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Emerson’s long logic

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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