Emerson and care of the self
In this I hope brief post, I want to bring Emerson in contact with Foucault, using Foucault to situate Emerson in an ancient tradition. I have recently begun reading Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject (a lecture series he gave toward the end of his life), and there is much in his description of the ancient tradition of care of oneself that is readily apparent in the pages of Emerson.
Foucault identifies three defining characteristics of ancient spirituality. First, “spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right” (Hermeneutics of the Subject, 15). Rather, the individual subject must be “changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself.” Access to truth requires a certain conversion, and the second aspect of spirituality is that this conversion can take various forms. Foucault isolates two possibilities. The first involves a movement of erōs, either a movement of ascension on the part of the subject, or a movement where the truth comes to the subject. The second possibility is askēsis, “a progressive transformation of the self by the self” (16). Having seen what is required for the subject to access truth, it remains to be seen what effect access to the truth has on the subject. The third characteristic of spirituality is that, in having access to the truth, “there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.”
This all sounds quaint today, for the successes of modern science are predicated on precisely the fact that it does not require transformation of the subject before one can know the truth. Scientific study may require the inculcation of a particular set of virtues (Steven Shapin has interestingly discussed this in his The Scientific Life), but that is not quite the same as what Foucault is targeting: it is no more spiritual than the inculcation of the virtues necessary to be a farmer or a journalist. They are, in Emerson’s terminology, virtues that relate only to fragments of men. They enhance a person’s ability to carry out a particular function, but not to be a whole individual.
I am, in all honesty, not sure to what extent the concept of spirituality as Foucault characterizes it can be brought into today, when our conception of truth is so dominated by the sciences. I am tempted to start by considering Emerson: a scientific text, an artistic work, a farmer’s crops—all these are only so many facts, and not yet truth. Truth is in the creative act, the shooting of the gap, and next to it the facts are flimsy and meek. But, especially since I cannot accept Emerson’s metaphysics, I am not quite sure just what it is to say that the creative act of self-overcoming grasps truth.
That is a task that I must continue to carry out as I read Emerson. I will not complete it here. Rather, I would like to consider a striking passage in his “Lecture on the Times” that I think situates Emerson in the very tradition of spirituality that Foucault, in his work, considers. [Page references, as always, will be to the Library of America edition of his Essays and Lectures.] Emerson begins by characterizing the disease of his time as follows:
A new disease has fallen on the life of man. Every Age, like every human body, has its own distemper. Other times have had war, or famine, or a barbarism domestic or bordering, as their antagonism. Our forefathers walked in the world and went to their graves, tormented with the fear of Sin, and the terror of the Day of Judgment. These terrors have lost their force, and our torment is Unbelief, the Uncertainty as to what we ought to do; the distrust of the value of what we do, and the distrust that the Necessity (which we all at last believe in) is fair and beneficent. Our Religion assumes the negative form of rejection. Out of love of the true, we repudiate the false: and the Religion is an abolishing criticism. A great perplexity hangs like a cloud on the brow of all cultivated persons, a certain imbecility in the best spirits, which distinguishes the period. We do not find the same trait in the Arabian, in the Hebrew, in Greek, Roman, Norman, English periods; no, but in other men a natural firmness. The men did not see beyond the need of the hour. They planted their foot strong, and doubted nothing. We mistrust every step we take. We find it the worst thing about time, that we know not what to do with it. We are so sharp-sighted that we can neither work nor think, neither read Plato nor not read him. (165)
With perhaps the exception of the claim that we all believe in Necessity, all of this holds as true today as it did in Emerson’s time. (For this reason I suspect the hullabaloo about modernism and post-modernism is a mere shifting façade obscuring the underlying constancy that has marked the time between Emerson and now.) I am suspicious that the disease is really as new as Emerson suggests, but that is unimportant for his deeper point. What matters is that it is a real disease of the spirit, and on that ground I think Emerson’s diagnosis is unimpeachable.
One form this disease takes is a too great intellectualism: criticism is leveled at the level of thought, but does not cause a new method of life. “The genius of the day does not incline to a deed, but to a beholding.” And then, in a passage magnificent beyond compare:
Then, talents bring their usual temptations, and the current literature and poetry with perverse ingenuity draw us away from life to solitude and meditation. This could well be borne, if it were great and involuntary; if the men were ravished by their thought, and hurried into ascetic extravagances. Society could then manage to release their shoulder from its wheel, and grant them for a time this privilege or Sabbath. But they are not so. Thinking, which was a rage, is become an art. The thinker gives me results, and never invites me to be present with him at his invocation of truth, and to enjoy with him its proceeding into his mind. (165-166)
Emerson is here contrasting two manners of thinking. One is thinking that is a “rage”, by which Emerson means those acts of thought whereby one grasps the truth. Of such experiences, there may be a record (in scientific works, in artworks, above all in actions), but these are mere facts, mere results, valuable because they hint at (but do not fully capture) the movement of thought that gave birth to them. These results are valuable precisely in virtue of their offering an invitation to be present with the thinker “at his invocation of truth.” Against this is the second form of thinking, that which aims only at results—results that are mere facts, and not truth, in the sense defined above.
This distinction I think reveals the deep spirituality (in the Foucauldian sense) at work in Emerson’s texts. While the results of thought are publicly available (whether they were produced by the first or the second sort of thinking), to possess and understand the results is not to grasp truth. To grasp truth one must participate in the movement of thought oneself, which cannot happen simply by following the works of others. Thus the first criterion is met.
Having thus diagnosed us, the natural response for Emerson is to attempt to treat the disease, and I think that is precisely what is the primary task of most of Emerson’s work. “Lecture on the Times” is not among the best of Emerson’s characterizations of his treatment—it’s primary value lies in its splendid diagnosis—and I hope to discuss this further when, in my travels through Emerson’s essays and lectures, I reach such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “The Poet”, as well as the entirety of The Conduct of Life. But “Lecture on the Times” does have one passage where Emerson suggests where to look for truth:
The main interest which any aspects of the Times can have for us, is the great spirit which gazes through them, the light which they can shed on the wonderful questions, What we are? And Whither we tend? We do not wish to be deceived. […] From what port did we sail? Who knows? Or to what port are we bound? Who knows? […] Over all their speaking-trumpets, the gray sea and the loud winds answer, Not in us; not in Time. Where then but in Ourselves, where but in that Thought through which we communicate with absolute nature, and are made aware that, whilst we shed the dust of which we are built, grain by grain, till it is all gone, the law which clothes us with humanity remains new? where, but in the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within, shall we learn the Truth? (168)
This is a succinct statement of his praise of self-reliance: it is reliance on “the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within” that leads us to grasp Truth, to see anew “the law which clothes us with humanity.” Here it might be tempting to think that, since these intuitions are within us, Emerson makes no demand for any movement of the subject, for any work on the self by the self. But this is a mistake. Again, “Lecture on the Times” is not the best place to see this (an essay like “Circles” better shows the need for constant self-overcoming and thus constant work on oneself), but it is not barren of suggestions. For instance:
What is the scholar, what is the man for, but for hospitality to ever new thought of his time? Have you leisure, power, property, friends? you shall be the asylum and patron of every new thought, every unproven opinion, every untried project, which proceeds out of good will and honest seeking. (169)
Making oneself a patron of new thoughts—this requires work. One sort of work mentioned in the essay is an overcoming of the “pusillanimous preference of our bread to our freedom.” It requires also overcoming our fear of any fact, for that will keep us from truth. So I conclude that Emerson also meets the second criterion of spirituality in the ancient sense. As for the third, for Emerson the very act of grasping Truth is self-overcoming as much as it is self-reliance, and there is the requisite transfiguration of the self upon the reception of truth.
This post did not end up as short as I had hoped, not even close, but then they never do. I hope, by way of compensation, that I have made a somewhat compelling case (albeit one in need of expansion via consideration of his other essays) for seeing Emerson as part of an ancient spiritual tradition, modifying and adapting it to the disease of his times, and ours.