Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Long Distance Communication

Long Distance Communication

“We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day to­gether, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” (522)

Communication, for Emerson, takes place at long distance, or ought to. Emerson’s essay “Manners” is on etiquette, on fashion, and Emerson extracts what he can from the theme. It is a shifting, unstable ground, different in each part of the world, and in the same part at different times, but Emerson tries to locate what honor he can. What is good in fashion stems from self-reliance and a sort of primal power. “In a good lord, there must first be a good animal, at least to the extent of yielding the incomparable advantage of animal spirits.” (515) Fashion molds this animal nature, but does not eliminate it.

But ultimately, Emerson cannot say much in favor of manners. They are purely a social lubricant. “They aid our dealing and conversation.” (517) Yet, as the quote above shows, dealing and conversation is not Emerson’s home—it is a place of which he is greatly skeptical, which should be entered only occasionally, as a long distance voyage from one’s own island—an island which must “in all things” remain inviolate. Or, in other words, communication is, or ought to be, long distance.

Not only that, but it is, I suspect, in part to avoid the trappings of manners that Emerson prefers long distance communication. “Moral qualities rule the world, but at short distances, the senses are despotic.” (523) Amoral manners are required to preserve beauty when we see each other at close range—better not to be at close range at all, and preserve the absolute rule of morality. This is really one of Emerson’s most anti-social essays: morality is individual, manners are social, and manners only interfere with morality.

“My gentleman gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall. He is good company for pirates, and good with academicians; so that it is useless to fortify yourself against him; he has the private entrance to all minds, and I could das easily exclude myself, as him.” (516)

This antisociality manifests itself also in Emerson’s brief moment of touching upon other minds skepticism. The worry of other minds skepticism is, roughly, that the consciousness of an individual is a sort of bubble, a region to which its possessor has access first-hand, and all others only second hand. But if I can never experience what lies inside the mind of another, how can I have knowledge of another’s mind?

Much like in the essay I discussed yesterday, Emerson offers a resolution to the problem. The gentleman “has the private entrance to all minds”—the gentleman, in short, is not plagued by this skepticism. But this invocation of the gentleman comes at the start of Emerson’s essay, before the major reversal comes. I place this reversal at the point where Emerson says, “The persons who constitute the natural aristocracy, are not found in the actual aristocracy.” (527) But even more than the failure of society to pick out its gentlemen, there may be a paucity of gentlemen altogether, indeed there may be a total absence. For the gentleman here is another of Emerson’s fantasies, alongside the scholar in “The American Scholar”, for instance. The best we mortals are allowed is to “sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” We do not get a resolution to this skepticism; we must leave the island of consciousness inviolate.

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