Archive for January, 2014

Some reviews of Emerson’s Essays: First Series

Having completed Emerson’s first series of essays, I thought it might be interesting to read contemporary reviews of it. I already looked at two, and briefly at a third, in my post on Emerson’s long logic. Here I want to finish reading through the reviews collected in this volume.

Orestes Brownson. Boston Quarterly Review. July 1841.

Brownson’s review is particularly interesting. Unlike the first two reviews in the collection, this one is quite long and predominantly praising. Where the first two reviewers did not reach much beyond the surface of Emerson’s work, and where their criticisms stem from fear more than anything else, Brownson has clearly read Emerson carefully. As I read it, I was struck by how much he understood in Emerson. While he doesn’t quite fully grasp the essays’ unity (as I discussed in my earlier post, linked above), he does see that they have “unity and coherence, but of the transcendental sort.” He recognizes too that their value lies not in their solving of intellectual problems, but in “the incentives to thought they furnish, and the life they kindle up within us.” Moreover, apropos of the post I just wrote, he notes that it would be mistaken to treat them as beautiful only, and not also as useful. Late in the essay, he gives a remarkably Emersonian justification for why he doesn’t quote from the volume. He further gives an interesting account of the essays’ relation to Unitarianism, one that I think says more about Brownson’s concerns than Emerson’s, but which shows nonetheless a commitment to making good sense of Emerson.

All of these make the review quite good… but then Brownson makes a somewhat baffling move: he examines the work for its metaphysics. He takes great care to show how Emerson is a pantheist, and argues that this is as dangerous as atheism or deism. This is the basis of his main critique of Emerson. (He also makes the move, common to each review I’ve read so far, of praising the beauty of Emerson’s language but criticizing its “affectation of quaintness.” Was there some king who decreed each review should use this exact word to criticize Emerson?) His arguments are not particularly interesting, though they do give insight into why he explains Emerson’s relation to Unitarianism. And all of a sudden it seems like his apparent understanding of Emerson is something of a sham: he is more concerned that people take the right view of nature and God than that they be goaded to action. He recognizes what Emerson is doing, but he reverses Emerson’s value judgment, and so marginalizes Emerson’s project.

But Emerson perhaps gets the last laugh. For one justification Brownson gives for examining Emerson’s metaphysics is that “it will, moreover, be ultimately drawn out and formally taught by his disciples. His book will give it currency, and be appealed to as its authority. There can, then, be no impropriety in asking if it be true or false, complete or incomplete.” This has, so far as I can tell, not come true. Sympathetic readers of Emerson have recognized what matters in his work, and have made use of it. It is really no surprise that Emerson’s greatest reader, Nietzsche, was an atheist.

Two reviews from England, late 1841.

What is most interesting about both of these reviews is that both anchor their criticism in a consideration of Thomas Carlyle’s preface. They are concerned to show that Emerson is a pale imitation of Carlyle—“[This volume] ought to occupy a shelf in the case assigned especially to Thomas Carlyle, although Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson will have no right to complain should he be shoved into the darkest or least inviting corner of the mahogany.”—and thus to explain away Carlyle’s praise as simple self-love. The first essay shows that Emerson is a “circular philosopher” in a very cursory way; the second is more diligent, but no more understanding. What else of interest in these two reviews? The first review does not call Emerson’s language quaint, so there is that. The second review does get in a reference to “sterling and original thoughts, admirably though quaintly framed.” Beyond this, not much. The two reviews are interesting cases of people reading Emerson through a known quantity, and seeing in him only what conforms to that known quantity, and not what sets him apart.

A third anonymous review from England, October 1841.

This reviewer makes a move that sounds like it could be promising: he attempts to plunge below the chaotic surface of Emerson’s essays to find Emerson’s system, his method. This sounds promising, viewed in one light, because Emerson does have a method and thus a system of sorts—it is exactly his method that I have tried to trace out in many of my posts, and in my posts on philosophy of experiment I have sought the system reached via this method, if such deserves the name system. But, alas, for this author a system must be a creed of some sort, even if it is arrived at by reasoning. And so he sees Emerson as “rigorously attached to a few first principles” by a priori reasoning, and for this reason finds that Emerson seems “to be absolutely the slave of a system.” Throughout, he reaffirms Emerson’s commitment to a system, showing how it leads to absurd consequences—all while showing no indication of possessing any of the “sensibility” that he thinks Emerson so thoroughly over looks. He perceives none of the nuances of Emerson’s work—how else could he arrive at the insane view that Emerson “is forced to deny man’s individuality”! — This reviewer does not call Emerson’s essay quaint, which is no surprise, since that term seems to be reserved for appending a criticism to general praise for Emerson’s language, whereas this reviewer thinks Emerson’s style utterly without merit.

John Heraud. Monthly Magazine [England]. November 1841.

The final review of Emerson’s essays collected in this volume is more interesting than the three that preceded it. Like the others, he first relates Emerson to Carlyle, and then remarks on Emerson’s lack of a well-worked out system—even the third English reviewer would not deny that Emerson’s system, however real, is not well-developed! And here he makes a fascinating comment: “Emerson just give us the materials of thought, and then leaves us to work out a further road by ourselves.” This is just right, if one replaces “thought” with “life”—but, alas, the reviewer does not. Like Brownson, though to a lesser extent, Heraud has an intimation of what Emerson is up to, but not a clear perception, because he wants from the book what it cannot give. Heraud is to be commended for avoiding reading “Self-Reliance” as mere egoism, though by reading it as simply asserting the supremacy of conscience he marginalizes its experimental aspects. — The end of this review is of particular interest: Heraud ends with a sustained discussion of the ineffability of the ideas Emerson is trying to convey. Once again, he has an intimation of what Emerson is up to, but filters it in the wrong way and so misperceives it: Emerson’s relation with the ineffable stems from nothing else than his inability to live for another, not from the obscurity of his ideas.

Art as goad and as pleasure

2014/01/25 1 comment

In the past week, in the course of fulfilling my teaching (assistant) duties, I have been attempting to impress on young minds the emptiness of arguing that something is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural. For how do we determine what is natural other than by allowing as natural just what we think is good? So it was a rude surprise when, in reading Emerson’s “Art” (Library of America, Essays & Lectures, as ever), I came across this:

They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. […] Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. (439)

Is my beloved Emerson so crass as to make this ancient and ubiquitous error? A proper answer to that question would require a careful study of his shifting uses of the concept ‘Nature’, but I can make at least a move in the direction of his defense. Nature here stands in for the absolute union of usefulness and beauty. The artists Emerson is considering forgo this union and take art to be merely beautiful, and not just that, but also a correction of imperfect nature: nature without the prosaic details. Let us explore this idea.

Moreso than most Emerson essays, “Art” contains a fairly direct line of thought, one sustained across the essay’s entire course. But his method is to begin by accepting the thought he rejects, and work his way to its rejection. In the second sentence of the essay, Emerson writes: “This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty.” (431) Emerson mentions, without endorsing, the popular distinction between use and beauty. We might, then, expect him to question it, but as the essay proceeds he seems to accept it. Already in the first paragraph Emerson is confidently stating that the artist should omit “the details, the prose of nature […] and give us only the spirit and splendor.” (431) Art improves upon nature, and it brings us pleasure in doing so. It is not useful, not necessary, but it is beautiful and hence pleasant.

So, for the time, at least, Emerson accepts the distinction. But as the essay progresses he begins to offer reasons to be skeptical of this hedonistic conception of the value of art. Emerson works himself out of his acceptance of the popular distinction. To understand how he does so we might start with the recognition that the sentence I have been considering is the essay’s second. It begins with the word “this”, referring to its predecessor’s contents. What is this “this”? It is the productive activity of the progressive soul. It is consideration of that activity that breaks us free of the division between the useful and the beautiful. Specifically, the distinction must be rejected because it is dangerous to the productive activity of the soul. Emerson considers four dangers, that I have discovered.

First danger. Art becomes about the exhibition of talent, and not about that “passion for form which [the artist] could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagances.” (439) But talent is a dangerous concept, because it makes possible a universal exculpation. To experience art as the showcase of talent is to experience it in terms of what you, the person experiencing, lack. You do not have the talent to paint as did Raphael, so you can only admire passively. And you are excused for this, because you do lack the painter’s talent. We admire in art what lies beyond us, and thence comes our pleasure. In just this way, our experience of art strangles our incipient activity: we lack the requisite talent, so we need not act. Leave that to the talented. Kierkegaard is even stronger on this point than Emerson. In his diary, he rails against the concept of genius—his use is closer to Emerson’s use of “talent” than his use of “Genius”—because, in treating something as a work of genius, we negate any demand it makes on us, by denying that we are genius enough to receive any such demand. The work of art becomes something outside us, and so activity is lost.

Second danger. If art is beautiful alone, aimed only at producing pleasure, art becomes something final and not something initial. The worth of art comes to lie in its ability to produce pleasure, comes to reside in that psychological state. The pleasure lasts however long—if one is lucky, it may last even after one has parted from the work—and then it is through. Pleasure is in this way a stopping point: it does not lead onward to anything. And so the work of art, too, becomes final: it produces pleasure, or it doesn’t, and that is the end of it. There is nowhere left to go.

But art, for Emerson—for anyone with a progressive soul—should be initial and not final. Their “real value” lies in their being “signs of power.” (437) It should be the product of the artist finding “in it an outlet for his whole energy,” and should point others in that direction.

Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists. (437)

Whereas pleasure is final, being awakened to a “sense of universal relation and power” is initial, because the exercise of power still follows. Far from placing itself above the one who experiences it, art must be “practical and moral,” must “make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer.” (437) It has a use, it is productive, has effects beyond pleasure, and does so precisely through its beauty.

Third danger. If use is split from beauty, and the latter made art’s sole province, the progressive soul is led into an error: following the judgments of critics. It is an old notion that some pleasures are higher than others, that some have a better developed capacity to feel pleasure than others. Some find this thought inherently elitist and abhorrent. I do not. I find it obvious. A person with a thorough knowledge of music theory will hear far more in a piece of music than I—who know nothing whatsoever of the subject—and so their pleasures will respond in a more fine-grained way to the relevant details of the music than will mine. And this training, this talent, as it were, has its value. I do not find it elitist in the slightest to commend those who have trained their sensitivity to works of art for having done so.

No, the elitism comes in earlier, when use and beauty are separated. Once this happens, it is inevitable that the cultivated should be the best judges of beauty, since they are more sensitive to the actual workings of the artwork than most. That is not to say that their pleasure is really more intense than mine, though it might be, but rather to say that it is more sensitive. If they contest my judgment, they will be able to point to features of the work that I never noticed, and I will have to take this into account going forward. I will have to listen to the experts. And this easily leads to the dangers of imitation, of adopting another’s views for one’s own.

Only when art is viewed as essentially useful is this danger overcome. “The knowledge of picture-dealers has its value, but listen not to their criticism when your heart is touched by genius.” (437) But why not listen to them? Because the usefulness of art comes from nowhere else than from your making use of it. And you are the only adequate judge of that. The open-endedness of art lies in its usefulness, but even more in its not having any predetermined usefulness. Its use, or lack thereof, will depend on into whose hands it falls, and no one can say in advance what use another will make of a work of art.

A friend of mine has remarked to me that artists tend not to be very good critics. Perhaps this helps to explain why. Gripped as they are by their own vision, their criticism of art by others is subordinated to that and distorted by that. Their criticism of art then gives a better insight into their own art than that which they critique. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Fourth danger. The fourth danger is that, if use and beauty are wrenched apart, art may become an escape from life, from the ugliness of life. Art becomes something selective, picking only select aspects of the world to affirm. It becomes a correction of what is found in human life, and of necessity makes that life appear as something mean, base. “They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic.” (439) If poetry is beautiful alone, and not useful, then it cannot be connected with all those tasks of living that cannot be avoided, and poetry must then call them mere tedium. The ideal becomes something apart from “the day’s weary chores” (439), and life gets split in two: the tediously useful and the ideally beautiful. And it is just this that is “contrary to nature”—not in an empty sense but in a quite definite sense: when use and beauty are separated, art becomes a rejection of life, something set apart from it. If art corrects life by rejecting it as prosaic, then it cannot be useful to the one who has to live. And the progressive soul is nothing other than the living soul. “In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.” (440)

Insecure safety. To escape these dangers, “beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten.” And this fundamentally requires a way of approaching art that is not hedonistic. “As soon as beauty is sought, not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker.” (439) To seek beauty from religion and love, however, brings its own dangers. When art becomes initial, becomes a goad to activity, a sting, it becomes unpredictable. It lies at the doorstep of an uncertain future. But that is, I think, preferable to the alternative insecurity.

Emerson’s long logic

2014/01/20 1 comment

When I cast about for a starting place for a discussion of Emerson, that perpetually quoted and misquoted line from “Self-Reliance” always offers itself: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So too did it offer itself to early reviewers of Emerson, who all sound the same voice when it comes to Emerson’s “system.” Let us examine a few of these reviews. (All gathered in this book. Emerson citations are to the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures.)

A first reviewer, unnamed, writing for the New York Review, notes that “the volume contains no system, nor any attempt at one.” Indeed, “We doubt, however, whether Mr. Emerson has carefully compared his views with each other.” What we are left with “are rather fragments, and glimpses” and not “a logical or even continuous discussion.” But the reviewer does allow one point on which Emerson is “rigidly systematic”: in claiming “there is no moral law but the instincts of our own being.” Naturally, this is “impracticable” and finds “no basis in the nature of man.” The work as a whole is a “work of moments, and for youth.”

A second reviewer, C. C. Felton, writing for the Christian Examiner, is equally critical. “The Essays cannot be said to contain any system,” and indeed we should not be surprised, given that Emerson “has expressed such sovereign contempt for consistency.” Slyly, Felton finds “no fault with this,” as he received ample warning; nevertheless “a writer, whose opinions are so variable, cannot wonder if they have but little value in the eyes of the world.” Nonetheless, he has a “general doctrine, for example, with regard to the instincts,” and this general doctrine, “if acted upon, would overturn society, and resolve the world into chaos.”

The two reviews are more or less identical, despite their containing distinct words arranged in a distinct order. Though in one case, they do not even contain distinct words. Both reviews, though critical, marvel at Emerson’s language, with caveats. The first reviewer: “In a style, which on every page delights us by its simplicity and grace, and offends us by an affected quaintness…” And Felton: “Some of his sentences breath the most exquisite music, of which language is capable… but the effect of his powers of style is not a little diminished by a studied quaintness of language…” The convergence of the two reviews is striking—they capture fairly accurately a first experience of Emerson.

That what they capture is not entirely determined by their negative reaction to Emerson can be seen by a glance at a third review, by Orestes Brownson, in the Boston Quarterly Review. This review is much longer, and while I have not read all of it, a quick survey shows that it is much more positive. Nonetheless, in the first paragraph, we find yet again: “They contain no doctrine or system of doctrines.” Brownson engages in a bit of reflection on this point: how does this mean we should read the work? The Essays “consist of detached observations, independent propositions, distinct, enigmatical, oracular sayings, each of which is to be taken by itself, and judged of by its own merits.”

This is enough. We are to forego any attempt to find consistency in Emerson; we are to read his works as containing accidentally collected bits to be assessed in isolation. This is the method, more or less, of the first two reviewers as well, though they never give it such clear voice. All three, I think, get Emerson wrong. And they get Emerson wrong in a way that, had they simply read Emerson a bit more carefully, they would have found Emerson warning against all along.

I do not mean to rebut the claim that Emerson’s works contain no system. They do not, not really. But they are marked by a species of consistency, one Emerson is careful to describe. As I am sure I have noted in some earlier post, when Emerson condemns consistency, what he condemns is foolish consistency—the qualifier we may presume indicates that not all consistency is so condemned. In his essay “Intellect”, he does some work to illustrate what sort of consistency he favors, which he baptizes “long logic.”

In passage which begins with the assertion of “the superiority of the spontaneous or intuitive principle over the arithmetical or logical” (419), Emerson offers ample food to the critic—but only if one overlooks the careful use of the word “principle”, a crucial word for Emerson. Principles, for Emerson, are connected with the divine, the moral law, the systematization of facts—with every name, that is, that Emerson gives to the chief good he incessantly praises. The intuitive principle, while connected to acting on the whims of the moment, is not something as transitory as a whim. And if we read two sentences later, Emerson makes this explicit: “We want, in every man, a long logic.” (419)

This logic is “the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition.” (419) It takes place over time. Each mind has, instinctually, “its own method” which it must follow out. And the way to do that is to “Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.” It is this trusting of his instincts to their end that gives Emerson’s work its long logic, its wise consistency.

Two older posts of mind give an example of this long logic at work. In my post on Nature, I followed Emerson’s famous transparent eyeball passage as it underwent modifications, twists and turns. It begins as a passive receptivity, an influx of the divine, but over the course of the essay it becomes something more, something active and creative. Emerson distinguishes in “Intellect” between “intellect constructive” (i.e. Genius) and “intellect receptive” (422)—what occurs in Nature is the transition from the receptive intellect to the constructive intellect. The conceptions and images shift, do not quite sit consistently to one another, but that is precisely because Emerson, the author, has changed, and would have the reader change, too. This is long logic at work; it comes with the sacrifice of a foolish consistency. The process in “The Method of Nature” is similar; I leave you to peruse it for yourself.

In this way we can see the problem with Brownson’s method. That there is no system, no arithmetical logic, as it were, to Emerson, does not mean that we should take his writing as consistent of disjointed bits, to be evaluated for itself. Emerson stresses, again and again, everywhere—indeed it is this, and not his views on instinct, that might with justice be called the one rigidly systematical aspect of this thought—that the essence of Life lies in movement. To ignore the long logic of his works is to ignore their movement, and so to miss out on everything alive in them.

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So ends the main body of this post. But I cannot resist some further comment on my series of posts on poetry and prudence. As we saw, the first two reviews hammered Emerson for the impracticability of his views on instinct. On the one hand, I hope I have called attention to some strains of Emerson that help combat the charge. Yet with my other hand I would like to accept the criticism on Emerson’s behalf. The charge of impracticality is one Emerson should accept. While in his essay on “Prudence” Emerson hopes for a reconciliation of poetry with prudence (see my first post in the series), by “Circles” he more firmly recognizes the ineluctable antagonism between them. (Pause to consider that this itself is another manifestation of Emerson’s long logic.) He sees the need to sacrifice prudence to trust: where prudence conflicts with self-reliance, choose self-reliance. And they will conflict; there is no eluding that.

In “Intellect” Emerson reaffirms this. “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please,—you can never have both.” (425) Repose and comfort are the domain of prudence. But truth, as we have just seen, lies in movement, change, self-overcoming—and thus contradiction of one’s past self. One may repose in one’s habits, one’s system, but such a lack of activity is stultifying. Trust in one’s instincts—not only momentarily, but “to the end” (419)—is the method by which truth is obtained. If this is impracticable, if this is an assault on prudence, so be it, for the choice between truth and repose is a choice. That has its risks, but Emerson is happy to accept them.

Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

2014/01/12 4 comments

Christianity, Kierkegaard is careful to tell us, is not a doctrine but a message. What does this entail? A message is to be lived, much more than believed. The individual task, for one who hears the message, is “living in it, expressing Christianity in one’s life.” (§141) Because of this, a message is addressed differently than a doctrine. A doctrine is given to a crowd that is asked to believe it. It is impersonal: it does not matter who said it, but only that it is true, and it speaks to all at once, regardless of who they are. A message, by contrast, is individually expressed, even when written—it does, that is, respond differently to different readers, contra Socrates in the Phaedrus. A message looks past the crowd to the individual. It is Socrates’ ability to do just this that makes him, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, more Christian than most self-professed Christians. “The great thing about Socrates was that even when he was accused and faced the People’s Assembly, his eyes did not see the crowd, but only the individual.” (§127)

The Bible, as the text carrying God’s message for humanity, is thus to be read in a very individual, personal manner. Kierkegaard laments that “no one any longer reads the Bible merely as an individual human being.” (§135) What is the danger of reading it as doctrine? It is that one attempts to sort out the precise way of characterizing the doctrine before one lives it—“always this sham that one must make sure the doctrine is in perfect shape before one can begin to live in accordance with it—which means that one never gets around to it.” (§135) But understanding can never precede living—as Kierkegaard insists, “temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” (§136)

Because the Bible contains a message and not a doctrine, there is a perpetuity to the Christian task: each individual and each generation must renew it. “The accumulated erudition of preceding generations is essentially superfluous.” (§141) Thus, the messenger’s task is not to draw firm, settled conclusions. That only encourages doctrine. Instead, one should “incite the listener to independent thinking”—it is for this reason that Plato, following Socrates, “does not draw any conclusions, but leaves a sting.” (§146) It is a sting that cannot be turned into doctrine, but can only yield further thought, further stings. (Things will be different regarding the message as it is presented in the Bible—which carries a special sort of authority—and as it is presented in Kierkegaard, who speaks without authority. But I don’t feel competent to discuss this in any depth.)

The problem of treating Christianity as a doctrine leads Kierkegaard to or past the brink of heresy: “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” (§135) I am only half-facetious—if that—when I suggest that Emerson may be the figure Kierkegaard desired.

Emerson is a messenger. He addresses individuals, and would spark them to change. What is his message? He is uncertain about the prospect of putting it into words: he thinks the influx of the divine is something ineffable, of which his essays are mere shadows. Yet there are themes. In “Circles”, he insists on the impermanence of all things. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial.” (411) There is the appearance of permanence, but it is just appearance: “Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known.” (404)

The thinker, insofar as the thinker is a lover and follower of truth, must thus forego any hope of stability. The thinker must be prepared for reform, must be ready to “cast away our virtues […] into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” (411) The valor of the thinker lies in “his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter.” (407) All may be superseded, the past, the force of habit be damned. The Emersonian thinker or scholar fundamentally unsettles: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” (407)

Because the thinker can only unsettle, the thinker must disclaim all authority. Kierkegaard did this too, quite explicitly—he spoke with no authority; all authority lay with God. So too with Emerson, for all their differences. “But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” (412)

Take at least five minutes to feel those words before returning to mine, I beg you.


Emerson’s task must be understood with this renouncing of authority in mind. He does not write to persuade, but to provoke. Emerson attributes this task to the poet, but that is false modesty: any task Emerson lays on the poet he lays on himself. “He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities.” (409) Emerson’s work is a sting, and it can only bear two offspring: the lives of those stung, and the stings to which those lives give rise. Sting begets sting, and nothing ever settles.

So there is an instability inherent in the Emersonian view, an endless succession of unsettlings, without resolution. In Kierkegaard, the Bible may provide some stability: as God’s message, it can serve as an anchor. But with Emerson, the Bible is only one more sting, one more provocation, and not the message itself. This is what we see in his Divinity School Address. For Emerson, the message is ever unwritten. All that exists is sting upon sting, sting giving rise to sting.

My title promises some discussion of prudence, so I had better deliver, lest I be besmirched as a man not of his word. Emerson is direct about prudence: “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.” (410) And Emerson speaks specifically of the sacrifice of prudence to some god—not the god of ease and pleasure, for then “he had better be prudent still”, but “to a great trust.” It is a trust in his virtue, whatever that may be, and a trust that external circumstance will not impede him from living his virtue, that marks the great man. What makes this trust possible? The answer lies at the beginning of Emerson’s essay, when he alludes to two consequences of the circular principle. One is the non-finality of all virtues. The other is what he traced in an earlier essay: the principle of compensation.

This principle gives Emerson a source of security. While it is impersonal, his principle of compensation gives him confidence in experimenting at the expense of prudence. In this way, it functions similarly to the way God functions for Kierkegaard, who in his diary often thanks God for gracing him with circumstances that helped him to remain devoted to his task. For both, there is a layer of safety.

But what if one cannot accept either God or compensation? What if one is resolutely atheist? Kierkegaard suggests the possibility of being a Christian without worrying if it is true: “What a great help it would be already in Christendom if someone said, and acted accordingly: I don’t know if Christianity is true, but I will order my whole life as if it were, stake my life thereon—then if it proves not to be true, eh bien, I don’t regret my choice, for it is the only matter I am concerned about.” (§157) But this, I think, requires suspension of judgment, which I lack. I actively believe otherwise, so this road is closed to me, even if I wished to take it.

So here is my question: is such a sacrifice of prudence to the god of a great trust possible for me if I believe that there is nothing in which to place my trust, but only a cold, inanimate universe, a mass of atoms swirling in the void? But here I must break off. I have asked a question words cannot answer. Only my life can answer that.

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This will be my final post in the Poetry and Prudence sequence, I believe. The first two may be found here and here. Many months ago I started planning a sequence of posts on this theme, mulling over them, gathering sources—and above all never putting any words onto any pages. After reading Emerson’s essay on “Prudence”, I decided to rescue the project from its neglect, mostly scrapping the original plan. When I began writing this post, I had no intention of its being—or not being—the last, but I think I pushed the question as far as it can go, or at least as far as I can now take it. So, I suppose, it is over.


I have looked at the following texts:

Søren Kierkegaard. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays & Lectures. Library of America.

Daybreak meditations, §35

2014/01/07 2 comments

The spring semester has started, hence I am walking to campus again, hence my Daybreak meditations have begun anew. I am using the Cambridge edition, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

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The Nietzsche passage, to begin:

Feelings and their origination in judgments. – ‘Trust your feelings!’ – But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of feelings (inclinations, aversions). The inspiration born of a feeling is the grandchild of a judgment – and often of a false judgment! – and in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings – means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Nietzsche has, alongside Emerson, been the primary inspiration for my conception of experiment, and here he illustrates on aspect of that basic idea. What I deem by the term ‘experiment’ is a form of moral perfectionism that insists on honesty to oneself above all else—but does so while questioning the very existence of a self to which one could be honest. Nietzsche in this passage is defending a form of skepticism of the body: our feelings and inclinations are not properly our own, but only the inherited judgments of our ancestors. They are not properly our own; obedience to them is not honesty to ourselves but to others.

We have spontaneous, uncontrolled reactions to things, immediate feelings about them—but we should not trust these feelings. For, if we look to their origin, we find that they come from past judgments made by others. Nietzsche has, at times, antiquated views about inheritance, but this one, I believe, sticks. Our parents judge that something is bad, and then this sense of badness is inculcated in us without our ever arriving at the judgment for ourselves—and perhaps we must in fact look even further than our parents to find the original judgment. An example from my own history: my mother abhors southern accents, and while I do not share the judgment, I do share the feeling. My initial distaste for the sound is fading with time, whether in part due to my rejection of the judgment I do not know, but is still present. There is a tendency of my body to feel in particular ways, and it comes from a judgment made by another.

If we let our feelings, birthed in this fashion, determine our judgments, then we are letting the reason of another, the experience of another, the job of determining our own selves. And this is quite contrary to the experimental injunction to be honest to oneself. In my last Daybreak meditation (link above), I looked at Nietzsche’s distinction between customs in their first generation—when they are motivated by some benefit—and in their second generation, when their force derives from their being the customary thing to do.—This is, incidentally, quite similar to the acquaintance/description distinction I drew in my previous post.—This provides a useful way of thinking about feelings: they are, in effect, customs of thought, received via inheritance and not via any first generation processes of judgment.

That Nietzsche is motivated by the injunction to honesty in this passage is shown by his revealing comment that feelings are not “a child of your own”—it is to one’s own children that one should be loyal, not the children of one’s parents. What counts as a child of our own? Nietzsche suggests that we have something divine, godlike within us: our own reason and experience. As for Emerson, what divinity is possible is nothing other than self-trust—but at the base of this self-trust is a very great mistrust of our bodies. This is not a revulsion of the body as merely material—after all, where else shall we find anything divine, if not in the “merely” material, as there is nothing else?—but it is a recognition that what shapes our bodies is so often foreign to us. And, at the risk of jumping ahead of myself, I cannot help but look to §49, the subject of my next Daybreak meditation, where Nietzsche describes the motto of the last man as follows: nihil humani a me alienum puto—nothing human is foreign to me.

Though my conception of experiment has been brewing since last summer, its development was jolted by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. Nietzsche provides the necessary flipside to Emerson’s title: self-distrust. The one is cheap without the other.