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Why did Nietzsche admire Emerson?

2014/08/08 3 comments

I have asked, and attempted answers to, this question before. Yet it returns to me, why two of my closest companions should themselves have been friends. How could Nietzsche, the arch-anti-idealist, find himself drawn irresistibly to an avowed idealist such as Emerson? And the answer is, perhaps, that Emerson was no idealist. Let me explain.

“Considerations by the Way,” the modestly titled seventh chapter of The Conduct of Life, finds Emerson in a curious place. On the one hand, he would provide rules for the conduct of life. On the other hand,

That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him. What we have, therefore, to say of life, is rather description, or, if you please, celebration, than available rules. (1079)

The essay perhaps never overcomes this ambivalence, structurally: at times it seeks to provide such rules, yet it never commits fully to the task. Similarly, it is at times celebratory, but sometimes, perhaps, a bit weary. When Emerson suggests, in one of his rules, that cheerfulness is the most important element of health, one wonders whether he was fully cheerful in writing this essay. Yet the vigor of his thought comes through, and nowhere more than in his celebration (of sorts) of vice. It is in this respect that Emerson was no idealist.

In what is already a quite Nietzschean turn, Emerson lambasts the masses:

Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is, that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses. (1081)

Emerson does soften his tone, in a way that Nietzsche perhaps would not have:

To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad heart in the observer, but, simply, that the majority are unripe, and have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion. That, if they knew it, is an oracle for them and for all. (1083)

The reason for this is that the masses do not think, or to rephrase the point, are not self-reliant. “The mass are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee.” (1082) Kant made it a categorical duty of reason to treat all rational beings as ends in themselves, and not as means. Emerson is more or less Kantian, only he is stingier about whom he will consider rational: the thinker is an end, the masses mere means. “The rule is, we are used as brute atoms, until we think: then, we use all the rest.” (1082) That is why Emerson would break up masses, and find individuals in them. If many are lost, so be it: “Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good. […] In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a century.” (1081) “This is bold practice, and there are many failures to a good escape.” (1085)

The lesson to draw from this wastefulness of nature, and from the unripe state of the masses, is “the good of evil.” (1083) What follows is a several-page discussion of the good effects that are can be brought about only by “evil”, cruel, harsh means – the bleeding heart could never manage them. This lesson, writ large, also proves true of the individual:

In short, there is no man who is not at some time indebted to his vices, as no plant that is not fed from manures. We only insist that the man meliorate, and that the plant grow upward, and convert the base into the better nature. (1086)

In this, Emerson shows his willingness to see vice as the origin of all virtue. This is his anti-idealism. Here Nietzsche must enter. In Daybreak, his book on “the prejudices of morality,” Nietzsche begins with the ultimate prejudice: the purity of the good:

Supplemental rationality. – All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable. Does not almost every precise history of an origination impress our feelings as paradoxical and wantonly offensive? Does the good historian not, at bottom, constantly contradict? (§1, Hollingdale translation)

This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s thought: that virtue originates in vice, that everything we now call good grew out of something we would call evil, and that the creation of new goods requires something evil. Nietzsche mature works deal extensively with tracing out lineages of such origin – of course in On the Genealogy of Morality, but really in every work from Daybreak on, except perhaps Zarathustra.

It is the prejudice of morality to deny such origins, to take them as basically contradictions. To take the good as pure as unmixed, as incapable of originating in the base materiality of this world – that, for Nietzsche, is idealism (one form of it, anyway). And it is just this form that Emerson rejects. I have noted before that Emerson preferred not to transcend dualisms, nor to quite embrace them, but to “reconcile” them without losing their antagonism. He prefers to see the virtuous grow out of the vicious, but would take pure vice before pure virtue.

Of course, Emerson never analyzed these origins in the same detail as Nietzsche. That is, perhaps, part of why Nietzsche lamented that Emerson had never “gone through some strict discipline, a really scientific education. As it is, in Emerson we have lost a philosopher.” (Quoted in Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of The Gay Science.) Yet he could still call him “the author who has been richest in ideas in this century” and claim that “I may not praise it, it is too close to me.” (Same)

If I am right, one of the ideas that Nietzsche found (I do not claim for the first time) in the rich well of Emerson, was the low origin of all high things.

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Intersection: Emerson and Nietzsche

In my previous post, on Emerson’s essay “Power”, I pulled a few quotes from Emerson that saw him choosing brute animal power over human civility. Most explicit is the following: “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last.” (977) Emerson further claims that what is of value in power lies in the transition from the forcible to the civil, when civility has acted as a sieve removing some of the “astringency” of this brute power, but before civility has erased that power altogether. The directionality of this relationship is important. Emerson does not speak of oscillating back and forth, of constantly transitioning from one to the other. It is solely in the direction of forceàcivility. This underscores the prior position of animal force: it is the starting point of the transition. It must come first.

In Nietzsche, too, the same thought finds a voice. In his notebooks – I am working from the pilfering from these notebooks known as The Will to Power (trans. W. Kaufmann; Vintage) – there appears the following passage:

The most spiritual men feel the stimulus and charm of sensuous things in a way that other men – those with “fleshly hearts” – cannot possibly imagine and ought not to imagine: they are sensualists in the best faith, because they accord the senses a more fundamental value than to that fine sieve, that thinning and reducing machine, or whatever we may call what in the language of the people is named “spirit.” The strength and power of the senses – this is the essential thing in a well-constituted and complete man: the splendid “animal” must be given first – what could any “humanization” matter otherwise! (§1045)

Beyond being garbed in Nietzsche’s style, the thought is straight out of Emerson. The animal comes first, humanization second – given a choice between the two Nietzsche chooses the animal. As for spirit, it functions as a sieve, just as Emerson conceived it. It is valuable as a means of humanizing the animal – but not too much. For Emerson and Nietzsche both, there is an aversion to that morality that promotes the human at the expense of the animal, that sees the animal, the flesh, the senses, as needing to be denied. The thought might be put this way: such a morality uses too fine a sieve; Emerson and Nietzsche believe only in a sieve that is appropriately coarse.

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.

Self and circumstance

2014/04/26 5 comments

My jumping off point today is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Mrs Morel, early in the novel (ch. 3), is tending to her sick husband (Morel), a man she once, but not longer, loved. Because of the completion of the “ebbing” of her love, she is tolerant of him—more tolerant than if she had still loved him. Why should this be? Lawrence’s narrator offers the following explanation:

Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.

Love is here characterized as the assimilation of another to oneself. There is a fundamental division between self and circumstance: in love, the lover moves the loved from the side of circumstance to the side of self. This provides, perhaps, a way of understanding the Christian conception of husband and wife as “one flesh”—a conception that likely serves as the backdrop for the passage.

What is more interesting to me, however, is the quasi-Stoic psychology the passage invokes. Again, the passage offers an explanation of Mrs Morel’s tolerance for her husband in terms of her loss of love for him. There is a more distant relationship between a self and its circumstance than between a self and itself. Circumstances matter to us only insofar as they impinge upon our selves in some way, whereas we feel directly what happens to our selves. There is thus made possible our taking an indifferent, tolerant attitude toward our circumstances: it becomes easier to take them as they are. Applied to the case of Mrs Morel: with the loss of her love, her husband becomes part of the circumstance, hence more distant, hence more tolerable.

I called this psychology quasi-Stoic: Stoic because it mirrors the Stoics’ sharp distinction between the ruling center (the seat of reason, one’s self) and everything else, but only quasi-Stoic because, unlike the Stoics, Lawrence’s narrator accepts that the boundary is malleable, that it may change over the course of our lives.

Natura non facit saltus, as Linnaeus would say, but my artifice allows me to start anew, from a distant point, and weave my way back to the themes of the forgoing discussion. Since taking a seminar on the human/animal boundary last year, I have found my mind constantly returning to the theme, though never settling on a particular way of drawing (or refusing to draw) the divide—as, perhaps, it should be. This passage from Sons and Lovers returned me again to those winding paths. The scenario in the novel is intriguing precisely because, in love, something (someone) that is in some sense external to Mrs Morel becomes a part of herself, only to lose this status later. But “external” is a notoriously nebulous term, as is its opposite. Its sense must be fixed clearly before it becomes sensible. In this case, I see two relevant senses in which Morel is external to Mrs Morel. Biologically, they are two separate individuals, two distinct members of Homo sapiens. So also psychologically, Morel is another mind: Mrs Morel cannot share his consciousness, nor he hers. Yet they become, for a time, one.

This suggests to me a way of drawing the human/animal boundary, if perhaps in a merely transient, locally useful way: humans are the animals that can draw boundaries around themselves that do not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries—or, better, since Mrs Morel did not so much draw a boundary around herself as find that it had changed without her efforts: humans are the animals the boundaries of whose selves need not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries. I shall call this sense of self the “drawn self”. I do not like the phrase, but have none better.

Lawrence explores one way these selves may fail to coincide: the boundaries around one’s drawn self may include something biologically or psychologically external. I am here interested, however, in the opposite case, the case in which part of one’s biological and psychological self is left out of one’s drawn self. I am interested in self-mistrust, in skepticism of the body.

I must be clear what is not my concern. Our psychological and biological selves are not identical, and many traditions (including both the Stoic and the Christian traditions) have promoted a form of self-mistrust: they allied themselves with the mind (psychological) against the body (biological). Indeed, this was supposed to give us the human/animal boundary: the struggle of the mind/reason against the body/passions was the struggle of our humanity against our animality. This is not what interests me. That sharp split between the mind (the Stoic ruling center, the Christian seat of free will) is no longer believable. The mind is just a “region” of the body, just as evolved and animal as every other part, and it is not a special domain of “control” over the other parts, mysteriously exempt from ineluctable causality. So my interest is not in that asceticism in which the mind attempts to dominate the body—this is just one way in which the body may struggle against itself, and a way that seems to me based on mistaken premises.

My interest is rather in a self-mistrust that reflects the unity of mind and body, that sees aspects even of one’s own mind as not oneself, but as part of one’s circumstance. I see Nietzsche as a precursor of this thought, exemplified by his injunction against trusting one’s feelings: feelings are simply the residue of our ancestor’s judgments, inherited without our inheriting also the judgments. To trust one’s feelings would then be a form of conformity to circumstance.

So we are to reject parts of our biological selves, on the grounds that they are not part of our drawn selves. What attitude does this entail? If they are not part of our drawn self, they are part of our circumstance—often a harmful part. I suspect, for this reason, that we cannot maintain Stoic indifference toward these parts of our circumstance. They compete for control of our action and thought and so must be struggled against, perpetually—they cannot be accepted as the will of divine reason.

What am I to do with this, I who find myself so drawn to philosophies of self-reliance (including Nietzsche’s own)? What does self-reliance amount to, when the boundaries of my self are so shifting, when much of what is internal to my biological or psychological selves is not truly mine, when self-reliance entails a constant struggle against myself? How am I to identify what is my own, and what not?—but this question is poorly phrased: who is this “I” who is choosing? What can be trusted? Who trusts?

I have done all this work just to reach this point. Again and again I run up against it, but I cannot see my way past it, never before, and not now. I have done this work to reach the point of having more work to do. I suppose that is well.

Circumstance and principle

I. Politics as Animal

In a representative passage of “Politics”, Emerson writes,

A cent is the representative of a certain quantity of corn or other commodity. Its value is in the necessities of the animal man. (562)

Much of the essay is has something of an exculpatory tone: Emerson opposes the moralization of politics, and does so because of the animal origins of human politics. While he never makes the connections to animals we might now find obvious (e.g. to hierarchical social structures in other apes), there is a constant theme of animality running through the discussion. Political parties, for instance, are the products of “benign necessity” (563):

Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. (564)

Even if the consequences of a party’s policies and actions are, in the final count, harmful, there is something mistaken in critiquing them in a specifically moral manner, as if the instinctive protection of one’s own interests could be controlled. A common theme in the western discourse on the human/animal boundary is precisely that of the distinction (whether in degree or in kind) between the instinctual, unthinking animal and the rational, instinctless human. Emerson’s highlighting of what is instinctual in politics, against this backdrop, is a clear implication of politics being something animal, and his further reference to the east wind and the frost suggests an even less volitional region of nature.

Moreover, for Emerson, this animal underpinning of politics is not merely exculpatory and ineluctable: it is desirable. Given the choice between animal behavior that is local, relative to only very close circumstances and human behavior in accordance with absolute principles, Emerson takes the animal. He distinguishes between parties of circumstance (animal) and parties of principle (human), favoring the former:

Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment, degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. (564)

The danger of allowing the human into politics is that what will be allowed in will, in fact, be what Nietzsche would later call the “all too human”. Better an abolitionist movement based on the animal perception of the sheer intolerability of slavery (better, slavery in 19th century America)than one based on the notion of, say, “equal rights”. [It is worth noting that Emerson, toward the start of his essay, notes two roles of government: the respect of persons, and of property. He comes down, after a fashion, on the side of property, on the side of interests rather than ideals.]

Parties of circumstance, by contrast, even where they are diametrically opposed in what they favor, “are identical in their moral character,” and “can easily change ground with each other, in the support of many of their measures.” (564) They are not beholden to a principle fixed a priori—in this way they capture what is fluid in nature.

Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the center of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it… (559)

This fluidity is essential for Emerson. As an experimental philosopher, Emerson returns again and again to a central fear: a fear of the hand that reaches out of the past to grip us by the throat. In politics, as everywhere, this fear recurs for him, so he is anxious to insist that “every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (559)—that is, all politics is circumstantial, and none should be taken as a principle. About our government and its laws, we are restricted in what we may say: “They are not better, but only fitter for us.” (563) Emerson’s fear of principles here is the fear of shackles. Animal politics, for Emerson, promises freedom.

II. Politics as human

I had intended, as the idea for this essay first arose, to detail not just what is animal in Emerson’s view of politics, but also what is distinctively human. What I have just written is entirely from the first half of the history, and as it feel into place for me, I came to expect Emerson’s inevitable reversal. Emerson would only go into such detail about what is animal in politics if he needed to do so as a form of preparation for an investigation of politics on the other side of the human/animal boundary. Emerson confounded this plan, as he is wont to do all plans that would corral him.

Emerson does, to an extent, locate a human side to politics that is not merely the “all too human” face we saw before. For instance, he calls “absolute right” the “first governor,” and claims, “every government is an impure theocracy.” (566) Every government aims at bending its law to the will of the wise man, but since, “the wise man, it cannot find in nature,”

…it makes awkward but earnest efforts to secure his government by contrivance; as, by causing the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or, by a double choice to get the representation of the whole; or, by a selection of the best citizens; or, to secure the advantages of efficiency and internal peace, by confiding the government to one, who may himself select his agents. (566)

Here is a vision of government as aspiring to an ideal, an absolute, to which only a human can aspire. It finds its figurehead in the image of the wise man. But the wise man cannot be found in nature—perhaps this means we are to take the wise man as above nature, or perhaps merely as unreal. Yet Emerson does speak, later of “the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government, is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.” (567)

The circumstances surrounding the wise man’s appearance, however, are curious. I cannot take it as anything but significant that the wise man is “principal”—but not “principle.” Right from the beginning of the essay, Emerson connects the “man of strong will” and the “man of truth” (559) with the fluidity above discussed. What characterizes the wise man is not some special universality, some absolute principle, but (a) the choosing of what is fit for oneself, and (b) the refusal to insist on extending this judgment to another:

Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. (566-567)

All of the animality of the first half of the essay comes rushing back. The wise man is characterized by a refusal to say that a course of action is “better” (a turn of phrase that, because it makes no reference to any individual, suggest universality)—rather only that it is “fitter for himself.” Often times, this may lead to collaboration between him and his neighbor, but this collaboration is only “for a time,” and there is always the risk of shifting to conflict in which neither merits moral condemnation.

I hardly want to say that Emerson identifies the wise man with the animal. There is a distinction to be drawn, though I do not pretend right now to know how to characterize it. What I do claim is that, given a choice between the animal and the human, the circumstantial and the principled, between property and person, Emerson chooses, again and again, the first term of the two, and when turns to finding what valuably human in politics, he models his picture on the animal. We are left with a wise man of resolutely animal origin, perhaps with something added—but not, above all, anything personal.