The alienation wrought by a science that at every turn divorces the world from human interests is as good a trope as any, should one wish to go troping. What makes Emerson interesting is not the custom with which he begins, but the spiraling heights to which he takes it.
Emerson begins with a narcissistic objection to science: it fails to interest us. This is a serious failing, for, as Emerson tells us later, “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.” (1109) It fails to interest us because it does not tell us “what effect passes into the man.” (1099) We humans are narcissists collectively: “No object really interests us but man.” (1101) The laws in nature we care for only insofar as they have some relation to us. If science insists on denying these relations, we will have done with it.
Moreover, failure to satisfy this narcissism marks a failure of self-confidence: “We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. […] A right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.” (1100)
Science alienates, and must be remade human – this is Emerson’s opening gambit, and while finely expressed, does not alone suffice. The turn comes when Emerson revisits the question of what interests us: “Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond.” (1104) Here there is somewhat of a rejection of the earlier narcissism: now what is beautiful stems only from necessity, and what “is done to be seen” is base. (1104) Beauty exists not for its own sake, but as the byproduct of some usefulness.
Applied to the dead objects of science, this usefulness is found in our ability to give them some aim, by which their necessity is revealed. They cease to be ornaments then. So too humans: without some aim, we too are ornamental, and may be done without. “The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression.” (1104-05)
But narcissism returns: “The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form.” (1107) Not only science is subordinate to the human; so too is art, and all of nature. It is no coincidence that Emerson calls such artistic and natural beauty “shadows” – one cannot help but recall Plato’s shadows. Why turn to the shadows of art and trees when the sun of humanity shines?
Now, however, this narcissism is cut with the realization that we are interested in what currently lies beyond us. “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.” (1107) This is as it must be, for though the human form is the paradigm of beauty, actual humans are all lacking. “Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly.” (1108)
This is a serious charge, for Emerson has noted the classic criterion of beauty: symmetry. That is what we lack. “Our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us.” (1108) Our bodies are out of proportion, not just physically, but in their distribution of talents and capabilities as well. How, then, can they be beautiful? How can we make them beautiful?
Emerson’s phrasing is crucial. He describes human faces as subjected to whim and folly – whim especially standing in opposition to necessity. “Beauty rests on necessities.” (1106) One might then think that whim is to be eliminated, that we ought to strive after perfect symmetry. This would be to ignore Emerson’s famous declaration of self-reliance, that he would write “Whim” on his doorpost. Emerson of course qualifies this – hopes it is better than whim in the end – but whim is still the starting point. The route to beauty is through whim, through the caricatured parts of us. That is why what is called for is self-reliance – reliance on just those biases and partialities that make us ourselves and not another.
Emerson’s thought moves in this direction from every angle: it is the supreme meeting point of his philosophy, where all the threads are tied together. The fundamental problem of human life is that we are partial, we are mixed: there is a material side of us, that wants bread, and usefulness, and power, and an ideal side of us, that wants art, and beauty, and morals. Self-reliance, an embrace of partiality, an acceptance of both aspects of the mixture (and a recognition that the material is not base, but foundation), is Emerson’s solution. This is what he means when he says, at various times, that nature always makes her agents headstrong in their strengths – this caricaturesque quality is what makes it possible for them to act at all. This is why, though he loves symmetry and the general, he does not love the perfect generalist, who has no tools for specific situations, and so is useless. This is why he rejects all forms of idealism that do not acknowledge their material origins: they are pale, and bloodless.
We are of mixed inheritance, “physically as well as metaphysically thing[s] of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors.” (1108) In such a state, a certain narcissism is needed, even if we may hope it is something better than narcissism in the end.