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Scientific and analogical history

By what is perhaps a lucky coincidence, the human/animal seminar I am taking arrived at Nie­tzsche (from whom we are reading On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense and On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life) at the same time as I concluded Emerson’s ad­dresses and lectures—next up is his first book of essays, which begins with his essay on history. (In fact, I completed the addresses and lectures a month or so ago, but simply have not had time to push forward with the essays until now.) My intent for this post was to bolster my Emerson-Nietzsche metempsychosis hypothesis, which in fact was bolstered by reading Emerson on history shortly after reading Nietzsche on history. (Nietzsche’s essay in fact contains two references to Emerson, though not to “History”.) However, I after reading the essay, I am more interested in something that is more internal to Emerson than it is comparative. Nevertheless, I find Nietzsche at the start of this path, if only for a time. (Nietzsche citations, designated UD, are to the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations used in the previous post. Emerson citations, designated H, are to his Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America.)

Nietzsche distinguishes three sorts of history that may aid life: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. Antiquarian history preserves what is old, looking on it with “love and loyalty” (UD 72). Antiquarian history functions by preserving “for those who shall come into existence after [the antiquarian historian] the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life” (UD 73). It is of the least interest here. Critical history serves to “break up and dissolve a part of the past” by showing it worthy of being condemned (UD 75). This is not difficult: “every past, however, is worthy to be condemned, for that is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them” (UD 76). This sort of history is exemplified by Nietzsche’s own genealogical work, which is nothing but a critical history of morality (and Christianity) for the sake of condemning it. Foucault’s work also falls in this category. It is a dangerous form of history. It can easily lead to a debilitating skepticism and ultimately catatonia, because it is a universal acid: every past, subjected to critical history, turns out to be worthy of condemnation. So it must be used selectively: it is a tool by which life can act to free itself from some bondage, but it should not be pursued for its own sake.

Lastly, there is monumental history. Nietzsche occasionally engages in this, but I think it is on the whole best exemplified by Emerson. Monumental history serves the “man of the present” by showing him “that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again” (UD 69)—it shows, in short, what is possible, and fortifies him who would achieve it. Characteristic of monumental history is a sort of violence against truth: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UD 69)

As I read it, Emerson’s “History” is a straightforward call for monumental history, though perhaps not of a sort identical to Nietzsche’s. Emerson insists, right from the start, on two points: (a) “There is on mind common to all individual men.” (b) Of the works of this mind history is the record” (H 237). Emerson later develops this thought when he claims that history is more or less a set of variations on a few themes: the laws of this universal mind. In this way, Emerson effects the overlooking of details Nietzsche mentions: in all of history there are but a few patterns to be isolated. All of history is to be shoved into a universal mould. (Incidentally, anyone who has experienced the way Emerson more or less indiscriminately lumps names together as exemplars of some point can attest that Emerson diligently adhered to this doctrine in his own reliance on history.)

But this reduction of history to a few laws is not to be achieved scientifically. There is purification by means of overlooking irrelevant details, but this is not to be accomplished experimentally or scientifically. Rather, it is to be accomplished analogically. “Nature is full of sublime family likeness throughout her works; and delights in startling us with resemblances in the most unexpected quarters” (H 243). The examples that immediately follow this statement make it clear that these likenesses are analogical, not causal.

Analogies, however, are easy to come by. What can lend any sort of rigor to history performed in this manner? Surely it must end up lax and undisciplined. As usual, for Emerson, the route to the universal begins by burrowing into oneself. “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible” (H, 238). What in history cannot be corroborated by private experience is to be ignored. In this way, there is a dual movement in which private facts are generalized, and public facts privatized.

History, so achieved, is not a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. History should show us what is possible and give us the strength to achieve it—Emerson is in this a monumental historian—but it does not cover any ground for us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know” (H 240). Indeed, in a way, the more history there is, the greater the mind’s task, for “We must in ourselves see the necessary reason of every fact,—see how it could and must be” (H 240).

History illuminates to us our own biography, even as our own biography orders and justifies history. History, then, can never outstrip biography. “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary” (H 239)—with the result that “History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime” (H 246). There is nothing but self-knowledge to be found in history.

Most fascinating about this last quote, to me, is the equivalence between History being “fluid” and History being “true”. Normally we think of what is stable as true, which would in this case be the stable facts of history, scientifically undertaken. But, for Emerson, what is stable and material is secondary to what is fluid and ideal, to relations. Emersonian history is true, when it is true, because it is fluid. (There is more on this in my post on the transparent eyeball passage of Nature.)

Emerson grows impatient with history undertaken scientifically: science acts then precisely as an undertaker, and history is carried out like a corpse. Emerson’s vision of history is one that is, he believes, unrealized except in the rare case: “Nay, what does history yet record of the metaphysical annals of man? What light does it shed on those mysteries which we hide under the names Death and Immortality?” (H 256). At the essay’s emotional summit, Emerson implores self-reliance over servitude to the material facts:

What is our life but an endless flight of winged facts or events! In splendid variety these changes come, all putting questions to the human spirit. Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him. (H 252)

When there is this possibility in view, who would choose slavery? “Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeards and in churches” (H 242).

— — Interlude: My original plan for this post shows its face here: I cannot resist quoting the following passage from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, to be read in light of the foregoing. “That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions.” (Page 152 in the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.) End interlude. — —

This opposition between mastery over and slavery to the facts is, I think, the core of Emerson’s essay on history—and Nietzsche’s, too. There is a needy life that clings to facts as the beams and boards of a ship, because it has no answer of its own to give them. And there is the self-reliant life that confronts these facts as material for play of the most deadly serious sort, taking those it can use, rearranging them in the most interesting and vital combinations, revealing what is fluid and eternal in nature. Incidentally, my response to those who claim that On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is an immature essay of Nietzsche’s, full of views he thankfully overcame, is that such a view is superficial. Nietzsche there is asking the same questions about the value of truth that he asked throughout his career: just how valuable is truth for life. Like Emerson before him, he claimed truth should serve life, and not the other way around.

I want to end with what remains, for me, an aporia. Emerson supposes we encounter the universal by self-reliance. Yet, for Emerson, there is no stable self. “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world” (H 254). Relations, as we have seen, are fluid, are subject to change. Indeed, Emerson knew this as well as anyone: the self-reliant man is not necessarily consistent (recall Emerson’s account of hobgoblins), is not chained to his past. The self on which one relies is not yet accomplished when one approaches history: history indeed is a guide to one’s “unattained but attainable self” (H 239). Yet it is self-reliance that is supposed to guide the approach to history. Thus there is a Meno problem for Emerson: if the self is attained, we do not need history, but if the self is not attained, we end up slaves to historical fact, for we lack the resources to approach history. (This same problem arises for the Nietzschean imperative to become who one is.) How is this problem to be resolved? Once again, I must end:

I do not know.

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  1. 2013/12/08 at 14:32

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