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Skepticism at the margins VII: Creativity as an error

“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (487) Why should it be unhappy to dis­cover that we exist? Consider how, in “Experience”, Emerson defines ‘happiness’: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” (478) But to know that you exist, that you act, that you might have acted differently—how is this possible without leaving a “crevice”? So there is an inherent unhappiness in our awareness. Much of the Emersonian task—and the Nietzschean task to come—is to recover joy in the face of this unhappiness.

Immediately preceding Emerson’s recharacterization of the image of the Fall is a reflection on skepticism: “The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (487) There is a skeptical undercurrent running throughout the essay, as when, earlier, Emerson writes what I find the most wonderful sentence in perhaps his entire corpus, “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (480) Here then is a source of skepticism: for no course of action can we have absolute certainty—each is beset by some objection. Were we Cartesians about actions, refusing to act without such assurance, we would all be lumps.

And yet, and yet, does not Emerson tell us what is spiritual just a few pages earlier? Does he not say, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence” (475)? Just as Descartes resolved his skepticism by an appeal to God, Emerson seems to turn to the divine—only he locates it within the self. There, in self-reliance, we find the stable ground for action, the possibility of certainty. Descartes’ solution was a cop-out; Emerson is not so sanguine. For Emerson finds, lurking beneath the spiritual, the self-evidencing, a still deeper skepticism. It is here, on this shifting ground, that he must find his affirmation, must plant his foundation.

Let us return to the Fall. “Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” (487) Specifically, we suspect our perception of the world: we see through lenses tinted by our values. “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” (487) And then comes the crucial point: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” (487) Our evaluations are something creative: they make objects—say, a good man or an evil man—where there was none before. Here is idealism, and one can easily nod here, yes, yes, we know Emerson is an idealist—and in this fashion nod off. But Emerson is not just espousing a tired idealism. He is locating beneath it a disturbing skepticism: all our creativity in valuing, all our self-reliance, all our self-evidencing spirituality—all this may be in error.

That is why “the whole frame of things preaches indifferency.” (478) What is real, in the sense of mind-independent, does not support our values. It is Epicurean, random. What is creative and divine is something mind-dependent, something with no basis beyond ourselves. It is our “Fall” to have come to know this, to be unable to reify our values naively. The possibility of self-reliant affirmation remains, but no longer may it be done self-consciously—happily, if you will. For the crevice is always there, and skepticism leaks in, lingers at the margins. Can it be turned into an affirmation? Well, that is the question, isn’t it?

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Dickinson’s vital death

There is something wrong with reading a Dickinson poem in isolation, or so it seems to me. For every poem I am compelled to ask: but where is your brother who questions you? Where is your sister who answers your question? Your mood is contractive, withdrawn—where then is your expansive counterpart? Your mood is impeccably expansive—where does the skepticism you cannot avoid find voice, if not within your confines? Only on a few happy occasions have I located such conversations between her poems—the last gave rise to my first post about her work—but yesterday I found another, and should like to report on what I overheard.

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –

Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vitally –

The poem is born in violence: the searing of a sapling, the scalping of a tree, but then nature is violent, which is precisely why it provides Dickinson such a good model for the soul. I am speaking generally, however, for here nature is no such model—indeed is set against the soul. What Dickinson shows us is the aftermath of this violence, the effect of it: it is a sort of vital death. For while the sapling or tree may die when so struck by lightning—I cannot but treat nature’s instrument here as lightning, for a reason that will be apparent once we see the second poem—it is recollected by her “Green People”.

Dickinson’s choice of the word ‘recollect’ is fascinating. It plays on two, maybe three, senses of the word. The first sense is the obvious one, the recollection that goes on in our memory all the time. Nature remembers her dead in their offspring—that is the testimony of the fainter leaves. Yet there is also a second, material sense of the word. Trees are, after all, mere collections of matter, and that collection is disrupted in the searing or scalping, but it may then be re-collected—indeed this is the mechanism of nature’s remembrance. Then there is a third sense, really a modification or enlarging of the first, if we recall Plato’s theory of recollection in this context: all knowledge is recollection of previously known truth. The new trees of further seasons are recollections of the old equally in this Platonic sense: new embodiments of an old truth, perhaps the oldest.

Through this rich notion of recollection—Dickinson condenses so much into a single word!—we get a sense of the vitality inherent in this death. Here we must make a distinction between vitality/productivity/creativity and what I will call inventiveness. Inventiveness is the production of the new, but of what is new in but a relative sense. For examples of inventiveness, in poetry for instance, encompass the inventions of new techniques. But this amounts only to rearrangements of words, and the same pattern will hold true for any example of inventiveness you care to show me. Inventiveness produces new arrangements, but hop down a level and the matter is the same. What is vital about the death of the trees, however, is not this sort of inventiveness that is fully compatible with the non-existence of anything new; rather it is the re-production of the old, its recollection. Of course this recollection does not produce identical forms—which would amount to the adherence to tradition that is the age-old opponent of inventiveness or “innovation”—and so there is room for inventiveness within it. Only now this inventiveness is not for the sake of finding the new because the old does not satisfy, is not enough, but because what exists is insufficient for the expression of the old. The vitality of the death of the trees is, as a fictitious version of Beckett might have put it, that vitality that finds the old forever untried.

In contrast to this stand the humans, those who have the souls. Dickinson carefully refers to the trees’ testimony as dumb, as silent—in short, as lacking language, that defining characteristic of we ensouled ones. Only now, instead of serving as a source of our dignity, our souls seem to be a hindrance, for we, unlike the trees, “Die oftener – Not so vitally –“. Dickinson does not expand on this, leaving only questions. Is it language that strips our death of vitality? Or if not, just what is it about our souls that strips our deaths of this vitality? And why do we die “oftener”?

Good questions all. But one question itself sears, and will sear until it is answered. Dickinson, I see you spiraling inward, see you contracting around this skeptical thought, but where is the outward movement that will redeem you?

He fumbles at your Soul

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –

Fumbling

This poem is linked to the last by a word and an image. The word is primary: before a tree was scalped; now it is your naked soul. Before, the agent went unmentioned; now, it is lightning—and thus I cannot but read the other poem as detailing the aftermath of a lightning strike. The poem is a description of the process leading up to this strike—first stanza—as well as its aftermath—second stanza. There is someone, an unnamed “He” who is the source of the strike, and you, the recipient. The process is likened to him warming up at an instrument, of which you are the strings, fumbling before the real show starts. Tentativeness and mistakes characterize this period, but these “fainter Hammers” serve as preparation, and then—the moment arrives.

Preparing

That is a clumsy description of the poem: it lacks sensitivity to how the poem operates. For while the poem describes, it also and more importantly enacts. At each point, what the poem says is happening in this process, the poem is also itself doing. Consider the first eight and a half lines, until “Then nearer –“. The poem itself is fumbling, not quite establishing a rhythm: we have two long sequences—20 and 19 syllables, respectively—in which no dashes occur to provide room for a breath, and each is followed by short gasps, first of six syllables after the first passage, then two quick gasps of three syllables each after the second. The poem itself cannot catch its breath.

But this is still preparation for what is to come, and this preparation soon takes definite form. For just as Dickinson says that the fainter hammers come “so slow / Your Breath has time to straighten –“, the poem itself evens out, first with a calm ten syllables in which our breath does indeed straighten. Then it slows even more as our brain bubbles cool, and we begin to feel what it describes. And then— — —the four, short, emphatic bursts in which the thunderbolt is dealt—and my own soul is scalped. Lastly, then, the soft rustling of the final stanza, and, between two dashes, the final island of stillness.

Dealing

Perhaps it is language that, in the prior poem, cuts us off from vital death. If that is so, this poem seeks to remedy this loss, for the process it causes in the reader is just such a vital death. Why do I say this? The poem is linked to the previous by a word and an image—I cannot take that as accidental, even if the linkage really amounts only to the word. Do I have more conclusive evidence of a genuine link? I do not, except the shivers that dance up and down my spine, the bubbling that cooled and hardened and left a stillness to everything, the woods in which I read the poem, rustled by the paws of wind. This is an old truth I sense; the question is, can I give it form.

Stillness

Three Reversals in Emerson’s “The Method of Nature”

2013/08/02 3 comments

One of Emerson’s favorite rhetorical techniques is the reversal: at one point in an essay, with a particular aim in mind, he says one thing; at a later point, perhaps only a page or paragraph later, he says the opposite. I have already looked at this technique in relation to the transparent eyeball passage of Emerson’s Nature, though there I took into account more than mere reversals. Here I want to look at the masterful use Emerson makes of reversals in “The Method of Nature”, which ranks among his best essays. I want to show how Emerson uses the technique to protect himself and his readers from a dangerous mistake (a mistake that careless critics nonetheless attribute to him). As always, I am using the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures, and page references are to that volume.

First Reversal

In the first paragraph of the essay, Emerson contrasts scholarly work with the “material interest” that predominates in America. He bemoans,

We hear something too much of the results of machinery, commerce, and the useful arts. We are a puny and a fickle folk. Avarice, hesitation, and following, are our diseases. (115)

Against this, the scholar:

The scholars are the priests of that thought which establishes the foundations of the earth. No matter what is their special work or profession, they stand for the spiritual interest of the world. (115)

It is a complaint still heard today that we are too crassly materialist, that we need some higher principle of life than mere usefulness or pleasure. Such complaints are the favorites of those who want to advance tired arguments for religion, and I don’t doubt the same was true in Emerson’s day. This creates the need for Emerson’s first reversal. He has paid tribute to this complaint, all well and good, but now he must find a response to it that is not merely reactive. So he continues:

I do not wish to look with sour aspect at the industrious manufacturing village, or the mart of commerce. I love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway; I feel the pride which the sight of a ship inspires; I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also. (115)

Here he changes his stance: now he finds great value in these material concerns. He is not simply abandoning his espousal of the earlier complaint, however, but qualifying it. While he recognizes the danger that crass materialism poses, he does not want to run from the world. Rather, he wants to discriminate:

But let me discriminate what is precious herein. There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken; that act or step is the spiritual act; all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times. (115)

It is a mistake, upon recognizing in crass materialism an actual poverty, to then run from industry and, more generally, all that is practical and worldly. Rather, these practical and worldly actions have a dual aspect. On the one hand there is what is mundane and repeatable; on the other there are the acts of invention, the intellectual steps, which are singular and unrepeatable. (There is a surely fascinating line of thought to follow here in connecting this notion with Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence; I lament that I am not yet competent to follow it.) What is essential to notice is that these dual aspects are located within the same events and processes. Moreover, Emerson’s reversal lies not just in elevating the industrious but in de-elevating the scholarly:

And I will not be deceived into admiring the routine of handicrafts and mechanics, how splendid soever the result, any more than I admire the routine of the scholars or clerical class. (115)

Actual scholars are not privileged. Actual scholars no more represent the spiritual interest of the world than does industry—they are equally subject to repetitive routine. The opposition between crassly materialistic industrial work and scholarly and clerical work is shown to be a false one: both are on the same plane. Both have this dual aspect, both partake of materiality and spirituality. If scholarly work consists in recovering this spiritual aspect of life, then scholarly work may equally exist in Wal-Mart as in the academy—there is no reason at all to expect it to be more prevalent in the latter.

Emerson’s first reversal thus allows him to recast a particular debate—one that lives today in the same form that Emerson presents it, and so is open to the same recasting—in a way that opens up a third course. We should neither too readily embrace materiality and lapse into a consumerism or hedonism nor too readily flee from the material world into the church or the ivory tower. Scholarly work is opposed to both paths—hence it is to a great extent opposed to the actually existing institution of scholarship and, moreover, is open to alliance with industry and the worldly.

Emerson thus exposes the initial antagonism as a false antagonism: both positions are on equal footing. They are not equally bad, to be rejected, but equally ambiguous, requiring discrimination. What are we to discriminate? We are to look for new distinctions, new orders of ideas, which leave everything insecure, tilting and rocking, and are to be wary of defenders of existing institutions. We are too look for a love too large to sell (escaping materialism); equally, we are to look for a receptivity that in turns becoming giving, and not a receptivity that turns to thanks and prayer (escaping religious escape). We are, in short, to look for Emersonian idealism, an idealism that, as I discussed in my earlier post, is not afraid to use realism to counteract certain errors. What is stable and repeatable is what is too material, what must not be given too much credit as real, while what is unstable and connected to upheaval, upheaval that cannot be repeated, is ideal, and true reality. This idealist reality is found only in creative acts, in intellectual steps and acts of invention. Emerson’s first reversal serves to bring this possibility into view.

Second reversal

What the first reversal has done is to bring into view the possibility of the scholar as Emerson conceives him. The scholar is also the “curious child” and “all-hoping poet” (116), the “rapt saint” who is found to be the “only logician” (117). We find that “the wit of man, his strength, his grace, his tendency, his art, is the grace and the presence of God.” In short, we find the divine (= the new, the creative) in man, in individuals. Only here we find Emerson’s second reversal. For no sooner has Emerson laid out this ecstatic view of human possibility than he begins to lament:

We are forcibly reminded of the old want. There is no man; there hath never been. The Intellect still asks that a man may be born. The flame of life flickers feebly in human breasts. We demand of men a richness and universality we do not find. Great men do not content us. It is their solitude, not their force, that makes them conspicuous. There is somewhat indigent and tedious about them. They are poorly tied to one thought. If they are prophets, they are egotists; if polite and various, they are shallow. How tardily men arrive at any result! How tardily they pass from it to another! (117)

After extolling the possibilities of man, Emerson laments that it is unrealized, that men are paltry things, that man does not exist. This serves an immediate rhetorical purpose for Emerson: it allows him to transition to the main topic of his essay. For, he says, “in the absence of man, we turn to nature, which stands next” (118). Nature is “the memory of the mind”, is the shadow of intellect (a further facet of Emerson’s idealism), and so is the best object of scholarly study, given the absence of man. Thus Emerson concludes, “it seems to me, therefore, that it were some suitable pæan, if we should piously celebrate this hour by exploring the method of nature. Let us see that, as nearly as we can, and try how far it is transferable to the literary life” (118).

Emerson has a deeper purpose here, however. In studying nature before individual people, we shall avoid a great error. Emerson’s discussion of the method of nature is centered around a distinction he draws between particular and universal ends. He writes:

Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end, to a universe of ends, and not to one,—a work of ecstasy, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length. (120)

If we attempt to judge nature by particular ends, nature comes out looking paltry. When we look at politics, that series of petty squabbles, we find that

one can hardly help asking if this planet is a fair specimen of the so generous astronomy, and if so, whether the experiment have not failed, and whether it be quite worth while to make more, and glut the innocent space with so poor an article. (120-121)

Moreover, the same result occurs if we look not to the interactions of men, but to “great and wise men,” for none of them “will justify the cost of that enormous apparatus of means by which this spotted and defective person was at last procured” (121). In short if we assume “that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded” (120).

If we judge the world by the lights of particular ends, then the world comes out a failure. Indeed, it is precisely this judgment by particular ends that leads to the religious condemnation of crass materialism and flight from the world that Emerson exposed with his first reversal. (And which marks another great convergence in the thought of Emerson and Nietzsche.) There is a basic trouble that Emerson finds with judging the world by particular ends: it expects of the world a finished product. But the world is not a finished product, and judged by those standards it is a failure.

What is the world, then? “To questions of this sort”—i.e. to questions about whether the products of nature justify its efforts—“nature replies, ‘I grow.’ All is nascent, infant” (121). Nature is not stable, final, but “is becoming somewhat else; is in rapid metamorphosis” (121). What is the driving force of this becoming?

In short, the spirit and peculiarity of that impression nature makes on us, is this, that it does not exist to any one or to any number of particular ends, but to numberless and endless benefit; that there is in it no private will, no rebel leaf or limb, but the whole is oppressed by one superincumbent tendency, obeys that redundancy or excess of life which in conscious beings we call ecstasy. (121)

Where judging nature by particular ends fails lies in this: it sets in advance particular goals, and we judge nature by its meeting (or not) these goals. But in ecstasy, the creative excess of life, the products of nature take steps that are unforeseeable in advance—that is precisely why they are creative. What is new cannot be judged by standards set in advance, precisely because those standards could not foresee what was new. Moreover, creation of the new is not stable: if emulated, it immediately becomes precisely that repetition that is opposed to creativity, that is the negative among the dual aspects of the world. Emerson’s second reversal thus protects us from an error: the error of judging nature by particular ends, rather than seeing it as embodying a universal end, captured only by the concept of ecstasy.

Third reversal

Having dispelled the danger, Emerson can relax his condemnation of man as absent. “With this conception of the genius or method of nature, let us go back to man” (121). Having praised the universal in nature, Emerson goes on to say:

The termination of the world in a man, appears to be the last victory of intelligence. The universal does not attract us until housed in an individual. Who heeds the waste abyss of possibility?  […] So we must admire in man, the form of the formless, the concentration of the vast, the house of reason, the cave of memory. […] An individual man is a fruit which it cost all the foregoing ages to form and ripen. (122)

We just saw Emerson devaluing the consideration of individual men as the fruits of nature: they are utterly insufficient to justify the effort put into them, of which, in case we forgot, Emerson here reminds us: a single individual costs all the foregoing ages to form and ripen. Here, then, is a drastic change in attitude. Where, just previously, an individual seemed a paltry fruit, here the individual seems a great fruit. What has changed?

What has changed is that we have been protected from an error: the error of viewing man as a finished product. For Emerson, the individual soul is not something that preexists and controls action, but is instead something constituted in the creative act, which is the act of “translat[ing] the world into some particular language of [the soul’s] own” (122-123). Here the problem of repetition raises its head again: the translation, once accomplished, might be repeated, but in being repeated it is no longer the creative act; it becomes repetition of the old. Where the initial act is a manifestation of ecstasy, the repetition is entirely devoid of that.

When we are in the thrall of particular ends, when we judge nature and life by that standard, then we are drawn to the question: what has been accomplished? But what has been accomplished is, by and large, paltry, and all the more so when it is viewed as a finished product. When we see the ecstatic method of nature, however, we judge instead by the lights of this question: did this act stem from ecstasy, or from repetition? Then we come to see the world in rapid metamorphosis, the world that “shoots the gulf”, and the dignity of the individual. This shooting of the gulf admits of repetition, but of a different sort: ecstasy is universal, and may be grasped again and again, but each time it is grasped it is grasped in an entirely singular, unrepeatable way, a way defined by all of its particulars. The accomplishment itself is a mere shadow of this act of grasping the ecstatic, and ought not to serve as an ideal but as a prod, a jolt, that pushes us in the direction of our own ecstasy.

Where the second reversal took man from us, said man was absent, it did so only to protect us from an error, the error of judging man as a finished product—for man as a finished product indeed does not exist. Once we have been protected from this error, however, Emerson can, in the third reversal, return man to us, only now it is man in process, in becoming, man whose accomplishments, whose completed products, are mere shadows of true reality. Or, as Emerson puts it:

It is true, [man] pretends to give account of himself to himself, but, at last, what has he to recite but the fact that there is a Life not to be described or known otherwise than by possession? What account can he give of his essence more than so it was to be? (121-122)

Creativity and Conditioning in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”

2013/07/08 1 comment

I want to continue looking at the way that Emerson navigates tensions internal to his work, this time looking at the relation between creativity (freedom, the creation of the new) and conditioning (custom, the influence of the past) in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”. As before, I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays and Lectures, pp. 51-71.

A bit into the oration, Emerson sets out a view of creativity:

Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his;—cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority, but springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair. (58)

Creativity is, unsurprisingly, set apart from custom and authority, from doing things the same old way. But in this passage, Emerson makes this contrast extreme: creation is “indicative of no custom or authority”; it springs “spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” The vision of creation espoused here is creation ex nihilo, completely unconditioned by anything that came before. Of course, this is impossible—even the most dogged defender of the existence of free will believes in parenting, after all. Moreover, the passage comes in a section in which Emerson is discussing what influences the scholar. He has completed the section on how nature influences the scholar, and is now discussing the influence of past thought. Moreover, one proper way for past scholarship to influence the scholar is by providing inspiration for creation. Any such inspiration is likely to be indicative of custom and authority.

What Emerson is doing here is, I think, presenting an image of a pure ideal that is unattainable in our world, conditioned as it is, whose application to the decidedly non-ideal world he will show as much as say. Similarly to the distinct movements I isolated in my previous post on Emerson, there are passages in “The American Scholar” that show us how to understand this passage, despite not referring back to it explicitly. One such passage comes two pages later:

The world,—this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order; I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life. So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. (60)

I count three indications of custom and authority in this paragraph, and there may be more. In the first sentence, there is a reference to Plato’s famous analogy of the cave and the shadows on its wall. The world is a shadow, as it is for Plato, but now the source of the shadows, the reality, is “the soul”. Plato’s analogy is thus subsumed under Emerson’s vision of self-reliance. Later, Emerson speaks of his dominion, referencing the biblical notion of human dominion over the earth. Again, in an old reference, Emerson finds himself by inventing a new, creative use of an old source. Finally, in the final sentence, comes a nod to Bacon’s famous “knowledge is power.” Emerson borrows Bacon’s inscription to show how his (Emerson’s) scholar is active, and not aloof and passive. All three quite distinct ideas are run together until they are currents in a single idea, Emerson’s. A page before, Emerson wrote, “one must be an inventor to read well.” Here, he exemplifies his point. The result of his reading of Plato, Bacon, and the Bible is his own invention. It is conditioned, but nonetheless creative.

This notion of unconditioned creativity carries in it another problem: the scholar will, it seems, be abstracted from the world of the moment. Emerson writes:

These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. (64)

Here is the picture of the philosopher, his head in the clouds, disconnected from the world around. Emerson is here praising it, and it goes hand in hand with his view of unconditioned creativity. For all reliance is to be placed by the scholar in himself, and none in the popular cry—this harkens directly back to the notion of creation “springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” But we have already seen that that notion cannot work, and that in any case Emerson believes nothing of the sort. Why does it get reintroduced? For one thing, it provides a platform for Emerson to introduce a countervailing virtue. Here he has displayed freedom. But freedom is not the only virtue of self-trust. Bravery is another:

In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquility, amid dangerous times, arise from the presumption, that, like children and women, his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up. So is the danger a danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin,—see the whelping of this lion,—which lies no great way back; he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth defy it, and pass on superior. (65)

From the standpoint of bravery, the very aloofness of the scholar comes to seem ostrich-like rather than noble. From the standpoint of bravery, the scholar who see himself as part of a privileged class is no scholar at all. The scholar engages with the world around him. Whatever purity, creation, and freedom there is to be found, is to be found in the world in all its details. (Emerson later celebrates the emergence of a literature that explores the common and the low, and not just the high and sublime.) The scholar requires the bravery to face that world, and to see through it. Now we can understand why freedom/creativity should be presented as so pure an ideal initially: it allows Emerson to invoke a second virtue, bravery, by which this freedom finds a place in the world, a place in which it can operate effectively.

Throughout all of this, there is a subtle and profound troping of Plato going on. Plato, of course, separated the shifting, unstable world of becoming from the stable, eternal world of the forms. The appearance-reality distinction was the distinction between fleeting becoming and eternal being. Emerson invokes this distinction heavily. The world of the moment is mere appearance; the brave scholar who faces it sees through it; and so on. Yet Emerson then does something marvelous with it: he turns it on his head. He writes:

Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art, and persuade men by the cheerful serenity of their carrying the matter, that this thing which they do, is the apple which the ages have desired to pluck, now at last ripe, and inviting nations to the harvest. The great man makes the great thing. (65)

In Locke (who is mentioned and extolled earlier in the essay), we get a distinction between primary qualities (length, shape, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, taste, etc.). The former are taken to be more real; the latter less so. Even without Plato’s forms, the appearance-reality distinction survives, with primary qualities occupying the privileged side and secondary qualities the merely apparent face. But Emerson here shows his idealism for what it really is: it is a belief in the primary reality of “secondary qualities”. Great men alter not just matter (greatness is not a crude power to control), but can create new relations. They “give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art.” Emerson likens creative becoming to secondary qualities, those that exist only becomes minds exist to perceive them, and then sets these relations as the primary, poetic reality. Therein consists his idealism, and also his debt to and defiance of Plato (and Locke).

This then, is yet another example of the conditioned creativity that he extols, creativity that occurs in the world and has a definite history without which it would be impossible. That the essay so well exemplifies the position it sets out to defend is a substantial source of its brilliance. It also serves to reveal the essay’s major flaw. After setting out his view of the scholar in the abstract, Emerson closes the essay by relating his picture to specific conditions of the day. This transition makes sense within the context of the essay (Emerson has shown freedom; now he must show some bravery). More even than elsewhere in the essay, Emerson strives to be inspiring in his ending. This is sensible: it is a speech he gave before Phi Beta Kappa, and that context is one in which inspiring endings are appropriate. Of course, this is a custom, and so is ripe for Emerson to exemplify yet again the creativity he has championed. Sadly, he ends up lapsing into the naïve view that he worked so hard to qualify and deepen in the ways I discussed above. It sounds bold, but that is mere appearance: in reality, it is a faltering step, too conditioned, not free enough.

But this misstep mars the essay only slightly: much more than that, it reveals the altitude climbed earlier.