Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Emerson on an ancient antagonism

Emerson on an ancient antagonism

An ineluctable aspect of being human is the taking of stands on a variety of ancient, intractable antagonisms. Two parties or positions oppose one another, and have for as far back into the past as we can see. Moreover, they will continue to do so indefinitely into the future—a line with no discoverable endpoints. Now you must take a stand, and at the outset there seem to be select few possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is to pick a side and fight for it, whichever, it does not matter, really, for both sides preceded your involvement, and both will outlast it. In terms of the conflict, your participation makes no difference. The second option is non-participation, and this too makes no difference. Here you search for a position that floats above either of the two opposing parties, from which you may look down on their senseless fight. And while you may be right that it is senseless, it still gets the last laugh, for it will outlast your non-participation, your cynicism; it will go on as if you had never existed. A third option is compromise: you try to take the best of each position, insofar as they have compatible elements, and fuse something new out of it. But your contribution is short-lived: no one before you has changed the fundamental antagonism, and you will not be the exception.

Just such an antagonism lies at the foundation of Emerson’s essay “The Conservative”. Here it is the opposition between the conservative and the reformer that is at issue: on the one side the defender of the old institutions, on the other the creator of the new. On a first take, one would expect Emerson to side with the reformers—does not Emerson find the greatest value in the creation of the new? But Emerson’s picture is much more nuanced than this. While he will endorse reform in the end, it is only after a long, dare I say spiritual process in which the entire antagonism is fundamentally recast. And, as one part of this process, we shall see how the conservative, for a time, gets the upper hand in the debate.

As Emerson begins his essay by stressing the irreconcilability of the two parties, we should be wary of expecting him to take himself to have achieved such reconciliation. And yet, at the start, we find him seeming to throw his weight behind reform, at the expense of conservatism. As he launches into the discussion, he notes immediately the inescapability of “a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism” (174—page references, as always are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures). And he goes on:

The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, the conservative always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. (174)

Could the conservative come across any worse? He is an apologist for the past and a barrier to the future, and in the face of reform he seems a poor barrier indeed, destined always to break. But we cannot be so fast in our judgment. For Emerson, throughout at least the first half of the essay, applies a method that dates back to the Pyrrhonian skeptics: the marshaling of equally compelling arguments for two competing positions. The conservative may suffer from a meanness of argument, but conservatism enjoys “a certain superiority in its fact.” I shall say more on this shortly, but let me first raise the following question: if conservatism is a barrier that is always destined to break in the face of reform, then how is it that the conflict is irreconcilable—by force at least, if not by argument? Surely if conservatism breaks so easily, it should not last. I shall not answer this question now, but only note that here already lies the pivot on which Emerson’s essay turns.

Emerson does not take his application of the Pyrrhonian method to its Pyrrhonian conclusion: suspension of judgment (except in a strained sense). Instead, he does something I find even more interesting, but to see what it is we must look at the currents of his text, and feel their ebb and flow. Immediately after the glowing description of reform, Emerson engages in one of his trademark reversals, taking both conservatism and reform to excess, until he can say “of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine” (175). So now it seems Emerson will adopt the third option above, that of combining the fruits of both antagonists. In a way yes, but… we shall see.

First, Emerson elucidates further the conservative’s meanness of argument and his superiority of fact by imagining a conversation between the two antagonists. For despite this necessity of combination, we nonetheless “pair off into insane parties, and learn the amount of truth each [party] knows, by the denial of an equal amount of truth [namely, that of the other party]” (176). The conservative thus critiques the reformer for being an idealist, and not a realist: “the existing world is not a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born” (177), and so the reformer cannot simply blithely deny it. The conservative, with full justification, can throw the burden of proof onto the reformer: “we hold to this, until you can demonstrate something better.”

Key in this criticism is the charge of idealism, leveled at the reformer by the conservative. We must keep in mind here the role realism and idealism play for Emerson. That the conservative is a realist—indicated by his superiority of fact—and the reformer an idealist—indicated by his superiority of argument—is of the greatest significance. For Emerson, the idealist never sacrifices his ideals to the facts. At the end of “Lecture on the Times”, Emerson discusses how the disease of our age, non-action, is the result of precisely this refusal to sacrifice ideals to facts, and then he claims such non-action on the basis of the preservation of ideals is preferable to action that requires compromise. It is Emerson’s task to find a means of acting in an idealist fashion, which means a fashion that involves no sacrifice of sacrosanct ideals. Facts are to be used, they are to serve ideals, and not vice-versa.

If, then, Emerson is forced to say of both the conservative and the reformer that they are only halves, and not wholes, then he is in doing so denying the reformer’s claim to be an idealist. And if he thinks the conservative’s charge that the reformer denies or neglects the facts sticks, if that is compelling reason the conservative can bring against the reformer, then we must conclude that the reformer against whom such a charge can be successfully brought is not properly an idealist. This is exactly what Emerson goes on to show:

However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seeder from the seeder is as damnable as the pope himself. (178)

This is the fundamental Emersonian moment in the essay. Recall the question I isolated earlier as the pivot on which the essay turns: here is its answer. Conservatism survives because reformers inevitably become conservatives. Conservatism must give way to reform, that is true, but this is not the death of conservatism, for it can always regenerate itself in just those reforms to which it gave way. That is what makes the antagonism irreconcilable. It is simply two necessary parts of what is ultimately the same thing, no antagonism at all. On the question of conservatism versus reform, we are all conservatives—if not yet, we will be.

Emerson’s skeptical method continues for a few pages more, but the damage is done. What more is there to be said in the debate, now that both parties have been revealed to be the same side all along? But these succeeding pages are not mere dead weight, for in them the character of the reformer starts to change. The character of the reformer stops looking like a conservative in disguise, and instead like something else, something we will see is the true, Emersonian Reformer, who stands at the end of a long line of Conservatives (here consisting of both the conservative and reform parties as Emerson has up to this point been discussing them). Consider the following passage, in which Emerson imagines a reformer talking:

All your aggregate existences are less to me a fact than is my own as I am born to the earth, so the Earth is given to me, what I want of it to till and to plant nor could I, without pusillanimity, omit to claim so much. I must not only have a name to live, I must live. My genius leads me to build a different manner of life from any of yours. I cannot then spare you the whole world. I love you better. I must tell you the truth practically; and take that which you call yours. (180)

These are not the words of a reformer who is a conservative in disguise, but the words of a true reformer. Accordingly, Emerson’s skeptical method ceases to function quite as a true Pyrrhonian requires: the rejoinders of the conservative start to seem more and more like pleading, and lacking in the solid ground of fact. For instance, the conservative, in response to just this passage (which I did not quote in full), says, “But they [the existing institutions] do answer the end, they are really friendly to the good; unfriendly to the bad; they second the industrious, and the kind; they foster genius” (181). But this we cannot believe, and we cannot believe it precisely because what is being defended are institutions.

What makes the conservative and the (non-Emersonian) reformer both conservatives is that both are concerned ultimately with institutions. The conservative prefers the old; the reformer wants to herald the new. Yet once the new institutions are established, they become the old, existing institutions—that is just why the reformer becomes the conservative. The Emersonian Reformer, by contrast, as the quote above shows, is supra-institutional. An institution is only a fact, not truth, and it can, in the end, only guarantee (to a greater or lesser extent) one thing: convenience, or comfort. On the basis of this comfort the conservative (including reformers) can object to the Reformer: “Is it not exaggerating a trifle to insist on a formal acknowledgment of your claims, when these substantial advantages have been secured to you?” (182).

The Reformer, however, is not driven by the promise of “substantial advantages”. He says, “the plant Man does not require for his most glorious flowering this pomp of preparation and convenience” (184). What an institution has to offer—“Greatness does not need it” (184). An institution, qua institution, possesses no value:

Instead of that reliance, which the soul suggests on the eternity of truth and duty, men are misled into a reliance on institutions, which, the moment they cease to be the instantaneous creations of the devout sentiment, are worthless. (187)

What Emerson has done, over the course of the essay, is thus not quite any of the three options I presented. While he takes the side of reform (option one), he does so only after showing how the split between conservatism and reform as it is generally understood is merely an in-house debate within the conservative party. That is, the ancient antagonism we think ineluctable is one behind which hides a deeper, more real antagonism. In this way, Emerson steps outside both positions (similar to the second option), but not in a spirit of cynical non-participation. Yes, the Reformer is supra-institutional, but not out of disdain for the debate, not out of an attempt to escape it, but because he simply has other, more important, more divine concerns, and he will not sacrifice these to the old antagonism. It is not that he looks down on it—he hardly sees it at all. Finally, Emerson takes a stance somewhat resembling the third option, the combinatorial option. For Emerson does not condemn the conservative party (neither it’s conservative nor reforming elements). Rather, he sees the conservative party, the party of institutions, as the ground on which the Reformer grows. But this is not quite a position of combination, either, in the sense that I initially discussed, for Emerson does not try to combine the best of both positions. He simply notes that the Reformer, the supra-institutional individual, only arises from the “wild crab of conservatism.” It is this ability to give rise to the Reformer that justifies conservatism; it’s value is entirely subordinated to the value of the Reformer.

I will let Emerson have the final word:

In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial plant, but grew here on the wild crab of conservatism. It is much that this old and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born. (189)

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