Posts Tagged ‘genius’

Egotism and individuality

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:

  1. Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
  2. Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
  3. 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’s essay on Goethe makes for a disappointing conclusion to Representative Men. Though the Sweden­borg essay is but ho-hum, the remainder scintillates. The introductory essay and the essays on Plato yield crucial insights into Emerson’s conception of genius. The essays on Montaigne and Napoleon open up the skepticisms at the heart of Emerson’s philosophy. The concept of “waste stock” in the essay on Shakespeare offers profounder insight into how to read Emerson than any other source I know. But the essay on Goethe, the writer, seems to offer little of substance. Perhaps this speaks more to the mood in which I read it than to the essay itself—I am in no position to say. This post, my initial reaction, must reflect my disappointment.

At the end of the essay, Emerson lumps together Napoleon and Goethe as “being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions.” (761) If there is a fatal flaw in the essay, it is that the entire essay resides in this morgue, hardly struggling against it. There is no motion of thought, merely a going through the motions. There is no animation, no vitality. There are dead letters only.

The trouble is that Emerson at every term voices consistent Emersonian themes—the selectivity of genius, the inevitability of partiality, the necessity to connect what one reads to one’s own experience—but in a way that lacks connection. What makes Emerson thrilling is the move from one thought to another, the way he refuses to rest on what he has said, but constantly reevaluates it, rephrases it, reconceives it. The ideas are, in a way, the vessels through which Emerson’s thought runs. They give it shape, but what stimulates is the thought and not the container. Here there is only the container, and not the thought.

But Emerson does diagnose his own failings well, though he does not say that is what he is doing. One of the classic Emersonian themes is the dangerous relationship humans have to their pasts: our former actions threaten to make us slaves. (I treated this at some length here.) That recurs in this essay.

Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted, and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament. (749)

So too with this essay. Emerson has, in what came before, laid out his themes. Now he must repeat them. But the experiment is lost, and the essay becomes sacrament, the enforced repetition of his past. Emerson has become a slave to his own thought. “There is no spirit, but repetition, which is anti-spiritual.” (749)

An example will help illustrate this. Many of the essays in Representative Men follow a similar trajectory: first high praise, then a rapid reversal and criticism. There are variations: the Swedenborg essay devotes more space to condemnation than to praise, the Montaigne essay has little condemnation because Montaigne barely finds his way into the essay, and the Napoleon essay has a certain cold distance even in its praise. The purest example of the form is the Shakespeare essay—I examined Emerson’s use of the reversal here. The essay on Goethe, too, contains such a reversal. Within the essay, however, it feels unmotivated. Here is where the reversal occurs:

The old Eternal Genius who built the world has confided himself more to this man than to any other. I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. (758)

These two sentences are probably not enough to give the sense fully, but they at least hint at the abruptness of the change, the complete switch from one thought to the next, without any apparent ground. This is perhaps because the only ground is this: I had better not praise him too much. I had better show his partiality—not to do so would be unworthy of my name, that is, my past.

This disjointedness is, funnily enough, one of the grounds on which Emerson criticizes Goethe. Though Goethe is representative of the writer, he is incomplete as the writer. The writer, for Emerson, has really three tasks: to receive facts and experiences, to select among them those that are worthy, and to organize them. Goethe succeeds at the first two, but not at the third.

He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems, and of an encyclopædia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely, as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to… (760)

I have read but little Goethe, and so can say nothing about the accuracy of the charge. It applies, however, to Emerson’s essay. Emerson has many wise observations—they are the observations he has made elsewhere. But they cannot find a place. They do not sit together, except physically, thanks to the bookbinder. As thoughts, they sit distant, alone, uncommunicating.

Transient sympathies

2014/06/05 18 comments

William Sharp MacLeay, at the start of his Horae Entomologicae, a once famous but now obscure work of natural history, apologizes for himself. “In offering to the public this, his first essay in Entomology, the author thinks it by no means unlikely that he shall incur the charge of aiming at innovations in the science.” MacLeay rests on the hope, however, that the sympathetic reader will recognize that he wishes rather “to reconcile with each other the observations of his predecessors” than “to controvert or obliterate the result of their labours.” Here is a scientific climate that mistrusts novelty and values tradition, in which the appearance of innovation always requires external justification. Novelty never justifies itself.

Something like this climate permeates Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare, in which Emerson is concerned to establish Shakespeare as a genius—though we now know that we must be cautious about what this means. Two facets of genius emerge in the essay: genius as borrower, and genius as impartial. These are closely intertwined.

“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality.” (710) It is the breadth of a man’s fine thoughts that earns him, from Emerson, the title of genius. The task of the genius, of the poet, is not to exercise choice in developing novelties. It is to be receptive what is good in the thought of his time, “forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.” (710) When the task is to present what is good, memory is as valuable as invention. The situation is that others speak well sometimes, and foolishly other times, and cannot tell the difference—it is the genius who can tell. Thus the geniuses of history “are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets.” (714) In sum: “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.” (710)

In the everlasting battle between tradition and invention, then, Emerson sides with tradition. It is not surprising that this should be so. There is something cheap about all innovation: it always seems to come to something not really new, and we suspect the great innovators have merely a talent for rearrangement. If, as has been posited, there is nothing new under the sun, innovation starts to seem a game, a triviality.

There are further reasons, which emerge in Emerson’s “waste stock” theory. “Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried.” (712) The tradition furnishes the materials of the lab bench, provides a ground. This grounding occurs in two senses. First, it supplies a foundation, a stable surface on which Shakespeare can work. It is ground, dirt—and not sacred. “Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done.” (712) Prestige attaches to individuals, to choice, to innovation, and prevents experiment. You cannot fool around with the sacred. Tradition furnishes grounding also in a second sense: it grounds the poet, prevents the poet from spinning off and losing contact with the world—spinning frictionlessly in the void, if I might steal that phrase. “The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within due temperance.” (712) In contrast with art for art’s sake, which leads to “freak, extravagance, and exhibition,” waste stock ensures points of contact. (713)

Emerson’s choice to side with tradition, then, is not quite a true allegiance to invention’s alleged enemy. Indeed, Emerson rather allies tradition with invention—is not prestige precisely what characterizes tradition, and what tradition renders infallible and unchangeable? Yet Emerson links it to innovation: tradition and invention fight, but that fight is between fixed inventions that have been accorded prestige, and novel inventions seeking it. The old fight to maintain their place; the new to usurp it—both play the same game. Emerson’s tradition will have nothing to do with this fight. The dead suffice for experiment only, and there is no place for the living to usurp: the only place to go upon death is the stockpile.

It is for this reason that genius is a borrower, even a thief. But to call the genius a borrower, a thief, to call the poet indebted—these terms all presuppose a certain theory of property, one proper to prestige and innovation (and the tradition built of dead innovations). This theory of property belongs to the dispute Emerson wishes to leave behind, and so Emerson must substitute a new one in its place: “Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it.” (715) Thought belongs to whoever can use it. This is not a free for all, not a matter of all thoughts belonging to all: “A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”

The genius is, then, if we stick with the old theory of intellectual property for a moment, a borrower. He experiments with the waste stock, and makes it his own. There remains the second aspect of genius: genius as impartial. In his highest flights of praise, Emerson praises Shakespeare for the “omnipresent humanity [that] coördinates all his faculties.” (722) Where the man of talents reveals his partiality, the “certain observations, opinions, topics” that enjoy “some accidental prominence,” “Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given.”

This conception of genius is both sympathetic and in conflict with the first definition. On the one hand, genius, as impartial, is comprehensive, selecting what is good in everything. Every innovation has a limited domain and is thus partial—impartial genius cannot, then, be innovation. Yet the first conception of genius admitted that genius had a history, that this history might be traced. Yet, Emerson tells us, “we are very clumsy writers of history”—we may write the facts of Shakespeare’s life, and of his influences, and yet see nothing of his genius. (719) To trace the history of genial theft is to miss the genius in it. There is a simple reason for this: “the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, who see the works, and ask in vain for a history.” (720)

There is tension, then, between the history of genius, the history of borrowings and thefts, and the ahistorical genius, the genius that seems to sit outside of time, eternal. Can this tension be resolved? Emerson eventually gives himself away. “There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits.” (723) This is a contradiction in terms: it is the very essence of representation to be partial, to select some aspects to represent and not others. The scientific representation idealizes here and abstracts there; the democratic representative cannot act on every opinion of her constituency. No representation captures the full detail of what is represented—if it did, it could not function as a representation.

When Emerson calls Shakespeare the creator of perfect representations, then, he is mythologizing. He is indulging in the myth of genius, of the great figure who comes out of nowhere and sets the world aflame. And he knows this is a myth, for he said so explicitly, earlier: “It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” (715) The end of the essay further confirms that Emerson knows this is a myth, for the end of the essay tears down Shakespeare, reveals Shakespeare’s own partiality. “Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weights Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.” (724)

What gives? What is Emerson doing, mythologizing Shakespeare in this way, only to turn around and strip him down to size? Emerson gives the answer: “Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” (720) In these sympathetic hours, Shakespeare’s thought becomes our own, because we use it, and experiment with it. When we are swept up in these movements of thought, then Shakespeare “is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably.” (722) Then we stand with him outside of time, then there is ahistorical genius. The thought is all that exists.

But these sympathies are transient—allow them to last too long, and what remains is devotion to prestige. To remain with Shakespeare when after the end of our Horae Shakespearicae is to become the worshipper of prestige, to find our thoughts burdened by that awkwardness that marks true theft. Emerson’s essay mirrors, in its movement, the passing of these hours. When his thought moves with Shakespeare’s, then Shakespeare seems that mythical being, the perfect representative. But eventually their movement drifts apart, and Shakespeare returns to his partiality, regains his history.

In the end, Emerson must bring down Shakespeare in this fashion. Were he not to reveal Shakespeare’s partiality, he would merely be establishing Shakespeare as an object of prestige, of sacred tradition, and would thus render Shakespeare unusable—just as the perfect representation is unusable. Emerson slanders Shakespeare out of respect, in a way. He sees a nobler future for Shakespeare than as a relic: he is converting Shakespeare into waste stock.

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Addendum on the transpersonal

I complained, in my previous post, linked above, about those who try to save Emerson from the charge of egotism by insisting that he takes self-reliance to be reliance on something transpersonal. It seems to me that this theory of intellectual property captures what is genuinely transpersonal in Emerson’s thought.

Emerson, in the essay on Montaigne, notes that “great believers are always reckoned infidels” because they cannot accept the dogmas “dear to the hope of man”—and that surely includes the dogma of a transpersonal moral order. (707) “I believe in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them?” But is not this “moral design of the universe” itself a dogma? To defend Emerson by insisting on his belief in this dogma does, so far as I can see, more harm than good.

The theory of property suggests an alternate understanding of this transpersonality—it lies in the possibility of appropriating thoughts, of making them our own. In the hours in which we share another’s thought, there is a transpersonal bond. And even if, in these high hours, our thought is novel, some future soul may share it, so even what is uniquely ours in our own time, if ever anything is, is transpersonal. But the way to this is self-reliance. It seems to me that Emerson recognizes, and, more than recognizes, insists, that our highest hours are transient. Self-reliance at other times—will that not just be egotism? To recognize the ubiquity of partiality seems to me to require admitting that Emerson’s philosophy, though it prizes the transpersonal in a certain sense, cannot avoid egotism.

Let us admit Emerson’s philosophy for what it is—it will not suffer from it.

A moody distinction

2014/05/28 3 comments

An entire interpretation of Emerson, more satisfactory perhaps than any yet written, could be developed by taking Emerson’s essay on Montaigne as its center, radiating outward to see each of Emerson’s major essays and books as a partial response to some skepticism or another, a response that sees to it “that justice shall be done to [skepticism’s] terrors.” The thought is appealing that I should one day write this interpretation—but not today. This post is the occupation of but a few idle hours; my envisaged interpretation could only be the product of a much greater indolence.

It is not uncommon to find kind souls interested in saving Emerson from his appearances. If he appears to value egotism and even narcissism, point to his belief in an underlying moral order that is transpersonal. If he appears to glorify talent, note his sharp distinctions between talent and genius. If he seems an irrationalist and lover of contradiction, highlight the oft-neglected “foolish” in that most famous of quotations. And so forth. I am not so sure of this endeavor: it seems to me too much a saving of Emerson from himself. Perhaps the appearances are the reality, only a part of it, to be sure, but a reality that should be acknowledged and even admired, rather than diminished. Flight is not very courageous.

With that in mind, I want to laze a while with the talent/genius distinction. It is easy enough to point out that he makes the distinction, for he does so, again and again. It is much more difficult to state what the distinction is, since it varies considerably. The manner in which it varies exemplifies one aspect of Emerson’s skepticism, the skepticism countenanced in his essay on Montaigne. In exploring this, I shall say a few words about why this skepticism belongs to Emerson, and not Montaigne, why the essay would have been more appropriately called “Emerson; or, the skeptic.”

Emerson draws the talent/genius distinction three times in this essay. None matches another. On the opening page, Emerson contrasts the practical man with the philosopher, the prudent with the poetic:

One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces; cities and persons; and the bringing certain things to pass;—the men of talent and action. Another class have the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius. (690)

This reads purely descriptively—that is, it does not make its motivation immediately apparent. The first hint of this motivation comes quickly, as Emerson launches into a criticism: “Each of these riders drives too fast.” This point he illustrates by showing how neither believes in the other, how the philosopher-poet-genius looks at objects in a way that “beholds the design,” a look that leads him to “presently undervalue the actual object,” how the men of the “animal world” and “practical world” have no time for “metaphysical causes,” how “hot life” washes away all such speculations. Of course I can only note my own reactions, but they tell me that in this conflict the man of talent comes out looking better than the man of genius, even granting that both appear as incomplete and unsatisfactory. Better hot life than pallid gaze. Better action than perception.

Only later does the motivation become fully apparent, however, when, into this antagonism between “the abstractionist and the materialist” there enters “a third party to occupy the middle ground between these two, the skeptic, namely.” (693) The distinction is made in order to set up the entrance of the skeptic, in order to make his appearance seem necessary. It is a distinction drawn in a skeptical mood, a mood that believes in neither talent nor genius, a mood that examines both and finds both wanting, the talented, imprudent, the genius, disproportionate. But we cannot rest here:

Shall we say that Montaigne has spoken wisely, and given the right and permanent expression of the human mind, on the conduct of life? (701)

This is a question, and we cannot presuppose an answer. Up until now Emerson has been recounting the skeptical position, but from the standpoint of an outsider. Emerson has explained the view, and his attraction to Montaigne, but I am reading Emerson, not Montaigne. I want what Emerson knows, not what Montaigne knows. A summary has no intrinsic value. The question is a relief, then: it signals that finally we shall see Emerson.

Relief is short-lived. Emerson launches into a response to skepticism that is more dismissal than response: “We are natural believers” (701), it begins, and gets no more convincing from there. In the midst of this there is a second talent/genius distinction. Our belief in truth is the belief in an order to the world, a moral tie between events. “Seen or unseen, we believe the tie exists. Talent makes counterfeit ties; genius finds the real ones.” (701) Here, the mood underlying the distinction is made more readily apparent: it is a conservative mood, one that likes institutions and distrusts reform. And even as Emerson details it, he increasingly distances himself from it, until he comes to admit that, however much it pulls us, “the skeptical class… have reason, and every man, at some time, belongs to it.” (702) We have, then, an oscillation of mood, each of which defines genius and talent differently.

After recognizing the failure of this first attempt to dispel the threat of skepticism, Emerson tries again, insisting that he shall this time do justice to his target. “I shall not take Sunday objections, made up on purpose to be put down. I shall take the worst I can find, whether I can dispose of them, or they of me.” (703) But the skepticism that reappears is not the same as before. What came before was, perhaps, partially at least, Montaigne’s skepticism. What follows is Emerson’s skepticism, in three guises, each recognizable in other essays by Emerson. In its first guise, it is “the levity of intellect”, the genius that mocks earnestness, action, the “gymnastics of talent.” (703) This is the talent/genius distinction of a new skeptical mood, and it again does not line up with the first distinction, nor, of course, the second.

In its second guise, Emerson’s skepticism is that of moods—most especially the fact that moods do not believe in one another. “There is the power of moods, each setting at nought all its own tissue of facts and beliefs.” (704) This leads to the sly suspicion that “the opinions of a man on right and wrong, on fate and causation, [are] at the mercy of a broken sleep or an indigestion[.]” (704) And we can see the genius/talent distinction, as it appears in this essay, as an exemplification of this: one’s opinion of the difference between genius and talent, as well as their value, seems to turn on one’s mood.

In its third guise, skepticism lies in the ubiquity of illusions. To examine this third, deepest form of skepticism is beyond me here, and I only offer some advice to the reader: ask yourself whether Emerson’s response to this skeptical objection—decidedly not a “Sunday objection”—amounts to more than a “Sunday response,” and remember the right of every person “to insist on being convinced in his own way.” (706) Nor can I help but note that Emerson’s book The Conduct of Life ends with a chapter called “Illusions”, given that Emerson’s exploration of the question whether “Montaigne has spoken wisely […] on the conduct of life” (701, emphasis added) sees the sharpest skeptical challenge as lying in illusions. But I am straying from my path…

To return: as it appears in this essay, the talent/genius distinction appears three times, each time affixed to a particular mood—twice to (distinct) skeptical moods, once to a conservative mood. The first skeptical mood is not Emerson’s; nor is the conservative mood. The second skeptical mood is Emerson’s, but Emerson exists in antagonism with it; he does not sit comfortably with it. To fully grasp Emerson’s relation to this mood would require writing the book I decided not to write today, would require understanding the struggle with skepticism that lies beneath all of Emerson’s profoundest work. It is enough to note now that even in this mood that Emerson owns, his distinction between talent and genius does not receive full assent.

The talent/genius distinction, then, cannot so easily be taken a fundamental doctrine in Emerson. There is no one distinction to be made, there are many, and they exist in an unstable relationship. No one claims finality, no one forever vanquishes the other. Each is attached to a mood, and moods rotate, and do not believe in one another. Each distinction is quite sharp, clear enough in itself, but overlay them all and what results is all fuzz and obscurity—and in any case it is not clear that genius always comes out on top. A defense of Emerson that fixes him—is that a help? A fortress that defends him from intrusion also prevents him from extrusion. Does he not admire Montaigne, who,

In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, […] kept his gates open, and his house without a defence. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed. (698)

Two poles of genius revisited

[After reading “Plato; or, the Philosopher” in Representative Men]

“If the tongue had not been framed for articulation, man would still be a beast in the forest.” (636)

Emerson is content with any dogma, so long as he may subvert it to his own ends. Let it be language that distinguishes humanity from the animals, as long tradition would have it—let it be so, but now let us look more closely at what this power of language is. You would treat it as something new, something finished, something higher than the animal, as the divine half of such mixed creatures as ourselves. Emerson is content to leave us creatures, only modified.

The phenomenon with which Emerson begins, is this: articulation seems to replace violence. When two individuals find themselves unable to communicate, they fight, and are opposed; once they have figured out how to voice their meanings, they desist. “As soon as they can speak and tell their want, and the reason of it, they become gentle.” (636) It is a trite thought, that language allows us to resolve disputes verbally that might otherwise bring us to use force, but this thought is not a resting place—rather a springboard.

“The progress is to accuracy, to skill, to truth, from blind force.” (637)

“Blind force” is the crucial phrase, here. What is human is accuracy, and skill, and truth; what is animal is blind force. We have encountered this distinction, in different garb, before. The tendency of every individual to grow and exclude—this is blind force, a striving intrinsic to life, even when life is unconscious of any such force. Yet Emerson calls this ‘genius’—so genius is something animal, at one of its poles.

In society, such genius is tempered, but in two ways. On the one side it is tempered by etiquette and conformity, by the relaxation of oneself for the sake of others. This may be out of genuine moral concern, or mere cowardice—the distinction is of little import right now. On the other side it is tempered by the other pole of genius, that which seeks to defend us from itself. This marks the transition from blind force to accuracy, skill, and truth. Here is the human side of genius, not something over and above the animal, but a modification thereof, a somewhat different way of exerting one’s force. It takes on a certain sort of sociality.

There is, then, not a sharp split, in Emerson, between the human and the animal. And this is brought home by the fact that the human pole of genius is only ever imperfectly realized. We still need defenses from one another. Every friendship is partial, lasting only for a brief period of agreement, before we again become odious to one another. And so on. Each of these themes in Emerson brings home the point: that we are imperfectly human, that there are times where the only way to avoid conflict is to opt for the first method of tempering blind force—that, in such cases, it may, one suspects, be better to be animal.