Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Skepsis, sepsis, and epanalepsis

Skepsis, sepsis, and epanalepsis

Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?

Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.

Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:

When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)

The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]

The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.

At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.

Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.

We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?

In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.

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