Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Transient sympathies

Transient sympathies

William Sharp MacLeay, at the start of his Horae Entomologicae, a once famous but now obscure work of natural history, apologizes for himself. “In offering to the public this, his first essay in Entomology, the author thinks it by no means unlikely that he shall incur the charge of aiming at innovations in the science.” MacLeay rests on the hope, however, that the sympathetic reader will recognize that he wishes rather “to reconcile with each other the observations of his predecessors” than “to controvert or obliterate the result of their labours.” Here is a scientific climate that mistrusts novelty and values tradition, in which the appearance of innovation always requires external justification. Novelty never justifies itself.

Something like this climate permeates Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare, in which Emerson is concerned to establish Shakespeare as a genius—though we now know that we must be cautious about what this means. Two facets of genius emerge in the essay: genius as borrower, and genius as impartial. These are closely intertwined.

“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality.” (710) It is the breadth of a man’s fine thoughts that earns him, from Emerson, the title of genius. The task of the genius, of the poet, is not to exercise choice in developing novelties. It is to be receptive what is good in the thought of his time, “forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.” (710) When the task is to present what is good, memory is as valuable as invention. The situation is that others speak well sometimes, and foolishly other times, and cannot tell the difference—it is the genius who can tell. Thus the geniuses of history “are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets.” (714) In sum: “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.” (710)

In the everlasting battle between tradition and invention, then, Emerson sides with tradition. It is not surprising that this should be so. There is something cheap about all innovation: it always seems to come to something not really new, and we suspect the great innovators have merely a talent for rearrangement. If, as has been posited, there is nothing new under the sun, innovation starts to seem a game, a triviality.

There are further reasons, which emerge in Emerson’s “waste stock” theory. “Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried.” (712) The tradition furnishes the materials of the lab bench, provides a ground. This grounding occurs in two senses. First, it supplies a foundation, a stable surface on which Shakespeare can work. It is ground, dirt—and not sacred. “Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done.” (712) Prestige attaches to individuals, to choice, to innovation, and prevents experiment. You cannot fool around with the sacred. Tradition furnishes grounding also in a second sense: it grounds the poet, prevents the poet from spinning off and losing contact with the world—spinning frictionlessly in the void, if I might steal that phrase. “The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within due temperance.” (712) In contrast with art for art’s sake, which leads to “freak, extravagance, and exhibition,” waste stock ensures points of contact. (713)

Emerson’s choice to side with tradition, then, is not quite a true allegiance to invention’s alleged enemy. Indeed, Emerson rather allies tradition with invention—is not prestige precisely what characterizes tradition, and what tradition renders infallible and unchangeable? Yet Emerson links it to innovation: tradition and invention fight, but that fight is between fixed inventions that have been accorded prestige, and novel inventions seeking it. The old fight to maintain their place; the new to usurp it—both play the same game. Emerson’s tradition will have nothing to do with this fight. The dead suffice for experiment only, and there is no place for the living to usurp: the only place to go upon death is the stockpile.

It is for this reason that genius is a borrower, even a thief. But to call the genius a borrower, a thief, to call the poet indebted—these terms all presuppose a certain theory of property, one proper to prestige and innovation (and the tradition built of dead innovations). This theory of property belongs to the dispute Emerson wishes to leave behind, and so Emerson must substitute a new one in its place: “Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it.” (715) Thought belongs to whoever can use it. This is not a free for all, not a matter of all thoughts belonging to all: “A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”

The genius is, then, if we stick with the old theory of intellectual property for a moment, a borrower. He experiments with the waste stock, and makes it his own. There remains the second aspect of genius: genius as impartial. In his highest flights of praise, Emerson praises Shakespeare for the “omnipresent humanity [that] coördinates all his faculties.” (722) Where the man of talents reveals his partiality, the “certain observations, opinions, topics” that enjoy “some accidental prominence,” “Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given.”

This conception of genius is both sympathetic and in conflict with the first definition. On the one hand, genius, as impartial, is comprehensive, selecting what is good in everything. Every innovation has a limited domain and is thus partial—impartial genius cannot, then, be innovation. Yet the first conception of genius admitted that genius had a history, that this history might be traced. Yet, Emerson tells us, “we are very clumsy writers of history”—we may write the facts of Shakespeare’s life, and of his influences, and yet see nothing of his genius. (719) To trace the history of genial theft is to miss the genius in it. There is a simple reason for this: “the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, who see the works, and ask in vain for a history.” (720)

There is tension, then, between the history of genius, the history of borrowings and thefts, and the ahistorical genius, the genius that seems to sit outside of time, eternal. Can this tension be resolved? Emerson eventually gives himself away. “There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits.” (723) This is a contradiction in terms: it is the very essence of representation to be partial, to select some aspects to represent and not others. The scientific representation idealizes here and abstracts there; the democratic representative cannot act on every opinion of her constituency. No representation captures the full detail of what is represented—if it did, it could not function as a representation.

When Emerson calls Shakespeare the creator of perfect representations, then, he is mythologizing. He is indulging in the myth of genius, of the great figure who comes out of nowhere and sets the world aflame. And he knows this is a myth, for he said so explicitly, earlier: “It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” (715) The end of the essay further confirms that Emerson knows this is a myth, for the end of the essay tears down Shakespeare, reveals Shakespeare’s own partiality. “Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weights Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.” (724)

What gives? What is Emerson doing, mythologizing Shakespeare in this way, only to turn around and strip him down to size? Emerson gives the answer: “Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” (720) In these sympathetic hours, Shakespeare’s thought becomes our own, because we use it, and experiment with it. When we are swept up in these movements of thought, then Shakespeare “is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably.” (722) Then we stand with him outside of time, then there is ahistorical genius. The thought is all that exists.

But these sympathies are transient—allow them to last too long, and what remains is devotion to prestige. To remain with Shakespeare when after the end of our Horae Shakespearicae is to become the worshipper of prestige, to find our thoughts burdened by that awkwardness that marks true theft. Emerson’s essay mirrors, in its movement, the passing of these hours. When his thought moves with Shakespeare’s, then Shakespeare seems that mythical being, the perfect representative. But eventually their movement drifts apart, and Shakespeare returns to his partiality, regains his history.

In the end, Emerson must bring down Shakespeare in this fashion. Were he not to reveal Shakespeare’s partiality, he would merely be establishing Shakespeare as an object of prestige, of sacred tradition, and would thus render Shakespeare unusable—just as the perfect representation is unusable. Emerson slanders Shakespeare out of respect, in a way. He sees a nobler future for Shakespeare than as a relic: he is converting Shakespeare into waste stock.

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Addendum on the transpersonal

I complained, in my previous post, linked above, about those who try to save Emerson from the charge of egotism by insisting that he takes self-reliance to be reliance on something transpersonal. It seems to me that this theory of intellectual property captures what is genuinely transpersonal in Emerson’s thought.

Emerson, in the essay on Montaigne, notes that “great believers are always reckoned infidels” because they cannot accept the dogmas “dear to the hope of man”—and that surely includes the dogma of a transpersonal moral order. (707) “I believe in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them?” But is not this “moral design of the universe” itself a dogma? To defend Emerson by insisting on his belief in this dogma does, so far as I can see, more harm than good.

The theory of property suggests an alternate understanding of this transpersonality—it lies in the possibility of appropriating thoughts, of making them our own. In the hours in which we share another’s thought, there is a transpersonal bond. And even if, in these high hours, our thought is novel, some future soul may share it, so even what is uniquely ours in our own time, if ever anything is, is transpersonal. But the way to this is self-reliance. It seems to me that Emerson recognizes, and, more than recognizes, insists, that our highest hours are transient. Self-reliance at other times—will that not just be egotism? To recognize the ubiquity of partiality seems to me to require admitting that Emerson’s philosophy, though it prizes the transpersonal in a certain sense, cannot avoid egotism.

Let us admit Emerson’s philosophy for what it is—it will not suffer from it.

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  1. Lee
    2014/07/17 at 12:27

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    Continuing discussions from your “Emerson as Bricoleur” piece:

    I have a love/hate relationship with the saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It comes from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” The context further expands the idea.

    Now, for me this is not an issue of dealing with revealed scripture. My canon of scripture does not include most of the books in the third division of Hebrew scripture in which Ecclesiastes appears. So I don’t feel obliged to ascribe divine authority to this saying–even if that were the way I read the Bible, which it is not.

    Rather, it’s with the idea itself. It was easy enough to say that in Solomon’s time, when humankind had been stuck in the same patterns for many generations–and would remain stuck in those patterns for many more generations to come.

    But can we really say today, in the midst of recent centuries’ explosion of scientific, technological, and social advances that “there is nothing new under the sun”? As far as I know, computers, cell phones, and gasoline-powered farm machinery qualify as something “new under the sun” compared to anything that went before. As wise as it may have seemed in Solomon’s day, to today’s ears such a statement just doesn’t ring true.

    So did the inventors of those technological wonders originate something new under the sun? And is there a corresponding advance of new ideas that didn’t exist in the world before? I tend to think that there are new things under the sun.

    At least, in human experience.

    The fly in the ointment, for a theist, is that God is posited as infinite, and as such, contains all things. If we humans come up with something “new,” then it must have previously existed in the mind of God. So it is not truly new. And even without a posited God, anything “new” would, as suggested in your article, simply be a rearrangement of already existing elements.

    Swedenborg further thickens the plot by saying that none of our thinking is truly original. He states, instead, that we are surrounded by spiritual beings, call them angels, spirits, and demons, whose thinking and ours are inextricably intertwined. It’s the spiritual equivalent of thinkers being embedded and intertwined in the human, literary, and cultural atmosphere of their day, and of what has gone before. Everything emerges within the matrix of an already existing reality, and is a product of some confluence of the elements of that already existing reality.

    So is there any such thing as originality?

    I still believe that there is–but not in the sense of something being created ex nihilo.
    Rather, as foundations of thought are laid, new layers of understanding can be built on top of them . . . and then more on top of them . . . and so on.

    In constructing a building, the foundation must go in first. Then the various stories can be built, one on top of the other, then the roof goes on. The upper floors and roof cannot exist before those under them are at least framed.

    And yet, the concept of floors and roof existed as a blueprint, and in the mind of the architect, before any of it was built.

    Originality, then, is not bringing something new into the world in an ultimate sense. Rather, it is bringing into the human mind and culture something that could not have existed “under the sun” previously because the foundations for it had not yet been laid.

    And if, as I believe, there is an infinite God who is the source of all, there will never be an end to new things that can be brought to expression under the sun.

    Years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. In it, he spoke of how many times in the past philosophers and scientists had thought they were on the verge of a theory of everything that would explain all phenomena. None of them succeeded, he said. But now, he opined, we really and truly are on the brink of a theory of everything. Very soon, he said, we’ll have the ultimate answers. Then all that will be left will be intellectual mop-up operations.

    My immediate reaction was, “Mr. Hawking, your hubris in thinking that now we’ve just about got it it all figured out is the same as all those previous thinkers and scientists. You’re going to have some big surprises coming . . . .”

    • 2014/07/17 at 14:36

      Everything depends on the level of generality at which you care to look. I won’t go through every example, but a single one should suffice for the point. Are computers new? In a sense, sure. They are quite different from anything that came before and make possible all sorts of new things. But… how do we use computers? To communicate – nothing new. To waste time – nothing new. To entertain ourselves – nothing new. To try to gain admirers, or political power – nothing new. (Add more examples of how we use them as you see fit.) A computer has introduced nothing truly novel into human existence. It has merely changed the details of how we do the same old things. Human life consists of the same basic complement of feelings and sensations as it ever did. It revolves around the same problems – who has power, who in society is comfortable and who oppressed, what a fulfilling/valuable life amounts to, problems of property, etc. There is, in an important sense, nothing fundamentally new about the last few centuries. Changes in details, that’s all, and details were never really what was disputed.

      It is similar to Kierkegaard’s rotation of crops (I don’t know if you admire him or not). The crops are rotated that they come to us as new, and thus succeed in stimulating us, but… the psychological process is the same, endlessly repeated.

      Part of why appreciate Emerson’s thoughts on newness is that he does not try to locate newness in novel stimulations. He does not try to offer a fantastical account of how there is really, truly, primordial newness arising. He starts with the fact of the endless recurrence of all the fundamental aspects of human life, and asks: well, then, what if anything could newness be in such a world?

    • Lee
      2014/07/17 at 15:06

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      Do you truly believe that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and no development or progression in the universe or in humanity?

      I had a similar discussion with another philosophical atheist not long ago, and was surprised at the level of resistance to any concept involving development or progression. From that conversation, it seemed to be linked to a resistance to any sense of design or purpose in the universe–that if we admit any sort of progression or development, that might imply that there was an intelligent designer who has a purpose in mind for the universe.

      When I brought up the progression in evolution from single-celled organisms to complex mammalian species, and said, “surely there is a progression and an increase in complexity here,” the general answer I got back was, “I suppose you could say that, but it’s not really true. There is no real advancement or progression. It’s just adaptations to the environment, which can go forward or backward in complexity.” This seems to me to ignore obvious advances in complexity and development over evolutionary time scales.

      Looking at the entire universe, is there really nothing new, no new developments, from the time of the Big Bang to the present? Can’t we trace new developments along the way–things that didn’t exist previously, and that did exist subsequently? Galaxies, stars, planets, and such?

      And couldn’t the same be true of human intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal (societal) development?

      I suppose a system of thought could be developed in which all of this is just continually repeating itself, with a whole string of Big Bangs and universes. But that is really just speculation. The universe that we do see certainly seems to include progression, development, and new things appearing on any reasonably large time scale.

    • 2014/07/17 at 15:26

      Yes, I believe that human life is fixed within fairly limited parameters of what we can feel and experience, and that there is a deep sense in which this means that there is not real novelty in human life. I take this to be the proper, relevant, and interesting application of the quote.

      Of course there was much that was “new” in the long series of aimless accidents that preceded human existence. I just take that not to be what the saying is about – at least not the way that Emerson found it productive for his thought, or Beckett for his thought, or I for my thought. So to me your response sounds like an objection to the verbal formula only, and not to the idea inhabiting it. (Maybe in the Bible it means something different, and what you say applies to that. I do not know.)

      As I said in an earlier comment, Emerson does have a conception of newness despite all that. But it doesn’t involve picking some one aspect of the universe, saying, “that, that right there, that’s new,” and having the matter be settled. I am not averse to speaking of the existence of genuine newness, so long as I am paying attention to the perspective in which something so strikes me.

      I do not believe in progress or development without agents working to achieve said progress. Humans can very well look back at the history of life and of pre-life and take it as one long (very meandering, very faltering, very indecisive, very inefficient) road to humanity, but this is no more ontologically well-founded than a view that sees this same history as a colossal string of errors, culminating in the error to end all errors, humanity. Both are interpretations that read human interests back into an entirely indifferent process. (My father likes to say that humanity is God’s failed science fair project. I have long felt that his joke might be taken with utter seriousness and placed next to any existing interpretation of the history and meaning of the world and of human existence, and not be found wanting.)

    • Lee
      2014/07/17 at 15:58

      As Spock would say: “Fascinating!”

  2. Lee
    2014/07/22 at 13:00

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    Okay, I’ll perturb a little more, kindly meant . . . .

    To be a little more descriptive in my response to your last:

    I find it fascinating that a materialist view of the universe as a random, purposeless phenomenon requires randomness and purposelessness to suffuse the universe, such that the very idea of progress and development must be denied.

    To my eyes, progress and development is evident everywhere–in fact, is an essential element of the very concept of evolution. In reading your response, and the response of the other atheist I referred to, that there really is no progress, only randomness and adaptation to circumstances, I find my mind boggling at the denial of what looks to me like a clear pattern of development and progress on just about any scale and in just about any frame of time and space that one cares to consider.

    The universe as a whole has, according to current scientific theory, developed and progressed from a mere singularity–an infinitesimally small point–through known stages to produce a highly complex system of solar systems, galaxies, galactic clusters, and the large scale structure of the universe, which resembles nothing more than the neuronal structure of the brain.

    Life on earth has developed from organic molecules to single-celled organisms to multi-celled organisms to amphibious, reptilian, and mammalian creatures, to an intelligent, self-aware bipedal life form capable of wholesale, intentional manipulation of its environment and of conceiving and discussing abstract concepts such as God or the absence thereof.

    Every complex life form starts with a single cell, or the meeting of two single cells, and develops from there through a regular pattern of known stages to its mature form. This may take place in a few days or it may take place over many years.

    Even subatomic particles are generated and go through stages of existence in mere nanoseconds.

    Human beings have progressed from simple, apelike stone age hunter-gatherers through various known stages to highly complex agriculture-based city-dwelling civilizations.

    The list goes on and on.

    The fact that many of these developments take place in repeated cycles does not do away with the fact that each cycle is characterized by progress and development through stages before it comes to an end. Repeated development is still development within its time frame. Further, the process and development of each cycle is necessary in order that the next cycle may take place. And on the largest scales of time and space, the progress and development may or may not be cyclical. The jury is still out on that. Many successive cycles show development and progression from one cycle to the next, or over the course of many cycles, in a process that so far has not repeated.

    In light of all this step-by-step development everywhere we look, to me the idea that there is no progress or development looks simply preposterous. And I was truly surprised when I found one atheist after another denying that progress or development exists in any meaningful way.

    This, to me, looks more like the forced conclusion required by a doctrinal belief system (materialism and atheism) than any deduction drawn from the nature of the universe and the world of nature as we see it all around us.

    I don’t particularly wish to argue this with you. If a random, purposeless, non-directed universe works for you, who am I to try to talk you out of it, and what would be the point? However, I felt I owed you a little more substance than my initial response of “Fascinating.”

    • 2014/07/22 at 14:03

      Thank you for expanding on your comment. My response:

      I do not dispute your examples, only your application of the word “progress” to them. What you describe is an increase, over time, in complexity. But on what grounds can you call this “progress”? To call an increase in complexity “progress” is to say that there is some perspective from which complexity appears as “better” than simplicity. Precisely what I deny (and I suspect this holds true for your other atheist interlocutor) is that there is any candidate perspective. The universe has no perspective, properly speaking, but if I may wax metaphorical, then from the universe’s “perspective” it is no better to be a “highly complex system of solar systems, galaxies, [and] galactic clusters” than it is to be “an infinitesimally small point.” The universe is equally indifferent to whether evolutionary processes result in more or less complex forms of life – both are known to occur.

      It is thus not that, as an atheist, I (and my unmet counterpart) must deny patently obvious phenomena. We can perfectly well accept the phenomenon of increasing complexity over time. All we deny is the interpretation of it that treats it as “progress”. You may look at this increase in complexity and think it “preposterous” to claim there is no progress, but to me it appears that you are reading your own values back into a process that has no values of its own.

      I suspect you have the order of things mixed up when you suggest that the denial of progress is a “forced conclusion required by a doctrinal belief system.” It is not that atheism drives the denial of progress. It is rather more the discovery that complexity can increase over time without anything that aims at such an increase that tends to lead people to atheism. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (and its contemporary offspring) has been closely tied to atheism since its inception for just this reason: it tells you (in broad strokes) how to get from a single-celled organism to an elephant without anyone or anything anywhere ever attempting to create an elephant (or anything else).

    • Lee
      2014/07/22 at 15:35

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      My other atheist interlocutor was more thoroughgoing than you in denying even increase in complexity over time, saying that this was a mere epiphenomenon, and that complexity can randomly increase or decrease depending upon environmental circumstances. This was in reference to biological evolution. So apparently even the issue of an increase in complexity over time–which is not a value-related issue–is disputed in at least some parts of the atheist world.

      I do understand that from the metaphorical “universe’s perspective” there is no progress, no value, no good or evil. What is simply is. Nature does not care whether any individual, species, or whole planetary ecosystem lives or dies. There is nothing better about a vast, complex universe comprising solar systems, galaxies, and superclusters of galaxies than there is about an infinitesimally small, undifferentiated singularity.

      In fact, I would say that outside of the human mind and human intellectual and emotional culture, there is no such thing as good and evil, or better and worse, implied by the term “progress.” These are things that, if they exist at all, do not exist in material reality as such. They exist only in mental (which I would call spiritual) realms.

      That is why it is not surprising to me that those who subscribe to materialism and atheism reject the idea of progress considered as movement from lesser to greater or worse to better, and certainly reject the idea of purpose, in the universe. What was surprising is the rejection even of the idea of increased complexity over time that takes place through definite, known stages. Perhaps that rejection is not part of your particular philosophy.

      Yes, atheists have clung closely to Darwin for the reasons you mention. However, Darwin himself was not an atheist, even if he became agnostic later in life. He did not think it was necessary to be an atheist in order to accept evolution as the mechanism by which species originate. And in fact, many religious people have quite happily adopted evolution into their beliefs.

      Many years ago I attended for two years a religious college that veered toward the conservative, to the point that many in its people rejected evolution in favor of spontaneous generation. However, the biology professor there, who was strongly religious himself, when asked about it, simply said, “I think evolution is a pretty good theory.” He saw no conflict between evolution and his religious beliefs. I should add, however, that these were conservative followers of Swedenborg, who himself taught a radically different view of Christianity and the Bible than traditional Christianity still does today.

      For my part, I would say that the debate between atheists and theists about God and creation mostly misses the point on both sides. Creation and evolution are not so much directed by God as they are an expression of God. They operate as if autonomously from God and spirit because they contain a functionally complete representation of God and spirit within their own created nature. Creation did not happen in time. It happens from within and above material reality.

      In short, it’s not necessary to posit a God who acts upon the material universe from outside of it, changing and directing how it unfolds as it unfolds.

      From “the universe’s perspective,” God is embedded in the universe (although from God’s perspective, the universe is embedded in God), and God is the reason the universe behaves the way it does. Violating the laws by which the universe operates would be violating God’s own nature–which, of course, God does not and cannot do.

      If Darwin discovered a mechanism by which this material universe produced species, he was simply discovering what the nature of God looks like when it is projected onto material reality. The conflict of evolutionary theory is not with God and spirit as they are in themselves. It is with a faulty and corrupted form of religion that is no longer adequate for our present-day level of knowledge.

    • 2014/07/22 at 16:47

      From what you said, it sounds like the point your interlocutor was making is that evolution does not necessarily increase complexity. That is quite right. Very roughly speaking, if decreases in complexity are favored by some evolutionary process (it need not be selection) in some particular situation, then evolution will decrease complexity. That is perfectly consistent with allowing that there are, today, more complex forms of life than there were four billion years ago. I see no disagreement between I have been saying and what your initial interlocutor said. I suspect what he was on edge about was the view that evolution is a complexity-directed process. It’s not. It just happens that the requisite environments for increases in complexity to occur have obtained.

      The connection between atheism and Darwin’s theory of evolution does not, in my view, depend at all on Darwin’s religious sentiments. (I have never investigated for myself what Darwin’s religious sentiments were and how they changed over time; thus I have no opinion on the matter.) All that matters is that evolutionary theory showed how “explain away” the appearance of purpose in living organisms.

      My lack of interest in Darwin’s religious sentiments also extends, I confess, to the ability of contemporary religious people to reconcile their religion with acceptance of evolutionary theory. (I’m somewhat sorry to say this, because I feel like this is a point of which you really wish to convince me, or at least to make a major part of our conversation. But I just can’t muster enthusiasm for it, and, as Emerson said, in “Circles”, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Or, as Nietzsche put it in Twilight of the Idols, in yet another of his concordances with Emerson, “Kein Ding geräth, an dem nicht der Übermuth seinen Theil hat.”*) I do not deny that that evolutionary theory and religion may be made to “play nice” with each other. Only I find such attempts at reconciliation gratuitous, and lose my patience with them. I see no epistemic purpose served by them, and the other purposes they serve I do not, or do not wish to, share.

      *”Nothing succeeds in which high spirits have no part.”

    • Lee
      2014/07/22 at 17:04

      Hi Dyssebiea,

      Since you are an atheist, there would be no particular reason for you to have an interest in how religious folk reconcile their beliefs with science.

      For the most part, I don’t have much interest in that either. Most of what I’ve read on the subject misses the point, in my opinion.

      I am simply pointing out that evolutionary theory is “value neutral’ when it comes to the question of whether there is or isn’t a God. It doesn’t say anything salient either way. It is a theory of how material reality works. As such, it doesn’t make any predictions about whether there is or isn’t a God or a realm of spiritual reality.

      Like other things in nature, the mechanism of evolution simply exists. By itself, it has no particular meaning or purpose. Any meaning or purpose would be derived from something beyond and outside it. If there is nothing outside of nature, then it has no meaning or purpose at all.

      I do find it interesting that you are now speaking of purpose. Is there purpose within the realm of knowledge? And does this purpose affect whether something is or is not true?

      Incidentally, my favorite form of the aphorisms you quote is, “Where there’s no will, there’s no way.”

    • Lee
      2014/07/22 at 17:28

      About complexity:

      A denial of increasing complexity seems to depend on looking only at a particular window of time and space, and treating all variations in complexity within that window as random variations.

      Can you really deny, though, that in the universe as a whole there is a general increase in complexity from the time of the Big Bang to the present?

      For example, as I understand it, once conditions allowed for what we now call “elements” to exist, it consisted mostly of the least compound elements, such as hydrogen and helium. It was only over time that the more complex elements such as iron and plutonium were formed via fusion reactions in stars and other highly energetic bodies. So the later universe is populated with more complex elements, and therefore also more complex molecules and compounds, than was the early universe.

      As far as lifeforms, it seems undeniable that multi-celled organisms are more complex than single-celled organisms. And science tells us that single-celled organisms developed before multi-celled organisms did. Perhaps there is some forward and backward motion in complexity due to varying local conditions. But the overall trend in evolution over time as we see it on this earth is from less to more complexity.

      I therefore don’t see how it can be denied that if we look at the universe as a whole, and at our ecosystem as a whole, there has been a definite overall progression from less to more complexity over time.

      Whether or not biological or cosmological evolution (if I may use the term a bit loosely) necessarily involves an increase in complexity may be an interesting theoretical point to argue.

      But the fact of what has actually taken place in our universe and on our planet is that cosmological and biological evolution on the largest scales we can see and study has involved an overall, step-by-step increase in complexity over time.

    • 2014/07/22 at 20:33

      I do not think your aphorism is the same as Emerson’s or Nietzsche’s. As I understand yours, it focuses far more on intent and determination, whereas Emerson and Nietzsche were more concerned with mood, as I understand them. The German word Nietzsche uses can actually be translated “prankishness” in addition to “high spirits”, which brings out the contrast.

      Regarding complexity, sure, on some measures of complexity, in some systems, complexity has increased over time. (Of course, there is no one thing that is complexity, only different measures of complexity that work in limited domains.) But – what? I really have no idea why you’re insisting on the point. To me, it’s a stopping point. There’s no further inference to make. But because you are insisting on it, I suspect you have some inference you want to make. And that makes me uneasy – perhaps it made your first interlocutor uneasy, too.

    • Lee
      2014/07/22 at 21:01

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      Well, of course, lots of religious folk have said lots of nasty things about atheists over the years (and some atheists have returned the favor). And lots of religious folk have tried to convert atheists over the years (and some atheists have returned the favor). And, unfortunately, lots of religious folk have killed various atheists over the years (and some atheists have returned the favor). So it doesn’t surprise me that there is a certain uneasiness when a religious guy like me comes along and tries to make a point to an atheist.

      However, I have no particular bone to pick with atheists as a class, nor do I think I have to convert atheists to Christianity in order to save their immortal souls–and I certainly have no desire to visit injury or death upon atheists.

      Though I sometimes do fall back into my old argumentative ways, these days much of what drives me to engage in conversations with people who hold to belief systems quite different than mine is simple curiosity about what they believe and why.

      In this particular connection, the resistance to the idea of purpose, progress, development, and increase in complexity on the part of various atheists I’ve been in conversation with is interesting to me. I don’t know if there’s any inference I want to make with you. Maybe there is. But at least my conscious motive in pushing the issue is to gauge just how much resistance there is to these ideas.

      For my own part, I believe that all of these are operational in the universe–though perhaps not exactly in the way you might fear I’d try to press upon you.

      I suppose one of my “inferences” is the difference in results from various belief systems, based not on my previously held views or impressions of those belief systems, but on the statements of people who hold to them.

      Once again, I’m pretty much past trying to convince people of things that they’re not interested in or are opposed to. It’s an exercise in futility. People will believe whatever they want to believe whenever they’re in the mood to believe it.

  3. Lee
    2014/07/22 at 13:02

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    In an unrelated vein:

    You may be interested to know that I passed your Pierre Hadot recommendation on to a few of my fellow scholarly readers of Swedenborg. Perhaps that seed will germinate and bear some fruit after all.

    • 2014/07/22 at 14:09

      That is nice to hear. Only, I object to my atheism and love of Emerson being taken for “contradictory.” I would only say they are in “tension,” since from a contradiction everything follows, whereas from tension follows only – or so I hope – all the joys of thought.

      [This is a case where I worry my tone will not transmit clearly, so to be clear, this was written in the lightest and most jovial of moods.]

    • Lee
      2014/07/22 at 14:57

      Ha! I see that you followed the hit back to its source, and spied on my original! In my defense, like the fabled ump, “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.” 😛

      As it turns out, some of the Swedenborg scholars to whom I mentioned Hadot via email were either quite familiar with his writings or had gotten the same recommendation previously. There is apparently a natural fit with various statements Swedenborg made two or three centuries earlier.

  1. 2014/06/12 at 08:40
  2. 2014/07/03 at 00:34

Kindly perturb

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