Home > Emerson R. W., Kierkegaard S., Philosophy > Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

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.

  1. 2014/01/16 at 11:38

    That was absolutely brilliant. Many thanks, atheist to atheist. I refuse to believe what I cannot know, and that amounts to pretty much nothing. A punctum or a sting is so much better – hints and allegations, as Paul Simon would say.

    • 2014/01/16 at 16:24

      Thanks, Steve! Firm knowledge has its value (I should hope so, as I am going into the knowledge business), but I find increasingly that what I need are stings and prods. I prefer the unsettled to the settled. A concept I’ve been toying with, more or less coextensive in application with Kierkegaard’s notion of a sting, but expressed with, I hope, my own flavor, is that of goads and gorgons. A good sting should serve as both goad and gorgon: gorgon because, in its first action, it turns you to stone, stops you in your tracks, prevents you from moving. And a goad because, in its second action, it prods you to action, makes you feel the necessity of action, but of action not quite like what you were doing before.

      Should I ever produce something with this dual effect, I think I should be able to say confidently that my life has amounted to something. In many ways this blog is preparation for attempting such a production—something I have only recently been coming to realize.

  1. 2014/01/25 at 22:03
  2. 2014/02/23 at 13:52

Kindly perturb

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