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.
[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”.
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.
Emerson’s loftiest prose appears when he is in the throes of skepticism. Emerson’s optimism is but the palliative for his pessimism. Emerson’s hope is most insistent when he most clearly sees the grounds that rule out hope. Should I browse, then, the final page of Emerson’s “Nature” (1844) and find that, “The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger” (555)—should I find this, then I know, or may reasonably infer, that what precedes such a height is Emerson plumbing the depths.
The essay begins with an image of immortal, eternal, impartial nature, nature the judge who sees humanity and finds it wanting. Such nature is ahistorical, memoryless, a never-ending “tyranny of the present.” (542) “Here no history… is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.” (541) Yet there is something mocking about this landscape, the mockery of its judgment. “If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature. If the king is in the palace, nobody looks at the walls.” (545) This nature seems to serve as illumination of the absence of any satisfactory humans. Humanity is too condemned by its own partiality. Emerson is quite clear that he turns to this image of majestic nature for “relief” (545), for something erect to counteract fallen man. But this nature is mocking, and unsatisfying. “But it is very easy to outrun the sympathy of readers on this topic, which schoolmen called natura naturata, or nature passive. One can hardly speak directly of it without excess.” (545)
Moreover, while this image of nature is supposed to provide relief from the endlessly disappointing partiality of the world, it is not clear it can even do this, for Emerson denies any division between the natural social. “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” (548) The fate of nature is tied to our own fate: if we are disappointments, so is nature. So it is: “There is in woods and waters a certain enticement and flattery, together with a failure to yield a present satisfaction. This disappointment is felt in every landscape.” (553) The language Emerson uses here, that of the failure of satisfaction, is not accidental. Rather, it highlights the joint fortunes of nature and humanity, for humanity too fails to satisfy: “Our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions.” (542)
This doleful vision lacks only one final twisting of the knife. It comes in the relation between the knowledge of this vision and our ability to act. “A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate.” (551) To recognize this world for what it is is to sap the ability to act. If there is a villain in Emerson’s essay, it is the “sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret.” (549) But what has Emerson been in this essay if not precisely this character? Has he not been stressing to us, again and again, not just here but in every essay, our inevitable partiality? What does he have to say for himself?
Emerson has a solution to the problem he has made so vivid. It is what Nietzsche would later call the “Wille zur Dummheit”—the will to stupidity (Beyond Good and Evil, §107). I was selective in my quotation just above; let me now be more just:
And when now and then comes along some sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret;—how then? is the bird flown? O no, the wary Nature sends a new troop of fairer forms, of lordlier youths, with a little more excess of direction to hold them fast to their several aim; makes them a little wrongheaded in that direction in which they are rightest, and on goes the game again with a new whirl, for a generation or two more. (549)
Or, more bluntly: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” (549) Life is, in short, founded on error. To act is to err, for without error, we could not act. A clear sight of the paltriness of what we do would kill any justification for doing it. We can speak only when we do not see our speech to be partial, yet, “It is partial, but he does not see it to be so, whilst he utters it.” (551)
What this essay details is the battle in Emerson between his sharp-eyed and error-ridden moods. Dewey liked to mock the correspondence theory of truth as the “spectator theory of knowledge”—yet Emerson has more right to apply the epithet to his sharp-eyed man, for that man truly cannot act, and must be a spectator. Dewey wanted a pragmatic theory of knowledge, one that linked knowledge ineliminably to action. Emerson, by contrast, is tied to the spectator theory of knowledge, and thus what might be called the error theory of action. It is the curse of the human—so I believe Emerson shows us—to be forever caught between the knowledge that reduces us to spectation, and the error that allows us to act. We oscillate between the two, without escape. Such is our partiality. We cannot flee from this partiality into nature, for nature too can only provide suggestions. In the end, all that remains is to act, but to act is to make the error of taking up a suggestion with the belief that so taking it up will, finally, bring satisfaction. Well then, “are we tickled trout, and fools of nature?” (553) We are. There is no way around it.
I confess that I find more of value in Emerson’s skeptical moods than in his optimistic moods. The problem of life I face, vanquishing sometimes, but never permanently, is the problem of acting when I feel so unshakably that all there is to life is paltry. I have looked long enough for a solution to this problem that would tell me that life is not paltry to retain any hope of a satisfactory answer—or even a suggestive one. Better to hear that the world is so, and to be taught the value of error, that I might bring myself to the point where the error within me is as strong as the knowledge, and their struggle in turn bring me some few lofty moments.