Posts Tagged ‘morality’

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.

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.

Daybreak meditation, §103

In an earlier post, written as I was reading Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, I was perplexed by an apparently social strand in his thought—something about his project seemed to re­quire the modification of social institutions, seemed to suggest that such institutions had a role to play in creating the “higher type” of human. My recent purchase, from a used bookstore, of Morgenröte—a much more pleasant way to practice my German than rather mindless online studying—has led to the renewal of these perplexities. That seems as good an excuse as any to write.

§35 of Morgenröte lays out Nietzsche’s intellectualist view of feelings (cf. this post for my reflections on that passage). He writes: “Aber Gefühle sind nichts Letztes, Ursprüngliches, hinter den Gefühlen stehen Urteile und Wertschätzungen” (But feelings are nothing final, original, behind feelings stand judgments and evaluations)—that is, feelings are secondary to judgments. But what is most interesting to me, at least today, is not the mere fact that feelings follow judgments, but that for Nietzsche feelings are something inherited.

I find this especially interesting in light of my recent semi-immersion in ancient Stoicism, who also take an intellectualist standpoint. Behind every sense of being harmed or benefitted lies a judgment. Remove the judgment, and the harm itself is removed. Thus Marcus Aurelius: “How easy it is to repel and wipe away every disturbing or inappropriate thought, and recover at once a perfect calm” (Meditations, bk. 5, ch. 2) and “Do away with the judgment, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone.’ (Meditations, bk. 4, ch. 7). But on this Stoic picture, the relationship between judgment and feeling is immediate, or nearly so: I can effect the change within myself.

What Nietzsche adds to this picture is inheritance, which applies only to feelings. The starting point for §35 is the phrase, “vertraue deinem Gefühle!” (trust your feelings!). Nietzsche undermines this by arguing that feelings are the inheritance of someone else’s (often false) judgments, and not the result of one’s own judgments. To trust my feelings, then, would be to trust the judgments of, most proximately, my parents, since their judgments I have inherited as feelings. Where the unified mind of the Stoic gives me complete control over my feelings, or nearly so, Nietzsche makes me more beholden to my past, my genealogy. His intellectualist view spans generations.

It is this temporal aspect to his intellectualism that underlies §103. This passage is devoted primarily to distinguishing two ways of denying morality. The first denies that the moral motivations people ascribe to themselves are what is truly motivating them; the second denies “daß die sittlichen Urteile auf Wahrheiten beruhen” (that moral judgments are based on truths). Nietzsche clarifies that he is of the second sort, though he grants that in many particular cases the first sort is also right. This is all well and good, but the most interesting portion of the passage comes at the end, when Nietzsche writes:

Wir haben umzulernen, — um endlich, vielleicht sehr spat, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.

This doesn’t translate smoothly. A rough, very literal translation goes: “we must relearn, in order, finally, perhaps very late, to achieve still more: to re-feel.” The Hollingdale translation runs, “We have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.” I cannot do better.

Nietzsche’s suggestion of the practical upshot of his denial of morality is that we need to think in a different, new way about what we traditionally considered in moral terms. Just before this suggestion, he makes it clear that he does not think that all of the content of morality is wrong (i.e. the things we should and should not do)—rather, the moral framing is wrong, and those bits of the content that we preserve, we should preserve “aus anderen Gründen als bisher” (for other reasons than hitherto). The “relearning” consists, then, of learning these new grounds, and the end result, which will come “perhaps very late,” is a new array of feelings, distinct from the moral feelings we have felt hitherto.

This suggestion at once raises two thoughts in my mind. First, I run up, again, on the notion that Nietzsche is making a fundamentally social proposal. If the final benefit of the relearning is a modification of our feelings, this benefit will not lie with those (e.g. Nietzsche) who overthrow moral judgments. Instead, it will come “perhaps very late”—that is, many generations down the line. Nietzsche’s proposal is a large-scale, long-term project. Earlier I was perplexed by the thought that Nietzsche seemed to require social institutions that promoted the development of the higher type—here that perplexity takes on more definite content. One specific aspect of these institutions must be that they teach, not morality, but the new judgments. Since judgments are inherited as feelings, that will lead, eventually, to the inheritance of new, non-moral feelings—a condition I take it Nietzsche thinks is conducive to the development of the higher type.

At the same time as the shape of the requisite institutions comes into clearer view, however, the perplexity deepens. For what §35 makes clear is that our inherited feelings are not to be trusted—will this not be so as well for those beneficiaries of our new judgments? Should they not equally mistrust their non-moral feelings? And if they cannot trust the feelings they inherit from our judgments, why are we so concerned about this inheritance?

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —


A perceptive commenter on my earlier post about The Anti-Christ challenged my taking this intellectualist interpretation of Nietzsche. I have not addressed his criticisms here. I ought to, and may perhaps devote a post to this task soon. But I will say now that, at least in the two passages I have looked at here, Nietzsche does take the view that judgments are inherited as feelings, and does, in a way not free of internal tension, seem to want to use this relationship between judgment and feelings to enact a shift in the feelings of future generations via a change in the judgments of this one. Does this sit uneasily with Nietzsche’s critiques of intellectualism pointed out by my commenter? I cannot yet say.

Gifts and morality

“Gifts” is Emerson’s shortest essay, a mere four pages in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. Even still, as is characteristic of Emerson, it contains the greater portion of his thought, escaping well beyond its putative subject. In particular, I think this essay on gifts is a useful proxy for Emerson’s distaste for morality, or at least for moralism.

There are, I think, two crucial sentences in the essay. First: “Necessity does everything well.” (536) Emerson is looking for necessity—one of Emerson’s central moves is to identify the freedom of self-reliance with a rigid sort of necessity, for after all only one action will be true to the individual, and hence self-reliant—but he does not find it in our conventions of gift-giving. In these conventions, we are expected at particular times to give others gifts—Emerson mentions Christmas and New Year. We might readily imagine a sort of necessity here: at these times, you must give gifts, at least if you are to preserve your social graces. This might be better phrased impersonally: at these times, one must give gifts—for after all it hardly matters who you are. This, I take it, is rather like the must of morality—think of Kant’s categorical imperative and his insistence on universalizing maxims: impersonality is the order of the day.

So there is a sort of necessity, but for Emerson it is misplaced. “If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” (535) There is necessity up to the point that some gift must be given, but no further. This loss of necessity leads to Emerson being “puzzled”, and then the opportunity is lost—but what opportunity?

Emerson does have an image of the ideal gift: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (536) Such a gift is inherently personal, but then, Emerson wants to say, it cannot be governed by the impersonal “one must”. For how does “one” give a portion of “oneself”? The very idea is nearly if not strictly incoherent.

The problem resides, ultimately, in the idea of morality as a sort of service. Emerson could well accept the contemporary (but controversial) view that all morality is just an evolved lubricant for social interactions, coopted (since we have the brains to coopt it) to make life generally as pleasant as possible for as many as possible. Morality is just a sort of etiquette, on this view, which is why gift-giving, hardly a “moral” issue when morality is treated as venerable, may serve Emerson as a proxy.

The problem with service is that service is impersonal. Its value lies in the consequences and not in its cause. For this reason, insofar as morality is a sort of service, a consequentialist view of morality seems required. But now we get the second crucial sentence in Emerson’s essay: “They eat your service like apples, and leave you out.” (538) Service, by its very nature, leaves out the individual, for the individual is the cause, but the value lies in the consequences.

Emerson makes a motion, in his essay, to respect that there is something essential—as there surely is—in this sort of service, but it is a dismissive motion. “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.” (538) The motion is dismissive because Emerson is after something greater, an interaction in which people are not mere sources of consequences, valued only insofar as they cause the right consequences. In this interaction, which elsewhere in Emerson falls under the heading of “conversation”, the mutual meeting of two self-reliant individuals, “No services are of any value, but only likeness.” (538) Conversation lasts as long as, and no longer than, the likeness persists. In such interactions, there simply cannot be any question of morality, of service: etiquette is entirely left out of the equation.

This, I hope, shows how Emerson’s vision of self-reliance excludes morality altogether.