Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

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.


Democracy, Representativeness, and Conversation

2014/03/08 1 comment

“And nature advertises me in such persons, that, in democratic America, she will not be democratized.” (503-4)

Emerson is a philosopher of democracy in just the same experimental sense that he is a philosopher of self-reliance. In his philosophy of self-reliance, an unyielding emphasis on the sufficiency of one’s own self, on honesty to that self-sufficient self, coexists in tension with—but incomprehensible apart from—a thorough mistrust of the self one possesses at a given moment. So too with democracy: Emerson’s advocacy of democracy coexists with its adversary and partner, his hatred of the majority, the crowd, the herd, and his love of the individual.

Thus, in speaking of the man of character (in his essay “Character”), Emerson can confidently state that what shows itself in such a man is that nature—which here stands in for the man’s character—will not be democratized, that nature is unyielding even where it is a minority of one. This man expects all events to follow his lead, to go as he desires. They are not up for negotiation by public debate, and they are not to be resolved by democratic vote. “The hero sees that the event is ancillary: it must follow him.” (499)

A remarkable passage in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” sees the narrator simply assume that Bartleby has left the office—this is his master plan to dispense with the irritating, useless Bartleby. But he begins to suspect his plan will not work—he is right—and he realizes it is because Bartleby is not a man of assumption, cannot be assumed out of existence.

Emerson’s man of character, by contrast, is the sort who could make such assumptions, and be followed in them. The narrator of “Bartleby” is too prudent, is the sort of man who “cannot see the action, until it is done.” (499) Indeed, it is much more Bartleby, whose assumption is that the world will conform to his preferences, who has this power of assumption. Without asking the fascinating questions there are to be asked about the relation between Melville’s otherworldly characters and Emerson’s man of character—because I am incompetent to answer them—I think we may at least liken Emerson’s man of character to a perhaps healthier Bartleby, characterized by this power of what we may call efficacious assuming.

But is this not inherently undemocratic? Are we not seeing Emerson in a moment where he lusts for the powerful man who draws others in his wake? Is this not much more tyranny than democracy?

“The men who carry their points do not need to inquire of their constituents what they should say, but are themselves the country which they represent: nowhere are its emotions or opinions so instant and true as in them; nowhere so pure from a selfish infusion.” (496)

I am afraid this too is a question I am incompetent to answer. But, unlike the questions about Melville, I can at least take a few faltering footsteps, heading into the forest of the passage just quoted. Emerson makes a move something like that of Plato in The Republic: he psychologizes the city. A persistent theme in Emerson, so persistent that it served as a book title, is that of Representative Men, of men who stand in for the whole of Man, of humanity. (We may, and must, lament the absence of women in this picture.) But there is, at the same time, the idea of the representative as appears in a representative democracy. That is what the above quote brings out. Emerson is here indulging in a recurring fantasy: that of the completed man, the impartial man, as it were. I call it a fantasy because, in his soberer moments, Emerson recognizes that there are no such men (or women). “What greatness has yet appeared, is beginnings and encouragements to us in this direction.” (508) It is always a hope, always in the distance. Not in the future, but in the distance, something we may begin to move toward, but do not reach.

This is Emerson’s experimental philosophy reappearing. This ideal of representativeness to which we may consecrate ourselves, is always beside us, in the distance, but never quite attained. And it is here, if anywhere, that the reply to the critic of Emerson who sees him as fundamentally undemocratic must lie. I do not know how to flesh out this reply. I feel it in my fingers, slipping through them the harder I clutch. I see it at the periphery of my vision, moving as my eyes move to keep itself just out of reach. One day I may grasp it—perhaps a future post will realize this grasping. But for now it is only a tantalizing semi-vision.

“The sufficient reply to the skeptic, who doubts the power and furniture of man, is in that possibility of joyful intercourse with persons, which makes the faith and practice of all reasonable men.” (506)

I cannot help but end with yet another reflection on the skepticism that lingers at the margins of Emerson’s philosophy, at the margins of life. Emerson here sounds so confident in the ability to overcome skepticism. But, as ever, his apparent confidence varies inversely with his actual confidence. In the possibility of joyful intercourse with persons lies the reply to the skeptic. Such an easy reply! Yet Emerson cannot make the reply. He may point out its sufficiency, but almost immediately we has launched into his superficially hopeful, desperately skeptical end to the essay, beginning with this: “Could we not deal with a few persons,—with one person,—after the unwritten statutes, and make an experiment of their efficacy?” (507)

Here it all comes together. Democracy, the ideal democracy, is the state in which all engage in this project with all. Yet Emerson here questions whether we may even manage this with one person. Manage what? Manage to become representative, to deal with others in the manner ordained by the “unwritten statutes.” Even should this interaction exist between two people, we could reply to the skeptic, if not yet achieve true democracy. But that is itself dubious. Emerson leaves us in solitude, and does not show us the way out.