Doubt and Climate
The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).
Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.
The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)
Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.
He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)
The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.
But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)
It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.
Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,
But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)
What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.
This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.
This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.
Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.
With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:
But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)
In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.
What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.
At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,
Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?
Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)
It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)
Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.
§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)
The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.
Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.
Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).
So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.