him). As always, I am using the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures, and page references are to that volume.

First Reversal

In the first paragraph of the essay, Emerson contrasts scholarly work with the “material interest” that predominates in America. He bemoans,

We hear something too much of the results of machinery, commerce, and the useful arts. We are a puny and a fickle folk. Avarice, hesitation, and following, are our diseases. (115)

Against this, the scholar:

The scholars are the priests of that thought which establishes the foundations of the earth. No matter what is their special work or profession, they stand for the spiritual interest of the world. (115)

It is a complaint still heard today that we are too crassly materialist, that we need some higher principle of life than mere usefulness or pleasure. Such complaints are the favorites of those who want to advance tired arguments for religion, and I don’t doubt the same was true in Emerson’s day. This creates the need for Emerson’s first reversal. He has paid tribute to this complaint, all well and good, but now he must find a response to it that is not merely reactive. So he continues:

I do not wish to look with sour aspect at the industrious manufacturing village, or the mart of commerce. I love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway; I feel the pride which the sight of a ship inspires; I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also. (115)

Here he changes his stance: now he finds great value in these material concerns. He is not simply abandoning his espousal of the earlier complaint, however, but qualifying it. While he recognizes the danger that crass materialism poses, he does not want to run from the world. Rather, he wants to discriminate:

But let me discriminate what is precious herein. There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken; that act or step is the spiritual act; all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times. (115)

It is a mistake, upon recognizing in crass materialism an actual poverty, to then run from industry and, more generally, all that is practical and worldly. Rather, these practical and worldly actions have a dual aspect. On the one hand there is what is mundane and repeatable; on the other there are the acts of invention, the intellectual steps, which are singular and unrepeatable. (There is a surely fascinating line of thought to follow here in connecting this notion with Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence; I lament that I am not yet competent to follow it.) What is essential to notice is that these dual aspects are located within the same events and processes. Moreover, Emerson’s reversal lies not just in elevating the industrious but in de-elevating the scholarly:

And I will not be deceived into admiring the routine of handicrafts and mechanics, how splendid soever the result, any more than I admire the routine of the scholars or clerical class. (115)

Actual scholars are not privileged. Actual scholars no more represent the spiritual interest of the world than does industry—they are equally subject to repetitive routine. The opposition between crassly materialistic industrial work and scholarly and clerical work is shown to be a false one: both are on the same plane. Both have this dual aspect, both partake of materiality and spirituality. If scholarly work consists in recovering this spiritual aspect of life, then scholarly work may equally exist in Wal-Mart as in the academy—there is no reason at all to expect it to be more prevalent in the latter.

Emerson’s first reversal thus allows him to recast a particular debate—one that lives today in the same form that Emerson presents it, and so is open to the same recasting—in a way that opens up a third course. We should neither too readily embrace materiality and lapse into a consumerism or hedonism nor too readily flee from the material world into the church or the ivory tower. Scholarly work is opposed to both paths—hence it is to a great extent opposed to the actually existing institution of scholarship and, moreover, is open to alliance with industry and the worldly.

Emerson thus exposes the initial antagonism as a false antagonism: both positions are on equal footing. They are not equally bad, to be rejected, but equally ambiguous, requiring discrimination. What are we to discriminate? We are to look for new distinctions, new orders of ideas, which leave everything insecure, tilting and rocking, and are to be wary of defenders of existing institutions. We are too look for a love too large to sell (escaping materialism); equally, we are to look for a receptivity that in turns becoming giving, and not a receptivity that turns to thanks and prayer (escaping religious escape). We are, in short, to look for Emersonian idealism, an idealism that, as I discussed in my earlier post, is not afraid to use realism to counteract certain errors. What is stable and repeatable is what is too material, what must not be given too much credit as real, while what is unstable and connected to upheaval, upheaval that cannot be repeated, is ideal, and true reality. This idealist reality is found only in creative acts, in intellectual steps and acts of invention. Emerson’s first reversal serves to bring this possibility into view.

Second reversal

What the first reversal has done is to bring into view the possibility of the scholar as Emerson conceives him. The scholar is also the “curious child” and “all-hoping poet” (116), the “rapt saint” who is found to be the “only logician” (117). We find that “the wit of man, his strength, his grace, his tendency, his art, is the grace and the presence of God.” In short, we find the divine (= the new, the creative) in man, in individuals. Only here we find Emerson’s second reversal. For no sooner has Emerson laid out this ecstatic view of human possibility than he begins to lament:

We are forcibly reminded of the old want. There is no man; there hath never been. The Intellect still asks that a man may be born. The flame of life flickers feebly in human breasts. We demand of men a richness and universality we do not find. Great men do not content us. It is their solitude, not their force, that makes them conspicuous. There is somewhat indigent and tedious about them. They are poorly tied to one thought. If they are prophets, they are egotists; if polite and various, they are shallow. How tardily men arrive at any result! How tardily they pass from it to another! (117)

After extolling the possibilities of man, Emerson laments that it is unrealized, that men are paltry things, that man does not exist. This serves an immediate rhetorical purpose for Emerson: it allows him to transition to the main topic of his essay. For, he says, “in the absence of man, we turn to nature, which stands next” (118). Nature is “the memory of the mind”, is the shadow of intellect (a further facet of Emerson’s idealism), and so is the best object of scholarly study, given the absence of man. Thus Emerson concludes, “it seems to me, therefore, that it were some suitable pæan, if we should piously celebrate this hour by exploring the method of nature. Let us see that, as nearly as we can, and try how far it is transferable to the literary life” (118).

Emerson has a deeper purpose here, however. In studying nature before individual people, we shall avoid a great error. Emerson’s discussion of the method of nature is centered around a distinction he draws between particular and universal ends. He writes:

Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end, to a universe of ends, and not to one,—a work of ecstasy, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length. (120)

If we attempt to judge nature by particular ends, nature comes out looking paltry. When we look at politics, that series of petty squabbles, we find that

one can hardly help asking if this planet is a fair specimen of the so generous astronomy, and if so, whether the experiment have not failed, and whether it be quite worth while to make more, and glut the innocent space with so poor an article. (120-121)

Moreover, the same result occurs if we look not to the interactions of men, but to “great and wise men,” for none of them “will justify the cost of that enormous apparatus of means by which this spotted and defective person was at last procured” (121). In short if we assume “that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded” (120).

If we judge the world by the lights of particular ends, then the world comes out a failure. Indeed, it is precisely this judgment by particular ends that leads to the religious condemnation of crass materialism and flight from the world that Emerson exposed with his first reversal. (And which marks another great convergence in the thought of Emerson and Nietzsche.) There is a basic trouble that Emerson finds with judging the world by particular ends: it expects of the world a finished product. But the world is not a finished product, and judged by those standards it is a failure.

What is the world, then? “To questions of this sort”—i.e. to questions about whether the products of nature justify its efforts—“nature replies, ‘I grow.’ All is nascent, infant” (121). Nature is not stable, final, but “is becoming somewhat else; is in rapid metamorphosis” (121). What is the driving force of this becoming?

In short, the spirit and peculiarity of that impression nature makes on us, is this, that it does not exist to any one or to any number of particular ends, but to numberless and endless benefit; that there is in it no private will, no rebel leaf or limb, but the whole is oppressed by one superincumbent tendency, obeys that redundancy or excess of life which in conscious beings we call ecstasy. (121)

Where judging nature by particular ends fails lies in this: it sets in advance particular goals, and we judge nature by its meeting (or not) these goals. But in ecstasy, the creative excess of life, the products of nature take steps that are unforeseeable in advance—that is precisely why they are creative. What is new cannot be judged by standards set in advance, precisely because those standards could not foresee what was new. Moreover, creation of the new is not stable: if emulated, it immediately becomes precisely that repetition that is opposed to creativity, that is the negative among the dual aspects of the world. Emerson’s second reversal thus protects us from an error: the error of judging nature by particular ends, rather than seeing it as embodying a universal end, captured only by the concept of ecstasy.

Third reversal

Having dispelled the danger, Emerson can relax his condemnation of man as absent. “With this conception of the genius or method of nature, let us go back to man” (121). Having praised the universal in nature, Emerson goes on to say:

The termination of the world in a man, appears to be the last victory of intelligence. The universal does not attract us until housed in an individual. Who heeds the waste abyss of possibility?  […] So we must admire in man, the form of the formless, the concentration of the vast, the house of reason, the cave of memory. […] An individual man is a fruit which it cost all the foregoing ages to form and ripen. (122)

We just saw Emerson devaluing the consideration of individual men as the fruits of nature: they are utterly insufficient to justify the effort put into them, of which, in case we forgot, Emerson here reminds us: a single individual costs all the foregoing ages to form and ripen. Here, then, is a drastic change in attitude. Where, just previously, an individual seemed a paltry fruit, here the individual seems a great fruit. What has changed?

What has changed is that we have been protected from an error: the error of viewing man as a finished product. For Emerson, the individual soul is not something that preexists and controls action, but is instead something constituted in the creative act, which is the act of “translat[ing] the world into some particular language of [the soul’s] own” (122-123). Here the problem of repetition raises its head again: the translation, once accomplished, might be repeated, but in being repeated it is no longer the creative act; it becomes repetition of the old. Where the initial act is a manifestation of ecstasy, the repetition is entirely devoid of that.

When we are in the thrall of particular ends, when we judge nature and life by that standard, then we are drawn to the question: what has been accomplished? But what has been accomplished is, by and large, paltry, and all the more so when it is viewed as a finished product. When we see the ecstatic method of nature, however, we judge instead by the lights of this question: did this act stem from ecstasy, or from repetition? Then we come to see the world in rapid metamorphosis, the world that “shoots the gulf”, and the dignity of the individual. This shooting of the gulf admits of repetition, but of a different sort: ecstasy is universal, and may be grasped again and again, but each time it is grasped it is grasped in an entirely singular, unrepeatable way, a way defined by all of its particulars. The accomplishment itself is a mere shadow of this act of grasping the ecstatic, and ought not to serve as an ideal but as a prod, a jolt, that pushes us in the direction of our own ecstasy.

Where the second reversal took man from us, said man was absent, it did so only to protect us from an error, the error of judging man as a finished product—for man as a finished product indeed does not exist. Once we have been protected from this error, however, Emerson can, in the third reversal, return man to us, only now it is man in process, in becoming, man whose accomplishments, whose completed products, are mere shadows of true reality. Or, as Emerson puts it:

It is true, [man] pretends to give account of himself to himself, but, at last, what has he to recite but the fact that there is a Life not to be described or known otherwise than by possession? What account can he give of his essence more than so it was to be? (121-122)

  1. 2013/08/04 at 12:05

    Thank you for pointing me to this article, dyssebeia! I really like Emerson’s reversals. It’s often too easy to just bumble along with a text, especially if it’s written by someone you admire, without wondering what you actually think. The reversal is perfect to wake you up.

    I think the argument that people ‘are too materialist’ dates back to the Greeks, when too many material possessions aroused suspicion. However, Emerson might have alluded to people being irrationally fearful of modernity, like mass-manufacturing and the railways. And the mass production of scholars and clerks (!) which I agree is similar.
    I think this is different from trying to fill an emptiness when you buy something new. (Isn’t it weird that when shopping online you can send a message to your friends to tell them “I have just bought this” – why would they be remotely interested?) I still think acquiring something new is an answer to a question that has been misinterpreted. Like eating when you’re feeling vaguely uncomfortable or drinking when you’re sad.

    Emerson’s views on nature are very interesting. I’ll look up the whole essay and read it.

    • 2013/08/04 at 12:49

      You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Emerson has a variety of rhetorical tricks that he uses really masterfully: he lures you in with a safe, common sentiment (e.g. boo consumerism), then explodes that cliché into its full complexity, tracing out all of its ambiguities, undermining the very sense of comfort that drew you in.

      Emerson I think was very excited by the possibilities offered by modernity. He saw in modern expansion and technology the prospect of new possibilities, new discoveries, new creativity, and he took advantage of it. In one journal entry (which I do not remember perfectly), he takes the steam engine as a model for the mind: just as the engine can move forward or in reverse, so should the mind be able to do so. (I really wish I could find this again—my efforts so far have been unsuccessful. Incidentally, I think it marks another point of convergence with Nietzsche.)

      At the same time as he was excited by this, he also had words of caution: he on multiple occasions warned himself and his readers against the collector type: the type for whom the acquisition trumps the use. (As someone tempted towards collection, I have found this aspect of Emerson invaluable.)

      I really think the act of discrimination that I discussed here is one of Emerson’s primary intellectual moves: in everything there are these dual possibilities of creation and repetition, and the goal is to isolate what is creative and dispense with what is repetitious. His objection to religion that saves one from crass consumerism would thus be that it fails to make this discrimination, and so just makes the opposite error. (Of course Emerson was not hostile to religion altogether in the way Nietzsche was, but he was often a scathing critic of the forms religion took.)

      Thanks as always for the comment.

  1. 2014/05/02 at 18:47

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