Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Two poles of genius revisited

Two poles of genius revisited

[After reading “Plato; or, the Philosopher” in Representative Men]

“If the tongue had not been framed for articulation, man would still be a beast in the forest.” (636)

Emerson is content with any dogma, so long as he may subvert it to his own ends. Let it be language that distinguishes humanity from the animals, as long tradition would have it—let it be so, but now let us look more closely at what this power of language is. You would treat it as something new, something finished, something higher than the animal, as the divine half of such mixed creatures as ourselves. Emerson is content to leave us creatures, only modified.

The phenomenon with which Emerson begins, is this: articulation seems to replace violence. When two individuals find themselves unable to communicate, they fight, and are opposed; once they have figured out how to voice their meanings, they desist. “As soon as they can speak and tell their want, and the reason of it, they become gentle.” (636) It is a trite thought, that language allows us to resolve disputes verbally that might otherwise bring us to use force, but this thought is not a resting place—rather a springboard.

“The progress is to accuracy, to skill, to truth, from blind force.” (637)

“Blind force” is the crucial phrase, here. What is human is accuracy, and skill, and truth; what is animal is blind force. We have encountered this distinction, in different garb, before. The tendency of every individual to grow and exclude—this is blind force, a striving intrinsic to life, even when life is unconscious of any such force. Yet Emerson calls this ‘genius’—so genius is something animal, at one of its poles.

In society, such genius is tempered, but in two ways. On the one side it is tempered by etiquette and conformity, by the relaxation of oneself for the sake of others. This may be out of genuine moral concern, or mere cowardice—the distinction is of little import right now. On the other side it is tempered by the other pole of genius, that which seeks to defend us from itself. This marks the transition from blind force to accuracy, skill, and truth. Here is the human side of genius, not something over and above the animal, but a modification thereof, a somewhat different way of exerting one’s force. It takes on a certain sort of sociality.

There is, then, not a sharp split, in Emerson, between the human and the animal. And this is brought home by the fact that the human pole of genius is only ever imperfectly realized. We still need defenses from one another. Every friendship is partial, lasting only for a brief period of agreement, before we again become odious to one another. And so on. Each of these themes in Emerson brings home the point: that we are imperfectly human, that there are times where the only way to avoid conflict is to opt for the first method of tempering blind force—that, in such cases, it may, one suspects, be better to be animal.

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