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Self and circumstance

2014/04/26 5 comments

My jumping off point today is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Mrs Morel, early in the novel (ch. 3), is tending to her sick husband (Morel), a man she once, but not longer, loved. Because of the completion of the “ebbing” of her love, she is tolerant of him—more tolerant than if she had still loved him. Why should this be? Lawrence’s narrator offers the following explanation:

Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.

Love is here characterized as the assimilation of another to oneself. There is a fundamental division between self and circumstance: in love, the lover moves the loved from the side of circumstance to the side of self. This provides, perhaps, a way of understanding the Christian conception of husband and wife as “one flesh”—a conception that likely serves as the backdrop for the passage.

What is more interesting to me, however, is the quasi-Stoic psychology the passage invokes. Again, the passage offers an explanation of Mrs Morel’s tolerance for her husband in terms of her loss of love for him. There is a more distant relationship between a self and its circumstance than between a self and itself. Circumstances matter to us only insofar as they impinge upon our selves in some way, whereas we feel directly what happens to our selves. There is thus made possible our taking an indifferent, tolerant attitude toward our circumstances: it becomes easier to take them as they are. Applied to the case of Mrs Morel: with the loss of her love, her husband becomes part of the circumstance, hence more distant, hence more tolerable.

I called this psychology quasi-Stoic: Stoic because it mirrors the Stoics’ sharp distinction between the ruling center (the seat of reason, one’s self) and everything else, but only quasi-Stoic because, unlike the Stoics, Lawrence’s narrator accepts that the boundary is malleable, that it may change over the course of our lives.

Natura non facit saltus, as Linnaeus would say, but my artifice allows me to start anew, from a distant point, and weave my way back to the themes of the forgoing discussion. Since taking a seminar on the human/animal boundary last year, I have found my mind constantly returning to the theme, though never settling on a particular way of drawing (or refusing to draw) the divide—as, perhaps, it should be. This passage from Sons and Lovers returned me again to those winding paths. The scenario in the novel is intriguing precisely because, in love, something (someone) that is in some sense external to Mrs Morel becomes a part of herself, only to lose this status later. But “external” is a notoriously nebulous term, as is its opposite. Its sense must be fixed clearly before it becomes sensible. In this case, I see two relevant senses in which Morel is external to Mrs Morel. Biologically, they are two separate individuals, two distinct members of Homo sapiens. So also psychologically, Morel is another mind: Mrs Morel cannot share his consciousness, nor he hers. Yet they become, for a time, one.

This suggests to me a way of drawing the human/animal boundary, if perhaps in a merely transient, locally useful way: humans are the animals that can draw boundaries around themselves that do not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries—or, better, since Mrs Morel did not so much draw a boundary around herself as find that it had changed without her efforts: humans are the animals the boundaries of whose selves need not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries. I shall call this sense of self the “drawn self”. I do not like the phrase, but have none better.

Lawrence explores one way these selves may fail to coincide: the boundaries around one’s drawn self may include something biologically or psychologically external. I am here interested, however, in the opposite case, the case in which part of one’s biological and psychological self is left out of one’s drawn self. I am interested in self-mistrust, in skepticism of the body.

I must be clear what is not my concern. Our psychological and biological selves are not identical, and many traditions (including both the Stoic and the Christian traditions) have promoted a form of self-mistrust: they allied themselves with the mind (psychological) against the body (biological). Indeed, this was supposed to give us the human/animal boundary: the struggle of the mind/reason against the body/passions was the struggle of our humanity against our animality. This is not what interests me. That sharp split between the mind (the Stoic ruling center, the Christian seat of free will) is no longer believable. The mind is just a “region” of the body, just as evolved and animal as every other part, and it is not a special domain of “control” over the other parts, mysteriously exempt from ineluctable causality. So my interest is not in that asceticism in which the mind attempts to dominate the body—this is just one way in which the body may struggle against itself, and a way that seems to me based on mistaken premises.

My interest is rather in a self-mistrust that reflects the unity of mind and body, that sees aspects even of one’s own mind as not oneself, but as part of one’s circumstance. I see Nietzsche as a precursor of this thought, exemplified by his injunction against trusting one’s feelings: feelings are simply the residue of our ancestor’s judgments, inherited without our inheriting also the judgments. To trust one’s feelings would then be a form of conformity to circumstance.

So we are to reject parts of our biological selves, on the grounds that they are not part of our drawn selves. What attitude does this entail? If they are not part of our drawn self, they are part of our circumstance—often a harmful part. I suspect, for this reason, that we cannot maintain Stoic indifference toward these parts of our circumstance. They compete for control of our action and thought and so must be struggled against, perpetually—they cannot be accepted as the will of divine reason.

What am I to do with this, I who find myself so drawn to philosophies of self-reliance (including Nietzsche’s own)? What does self-reliance amount to, when the boundaries of my self are so shifting, when much of what is internal to my biological or psychological selves is not truly mine, when self-reliance entails a constant struggle against myself? How am I to identify what is my own, and what not?—but this question is poorly phrased: who is this “I” who is choosing? What can be trusted? Who trusts?

I have done all this work just to reach this point. Again and again I run up against it, but I cannot see my way past it, never before, and not now. I have done this work to reach the point of having more work to do. I suppose that is well.

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Circumstance and principle

I. Politics as Animal

In a representative passage of “Politics”, Emerson writes,

A cent is the representative of a certain quantity of corn or other commodity. Its value is in the necessities of the animal man. (562)

Much of the essay is has something of an exculpatory tone: Emerson opposes the moralization of politics, and does so because of the animal origins of human politics. While he never makes the connections to animals we might now find obvious (e.g. to hierarchical social structures in other apes), there is a constant theme of animality running through the discussion. Political parties, for instance, are the products of “benign necessity” (563):

Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. (564)

Even if the consequences of a party’s policies and actions are, in the final count, harmful, there is something mistaken in critiquing them in a specifically moral manner, as if the instinctive protection of one’s own interests could be controlled. A common theme in the western discourse on the human/animal boundary is precisely that of the distinction (whether in degree or in kind) between the instinctual, unthinking animal and the rational, instinctless human. Emerson’s highlighting of what is instinctual in politics, against this backdrop, is a clear implication of politics being something animal, and his further reference to the east wind and the frost suggests an even less volitional region of nature.

Moreover, for Emerson, this animal underpinning of politics is not merely exculpatory and ineluctable: it is desirable. Given the choice between animal behavior that is local, relative to only very close circumstances and human behavior in accordance with absolute principles, Emerson takes the animal. He distinguishes between parties of circumstance (animal) and parties of principle (human), favoring the former:

Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment, degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. (564)

The danger of allowing the human into politics is that what will be allowed in will, in fact, be what Nietzsche would later call the “all too human”. Better an abolitionist movement based on the animal perception of the sheer intolerability of slavery (better, slavery in 19th century America)than one based on the notion of, say, “equal rights”. [It is worth noting that Emerson, toward the start of his essay, notes two roles of government: the respect of persons, and of property. He comes down, after a fashion, on the side of property, on the side of interests rather than ideals.]

Parties of circumstance, by contrast, even where they are diametrically opposed in what they favor, “are identical in their moral character,” and “can easily change ground with each other, in the support of many of their measures.” (564) They are not beholden to a principle fixed a priori—in this way they capture what is fluid in nature.

Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it… (559)

This fluidity is essential for Emerson. As an experimental philosopher, Emerson returns again and again to a central fear: a fear of the hand that reaches out of the past to grip us by the throat. In politics, as everywhere, this fear recurs for him, so he is anxious to insist that “every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (559)—that is, all politics is circumstantial, and none should be taken as a principle. About our government and its laws, we are restricted in what we may say: “They are not better, but only fitter for us.” (563) Emerson’s fear of principles here is the fear of shackles. Animal politics, for Emerson, promises freedom.

II. Politics as human

I had intended, as the idea for this essay first arose, to detail not just what is animal in Emerson’s view of politics, but also what is distinctively human. What I have just written is entirely from the first half of the history, and as it feel into place for me, I came to expect Emerson’s inevitable reversal. Emerson would only go into such detail about what is animal in politics if he needed to do so as a form of preparation for an investigation of politics on the other side of the human/animal boundary. Emerson confounded this plan, as he is wont to do all plans that would corral him.

Emerson does, to an extent, locate a human side to politics that is not merely the “all too human” face we saw before. For instance, he calls “absolute right” the “first governor,” and claims, “every government is an impure theocracy.” (566) Every government aims at bending its law to the will of the wise man, but since, “the wise man, it cannot find in nature,”

…it makes awkward but earnest efforts to secure his government by contrivance; as, by causing the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or, by a double choice to get the representation of the whole; or, by a selection of the best citizens; or, to secure the advantages of efficiency and internal peace, by confiding the government to one, who may himself select his agents. (566)

Here is a vision of government as aspiring to an ideal, an absolute, to which only a human can aspire. It finds its figurehead in the image of the wise man. But the wise man cannot be found in nature—perhaps this means we are to take the wise man as above nature, or perhaps merely as unreal. Yet Emerson does speak, later of “the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government, is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.” (567)

The circumstances surrounding the wise man’s appearance, however, are curious. I cannot take it as anything but significant that the wise man is “principal”—but not “principle.” Right from the beginning of the essay, Emerson connects the “man of strong will” and the “man of truth” (559) with the fluidity above discussed. What characterizes the wise man is not some special universality, some absolute principle, but (a) the choosing of what is fit for oneself, and (b) the refusal to insist on extending this judgment to another:

Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. (566-567)

All of the animality of the first half of the essay comes rushing back. The wise man is characterized by a refusal to say that a course of action is “better” (a turn of phrase that, because it makes no reference to any individual, suggest universality)—rather only that it is “fitter for himself.” Often times, this may lead to collaboration between him and his neighbor, but this collaboration is only “for a time,” and there is always the risk of shifting to conflict in which neither merits moral condemnation.

I hardly want to say that Emerson identifies the wise man with the animal. There is a distinction to be drawn, though I do not pretend right now to know how to characterize it. What I do claim is that, given a choice between the animal and the human, the circumstantial and the principled, between property and person, Emerson chooses, again and again, the first term of the two, and when turns to finding what valuably human in politics, he models his picture on the animal. We are left with a wise man of resolutely animal origin, perhaps with something added—but not, above all, anything personal.

Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.

Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.

Scientific and analogical history

2013/11/09 1 comment

By what is perhaps a lucky coincidence, the human/animal seminar I am taking arrived at Nie­tzsche (from whom we are reading On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense and On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life) at the same time as I concluded Emerson’s ad­dresses and lectures—next up is his first book of essays, which begins with his essay on history. (In fact, I completed the addresses and lectures a month or so ago, but simply have not had time to push forward with the essays until now.) My intent for this post was to bolster my Emerson-Nietzsche metempsychosis hypothesis, which in fact was bolstered by reading Emerson on history shortly after reading Nietzsche on history. (Nietzsche’s essay in fact contains two references to Emerson, though not to “History”.) However, I after reading the essay, I am more interested in something that is more internal to Emerson than it is comparative. Nevertheless, I find Nietzsche at the start of this path, if only for a time. (Nietzsche citations, designated UD, are to the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations used in the previous post. Emerson citations, designated H, are to his Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America.)

Nietzsche distinguishes three sorts of history that may aid life: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. Antiquarian history preserves what is old, looking on it with “love and loyalty” (UD 72). Antiquarian history functions by preserving “for those who shall come into existence after [the antiquarian historian] the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life” (UD 73). It is of the least interest here. Critical history serves to “break up and dissolve a part of the past” by showing it worthy of being condemned (UD 75). This is not difficult: “every past, however, is worthy to be condemned, for that is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them” (UD 76). This sort of history is exemplified by Nietzsche’s own genealogical work, which is nothing but a critical history of morality (and Christianity) for the sake of condemning it. Foucault’s work also falls in this category. It is a dangerous form of history. It can easily lead to a debilitating skepticism and ultimately catatonia, because it is a universal acid: every past, subjected to critical history, turns out to be worthy of condemnation. So it must be used selectively: it is a tool by which life can act to free itself from some bondage, but it should not be pursued for its own sake.

Lastly, there is monumental history. Nietzsche occasionally engages in this, but I think it is on the whole best exemplified by Emerson. Monumental history serves the “man of the present” by showing him “that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again” (UD 69)—it shows, in short, what is possible, and fortifies him who would achieve it. Characteristic of monumental history is a sort of violence against truth: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UD 69)

As I read it, Emerson’s “History” is a straightforward call for monumental history, though perhaps not of a sort identical to Nietzsche’s. Emerson insists, right from the start, on two points: (a) “There is on mind common to all individual men.” (b) Of the works of this mind history is the record” (H 237). Emerson later develops this thought when he claims that history is more or less a set of variations on a few themes: the laws of this universal mind. In this way, Emerson effects the overlooking of details Nietzsche mentions: in all of history there are but a few patterns to be isolated. All of history is to be shoved into a universal mould. (Incidentally, anyone who has experienced the way Emerson more or less indiscriminately lumps names together as exemplars of some point can attest that Emerson diligently adhered to this doctrine in his own reliance on history.)

But this reduction of history to a few laws is not to be achieved scientifically. There is purification by means of overlooking irrelevant details, but this is not to be accomplished experimentally or scientifically. Rather, it is to be accomplished analogically. “Nature is full of sublime family likeness throughout her works; and delights in startling us with resemblances in the most unexpected quarters” (H 243). The examples that immediately follow this statement make it clear that these likenesses are analogical, not causal.

Analogies, however, are easy to come by. What can lend any sort of rigor to history performed in this manner? Surely it must end up lax and undisciplined. As usual, for Emerson, the route to the universal begins by burrowing into oneself. “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible” (H, 238). What in history cannot be corroborated by private experience is to be ignored. In this way, there is a dual movement in which private facts are generalized, and public facts privatized.

History, so achieved, is not a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. History should show us what is possible and give us the strength to achieve it—Emerson is in this a monumental historian—but it does not cover any ground for us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know” (H 240). Indeed, in a way, the more history there is, the greater the mind’s task, for “We must in ourselves see the necessary reason of every fact,—see how it could and must be” (H 240).

History illuminates to us our own biography, even as our own biography orders and justifies history. History, then, can never outstrip biography. “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary” (H 239)—with the result that “History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime” (H 246). There is nothing but self-knowledge to be found in history.

Most fascinating about this last quote, to me, is the equivalence between History being “fluid” and History being “true”. Normally we think of what is stable as true, which would in this case be the stable facts of history, scientifically undertaken. But, for Emerson, what is stable and material is secondary to what is fluid and ideal, to relations. Emersonian history is true, when it is true, because it is fluid. (There is more on this in my post on the transparent eyeball passage of Nature.)

Emerson grows impatient with history undertaken scientifically: science acts then precisely as an undertaker, and history is carried out like a corpse. Emerson’s vision of history is one that is, he believes, unrealized except in the rare case: “Nay, what does history yet record of the metaphysical annals of man? What light does it shed on those mysteries which we hide under the names Death and Immortality?” (H 256). At the essay’s emotional summit, Emerson implores self-reliance over servitude to the material facts:

What is our life but an endless flight of winged facts or events! In splendid variety these changes come, all putting questions to the human spirit. Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him. (H 252)

When there is this possibility in view, who would choose slavery? “Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeards and in churches” (H 242).

— — Interlude: My original plan for this post shows its face here: I cannot resist quoting the following passage from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, to be read in light of the foregoing. “That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions.” (Page 152 in the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.) End interlude. — —

This opposition between mastery over and slavery to the facts is, I think, the core of Emerson’s essay on history—and Nietzsche’s, too. There is a needy life that clings to facts as the beams and boards of a ship, because it has no answer of its own to give them. And there is the self-reliant life that confronts these facts as material for play of the most deadly serious sort, taking those it can use, rearranging them in the most interesting and vital combinations, revealing what is fluid and eternal in nature. Incidentally, my response to those who claim that On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is an immature essay of Nietzsche’s, full of views he thankfully overcame, is that such a view is superficial. Nietzsche there is asking the same questions about the value of truth that he asked throughout his career: just how valuable is truth for life. Like Emerson before him, he claimed truth should serve life, and not the other way around.

I want to end with what remains, for me, an aporia. Emerson supposes we encounter the universal by self-reliance. Yet, for Emerson, there is no stable self. “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world” (H 254). Relations, as we have seen, are fluid, are subject to change. Indeed, Emerson knew this as well as anyone: the self-reliant man is not necessarily consistent (recall Emerson’s account of hobgoblins), is not chained to his past. The self on which one relies is not yet accomplished when one approaches history: history indeed is a guide to one’s “unattained but attainable self” (H 239). Yet it is self-reliance that is supposed to guide the approach to history. Thus there is a Meno problem for Emerson: if the self is attained, we do not need history, but if the self is not attained, we end up slaves to historical fact, for we lack the resources to approach history. (This same problem arises for the Nietzschean imperative to become who one is.) How is this problem to be resolved? Once again, I must end:

I do not know.