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.
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.
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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.