Home > Emerson R. W., Lucretius, Philosophy > Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

My month long hiatus from Emerson, begun upon the completion of my readings of his Essays: First Series, I have mercifully allowed myself to bring to end. I bathe again in these cleansing waters, and through their efforts may come to see myself—perhaps, I hope—more clearly. Upon diving into “The Poet”, first of his Essays: Second Series, I immediately ran into an old thought: that form and content are inseparable.

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (Em. 450, Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures)

The notion that, in poetry, and even literary prose, the form is not separable from the content, but contributes ineliminably to it, is perfectly correct, perhaps even obvious, yet is so often repeated as to have become essentially empty. But Emerson has a way of making old thoughts new, of recovering what always remains new within them, but which has been obscured by their descent into the fogs of platitudicity. (In this way, he serves to liberate these thoughts from the prisons that have congealed around them—thereby “He unlocks our chains, and admits to us a new scene” [Em. 463], and so is a poet himself.) What results when Emerson dispels this fog? I want to approach the question via a critique of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), for reasons that will become apparent by the time I have reached my end.

Lucretius, as an Epicurean poet, finds himself in a bind. For, as an Epicurean, he must stick to the reasoning that established atomism—this is to be discovered by logic, and not invented by poetic artifice. The poetic form of his work, that is, cannot contribute any content to the Epicurean view, cannot play any role in the actual thinking of Epicurean thoughts. Yet, as a poet, he must justify the poetic form of the work, an especially difficult task if that form is more liable to obscure the arguments than enhance them. We may suspect that Lucretius’ real reason for his use of poetic devices and form is the sheer joy of it: “Joyfully I visit virgin springs and draw their water; joyfully I cull unfamiliar flowers.” (Lucr. I.928—I am using the translation by Martin Ferguson Smith, published by Hackett.) Yet he also gives us a more practical reason for his technique. He is writing the poem to Memmius, in an attempt to convert him and so save him. (For all their well-motivated, well-placed distaste for religion, the Epicureans could nonetheless be quite “religious” in their own behavior. This is not a criticism.) Lucretius is well aware that Epicurean doctrines, as materialistic doctrines always are, are liable to be off-putting. His poetic form is a correction for this:

Doctors who try to give children foul-tasting wormwood first coat the rim of the cup with the sweet juice of golden honey; their intention is that the children, unwary at their tender age, will be tricked into applying their lips to the cup and at the same time will drain the bitter draught of wormwood—victims of beguilement, but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health. I have a similar intention now, since this philosophy of ours often appears somewhat off-putting to those who have not experienced it, and most people recoil back from it, I have preferred to expound it to you in harmonious Pierian poetry and, so to speak, coat it with the sweet honey of the muses. (Lucr. I.938-948)

Lucretius’ poetic form is a sweet, external coating, but it has no impact on the contents inside. It is a bit of benevolent trickery: Lucretius hopes Memmius will, because of the poetic sweetness, imbibe the bitter Epicurean contents before he knows what he is drinking—a bit of paternalism justified, if at all, by the Epicurean promise to cure fear and anxiety.

Here is a philosophy of poetry that rejects—in a manner which is perfectly justified—the old thought in which I claim Emerson has found something new. Lucretius’ self-understanding of his application of poetic form is a good one, indeed the only one possible to an Epicurean, and if there is something lacking in this self-understanding we may suspect there is something lacking in the Epicurean philosophy generally. But the mere thought that form and content are inseparable is not enough to show anything lacking: better to give up that thought than Epicurus’ insights—after all, the loss of a platitude is no loss at all. To bring out the conflict, then, we shall have to understand what is new in Emerson’s thought—both come to light together.

For the Epicurean, there are only two sources of value in the world: pleasure provides positive value, and is to be sought, and pain provides negative value, and is to be avoided. Of course, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are not at all the same thing, any more than to seek truth and avoid error are the same, and the Epicureans take their stand: avoid pain even at the expense of certain pleasures. (One can, in this respect, liken them to Descartes, who makes the analogous move for the case of truth and falsity: avoid all error even if it comes at the expense of believing any truth.) To this end, the Epicureans make a twofold division of pleasures: there are kinetic pleasures and static pleasures. (They also make a threefold division of pleasures into natural + necessary, natural + unnecessary, and unnatural + unnecessary, but this division will not concern me.) Kinetic pleasures, such as the sating of hunger by eating, involve, first, a painful departure from some equilibrium state (in this case, being sated), followed by, second, a pleasant return to that state. The pleasure lies not in the state itself, but in the return to it—in that way, kinetic pleasures are possible only if they are preceded by pain. For this reason, the Epicurean says, they are to be minimized.

Static pleasures, by contrast, are those pleasures one feels simply in virtue of being in the equilibrium state. As they involve no departure, they involve equally no pain: they are pure pleasure. A paradigmatic example, I take it, would be the pleasure that results from being in a state of Epicurean tranquility: to know the nature of the world, and to know there is nothing to fear in death—this is to share in the blessed, perfectly undisturbed happiness of the gods. It is to be a god on earth. (We shall return to the Epicurean gods.) Lucretius’ goal is to bring Memmius to this state, but he can do so only by administering bitter medicine. Thus his sweet coating is needed. It is not part of the thought, however, and once Memmius is converted, the form becomes unnecessary, for the thought itself will sustain him, will bring him peace.

This twofold division of pleasures, which Emerson never, to my knowledge, brings up explicitly or implicitly, nonetheless seems to me the primary deficiency in the Epicurean view, from an Emersonian standpoint. The notion of a static pleasure implies a stable state, an equilibrium threatened, to be sure, by external forces, but which may be defended and preserved, and tranquility maintained. Emerson may perhaps allow such pleasures, and certainly would rank them above kinetic pleasures of the sort the Epicureans denounce, but for him there is a third pleasure, the highest: the pleasure of transition.

But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms. (Em. 458)

The persistent worry, for Emerson, is that any stable state, any purported equilibrium, will congeal into a prison—and then it hardly deserves the name “equilibrium.” It is for this reason that I said above only that Emerson “may perhaps allow” static pleasures—in much of his thought, in fact, he questions their very possibility. But even allowing for security’s possibility, there is still a higher insecurity. The soul ascends, not once, but perpetually, for falling follows each ascension. Where, for the Epicurean, there is a single metamorphosis by which one attains a perfectly blessed state, for the Emersonian there is only the perpetual perfection of oneself, without ever achieving a perfect state. “For, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.” (Em. 461) The Emersonian distrusts the state attained in favor of the state yet to be attained: each attained state is merely initial; power and joy lie in the movement of attaining, not in the having attained—“in the shooting of the gulf”, he says elsewhere (“Self-Reliance”). (I must confess my debt, in this language of attained and unattained, to Stanley Cavell’s marvelous Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.) Kinetic pleasure—for what else could this be called?—thus regains its priority over static pleasure.

This difference in ranking of pleasures is given voice in the Epicurean and Emersonian treatments of the gods. Epicurus, longing to dispel the fears associated with the gods of Greek mythology, imagined perfectly blessed, perfectly material creatures that could not be disturbed by the wailings of our prayers. Human happiness does not require intervention by the gods, but imitation of them. With the exception of his mortality, an insignificant difference, Epicurus was literally a god on earth, by Epicurean lights. Emerson, by contrast, will have no truck with perfection and stability in his gods: he praises the gods of the old mythology precisely for their defects—Vulcan’s lameness, Cupid’s blindness—and for the way the gods “use[d] defects and deformities to a sacred purpose”—“to signify exuberances.” (Em. 455)

Because kinetic pleasure, in this Emersonian sense, is nothing other than a change in form, we can understand why thought must create its own form, must not be something independent of form, capable of sweet or bitter expression. “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Em. 448) It is “Man Thinking”—as Emerson puts it elsewhere (“The American Scholar”)—who is so transformed, and there is no separation between the thinking and the being transformed. The thinking is the transition from the attained and imprisoning to the unattained and liberating form. The form, then, is integral to the liberation, and so to the thought. Thus we can see what is new in the Emersonian thought, while at the same time accepting what is impoverished in the Epicurean philosophy.

But here I run aground, again, on my old difficulty—already explored at the end of my series on Prudence and Poetry, but not there resolved, and so still an open wound, exposed to infection. I have not singled out Lucretius for critique by accident: it is he, or rather Epicurus, who was perhaps the first to create this wound. My trouble is that I cannot simply follow Emerson, and abandon Lucretius. For while there is too much good in Emerson’s vision of life for me to give it up, there is too much right in Epicurean ontology for it to yield so easily. I worry, in short, that my love of Emerson is not compatible with my commitment to an (broadly) Epicurean ontology.

This conflict may be captured, at the most general level, by considering that Emerson is an idealist, of sorts, whereas Lucretius is a materialist. This comes out in the following phrase of Emerson’s, one of my favorites from “The Poet”: “For all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.” (Em. 453) The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision. Every so often, I console myself with the thought that Emerson, perhaps, shared this knowledge—for instance, when he praises figures such as Pythagoras, Swedenborg, and Oken for having “introduce[d] questionable facts into [their] cosmogony” (Em. 462, my emphasis)—but in my sober moments I recognize these consolations as false, as desperate. I take more heart when Emerson speaks of the writer who “sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent” (Em. 463), for does this not suggest an idealism that is located not in nature herself, but in the thinker’s use of nature? And is it not then compatible with a dull but correct materialist ontology? Or is this simply another false consolation?

I cannot say. This is the perpetual tension of my thought. Epicurus and Emerson do battle within me. One day, perhaps, they shall be reconciled, or one shall vanquish the other. In the meantime, I can only hope to use their war as the (unstable) foundation of my own ascent. I can only hope, that is, to put them to use as my own exponents.

  1. Lee
    2014/07/16 at 17:34

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    This is only the second post of yours that I have read, so I’m sure I have only the vaguest notion of your own structure of mind from which you write. This sequence of yours leads me to believe that you are at this time grounded in materialist philosophy, even if you kick against it in some respects:

    The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

    I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision.

    I imagine you are quite well aware that many ancient theistic views of the universe would take great exception to the idea that humanity is a mere accidental occurrence in the universe.

    From my own theistic perspective, influenced heavily by Swedenborg, I don’t see the universe as existing to celebrate humanity. But I do see it as an expression of humanity, in that it is an expression of God, who is, in essence, a human being, having in infinitude the qualities that, in limited expression, make us human. And I do see it as created for humanity–though not, perhaps, in the way we might wish it were.

    My most recent blog post takes up the idea that God created the universe to reflect, not only the infinite and perfectly good humanity of God, but also the evil, or twisting of good, that exists only in (created) human beings and human culture. The thesis is that God created the universe as scientists find it precisely because it was necessary to create it that way in order to accommodate the purpose God had in creating it. That purpose was to provide a field and atmosphere in which humans could freely choose between good and evil, and continually move higher (or lower) in the direction they (we) have chosen.

    If you are interested, here is a link to the piece, which is the second part of a four-part article dealing with random and undeserved evil striking the innocent:
    How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2

    • 2014/07/16 at 18:10

      Hi again, Lee. I think you have, at least roughly, the measure of my state of mind. I am an atheist; I believe that there is no inherent purpose or meaning in the universe; that humans are organized bags of matter; that there’s no free will; etc. And I do kick against this is in certain ways, not in that I doubt it epistemically, but in that my mood toward it varies. In one mood, it leads me to lethargy and exhaustion. In another mood, it vivifies and liberates.

      My relationship to Emerson exists in this weird space. It begins with the fact that reading Emerson has an extremely predictable effect on me: it removes my exhaustion. But then there is tension, because, at least on the surface, Emerson’s worldview seems fundamentally incompatible with my own. Emerson takes the materialist, the Epicurean, etc., as a sort of punching bag from time to time. He identifies himself as an idealist, however much materialism he filters into it. And so forth. So I wonder how I can be the atheist that I am and still like Emerson.

      On the other hand, there are times when it seems to me that Emerson’s religiosity is just a garb, a cloak he could have thrown off without loss. There are times where he seems to insist upon views that are part and parcel of certain versions of an atheistic worldview: e.g., that whatever “good” there is in the world is the result of the balance of competing, amoral powers, or that whatever “reason” there is in the world is similarly the result of balanced physiology. It is really not hard to see why Emerson was among Nietzsche’s favorite authors. Emerson’s essay on “Power” (the subject of my most recent post) sees Emerson practically morphing into Nietzsche.

      Therefore much of my thinking takes the form of trying to bring my Emersonianism and my atheism into line, since I find that I can’t give up either. My reason won’t let me give up my atheism, and my need to live a life that is not one of exhaustion won’t let me give up my Emersonianism. Thus there are times – some times more than others – where I’ll sound like I’m kicking against atheism and materialism.

      I realize this doesn’t address the main substance of what you wrote, but I will read your post this evening (I can’t now), and post over there if I have a response worth making (I don’t like to comment for the sake of commenting). I’ll just make one preliminary remark, which is that when Emerson speaks of the universe celebrating thought, he’s not really trying to say that the universe exists to celebrate humanity. I think he’s trying to describe an exalted state of mind (the state he describes sometimes as Man Thinking), from which vantage the entire universe seems to exist for the sake of the thought one is having right now. But he garbs it in religious language. An atheistically acceptable alternative (if you buy my view that Emerson’s religious language is not really essential to his ideas, and I realize many would see in this only my own wishful thinking and projection) might be Nietzsche’s glorification of the artistic mindset that sees in the facts of the world only material by which to bring about its artistic vision.

    • Lee
      2014/07/16 at 19:36

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      At the risk of going beyond my actual knowledge, I would speculate that Emerson’s view of the relationship between the universe and his own thinking mind could have been influenced by Swedenborg’s system of “correspondences.” This states that both the universe and the human mind are expressions of the nature of God, and that there is a very precise, detailed, and systematic relationship among them, such that the universe does, according to Swedenborg, reflect the nature of the human mind right down to their respective details. In this connection, Swedenborg makes reference to the concept of the microcosm and macrocosm from ancient Greek philosophy (it appears as far back as Plato’s Timaeus). Swedenborg’s correspondential system heavily influenced the Transcendentalist movement, with which Emerson himself was interwoven.

    • Lee
      2014/07/16 at 19:44

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      About reason and atheism, though I’m aware this is anathema to many atheists, I would simply say that it is possible to be both rational and theistic.

      This, I believe, was one of Swedenborg’s contributions to religious thought. He grew up in a strongly religious household, but devoted his working life to science, engineering, politics, and other worldly pursuits. From that foundation his later life turned to spiritual exploration. He married science and religion in a way that few have achieved. Though some of the science he was working with has turned out to be incorrect, the general principles he laid down for the relationship between science and spirit remain quite powerful.

      If you would like to read something of Swedenborg, and get some idea of the philosophical and theological principles behind his thought, and his overarching cosmology–which would probably have had the most profound effect on Emerson and the Transcendentalists–I would recommend this book:
      Divine Love and Wisdom, by Emanuel Swedenborg

      The link is to my listing of it. From there you can find links to its listing on Amazon. And now I’m going to add a link to its page at the publisher’s website, which offers free downloads of the translation text only, without the scholarly apparatus.

    • 2014/07/16 at 20:42

      Emerson was definitely influenced by Swedenborg’s notion of correspondences, especially in his early work. You’ll see it if you read his first (short) book, Nature. He talks there (and not only there) about there being a spiritual fact corresponding to every physical fact. What he means by this is thoroughly Emersonian, but I’m fairly sure he draws that from Swedenborg. (One way Emerson used other thinkers was to take their verbal formulas and twist them into his own meaning. I have a post about this, if you’re interested: https://dyssebeia.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/emerson-as-bricoleur/ –) In later works he divests himself of this way of phrasing the point (which I think suggests he was probably never that close to Swedenborg to begin with), but certainly at the start there are clear debts to Swedenborg.

      As far as reason and religion go, I was deliberate in saying that my reason would not allow me to give up my atheism. I dislike intensely the idea that there is some set of beliefs that “one” rationally ought to believe – that is the sort of idea that breeds blind trust in authority, and not the application of one’s own ability to reason. I much prefer the person who thinks and comes to a wrong opinion than the person who trusts and comes to a right one. Obviously I believe that theistic views are wrong, but there are plenty of religious people who think and plenty of atheists who merely trust, and I count the former as more rational than the latter. However, I have never met a defense of religion that has withstood my scrutiny; therefore I cannot in good faith be religious. (This aside from the fact that even when my mind was most receptive to religion – not too long ago – I never had much of a religious spirit.) At this point I am more interested in working out what it is to live as an atheist than in retreading arguments from which I no longer learn anything.

      I appreciate your advice regarding Swedenborg books, but I’d be dishonest if I said it’s likely I’ll read it. One of the vices of my mind is that it desires always to spread itself too thinly, to take on too many projects at once. I am trying to file it down, to force it to focus only on my core interests, at the moment, and that means that I’m only reading within a very restricted range.

      Thank you, again, for stopping by my blog, and for commenting. It is always nice to discuss what I have written – I wish it would happen more often.

    • Lee
      2014/07/16 at 23:12

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      That is no problem from my perspective. I like to plant seeds. Some take root, some do not. And some lie dormant for a long time before germinating. If you ever get curious enough about Swedenborg to want to read something more concentrated, you’ll know where to turn. If Emerson does it for you, that’s good, too. I am fortunate to be of a religious persuasion that does not require people to agree with me, or even to believe in God, to have a spiritual life.

      In this I go a little farther than Swedenborg did. He didn’t have much use for atheists. But I think that was more a product of his time and culture than anything else. As I see it, a moral atheist who has at least some concern for his or her fellow human beings is closer to heaven than an immoral theist whose life is devoted to his or her own aggrandizement at the expense of others. In this, I’m mirroring your assessment of thinking vs. trusting atheists vs. theists, except my focus is less on what people believe and more on how they live.

    • Lee
      2014/07/16 at 23:27

      About a defense of religion that would withstand your scrutiny, that will not happen as long as you are content with an atheist perspective. I say that not to disparage atheism, but just as (from my perspective) a psychological fact.

      I believe it is an error to think that we humans believe what we do–whether theist or atheist–due to any logical or rational process. For those of us who value reason and logic, particular beliefs must pass muster. However, that’s not why we believe (or don’t believe) them. We believe what we think will cause the world, or at least our own lives, to be a better place. We reject beliefs that we think will cause the world, or our own lives, to be a worse place. Our reason then comes in and provides support and structure for the beliefs that our hearts and our sense of goodness cause us to select over other possible beliefs.

      This is not to say that there’s no such thing as irrational beliefs. But if you look deep enough into the general categories of belief, it is possible to come up with a rational, internally consistent system from which a thinking person can hold to those beliefs.

      I, for example, have come to think that theism of the sort that I hold to explains the whole range of physical and psychological phenomena better and more rationally than atheism. But I understand that atheists disagree with me, and that the ones who view their beliefs from a rational perspective (as compared to those who are angry and reacting against religion, or are simply apathetic about anything relating to God and spirit) can marshal excellent rational arguments that to their lights fully support their atheism.

      Because of all this, I find it generally to be a waste of time to debate atheists. Such debates usually involve two people talking past each other. And what’s the point? If someone’s beliefs work for them, and they’re decent people and not jerks, why try to change those beliefs?

      People’s true beliefs are shown in the way they live. And those who live decent, thoughtful lives toward their fellow human beings are believing in the most important part of what religion is meant to inculcate anyway.

    • 2014/07/16 at 23:39

      I don’t agree with all of what you say, but I agree with enough that it’s not worth niggling over the differences. I am content to leave this portion of our discussion as it stands. Like you, I dislike debating religion – the aim is never to learn, but only to score points, an endeavor I find tedious and exhausting. The other topics we’ve been discussing are, to me, more interesting and more fruitful.

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