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Egotism and individuality

In his essay on “Power,” Emerson deferred his usual countermovement, and allowed himself to extol pure imposing power without admixture. Only two essays later in The Conduct of Life, when his subject turns to “Culture,” does the turn arrive. The essay begins by raising three related problems, to which culture offers some solution:

  1. Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
  2. Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
  3. All individualism is secured through egotism.

What we are good at, we do. To move to a new arena requires learning new skills, a period of apprenticeship, and reticence to forgo our expertise thus keeps us in the realm of our established talent. The purpose of culture, with respect to this problem, is to call in other powers as a defense against this domineering power. “Culture reduces these inflammations by invoking the aid of other powers against the dominant talent, and by appealing to the rank of powers.” (1015)

The second problem is similar. Talent and efficiency require concentration. Nothing is accomplished without specialization. Emerson hammered the point home in the essay on power: “The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” (982) But now this is seen as “overload[ing] him with bias, sacrificing his symmetry to his working power.” (1015) The end result is that “no man can write but one book” – and how true this is: Shakespeare wrote but one sonnet, Nabokov but one novel, Rothko painted and repainted a single painting, and Feldman’s compositions are all, at base, the same. The value of culture lies in promoting symmetry, in expanding outward in multiple directions. If power is a specialist, culture is a generalist.

But it is the third problem that is worst. “But worse than the harping on one string, Nature has secured individualism, by giving the private person a high conceit of his weight in the system. The pest of society is egotists.” (1015) Here individualism is distinguished from egotism – individualism is, I suppose, being a well-formed, resolute individual, who does not bend to every external influence, whereas egotism is a conceited view of one’s own worth. Such a distinction is the sort that might be taken to show that Emerson wishes to contrast his doctrine of self-reliance with egotism – it may be a form of individualism, but egotism it is not. That is a mistake.

Emerson here is making a descriptive remark about the world: the way, as a matter of unalterable fact, that individualism is secured is through egotism. Emerson made this same point in an earlier essay: such conceit is the sine qua non of all action. But mixed in with this description is the appearance of a value judgment: egotism is a “disease” and a “goitre.” (1015-6) Well, Emerson admits it has its downsides, but he infers from the unalterable fact that egotism has some use: “This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons, that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves.” (1016) And this use is individuality: “so egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.”

If individuality is distinct from egotism, it is because it has an additional element – culture. “The end of culture is not to destroy [individuality], God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.” (1016-7) The function of culture is to act as a sieve, as a purifying agent – exactly as it was described in the essay on power.

This leaves culture in a secondary position: egotism is the basis, and culture goes to work on this basis. Culture does not precede it, and without it culture is empty. It is striking, for an essay purportedly extolling culture and its tempering effect on power, just how sparing a role Emerson leaves for culture. He will grant its value, but prefers solitude:

We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously, and haughtily, – and will yield their best values to him who best can do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. (1028)

Solitude is the workspace of genius – and also of egotism. One pole of Emerson’s conception of genius is that it consists of an outward expansion, the imposition of the individual on what lies outside the individual, or, to condense this to a word: egotism. And this requires solitude.

But there is something to those who would see an impersonal element in Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance. I contend only that one cannot understand what this impersonal element is without seeing that Emerson’s insistence on self-reliance is an insistence on a form of egotism – as it must be, if it is to be worthy of the name. What is this impersonal element, then?

We say solitude, to mark the character of the tone of thought; but if it can be shared between two or more than two, it is happier, and not less noble. (1028)

Emerson’s impersonal is egotism shared.

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