The problem of literary style in philosophy I understand as follows. Philosophy, as an endeavor, strives for clarity of thought. Why then should philosophers write in a style that seems to sacrifice clarity and perhaps other philosophical virtues to literary virtues? No doubt it will make the philosophy more interesting to read—if, at least, it is skillfully attempted—but it does so at the price of selling out, of trading a contextually proper virtue for a contextually improper virtue. The moral: philosophers should avoid literary stylistic maneuvers except insofar as they may be attempted without damaging the work’s philosophical merits.
As someone many of whose favorite philosophers are self-consciously literary in style—I am thinking primarily of Emerson and Nietzsche, but they are not alone—this problem recurs in my thought. Even as I read Emerson with delight, I find I cannot shake the niggling worry that I am being cheated—less, perhaps, by Emerson than by myself. Here, then, is another attempt to talk this worry out of my mind. I do not hold out much hope for permanent success; maybe I may silence it for a moment at least.
Emerson draws a distinction between thought that serves knowledge and thought that knowledge serves. I will call the former “reasoning” and the latter “thought”. So Emerson distinguishes between reasoning and thought. Reasoning is part of a collective human endeavor aimed at expanding our knowledge. It aims at truth that is impersonal, that could be discovered by anyone. The products, or results, of such reasoning, immediately become public property. Anyone may use them, and thus reasoning may be progressive. Moreover, while truth has a history of discovery, it is in a certain sense ahistorical: it was there all along. What is true in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is true regardless of how it came to be articulated in a particular country at a particular time by a particular person in a particular social and scientific setting. What matters is the results of reasoning, not the history of how those results were achieved—this may be seen in the (blamelessly) farcical histories of science presented in science classes. It is in this sense that reasoning serves knowledge: once the knowledge is attained, the reasoning drops away. Today, the sciences provide the paradigm examples of reasoning, but much of past and contemporary philosophy also consists of reasoning in this sense. This is, I suspect, the legitimate sense in which philosophy is “continuous” with the sciences.
Thought, by contrast, if it aims at anything, aims at something rather more like mental emancipation. We are trapped by conformity: to our society, to our past actions, to our past thoughts, and so forth. One philosophical task is to overcome these traps, i.e. to emancipate ourselves, and moreover to do so in a way that also spurs others to their own emancipation. Knowledge serves thought in that particular bits of knowledge (arrived at by reasoning) may play an integral role in the process of mental emancipation. But they are not its end. I take Emerson and Nietzsche to be engaged in thought, in this sense.
At almost every point, thought contrasts with reasoning. Reasoning is impersonal, but thought is intensely personal. What traps Emerson is not what traps Nietzsche. There is no public property with which to avail oneself, no penicillin for mental unfreedom. There is only the private struggle against one’s own captors. Because of this, where reasoning may be progressive, thought cannot be. That Emerson freed himself does not mean that I may start from a state of freedom—indeed, that Emerson freed himself yesterday does not mean that he may start from a state of freedom today: one of Emerson’s recurring themes is that we are continually finding ourselves trapped anew. The struggle is perpetual. As Emerson puts it, I believe in “History” (I paraphrase): “Every mind must go anew over the entire ground.” And because of this, history matters. My struggle for mental freedom carves out a particular path that is ineluctably shaped by my history, and no other struggle can be quite like it. Nothing universal or eternal is attained. Further, the results of thought are not public, not in the same way as the results of reasoning. Where anyone may believe the results of scientific inquiry as they stand (and, more epistemically riskily, also the results of much philosophical inquiry), there is nothing in Emerson that may be believed—or, at least, nothing that should be. For that would be only so much conformity. Emerson may only be taken up by an active process of appropriation, of making Emerson one’s own, thus of distorting Emerson into the shape of the reader. Finally, I take it to be clear today that truth, i.e. the fruits of reasoning, will not “set you free”—not intrinsically. Much additional work must be done to achieve emancipation using such knowledge. That work I take to be, not more reasoning, but the work of thought. And in that sense philosophy is not continuous with the sciences.
Here then is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. When one is engaged in reasoning, and turns to present the results of that reasoning, clarity and rigor of argument are the primary virtues. To sacrifice them to literary appeal would be a sort of hypocrisy, or at least a betrayal of the project. It would be to, in a sense, privatize what should be fundamentally public, in the sense of making the results, and the reasoning that supports them, most easily publicly accessible. By contrast, when one is engaged in thought, and turns to present that thought, clarity and rigor become tools, and not always the right tools. Emerson wishes to free himself, first, and to provoke others to free themselves, second. His writing is supposed to help accomplish both of these tasks. One aspect of Emerson’s conception of mental freedom is a suspicion of overly justifying oneself, for since one justifies oneself primarily to others, such self-justification threatens to lead one into conformity. (I take this thought to lie behind Nietzsche’s conception, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse, of a “Wille zur Dummheit.”) Emerson would be a hypocrite himself, would be abandoning the aims of his thought, were he to sacrifice style to transparency.
Examples may help. One of Emerson’s literary techniques is to take an image or a concept and circle around it, constantly leaving it and returning to it, as he does, for instance, in Nature. Another is his method of reversal, in which he apparently endorses an idea, only to reverse his position later on. These techniques are no friend of transparency: they leave Emerson’s notions without any definite, final formulation, and they make it more or less impossible to ascribe to him any quite definite position. Moreover, while both the posts above look at these techniques within an essay, both may be seen occurring across Emerson’s entire oeuvre (both his published works and his journals)—such is the fate of all of his core concepts: nature, idealism, self-reliance, scholarship, poetry, partiality… But if there is one thing that can be stated with certainty about Emerson’s views, it is that if Emerson were to hitch himself to a single, definitive statement of his thought, that would be, once more, conformity and unfreedom. So Emerson must write as he does.
There is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. It is necessary, where it is necessary, on pain of hypocrisy. I grant that this is as presented an unsatisfactory solution. It turns on a distinction between thought and reasoning that I have not made fully clear and moreover do not know how to make fully clear. It is a distinction, further, that, however desperately I cling to it, often seems to me something I grasp with my wishes much more than with my reason. My only apology is that I am not done thinking through this topic. The recurrence will not stop, and I must not hope for finality, but only report on a work in progress.
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[I confess this post’s debt to Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. A passage in chapter 3 on Emerson’s style gave me the idea for this post, and my distinction between thought and reasoning, though not phrased in those terms, is given expression in chapter 2 of that work. I already had some notion of the distinction, but Buell helped to sharpen it. Furthermore, it is to him that I owe the phrase “mental emancipation.” Buell also makes a useful distinction between emancipation of thought and emancipation from injustice, which, though I do not explicitly mention it above, has helped to clarify my thinking. I believe this covers my debts; I apologize to Buell for anything I may have inadvertently left out.]
[In this post, I shall talk about the following poems: “So I said I am Ezra” (“Ezra”); “Coming to Sumer” (“Sumer”); “In the wind my rescue is” (“Rescue”); “I came upon a plateau” (“Plateau”). Some may be found online, but sadly not all. All are contained in this collection.]
Ammons, I am noticing, is pulled by the wind and the sea, and sinks into sand. He cannot long avoid them. Even when his attention turns to stones, as in “Coming to Sumer” and “In the wind my rescue is”, the stones are “water modeled sand molded stones” (“Rescue”)—products of the sand and the sea. These forces are not necessarily distinct. Wind, sea, and sand intertwine in the final four lines of “So I said I am Ezra”, and Ammons everywhere finds what is fluid in dust, sand, and wind: “in whorls of it” (it = wind, “Rescue”), “dark whirls of dust” (“Plateau”), “lake of sand” (“Plateau”). His poetic narrators exist in an uneasy tension with these elements and forces.
What is this tension? I hesitate to consign Ammons’ poems (of which I have read but few) to depicting a single relationship. There is nonetheless a pattern emerging, which I may point out. The wind and sea, dust and sand, have a humbling effect. They show up human pretensions for what they are. Foremost among these pretensions is that of identity: declarations of oneself are swept away, ripped away, and individuality vanishes.
Thus, in “So I said I am Ezra”, the narrator’s repeated self-declarations are “whipped” by the wind and “swallowed up” by the ocean, until it reaches the point where Ezra himself “falls out of being”—and does so by becoming “like a drift of sand / and splashed among the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas”—i.e., by becoming like just those parts of nature that took from him his voice. (The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind—it seems to be an undercurrent of these poems.) Dissolution follows his unheeded, vain insistences upon himself.
So, too, in “I came upon a plateau”. The narrator, here unnamed—though it is tempting to see him as Ezra, returned, or in a different aspect—makes his declaration on a plateau surrounded by “a circle of peaks”. These are his observers. To them, or at least before them, he cries, “spare me man’s redundancy”—then, “putting on bright clothes / sat down in the bright orthodoxy.” Already he is somewhat ridiculous—as if bright colors were any solution to the inexorable problem that there is nothing new under the sun, that all of humanity is redundant. The narrator is brought to this realization by a white snake, upon seeing which he, “succumbing in the still ecstasy”, says, “this use is colorless”. In what follows in the poem, color is never invoked, only “dark whirls of dust”. This colorlessness of nature is simpler but more powerful and more lasting than the narrator’s “bright colors”, which come to seem more and more a tastelessly gaudy display. (How strange that nature, in which values and “taste” are unknown, should be the profoundest revealer of poor taste!)
Whereas, in “So I said I am Ezra”, Ezra went unheeded, the narrator of this poem receives a response. “The peaks coughing bouldered / laughter shook to pieces”. His observers mock him. Meanwhile, the snake sloughs off, as if it were nothing, the skin that so overpowered the narrator. I am not so sure this response really differs from the lack of response in the earlier poem—mockery and indifference are cousins, if not twins.
What emerges is a picture of nature next to which our insistences on our own identity come to seem absurd, comic in their futility. Is this picture bleak? I cannot decide. At one moment it devastates me, by bringing home what I already suspect: that life, held out next to nature, is a comedic error, a foolish enterprise. But, at the next, I may agree with the narrator of yet another poem, that “in the wind my rescue is / in whorls of it”.
Thus I wrote about A.R. Ammons, whose voice whipped past me yesterday, a cry, carried by the wind: “I am Ezra.” By some chance the wind had not destroyed this message, but lofted it past with its integrity preserved. What I heard, I heard clearly, only I fear some of the signal was lost, strangled, for it began at a strange place. “So I said I am Ezra”, it began—with “so”.
But “so” is not a word for the start of a sentence. It indicates that what follows, follows—that something foregoing offers an explanation. I heard no such explanans. There is only the insistence: “I am Ezra.” Nor is the poem circular. What comes later does not qualify the “so,” but leaves the blanks, blank. Ezra, the man who announces himself as Ezra, remains caught between the dunes and the sea, each in turn carrying his protestations into nothingness. That is all there is.
I cannot, then, resolve the “so,” cannot say what it is that makes Ezra declare himself. He is simply there, declaring, until he is no longer. I cannot even say that he has a history, unknown to me—I cannot rule out the possibility that none of his message was lost in its voyage to me. Perhaps I heard it from the beginning. And why should Ezra have a history, after all? The ocean and the dunes might as well have none, for all the difference it makes to their current behavior—why then should I insist that Ezra have a history?
While I am confessing my impotencies, allow me to add this: I cannot say that Ezra’s “so” indicates—as I have been taking it to indicate—a “for this reason.” “So” may also suggest “in this way.” Ezra may only mean to say that he states himself just so. What follows, then, shows me the state of this stating. This is not implausible, for “so” recurs, later in the poem, in this guise: “As a word too much repeated / falls out of being / so I Ezra went out into the night …”
What is to decide between these two readings of that initial “so”? Say I resolved upon this second reading—I would not by this resolution squelch the question of why Ezra announces himself, just so, to the wind and the waves.
But I am beginning to feel odd. I should not have heard this message, should not be hearing it still, nor should I be writing about it. Do I not, in so doing, arrest Ezra’s fall out of being? Do I not deny him the dissolution that followed from his going unheard? It is a perverse happenstance that his voice should have reached me here, so far from either dune or sea. By what wind was it carried? By what river did it sail?
As the puppet acts it knows not why, overpowered by external compulsion, thus I find myself replacing my pen, and withdrawing.
For a long time I have been mulling writing a post or a series of posts on the relation between poetry and prudence, collecting issues I might like to discuss, organizing them, and so forth. The fruit has not yet ripened, but when Emerson writes an essay on Prudence that addresses just this issue, I cannot but jump into the fire. This post is not what I have been and still am planning, but perhaps it shall help it to take form, or at least introduce a problem. And, in any event, I prefer green tomatoes to red, so perhaps my own immature endeavor shall not be in vain. This will be, I hope, a prolegomenon to future thoughts.
Citations, as usual, are to the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures.
What right have I to write on Prudence?
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writing: “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities which we do not possess.” (357) Where others of his essays are written from experience, here Emerson ventures into a territory known only by aspiration and antagonism—this should be kept in mind. The essay takes the form, in effect, of an exhortation to himself: become prudent! practice the minor virtues! It is not phrased as such—rather, as advice to his readers—but Emerson takes as a rule that one ought “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366), which explains his choice of presentation. What I want to suggest is that it is perhaps Emerson’s natural aloofness to prudence that leads him to underestimate one of its difficulties.
Poetry and prudence should be coincident
What worries Emerson in this essay is the apparent conflict between poetry and prudence. On the one hand, you have the purely prudent individuals, who ask only after the utility of each thing; on the other hand you have purely poetic individuals, such as scholars, who are useless at practical tasks. “The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an encumbrance.” (363) Emerson wants to bridge this gap.
One way in which this gap is bridged lies in poetry itself. I have written before of the way in which literature must come to grips with its own effacement, its own non-necessity, and this essay provides more fodder for such themes. In the very first paragraph, Emerson remarks, “The poet admires the man of energy and tactics” (357), and not much later adds, in a similar vein, “The domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has solaces which others never dream of.” (360) This is a poetic appreciation of the “domestic man”, and it is part and parcel of a view of poetry that sees poetry as celebrating what is poetic in human life, rather than as an apologia for poetry. Whitman, whose (1855) Leaves of Grass I recently read, is perhaps the best exemplar of this poetic trend, if only because this philosophy of poetry not only is borne out by the content of his poems—i.e. the poetic celebration of energy and tactics within them—but is also given explicit voice within his poems: this is what I, Walt Whitman, poet, am doing. But the examples are, really, endless.
Poetry, then, takes upon itself as a primary task the showing of itself as unnecessary by indicating the universal accessibility of poetry in everyday life, if only one looks. Not for nothing does Whitman distinguish the poet from the non-poet by the poet’s ability to see the poetry, unnoticed by the non-poet, in what the non-poet is doing. And what characterizes such lives is, above all else, prudence. Prudence in maintaining a household, in choosing a job, in spending money, etc.
Emerson draws a distinction, however, between true and base prudence. Base prudence is a devotion to matter, which “asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?” (358) And Emerson’s diagnosis is grave: “This is a disease like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.” (358) Against this is true prudence: “The true prudence limits this sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.” (358)
This opens up the question of prudence onto the whole question of Emerson’s realism and idealism. Emerson’s realist pole recognizes the fixity of matter, of causal relations, of natural law, while his idealist pole sees everything as flexible under the influence of an inquiring intellect. Prudence, whether base or true, is tied to the realist axis. “Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.” (359) It is this first sentence that is key: prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. Prudence accepts that this is how it is. It is the asking after the “whence it is” that is the domain of poetry, that risks setting all things in motion, that offers the possibility of new evaluations. Poetry holds up the material world to the light of the “internal and real world.” These are the grounds on which poetry and prudence must coincide.
Here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its chemical routine
Emerson has more to say about this coincidence—much of it takes the form of an exhortation to practice the minor, prudential virtues—but my gaze is here drawn to a lurking problem to do with base prudence that I do not think Emerson has sufficiently addressed. My guiding light here is in fact none other than Emerson himself, the Emerson who recognizes that there are objections to every line of action—I always forget where, exactly, this worry finds voice, maybe “Experience”. What Emerson underestimates is base prudence as a source of endless objections to poetry.
To see this requires some groundwork. Emerson is an experimental philosopher, which I take to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is an unflinching commitment to honesty to oneself, one’s true, inner self. Second, there is an ontological gambit: there is no preexisting self to which one can be honest—that self is simultaneous with the honest act. Emerson gives voice to the first of these aspects when he writes, “The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary ones” (366)—voluntary actions are chosen, but natural motions are necessitated. Emerson—elsewhere, I forget where—notes that there is really only one direction in which the soul can go at any time: any other direction and it runs into a wall. Voluntary action, choosing which way to go, inevitably leads to these walls. Freedom, for Emerson, requires the strictest necessity.
But this means that honesty to oneself is paramount—yet such honesty can always find objections from without. And base prudence is one source of such objections. An experimentally honest action need not be prudent—indeed, the material utility of any action is more or less universal and can efface individuality in the wrong way—and so the “sickness” of base prudence is precisely that the question “will it bake bread” is liable to distract from such honesty. Emerson notes that matter is “stubborn” (359), by which he refers to the fixity of natural law, but matter is “stubborn” in another way, too: it stubbornly puts this question to us.
When prudence functions in this way, as the source of endless objections, clearly poetry and prudence are not coincident. One must privilege honesty, or one must privilege utility, but in either case, they pull in opposite directions. A unity of poetry and prudence requires some method of quelling this tide of prudential objections to poetic honesty, yet Emerson, at least in this essay, provides none. Thus I can only conclude that the problem of harmonizing poetry and prudence remains unsolved.
In a hospital, as it is getting on to be late at night, Buck Mulligan, usurper, participates in the time-honored tradition of postlapsarianism:
Mr Mulligan however made court to the scholarly by an apt quotation from the classics which as it dwelt upon his memory seemed to him a sound and tasteful support of his contention: Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites, ut matres familiarum nostrooe lascivas cujuslibet semiviri libici titillationes testibus ponderosis atque excelsis erectionibus centurionum Romanorum magnopere anteponunt: while for those of ruder wit he drove home his point by analogies of the animal kingdom more suitable to their stomach, the buck and doe of the forest glade, the farmyard drake and duck. (Ulysses, Gabler edition, pp. 329-330)
The Latin in this passage—my choice for the single funniest line in the oft-hilarious Ulysses—may be translated roughly as: “Of such a kind and so great is the depravity of our generation, O Citizens, that our matrons much prefer the lascivious titillations of Gallic half-men to the weighty testicles and extraordinary erections of the Roman centurion.” (From Gifford and Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated)
Most precisely, to speak of the postlapsarian is to speak of the time after the fall from the Garden of Eden, i.e. the time post-lapse. I am using it more broadly to speak of any tale of a fall from a higher state of existence to a lower one. Mulligan’s postlapsarianism is fairly mild: once there was a time when matrons rightly preferred extraordinary erections to lascivious titillations, but we have decayed since that time. Mulligan’s form is mild because it admits the possibility of recovery: there is no principled reason why the valuations of the matrons could not reverse again and undo the decline. Stronger forms of postlapsarianism do not admit this possibility: the Garden of Eden is not re-attainable, at least not on Earth.
I want here to look at a use Emerson makes of a weak postlapsarianism in his Divinity School Address. I want to understand how such a position seems incompatible with Emerson’s position, and to explore the possible reasons why Emerson might have chosen to use it regardless. I am using the version of the essay found in the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures (pp. 73-92); all page references are to that volume (but not to that essay, necessarily).
Emerson is addressing a divinity school’s senior class, so he has been charged with the task of giving them advice that will be helpful in their future careers as preachers. (This, at least, is primarily what Emerson focuses on.) Midway through the essay, he writes:
From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. (83)
Emerson explicitly opposes faith to the “sleep of indolence” and the “din of routine” (84), so we can see right away that Emerson’s faith is not quite faith as is generally understood. Rather, for Emerson, it is a sensitivity to the divine law that pervades all things, but which can never be adequately formulated or grasped. But Emerson is not thereby apophatic about the object of faith; rather he sees it as partially, temporarily grasped in creative acts—precisely those that rise above “the din of routine” that threatens to drown faith in conformity. Emerson later rails against imitation: the creative act that grasps the divine law cannot be repeated, and to imitate it is to confess inferiority, to relinquish one’s own right to grasp the divine for oneself, through one’s own creative acts. The enemy of faith, then, is trust.
Emerson, in his address, is trying to enlist the Church, through its future leaders, to embrace this notion of faith, instead of a particular set of doctrines. (Whether Emerson’s call here is compatible with the very idea of a church, is certainly debatable, but it is not my issue here. Nietzsche, that great Emersonian, argued at length for the negative position.)
The immediate purpose of Emerson’s use of this tale of decay is obvious from the very next sentences: “On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached” (83). (By “the faith of Christ is preached,” Emerson means the view that there is a doctrine of Christ that can be taught and followed—a form of imitation.) By telling a tale of decay, Emerson simultaneously accomplishes two things. First, he lends a sense of urgency to his call: look at the state of things! Second—and here the distinction between strong and weak postlapsarianism is crucial—by suggesting that the tale is one of decay, he implicitly suggests that a non-decayed state is recoverable. That is, he promises his charges that success is a possibility. A similar promise of a return to Eden would, by contrast, ring hollow.
But is this weak postlapsarian tale really compatible with Emerson’s overall position? Emerson is commonly seen as a philosopher of democracy, not without cause, but he has a strikingly elitist side that is just as essential to his thought. (The constant tension in his writing between democratic ideals and elitism is one of the prime exemplars of what Emerson means when he says, in “Self-Reliance”, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A prime source of Emerson’s greatness of mind is his refusal to find a consistent resolution to this tension; instead he let the two contradictory drives coexist and push his thought forward.) In “The American Scholar”, this elitist tendency comes out in a striking passage:
Men in history, men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’ In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say,—one or two approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened; yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature. (66)
(I nurture a pet thesis that Nietzsche and Emerson are the same soul in two bodies. This is, of course, hyperbole, but when I read passages like this in Emerson, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic.) Here Emerson gives away his hand (admittedly in a distinct essay—he’s not incautious with his rhetoric!): it is not just “men in the world to-day” but also “men in history” who are “bugs” and “spawn” and “herd.” Imitation—equivalent to the absence of faith—is always present and always dominant. What Emerson calls the “soul-destroying slavery of habit” (89) is not at all a new phenomenon, just now gaining prominence.
What, then, licenses Emerson to utilize such a tale, false by his own admission? What justifies it, I think, is that Emerson is magnifying a very real phenomenon. Recall the relation between creation and imitation I mentioned above. It is creative acts that are imitated. Faith manifests itself in the world in the initial creative act, ever-repeated, for the faith of Christ—which means, in all honesty, not so much anything specifically Christian, but rather Emersonian creativity—is never “preached” but always requires further preaching. It is these creative acts that are imitated, and become habit. Shakespeare says, brilliantly, originally, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and now we use it in our day-to-day lives for nothing so momentous as Hamlet. Faith, then, constantly decays into habit. Even our own creativity can turn into our own habit, when we do one new thing and then rest our laurels, only ever managing to imitate ourselves.
It is not so much, then, that Emerson is falsifying matters by speaking of the decay of faith into soul-destroying habit. In the passage with which I began, Emerson is simply magnifying the phenomenon to a historical scale. In fact, the decay happens constantly in our lives. It is a danger always to be guarded against. What is won does not long stay won, but must be won ever anew. This magnification heightens the felt urgency of this, and moreover reveals the task as collective. The future priest should not solely fight against the conformity in himself, but provoke his congregation to faith as well. Moreover, the magnification is also legitimate in that there is something historically relevant. The Christian church models itself on the creative acts of a particular individual, Christ. Emerson, speaking 1800 years after these acts, recognizes the vast expanse of history between Christ’s teaching and those listening to the address he is giving. And, in this historical span, there is indeed decay. But, as Emerson would surely grant, this decay is not anything new—it almost certainly began immediately after Jesus died, if not before. Even the New Testament itself would, for Emerson, be a testament to such decay, at least in part. Emerson neglects to mention this, since it would detract from the rhetorical force of his address, but it is easily inferable from what he has said.
Emerson’s postlapsarian narrative should not be taken as Emersonian doctrine. Early in the essay, Emerson explains his view on the purpose of teaching, a view that follows directly from the opposition between faith and conformity. He writes:
Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. (79)
Emerson here admits his impotence. He cannot lead anyone into the temple. There are no beliefs that he can transmit that will make someone creative. Creativity is not received secondhand. Emerson’s use of his story of decay, then, is not to impress upon people: how depressing our current state is! Rather, he is capitalizing on the prevalence of sentiments of that sort as a means of provocation. He is subverting existing sentiment (and the sentiment that one’s time is a fallen time is surely always prominent) to his own ends, as a way of pointing others toward their own ends. For those of ruder wit, some other means of provocation might be preferred, but Emerson knows his audience.