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Emerson on fate

Emerson’s English Traits is a much different work from his essays, and I have not yet learned to read it. I cannot, then, go over the movements of its thought as I would like. Instead, I will take a single passage, in which Emerson invokes a conception of Fate, and use it to make two points about Emerson’s general method. Here is the passage:

In the barbarous days of a nation, some cultus is formed or imported; altars are built, tithes are paid, priests ordained. The education and expenditure of the country take that direction, and when wealth, refinement, great men, and ties to the world, supervene, its prudent men say, why fight against Fate, or lift these absurdities which are now mountainous? Better find some niche or crevice in this mountain of stone which religious ages have quarried and carved, wherein to bestow yourself, than attempt any thing ridiculously and dangerously above your strength, like removing it. (883)

Fate is encrusted custom, and admits of two responses. You may “find some niche or crevice… wherein to bestow yourself,” or you may “attempt any thing ridiculously and dangerously above your strength, like removing it.” Emerson takes for granted the absurdity of the custom, and perhaps there are semi-narcissistic grounds to think all customs absurd, since, after all, I do not choose them; rather they are thrust upon me. Custom is geological, formed over eons by the accumulating actions of small forces, until it forms the fixed landscape we see today.

This is Fate, and by giving it is this name Emerson indicates the more usual response. Fate is precisely fatalistic—whatever one does, the outcome remains the same. Why fight against what will survive all such struggles? Obviously it is better to accommodate yourself, to carve out a small space of your own. Moreover, because Emerson sees the habits of an individual as a sort of custom, the view might be extended: I have acted this way in the past, therefore I must keep acting this way, and work around it.

It is the name that gives it away, however. It is not because this is Fate that one is better off accommodating oneself than resisting. It is because one has chosen to accommodate oneself that one calls it Fate—and so casts resistance as effete. It is a conservative and slothful mind that calls custom Fate, and a more vigorous, liberal mind would find a new name.

Below the surface, by connecting the name so closely to the response, Emerson removes Fate as an active power in the world, and places it in the human mind, as an aspect of a particular way of viewing the world. This is the first aspect of Emerson’s method I wished to highlight. It is one form taken by Emerson’s idealism.

In bringing this aspect to light, I introduced one of Emerson’s favorite dualisms, though one that does not occur in the passage cited: that between liberals and conservatives, or between democrats and aristocrats—so far as I can tell, Emerson uses the two sets of names relatively interchangeably. Since Emerson is often seen as an origin point for American pragmatism—that philosophy characterized by Dewey’s disgust with a “whole brood and nest of dualisms”—it is worth thinking about Emerson’s response to dualisms. His relation to the transcendence of dualisms is distinct from that of the pragmatists.

There is a longing for transcendence in Emerson. It comes out especially strongly at the end of the essay on Napoleon. Emerson has reduced democrat and aristocrat alike to believers in property: “both parties stand on the one ground of the supreme value of property, which one endeavors to get, and the other to keep.” (744) Thus “the aristocrat is the democrat ripe, and gone to seed”—in other words, the democrat who has won property, and doesn’t want it taken away by the new crop of democrats. Both are believers in property; only they find themselves on different sides of it. As the essay ends, Emerson voices a longing to transcend this love of property:

As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men. (745)

One might read Emerson here as advocating a property-less society. I do not believe Emerson has this in mind, at least not as a practical reform. So long as there is a state in which some may eat well with time for luxury left over, while others make slaves of themselves just to eat, there will be property, and its two sides. This and other dualisms persist because—if I may—there is something fatalistic about them.

Why, then, the longing for transcendence? The situation, as Emerson finds it, is this: we are caught between dualisms, and forced to choose a side. Yet each side is partial. Neither stands completely for the true, the good. No matter one’s choice, one forgoes, to some extent, what is right. Thus the longing for transcendence, for the third option that finally promises completeness. This longing is healthy—to a point. Emerson describes, in “The Transcendentalist”, the idealist who decries this partiality:

Your virtuous projects, so called, do not cheer me. I know that which shall come will cheer me. If I cannot work, at least I need not lie. All that is clearly due today-day is not to lie. The martyrs were sawn asunder, or hung alive on meat-hooks. Cannot we screw our courage to patience and truth, and without complaint, or even with good-humor, await our turn of action in the Infinite Counsels? (204-5)

This character, the transcendentalist, waits.

‘Then,’ says the world, ‘show me your own.’
‘We have none.’
‘What will you do, then?’ cries the world.
‘We will wait.’
‘How long?’
‘Until the Universe rises up and calls us to work.’
‘But whilst you wait, you grow old and useless.’
‘Be it so…’ (204)

The transcendentalist, the one who waits for, for instance, property to be transcended, waits indefinitely, and probably perpetually. The one who waits to act until a complete, impartial action remains, waits forever, and never acts. This is contrasted with “the man of the world” (recall the subtitle of the Napoleon essay) who believes in property, and acts. Indeed, the longing to overcome one dualism—that of democrat and aristocrat—has set us down in another: between the transcendentalist and the man of the world. Again, both choices are partial. The one is virtuous for refusing to lie, for refusing partiality, but is vicious for being effete, for being unable to act, for waiting and waiting only. The other is virtuous for being able to act, but only because of belief in miserable property, only because he embraces partiality.

This is the second aspect of Emerson’s method, the leaping from dualism to dualism, leaving them always untranscended (however much he longs to transcend them). As I understand them, the pragmatists believed they had found a way to transcend dualisms of this sort (if not these particular ones I have discussed). In this respect, Emerson was no pragmatist.

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