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Narcissism and partiality

The alienation wrought by a science that at every turn divorces the world from human interests is as good a trope as any, should one wish to go troping. What makes Emerson interesting is not the custom with which he begins, but the spiraling heights to which he takes it.

Emerson begins with a narcissistic objection to science: it fails to interest us. This is a serious failing, for, as Emerson tells us later, “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.” (1109) It fails to interest us because it does not tell us “what effect passes into the man.” (1099) We humans are narcissists collectively: “No object really interests us but man.” (1101) The laws in nature we care for only insofar as they have some relation to us. If science insists on denying these relations, we will have done with it.

Moreover, failure to satisfy this narcissism marks a failure of self-confidence: “We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. […] A right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.” (1100)

Science alienates, and must be remade human – this is Emerson’s opening gambit, and while finely expressed, does not alone suffice. The turn comes when Emerson revisits the question of what interests us: “Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond.” (1104) Here there is somewhat of a rejection of the earlier narcissism: now what is beautiful stems only from necessity, and what “is done to be seen” is base. (1104) Beauty exists not for its own sake, but as the byproduct of some usefulness.

Applied to the dead objects of science, this usefulness is found in our ability to give them some aim, by which their necessity is revealed. They cease to be ornaments then. So too humans: without some aim, we too are ornamental, and may be done without. “The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression.” (1104-05)

But narcissism returns: “The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form.” (1107) Not only science is subordinate to the human; so too is art, and all of nature. It is no coincidence that Emerson calls such artistic and natural beauty “shadows” – one cannot help but recall Plato’s shadows. Why turn to the shadows of art and trees when the sun of humanity shines?

Now, however, this narcissism is cut with the realization that we are interested in what currently lies beyond us. “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.” (1107) This is as it must be, for though the human form is the paradigm of beauty, actual humans are all lacking. “Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly.” (1108)

This is a serious charge, for Emerson has noted the classic criterion of beauty: symmetry. That is what we lack. “Our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us.” (1108) Our bodies are out of proportion, not just physically, but in their distribution of talents and capabilities as well. How, then, can they be beautiful? How can we make them beautiful?

Emerson’s phrasing is crucial. He describes human faces as subjected to whim and folly – whim especially standing in opposition to necessity. “Beauty rests on necessities.” (1106) One might then think that whim is to be eliminated, that we ought to strive after perfect symmetry. This would be to ignore Emerson’s famous declaration of self-reliance, that he would write “Whim” on his doorpost. Emerson of course qualifies this – hopes it is better than whim in the end – but whim is still the starting point. The route to beauty is through whim, through the caricatured parts of us. That is why what is called for is self-reliance – reliance on just those biases and partialities that make us ourselves and not another.

Emerson’s thought moves in this direction from every angle: it is the supreme meeting point of his philosophy, where all the threads are tied together. The fundamental problem of human life is that we are partial, we are mixed: there is a material side of us, that wants bread, and usefulness, and power, and an ideal side of us, that wants art, and beauty, and morals. Self-reliance, an embrace of partiality, an acceptance of both aspects of the mixture (and a recognition that the material is not base, but foundation), is Emerson’s solution. This is what he means when he says, at various times, that nature always makes her agents headstrong in their strengths – this caricaturesque quality is what makes it possible for them to act at all. This is why, though he loves symmetry and the general, he does not love the perfect generalist, who has no tools for specific situations, and so is useless. This is why he rejects all forms of idealism that do not acknowledge their material origins: they are pale, and bloodless.

We are of mixed inheritance, “physically as well as metaphysically thing[s] of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors.” (1108) In such a state, a certain narcissism is needed, even if we may hope it is something better than narcissism in the end.

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Egotism and individuality

In his essay on “Power,” Emerson deferred his usual countermovement, and allowed himself to extol pure imposing power without admixture. Only two essays later in The Conduct of Life, when his subject turns to “Culture,” does the turn arrive. The essay begins by raising three related problems, to which culture offers some solution:

  1. Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
  2. Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
  3. All individualism is secured through egotism.

What we are good at, we do. To move to a new arena requires learning new skills, a period of apprenticeship, and reticence to forgo our expertise thus keeps us in the realm of our established talent. The purpose of culture, with respect to this problem, is to call in other powers as a defense against this domineering power. “Culture reduces these inflammations by invoking the aid of other powers against the dominant talent, and by appealing to the rank of powers.” (1015)

The second problem is similar. Talent and efficiency require concentration. Nothing is accomplished without specialization. Emerson hammered the point home in the essay on power: “The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” (982) But now this is seen as “overload[ing] him with bias, sacrificing his symmetry to his working power.” (1015) The end result is that “no man can write but one book” – and how true this is: Shakespeare wrote but one sonnet, Nabokov but one novel, Rothko painted and repainted a single painting, and Feldman’s compositions are all, at base, the same. The value of culture lies in promoting symmetry, in expanding outward in multiple directions. If power is a specialist, culture is a generalist.

But it is the third problem that is worst. “But worse than the harping on one string, Nature has secured individualism, by giving the private person a high conceit of his weight in the system. The pest of society is egotists.” (1015) Here individualism is distinguished from egotism – individualism is, I suppose, being a well-formed, resolute individual, who does not bend to every external influence, whereas egotism is a conceited view of one’s own worth. Such a distinction is the sort that might be taken to show that Emerson wishes to contrast his doctrine of self-reliance with egotism – it may be a form of individualism, but egotism it is not. That is a mistake.

Emerson here is making a descriptive remark about the world: the way, as a matter of unalterable fact, that individualism is secured is through egotism. Emerson made this same point in an earlier essay: such conceit is the sine qua non of all action. But mixed in with this description is the appearance of a value judgment: egotism is a “disease” and a “goitre.” (1015-6) Well, Emerson admits it has its downsides, but he infers from the unalterable fact that egotism has some use: “This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons, that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves.” (1016) And this use is individuality: “so egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.”

If individuality is distinct from egotism, it is because it has an additional element – culture. “The end of culture is not to destroy [individuality], God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.” (1016-7) The function of culture is to act as a sieve, as a purifying agent – exactly as it was described in the essay on power.

This leaves culture in a secondary position: egotism is the basis, and culture goes to work on this basis. Culture does not precede it, and without it culture is empty. It is striking, for an essay purportedly extolling culture and its tempering effect on power, just how sparing a role Emerson leaves for culture. He will grant its value, but prefers solitude:

We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously, and haughtily, – and will yield their best values to him who best can do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. (1028)

Solitude is the workspace of genius – and also of egotism. One pole of Emerson’s conception of genius is that it consists of an outward expansion, the imposition of the individual on what lies outside the individual, or, to condense this to a word: egotism. And this requires solitude.

But there is something to those who would see an impersonal element in Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance. I contend only that one cannot understand what this impersonal element is without seeing that Emerson’s insistence on self-reliance is an insistence on a form of egotism – as it must be, if it is to be worthy of the name. What is this impersonal element, then?

We say solitude, to mark the character of the tone of thought; but if it can be shared between two or more than two, it is happier, and not less noble. (1028)

Emerson’s impersonal is egotism shared.

A moody distinction

2014/05/28 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A schematic solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy

2014/05/02 3 comments

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.]

Philosophical moods

2014/04/17 1 comment

It takes a fool to attempt to summarize the great, shifting circle of Emerson’s philosophy with a single quote, a single arc. Yet today I believe in folly, in injustice in reading; thus I feel up to the task, and select the following, from his essay “Circles”:

Our moods do not believe in each other. (406)

If Emerson does not deserve the title “philosopher”—and many would say he does not—it is because his concern is less with solving (ha!) traditional problems of philosophy than with affixing them to moods, and then detailing the actions of these moods on one another, both their mutual hostility and their mutual embrace.

So too with “Nominalism and Realism”, with the conflicts between particulars and generalities, between parts and wholes. Every man, Emerson tells us is, is representative of truth, but is not truth, which is to say, every man is partial. This connection between representation and partiality is direct: every representation must be partial, else it would be the thing itself. Each person inhabits a fragment of the surface, and together we may perhaps trace out the full circumference, and so reveal the center, “the pure stream of thought [the man] pretends to be.” (575)

Such is the problem with which Emerson begins. Already we are outside of standard philosophical waters. Emerson is not so much concerned with the reality of kind divisions, or of patterns among particulars. Rather, he has in his sights a problem confined to the human: what is our relationship to this truth, this I suppose ideal form of a human, of which each individual is merely (more or less) representative? Obviously our relationship is, in one of its facets, to be representative. Such we must be, as we are particulars, are partial. But what does this tell us about how to live?

The first half of the essay finds Emerson befriending the realist. He draws his usual contrast between talent and genius, here under the guise of particular gifts (accompanied by deformities elsewhere) and overall symmetry. He insists that human life falls on the appearance side of the appearance/reality dichotomy: it is a “poor empirical pretension” (577). We are not, then, to be too beholden to what we see in others: we are to take from them what is an accurate representation, and discard what is inaccurate. And—echoes of Plato—he casts art, which he defines as a simultaneous eye for beauty in details and for proportion in the whole, as a sort of insanity, since proportion is something impossible for human beings. In the face of this, the philosophical response is to turn away from the surface toward the center, to contemplate the forms as well as one is able, and so aspire to the universal.

But this is only a mood:

Thus we settle it in our cool libraries, that all the agents with which we deal are subalterns, which we can well afford to let pass, and life will be simpler when we live at the center and flout the surfaces. (580)

It is a passive mood, an inactive mood: the mood of the library. The philosopher, after all, withdraws from the world and seeks for tranquility. Tranquility lies in the eternal—Parmenides perhaps captured it best with his argument that all is one, eternal, unchanging, or Zeno with his paradoxes showing there is no motion, the ultimate in tranquility and stillness. The surface is all bustle, and all ephemeral. The center leaves that behind, but at the expense of activity. Emerson cheerfully elaborates this point with what I take to be a modified form of

Emerson’s nature detests inactivity.

But this is flat rebellion. Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh particulars. (581)

This is no novel argument: it is the old argument of the impracticability of philosophers.

If we were not thus infatuated, if we saw the real from hour to hour, we should not be here to write and to read, but should have been burned or frozen long ago. (581)

This insistence of nature on particulars furnishes Emerson with the one properly philosophical (of sorts) argument he makes in this essay: that even the philosopher, and, moreover, the philosopher qua philosopher, is partial. The philosopher ignores the Janus face of nature, at once universal and partial.

You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed to a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person, and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole. (581)

Any whole there is, in Emerson’s world, is “a balance of a thousand insanities.” (581) The problem is that of reconciling these competing, contradictory insanities, or stupidities, into some sort of whole. But this is still offensive to the philosopher, for it “introduce[s] wild absurdities into our thinking and speech” (585)—absurdities being, of course, the bane of philosophy.

Emerson does attempt a reconciliation. He asserts both “that every man is a partialist” (585) and “that every man is a universalist also” (586), but I am not so sure he believes this. For, two paragraphs later, he laments: “If we could have any security against moods!” (586) (The desire for this security is itself the outburst of a particular mood.) But we cannot have such security, and so are pressed into inconsistency, to “wild absurdity,” by our vicissitudinous moods.

Returning to our opening thought, that of the disbelief of our moods in one another, we can see two interpretations of this thought. On the first interpretation, one of our moods banishes from itself all memory of its opponent. This is folly, is error, but it is useful error, for it banishes any tyranny (by way of insistence on a foolish consistency) which the old mood might inflict on the new. This folly makes possible sincerity, at the price of being an exaggeration, a mistake, a fool of nature. A mood forgets its partiality, and so may act. On the second interpretation, our moods do believe that other moods exist, but disagree with them, think them mistaken. Here our moods are aware of their own partiality—and this makes sincerity impossible. “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) It takes a sort of folly, or at least forgetfulness, to be sincere.

It is tempting, and perhaps even accurate, to see these two interpretations are reflecting yet another dimension of mood. Emerson’s essays are dizzying and enthralling precisely because they refuse to be contained by a single mood. “Nominalist and Realist”, for instance, exists both in the library and in the fields. And, in “Nature” (see my Fools of Nature post), it is clear that Emerson cannot recognize and criticize the “sad, sharp-eyed man” as sharp-eyed, without himself being somewhat that man. Emerson never describes anything foreign to himself.

But he does give a biased picture of himself. Much of the time, one mood dominates, and since writing is Emerson’s primary activity, usually it is an active mood. Thus his discussions of his passive moods are generally seen from his active perspective, and we might suspect they receive short shift. Yet it should be no surprise if Emerson’s essays should prove to be only a partial representation of his thought.