It takes a fool to attempt to summarize the great, shifting circle of Emerson’s philosophy with a single quote, a single arc. Yet today I believe in folly, in injustice in reading; thus I feel up to the task, and select the following, from his essay “Circles”:
Our moods do not believe in each other. (406)
If Emerson does not deserve the title “philosopher”—and many would say he does not—it is because his concern is less with solving (ha!) traditional problems of philosophy than with affixing them to moods, and then detailing the actions of these moods on one another, both their mutual hostility and their mutual embrace.
So too with “Nominalism and Realism”, with the conflicts between particulars and generalities, between parts and wholes. Every man, Emerson tells us is, is representative of truth, but is not truth, which is to say, every man is partial. This connection between representation and partiality is direct: every representation must be partial, else it would be the thing itself. Each person inhabits a fragment of the surface, and together we may perhaps trace out the full circumference, and so reveal the center, “the pure stream of thought [the man] pretends to be.” (575)
Such is the problem with which Emerson begins. Already we are outside of standard philosophical waters. Emerson is not so much concerned with the reality of kind divisions, or of patterns among particulars. Rather, he has in his sights a problem confined to the human: what is our relationship to this truth, this I suppose ideal form of a human, of which each individual is merely (more or less) representative? Obviously our relationship is, in one of its facets, to be representative. Such we must be, as we are particulars, are partial. But what does this tell us about how to live?
The first half of the essay finds Emerson befriending the realist. He draws his usual contrast between talent and genius, here under the guise of particular gifts (accompanied by deformities elsewhere) and overall symmetry. He insists that human life falls on the appearance side of the appearance/reality dichotomy: it is a “poor empirical pretension” (577). We are not, then, to be too beholden to what we see in others: we are to take from them what is an accurate representation, and discard what is inaccurate. And—echoes of Plato—he casts art, which he defines as a simultaneous eye for beauty in details and for proportion in the whole, as a sort of insanity, since proportion is something impossible for human beings. In the face of this, the philosophical response is to turn away from the surface toward the center, to contemplate the forms as well as one is able, and so aspire to the universal.
But this is only a mood:
Thus we settle it in our cool libraries, that all the agents with which we deal are subalterns, which we can well afford to let pass, and life will be simpler when we live at the center and flout the surfaces. (580)
It is a passive mood, an inactive mood: the mood of the library. The philosopher, after all, withdraws from the world and seeks for tranquility. Tranquility lies in the eternal—Parmenides perhaps captured it best with his argument that all is one, eternal, unchanging, or Zeno with his paradoxes showing there is no motion, the ultimate in tranquility and stillness. The surface is all bustle, and all ephemeral. The center leaves that behind, but at the expense of activity. Emerson cheerfully elaborates this point with what I take to be a modified form of
Emerson’s nature detests inactivity.
But this is flat rebellion. Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh particulars. (581)
This is no novel argument: it is the old argument of the impracticability of philosophers.
If we were not thus infatuated, if we saw the real from hour to hour, we should not be here to write and to read, but should have been burned or frozen long ago. (581)
This insistence of nature on particulars furnishes Emerson with the one properly philosophical (of sorts) argument he makes in this essay: that even the philosopher, and, moreover, the philosopher qua philosopher, is partial. The philosopher ignores the Janus face of nature, at once universal and partial.
You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed to a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person, and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole. (581)
Any whole there is, in Emerson’s world, is “a balance of a thousand insanities.” (581) The problem is that of reconciling these competing, contradictory insanities, or stupidities, into some sort of whole. But this is still offensive to the philosopher, for it “introduce[s] wild absurdities into our thinking and speech” (585)—absurdities being, of course, the bane of philosophy.
Emerson does attempt a reconciliation. He asserts both “that every man is a partialist” (585) and “that every man is a universalist also” (586), but I am not so sure he believes this. For, two paragraphs later, he laments: “If we could have any security against moods!” (586) (The desire for this security is itself the outburst of a particular mood.) But we cannot have such security, and so are pressed into inconsistency, to “wild absurdity,” by our vicissitudinous moods.
Returning to our opening thought, that of the disbelief of our moods in one another, we can see two interpretations of this thought. On the first interpretation, one of our moods banishes from itself all memory of its opponent. This is folly, is error, but it is useful error, for it banishes any tyranny (by way of insistence on a foolish consistency) which the old mood might inflict on the new. This folly makes possible sincerity, at the price of being an exaggeration, a mistake, a fool of nature. A mood forgets its partiality, and so may act. On the second interpretation, our moods do believe that other moods exist, but disagree with them, think them mistaken. Here our moods are aware of their own partiality—and this makes sincerity impossible. “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) It takes a sort of folly, or at least forgetfulness, to be sincere.
It is tempting, and perhaps even accurate, to see these two interpretations are reflecting yet another dimension of mood. Emerson’s essays are dizzying and enthralling precisely because they refuse to be contained by a single mood. “Nominalist and Realist”, for instance, exists both in the library and in the fields. And, in “Nature” (see my Fools of Nature post), it is clear that Emerson cannot recognize and criticize the “sad, sharp-eyed man” as sharp-eyed, without himself being somewhat that man. Emerson never describes anything foreign to himself.
But he does give a biased picture of himself. Much of the time, one mood dominates, and since writing is Emerson’s primary activity, usually it is an active mood. Thus his discussions of his passive moods are generally seen from his active perspective, and we might suspect they receive short shift. Yet it should be no surprise if Emerson’s essays should prove to be only a partial representation of his thought.