Home > Emerson R. W., Human/Animal seminar, Philosophy > Circumstance and principle

Circumstance and principle

I. Politics as Animal

In a representative passage of “Politics”, Emerson writes,

A cent is the representative of a certain quantity of corn or other commodity. Its value is in the necessities of the animal man. (562)

Much of the essay is has something of an exculpatory tone: Emerson opposes the moralization of politics, and does so because of the animal origins of human politics. While he never makes the connections to animals we might now find obvious (e.g. to hierarchical social structures in other apes), there is a constant theme of animality running through the discussion. Political parties, for instance, are the products of “benign necessity” (563):

Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. (564)

Even if the consequences of a party’s policies and actions are, in the final count, harmful, there is something mistaken in critiquing them in a specifically moral manner, as if the instinctive protection of one’s own interests could be controlled. A common theme in the western discourse on the human/animal boundary is precisely that of the distinction (whether in degree or in kind) between the instinctual, unthinking animal and the rational, instinctless human. Emerson’s highlighting of what is instinctual in politics, against this backdrop, is a clear implication of politics being something animal, and his further reference to the east wind and the frost suggests an even less volitional region of nature.

Moreover, for Emerson, this animal underpinning of politics is not merely exculpatory and ineluctable: it is desirable. Given the choice between animal behavior that is local, relative to only very close circumstances and human behavior in accordance with absolute principles, Emerson takes the animal. He distinguishes between parties of circumstance (animal) and parties of principle (human), favoring the former:

Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment, degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. (564)

The danger of allowing the human into politics is that what will be allowed in will, in fact, be what Nietzsche would later call the “all too human”. Better an abolitionist movement based on the animal perception of the sheer intolerability of slavery (better, slavery in 19th century America)than one based on the notion of, say, “equal rights”. [It is worth noting that Emerson, toward the start of his essay, notes two roles of government: the respect of persons, and of property. He comes down, after a fashion, on the side of property, on the side of interests rather than ideals.]

Parties of circumstance, by contrast, even where they are diametrically opposed in what they favor, “are identical in their moral character,” and “can easily change ground with each other, in the support of many of their measures.” (564) They are not beholden to a principle fixed a priori—in this way they capture what is fluid in nature.

Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it… (559)

This fluidity is essential for Emerson. As an experimental philosopher, Emerson returns again and again to a central fear: a fear of the hand that reaches out of the past to grip us by the throat. In politics, as everywhere, this fear recurs for him, so he is anxious to insist that “every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (559)—that is, all politics is circumstantial, and none should be taken as a principle. About our government and its laws, we are restricted in what we may say: “They are not better, but only fitter for us.” (563) Emerson’s fear of principles here is the fear of shackles. Animal politics, for Emerson, promises freedom.

II. Politics as human

I had intended, as the idea for this essay first arose, to detail not just what is animal in Emerson’s view of politics, but also what is distinctively human. What I have just written is entirely from the first half of the history, and as it feel into place for me, I came to expect Emerson’s inevitable reversal. Emerson would only go into such detail about what is animal in politics if he needed to do so as a form of preparation for an investigation of politics on the other side of the human/animal boundary. Emerson confounded this plan, as he is wont to do all plans that would corral him.

Emerson does, to an extent, locate a human side to politics that is not merely the “all too human” face we saw before. For instance, he calls “absolute right” the “first governor,” and claims, “every government is an impure theocracy.” (566) Every government aims at bending its law to the will of the wise man, but since, “the wise man, it cannot find in nature,”

…it makes awkward but earnest efforts to secure his government by contrivance; as, by causing the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or, by a double choice to get the representation of the whole; or, by a selection of the best citizens; or, to secure the advantages of efficiency and internal peace, by confiding the government to one, who may himself select his agents. (566)

Here is a vision of government as aspiring to an ideal, an absolute, to which only a human can aspire. It finds its figurehead in the image of the wise man. But the wise man cannot be found in nature—perhaps this means we are to take the wise man as above nature, or perhaps merely as unreal. Yet Emerson does speak, later of “the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government, is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.” (567)

The circumstances surrounding the wise man’s appearance, however, are curious. I cannot take it as anything but significant that the wise man is “principal”—but not “principle.” Right from the beginning of the essay, Emerson connects the “man of strong will” and the “man of truth” (559) with the fluidity above discussed. What characterizes the wise man is not some special universality, some absolute principle, but (a) the choosing of what is fit for oneself, and (b) the refusal to insist on extending this judgment to another:

Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. (566-567)

All of the animality of the first half of the essay comes rushing back. The wise man is characterized by a refusal to say that a course of action is “better” (a turn of phrase that, because it makes no reference to any individual, suggest universality)—rather only that it is “fitter for himself.” Often times, this may lead to collaboration between him and his neighbor, but this collaboration is only “for a time,” and there is always the risk of shifting to conflict in which neither merits moral condemnation.

I hardly want to say that Emerson identifies the wise man with the animal. There is a distinction to be drawn, though I do not pretend right now to know how to characterize it. What I do claim is that, given a choice between the animal and the human, the circumstantial and the principled, between property and person, Emerson chooses, again and again, the first term of the two, and when turns to finding what valuably human in politics, he models his picture on the animal. We are left with a wise man of resolutely animal origin, perhaps with something added—but not, above all, anything personal.

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