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.
In his essay on “Power,” Emerson deferred his usual countermovement, and allowed himself to extol pure imposing power without admixture. Only two essays later in The Conduct of Life, when his subject turns to “Culture,” does the turn arrive. The essay begins by raising three related problems, to which culture offers some solution:
- Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
- Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
- All individualism is secured through egotism.
What we are good at, we do. To move to a new arena requires learning new skills, a period of apprenticeship, and reticence to forgo our expertise thus keeps us in the realm of our established talent. The purpose of culture, with respect to this problem, is to call in other powers as a defense against this domineering power. “Culture reduces these inflammations by invoking the aid of other powers against the dominant talent, and by appealing to the rank of powers.” (1015)
The second problem is similar. Talent and efficiency require concentration. Nothing is accomplished without specialization. Emerson hammered the point home in the essay on power: “The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” (982) But now this is seen as “overload[ing] him with bias, sacrificing his symmetry to his working power.” (1015) The end result is that “no man can write but one book” – and how true this is: Shakespeare wrote but one sonnet, Nabokov but one novel, Rothko painted and repainted a single painting, and Feldman’s compositions are all, at base, the same. The value of culture lies in promoting symmetry, in expanding outward in multiple directions. If power is a specialist, culture is a generalist.
But it is the third problem that is worst. “But worse than the harping on one string, Nature has secured individualism, by giving the private person a high conceit of his weight in the system. The pest of society is egotists.” (1015) Here individualism is distinguished from egotism – individualism is, I suppose, being a well-formed, resolute individual, who does not bend to every external influence, whereas egotism is a conceited view of one’s own worth. Such a distinction is the sort that might be taken to show that Emerson wishes to contrast his doctrine of self-reliance with egotism – it may be a form of individualism, but egotism it is not. That is a mistake.
Emerson here is making a descriptive remark about the world: the way, as a matter of unalterable fact, that individualism is secured is through egotism. Emerson made this same point in an earlier essay: such conceit is the sine qua non of all action. But mixed in with this description is the appearance of a value judgment: egotism is a “disease” and a “goitre.” (1015-6) Well, Emerson admits it has its downsides, but he infers from the unalterable fact that egotism has some use: “This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons, that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves.” (1016) And this use is individuality: “so egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.”
If individuality is distinct from egotism, it is because it has an additional element – culture. “The end of culture is not to destroy [individuality], God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.” (1016-7) The function of culture is to act as a sieve, as a purifying agent – exactly as it was described in the essay on power.
This leaves culture in a secondary position: egotism is the basis, and culture goes to work on this basis. Culture does not precede it, and without it culture is empty. It is striking, for an essay purportedly extolling culture and its tempering effect on power, just how sparing a role Emerson leaves for culture. He will grant its value, but prefers solitude:
We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously, and haughtily, – and will yield their best values to him who best can do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. (1028)
Solitude is the workspace of genius – and also of egotism. One pole of Emerson’s conception of genius is that it consists of an outward expansion, the imposition of the individual on what lies outside the individual, or, to condense this to a word: egotism. And this requires solitude.
But there is something to those who would see an impersonal element in Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance. I contend only that one cannot understand what this impersonal element is without seeing that Emerson’s insistence on self-reliance is an insistence on a form of egotism – as it must be, if it is to be worthy of the name. What is this impersonal element, then?
We say solitude, to mark the character of the tone of thought; but if it can be shared between two or more than two, it is happier, and not less noble. (1028)
Emerson’s impersonal is egotism shared.
Emerson would rescue the vice of pride, as the natural counterpart to the vice of vanity. If we are suckered into love of opposites, we will believe that against vanity stands humility. That is a mistake, a half-truth. Pride is needed.
The virtues are economists, but some of the vices are also. Thus, next to humility, I have noticed that pride is a pretty good husband. […] Pride can go without domestics, without fine clothes, can live in a house with two rooms, can eat potato, purslain, beans, lyed corn, can work on the soil, can travel afoot, can talk with poor men, or sit silent well-contented in fine saloons. But vanity costs money, labor, horses, men, women, health, and peace, and is still nothing at last, a long way leading nowhere. (1004)
Pride is prudent, is a good economist. Vanity is a spendthrift. Let us have no talk here of the moral, the good in itself. Pride pays, while vanity costs. There is a first egotism, a first self-interest in the choice of that pride which can dispense with vanity.
Emerson, being himself the finest egotist the world produced, does not rest content with this single egotism. Pride has another:
Only one drawback; proud people are intolerably selfish, and the vain are gentle and giving. (1004)
The vain wish to be believed to be such-and-such, whereas the proud have no need for such “being believed to be.” Thus the vain will be sure to keep up appearances, to treat others well, so as to be thought well of – and not only by others. This is vanity’s egotism, the preening sort. Pride is too proud of itself to chase such shifting opinions, and neglects to make a show of giving. Pride cares for what it is, let the appearances land as they may. This is its second egotism.
Emerson offers a choice between egotisms: that of the vain and that of the proud. I cannot see that he leaves open a third path, one free of egotism altogether. He will stand no pure humility.
This choice of pride over vanity sheds light on Emerson’s finest formula for egotism: self-reliance. In the essay of that name, self-reliance is set apart from conformity. To be self-reliant is to be nonconformist. But nonconformity comes in two forms: the vain and the proud.
If the non-conformist or æsthetic farmer leaves out the cattle, and does not also leave out the want which the cattle must supply, he must fill the gap by begging or stealing. (1006)
This is a vain nonconformity, a form of self-obsession that imposes itself on its material without consideration for that material’s properties, that has not yet learned the rule of “Impera parendo” – command by obeying. (1007) How much pride it has to sacrifice, when it reduced to begging and crime!
Emerson speaks of self-reliance as a form of freedom, but this vain nonconformity ends in a version of slavery. It has not learned the secret of power, which secret might be called friction. The material obeys its own laws, and will tolerate no impositions, but learn what friction it offers up for use, and it offers up its wealth for the use of individual power. The greatest freedom is always built on the bedrock of the greatest constraint.
It is the pride of egotism to recognize this truth, and the vanity of egotism to ignore it.
Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?
Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.
Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:
When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)
The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]
The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.
At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.
Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.
We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?
In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.
The knock on Walter Kaufmann, who is generally given credit for rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazis, is that in carrying out this rescue operation he to too great an extent sanitized Nietzsche, made him safe. Perhaps this was once necessary, but in the end the harsher aspects of Nietzsche must be recovered. It seems to me that the same might be said of readers of and writers on Emerson. It is worth asking, in reading secondary literature on Emerson, to what extent the author smoothes over Emerson’s rough edges.
This way of thinking about the literature on Emerson occurred to me while reading Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. Buell, in his discussion of Emerson’s twin lineages—American pragmatism, and Nietzsche—notes that James made Emerson safe in a way that Nietzsche did not. “The point is not that James was a company-man pedant, for he most certainly was not, but that even Emersonian wickedness was safely canonical and therefore somewhat anodyne for him as it was not for Nietzsche.” (239) This is not the first bit of inspiration I have received from Buell’s mostly quite good book. But despite owing Buell thanks for showing me this tool, I nevertheless feel compelled to turn it on him.
One of Buell’s concerns in the book is to show how, for Emerson, self-reliance is not egotism, for the self on which one is reliant is always something transpersonal, even impersonal. It is true that Emerson speaks this way, and I myself have, in the past, taken this as comfort in my reading of Emerson. But now I suspect that this way of reading Emerson is too easy and too convenient, and not faithful to Emerson himself. In one of the locations at which Buell discusses this aspect of Emerson, he picks up on what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (quoted in Buell, 236). (This quote is the one of which I was thinking when I wrote, yesterday, of “Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality.”) Buell comments that this shows “that the basis of the trust is that the inmost must be some sort of universal. Truth must be generated as personal experience, but personal experience can count as truth only insofar as it carries transpersonal, exemplary force.” (237)
This reading of Emerson is comforting, at least for those who stick by Emerson, because it mitigates his apparently extreme individualism, his advocacy of self-reliance even when one finds that one is “the devil’s child”. But I think Buell is putting too much hope in this purported “transpersonal, exemplary force” of the individual’s private truth—more hope than Emerson placed in it. (In what follows, I will presuppose familiarity with the themes of the short essay “Two poles of genius” that I wrote yesterday.)
Buell picks up on Emerson’s reversal of Kant to the extent that he grants that, for Emerson, “truth must be generated as personal experience,” whereas Kant’s tests of the universalizability of a maxim do not make any such detour through personal experience. That much, in Buell, is right. But it is not enough. It ascribes to Emerson the belief that what is arrived at through personal experience will be something universal, thus acceptable to all. I do not think Emerson had any such hope. In “Uses of Great Men”, the universalizing tendency of genius appears in animal guise: “every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature.” (628) [I wonder, by the by, whether this passage might not be a precursor to Nietzsche’s views on will to power.] Here, the universalization of genius does not proceed in a safe, friendly manner—it is an act of aggression, of violence, from which others have to protect themselves.
Where Buell takes Emerson’s insistence on the transpersonal to provide a way of evading the charge of egotism, of promoting reliance on oneself even at the expense of others, it seems to me that Emerson was well aware that his doctrine of self-reliance had precisely the implication that it will bring individuals into conflict, that any agreement between individuals will be partial and temporary (cf. his essays on “Love” and “Friendship”), that individuals need defenses from others. Buell is making Emerson safe.