Fools of Nature
Emerson’s loftiest prose appears when he is in the throes of skepticism. Emerson’s optimism is but the palliative for his pessimism. Emerson’s hope is most insistent when he most clearly sees the grounds that rule out hope. Should I browse, then, the final page of Emerson’s “Nature” (1844) and find that, “The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger” (555)—should I find this, then I know, or may reasonably infer, that what precedes such a height is Emerson plumbing the depths.
The essay begins with an image of immortal, eternal, impartial nature, nature the judge who sees humanity and finds it wanting. Such nature is ahistorical, memoryless, a never-ending “tyranny of the present.” (542) “Here no history… is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.” (541) Yet there is something mocking about this landscape, the mockery of its judgment. “If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature. If the king is in the palace, nobody looks at the walls.” (545) This nature seems to serve as illumination of the absence of any satisfactory humans. Humanity is too condemned by its own partiality. Emerson is quite clear that he turns to this image of majestic nature for “relief” (545), for something erect to counteract fallen man. But this nature is mocking, and unsatisfying. “But it is very easy to outrun the sympathy of readers on this topic, which schoolmen called natura naturata, or nature passive. One can hardly speak directly of it without excess.” (545)
Moreover, while this image of nature is supposed to provide relief from the endlessly disappointing partiality of the world, it is not clear it can even do this, for Emerson denies any division between the natural social. “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” (548) The fate of nature is tied to our own fate: if we are disappointments, so is nature. So it is: “There is in woods and waters a certain enticement and flattery, together with a failure to yield a present satisfaction. This disappointment is felt in every landscape.” (553) The language Emerson uses here, that of the failure of satisfaction, is not accidental. Rather, it highlights the joint fortunes of nature and humanity, for humanity too fails to satisfy: “Our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions.” (542)
This doleful vision lacks only one final twisting of the knife. It comes in the relation between the knowledge of this vision and our ability to act. “A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate.” (551) To recognize this world for what it is is to sap the ability to act. If there is a villain in Emerson’s essay, it is the “sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret.” (549) But what has Emerson been in this essay if not precisely this character? Has he not been stressing to us, again and again, not just here but in every essay, our inevitable partiality? What does he have to say for himself?
Emerson has a solution to the problem he has made so vivid. It is what Nietzsche would later call the “Wille zur Dummheit”—the will to stupidity (Beyond Good and Evil, §107). I was selective in my quotation just above; let me now be more just:
And when now and then comes along some sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret;—how then? is the bird flown? O no, the wary Nature sends a new troop of fairer forms, of lordlier youths, with a little more excess of direction to hold them fast to their several aim; makes them a little wrongheaded in that direction in which they are rightest, and on goes the game again with a new whirl, for a generation or two more. (549)
Or, more bluntly: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” (549) Life is, in short, founded on error. To act is to err, for without error, we could not act. A clear sight of the paltriness of what we do would kill any justification for doing it. We can speak only when we do not see our speech to be partial, yet, “It is partial, but he does not see it to be so, whilst he utters it.” (551)
What this essay details is the battle in Emerson between his sharp-eyed and error-ridden moods. Dewey liked to mock the correspondence theory of truth as the “spectator theory of knowledge”—yet Emerson has more right to apply the epithet to his sharp-eyed man, for that man truly cannot act, and must be a spectator. Dewey wanted a pragmatic theory of knowledge, one that linked knowledge ineliminably to action. Emerson, by contrast, is tied to the spectator theory of knowledge, and thus what might be called the error theory of action. It is the curse of the human—so I believe Emerson shows us—to be forever caught between the knowledge that reduces us to spectation, and the error that allows us to act. We oscillate between the two, without escape. Such is our partiality. We cannot flee from this partiality into nature, for nature too can only provide suggestions. In the end, all that remains is to act, but to act is to make the error of taking up a suggestion with the belief that so taking it up will, finally, bring satisfaction. Well then, “are we tickled trout, and fools of nature?” (553) We are. There is no way around it.
I confess that I find more of value in Emerson’s skeptical moods than in his optimistic moods. The problem of life I face, vanquishing sometimes, but never permanently, is the problem of acting when I feel so unshakably that all there is to life is paltry. I have looked long enough for a solution to this problem that would tell me that life is not paltry to retain any hope of a satisfactory answer—or even a suggestive one. Better to hear that the world is so, and to be taught the value of error, that I might bring myself to the point where the error within me is as strong as the knowledge, and their struggle in turn bring me some few lofty moments.