Posts Tagged ‘realism’

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.


Poetry and Prudence I

2013/12/29 2 comments

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.

Two metaphors in Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”

2013/10/17 1 comment

UPDATE: For reasons that baffle me, this post has been cited as a source in a wikipedia article. If you were sent here from that, know that I am not at all an expert, merely an interested reader. I would not, if I were you, trust anything I say here.


My seminar on the boundary between humans and animals continues on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, philosopher and poet, author of the long essay “Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life”. Here I want to explore two metaphors about the process of science as they arise in this essay. The essay may be read here, and page references are to that file.

Coleridge, in the “Theory of Life”, offers two quite different and quite interesting metaphors about the scientific process. The first metaphor, located in the essay’s first paragraph, is a call to rigor:

The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller’s scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. (21)

The jeweler’s scales here represent accuracy and precision, as opposed to the much blunter tools of common opinion and vulgar usage. A further undercurrent of the metaphor is its relationship to honesty: accuracy and precision in this context are not purely descriptive virtues, but rather are connected to the discovery of the true value of the jewel. On the market, by contrast, the confusion created by common opinion and vulgar usage allows for swindling and deception. The essay begins by describing Coleridge’s opponents: those who have earlier attempted to define life, but have done so in a way more reminiscent of the market than the jeweler’s scales. The first metaphor, then, is not just a call to rigor; it is a reproach.

The second metaphor comes much later, and has quite a different tenor. It arises in the course of a friendly critique of John Abernethy’s theory of life:

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. (65)

This is a much richer metaphor than the first. In the first, accuracy is achieved by the use of a precise instrument that measures the relevant quantity exactly. But what is to be measured is given: Coleridge says nothing of the extraction of the jewel. Here, by contrast, finding the truth is not a matter of calm measurement. It is a matter of a strategic and perhaps even dangerous pursuit against a worthy adversary. And, while Coleridge thinks Abernethy has failed in his pursuit, this failure is nothing like that of his earlier targets, who have failed even to rise above the discourse of the marketplace.

Why this difference in metaphors? The difference in tone may be attributed to Coleridge’s differing levels of respect for his targets. But what about the difference in content, between the hunt and the jeweler’s scales? What I want to suggest is that this difference in content is crucially related to Coleridge’s views about the aims of science and the status of scientific theories, and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

Sprinkled throughout the essay are various anti-realist remarks about quantitative scientific theorizing, sometimes at an abstract level and sometimes connected to particular theories. Thus, early in the essay, Coleridge remarks on the theory of “the French chemists” that it remains the dominant theory because of “the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead” and not from “the continuance of an implicit belief in its stability” (23). This is a straightforwardly anti-realist attitude toward the theory: it is simply waiting to be replaced by a successor. Coleridge later generalizes the point: “For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins” (51), which receives an extensive footnote that begins by noting that abstractions are the “only subject of all abstract sciences.”

We can understand this view in light of Coleridge’s argument that everything that is, is Life. This argument itself is worthy of detailed consideration, but here I note only Coleridge’s comments about quantity and quality.

Our reason convinces us that the quantities of things, taken abstractedly as quantity, exist only in the relations they bear to the percipient; in plainer words, they exist only in our minds, ut quorum esse est percipi. For if the definite quantities have a ground, and therefore a reality, in the external world, and independent of the mind that perceives them, this ground is ipso facto a quality… (38-39)

Quantity, for Coleridge, is inherently mind-dependent, whereas external reality is qualitative. Quantity is nothing more than a human abstraction from this qualitative reality. The quantitative sciences, then, are properly considered with an anti-realist attitude—unless they are grounded in some qualitative reality.

Now it is worthwhile to recall that the first metaphor arises precisely in the context of an anti-realist argument about existing theories of life: these theories are to be rejected as insufficiently precise and rigorous. They do not pass the test of the jeweler’s scales; they belong in the marketplace. Indeed, Coleridge explicitly says that may be “sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer” (21). But now consider the metaphor again. The jeweler’s scales are precisely a quantitative instrument—and so the jeweler’s measurements are inherently mind-dependent abstractions.

Coleridge, however, wants to claim for his theory more than the sort of anti-realist success of the abstract sciences. Why, then, a metaphor that, by his criteria, only points toward the quantitative sciences? Some light is shed on this by the presence of a frequent bugbear in Coleridge’s essay: the materialist. Coleridge on numerous occasions points out the impossibility of a materialist account of Life—that is why Coleridge’s vitalist alternative is needed. (Note that Coleridge is a strange sort of vitalist in that his vitalism unifies the organic and physical sciences rather than serving as a basis for their disunity.) Nevertheless, Coleridge does not deny the genuine scientific successes of materialistic theories. It is merely that these successes are quantitative and not qualitative—and so deserving of an anti-realist attitude.

Here the second metaphor comes in. No longer are we in the back room of the jewelry shop. We are out in the field, hunting. The pursuit of truth is now mixed with sweat and blood. In an almost literal way, this metaphor puts flesh on the first. Moreover, it comes precisely in the context of a realist argument. While he critiques Abernethy, Coleridge is concerned to say that Abernethy nonetheless has the presentiment of a great truth. Unlike the jeweler, Abernethy is on the path to truth, and not mere abstraction. Coleridge, by using the hunt metaphor, can thus characterize his own view as being simply further down this path than Abernethy’s view, thereby securing a qualitative, realist basis for his theory of life.

Doubt and Climate

2013/09/07 5 comments

The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).

Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.

The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)

Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.

He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)

The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.

But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)

It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.

Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,

But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)

What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.

This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.

This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.

Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.

With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)

In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.

What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.

At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,

Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?

Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)

It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)

Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.

§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)

The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.

Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.

Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).

So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.

Emerson on an ancient antagonism

An ineluctable aspect of being human is the taking of stands on a variety of ancient, intractable antagonisms. Two parties or positions oppose one another, and have for as far back into the past as we can see. Moreover, they will continue to do so indefinitely into the future—a line with no discoverable endpoints. Now you must take a stand, and at the outset there seem to be select few possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is to pick a side and fight for it, whichever, it does not matter, really, for both sides preceded your involvement, and both will outlast it. In terms of the conflict, your participation makes no difference. The second option is non-participation, and this too makes no difference. Here you search for a position that floats above either of the two opposing parties, from which you may look down on their senseless fight. And while you may be right that it is senseless, it still gets the last laugh, for it will outlast your non-participation, your cynicism; it will go on as if you had never existed. A third option is compromise: you try to take the best of each position, insofar as they have compatible elements, and fuse something new out of it. But your contribution is short-lived: no one before you has changed the fundamental antagonism, and you will not be the exception.

Just such an antagonism lies at the foundation of Emerson’s essay “The Conservative”. Here it is the opposition between the conservative and the reformer that is at issue: on the one side the defender of the old institutions, on the other the creator of the new. On a first take, one would expect Emerson to side with the reformers—does not Emerson find the greatest value in the creation of the new? But Emerson’s picture is much more nuanced than this. While he will endorse reform in the end, it is only after a long, dare I say spiritual process in which the entire antagonism is fundamentally recast. And, as one part of this process, we shall see how the conservative, for a time, gets the upper hand in the debate.

As Emerson begins his essay by stressing the irreconcilability of the two parties, we should be wary of expecting him to take himself to have achieved such reconciliation. And yet, at the start, we find him seeming to throw his weight behind reform, at the expense of conservatism. As he launches into the discussion, he notes immediately the inescapability of “a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism” (174—page references, as always are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures). And he goes on:

The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, the conservative always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. (174)

Could the conservative come across any worse? He is an apologist for the past and a barrier to the future, and in the face of reform he seems a poor barrier indeed, destined always to break. But we cannot be so fast in our judgment. For Emerson, throughout at least the first half of the essay, applies a method that dates back to the Pyrrhonian skeptics: the marshaling of equally compelling arguments for two competing positions. The conservative may suffer from a meanness of argument, but conservatism enjoys “a certain superiority in its fact.” I shall say more on this shortly, but let me first raise the following question: if conservatism is a barrier that is always destined to break in the face of reform, then how is it that the conflict is irreconcilable—by force at least, if not by argument? Surely if conservatism breaks so easily, it should not last. I shall not answer this question now, but only note that here already lies the pivot on which Emerson’s essay turns.

Emerson does not take his application of the Pyrrhonian method to its Pyrrhonian conclusion: suspension of judgment (except in a strained sense). Instead, he does something I find even more interesting, but to see what it is we must look at the currents of his text, and feel their ebb and flow. Immediately after the glowing description of reform, Emerson engages in one of his trademark reversals, taking both conservatism and reform to excess, until he can say “of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine” (175). So now it seems Emerson will adopt the third option above, that of combining the fruits of both antagonists. In a way yes, but… we shall see.

First, Emerson elucidates further the conservative’s meanness of argument and his superiority of fact by imagining a conversation between the two antagonists. For despite this necessity of combination, we nonetheless “pair off into insane parties, and learn the amount of truth each [party] knows, by the denial of an equal amount of truth [namely, that of the other party]” (176). The conservative thus critiques the reformer for being an idealist, and not a realist: “the existing world is not a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born” (177), and so the reformer cannot simply blithely deny it. The conservative, with full justification, can throw the burden of proof onto the reformer: “we hold to this, until you can demonstrate something better.”

Key in this criticism is the charge of idealism, leveled at the reformer by the conservative. We must keep in mind here the role realism and idealism play for Emerson. That the conservative is a realist—indicated by his superiority of fact—and the reformer an idealist—indicated by his superiority of argument—is of the greatest significance. For Emerson, the idealist never sacrifices his ideals to the facts. At the end of “Lecture on the Times”, Emerson discusses how the disease of our age, non-action, is the result of precisely this refusal to sacrifice ideals to facts, and then he claims such non-action on the basis of the preservation of ideals is preferable to action that requires compromise. It is Emerson’s task to find a means of acting in an idealist fashion, which means a fashion that involves no sacrifice of sacrosanct ideals. Facts are to be used, they are to serve ideals, and not vice-versa.

If, then, Emerson is forced to say of both the conservative and the reformer that they are only halves, and not wholes, then he is in doing so denying the reformer’s claim to be an idealist. And if he thinks the conservative’s charge that the reformer denies or neglects the facts sticks, if that is compelling reason the conservative can bring against the reformer, then we must conclude that the reformer against whom such a charge can be successfully brought is not properly an idealist. This is exactly what Emerson goes on to show:

However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seeder from the seeder is as damnable as the pope himself. (178)

This is the fundamental Emersonian moment in the essay. Recall the question I isolated earlier as the pivot on which the essay turns: here is its answer. Conservatism survives because reformers inevitably become conservatives. Conservatism must give way to reform, that is true, but this is not the death of conservatism, for it can always regenerate itself in just those reforms to which it gave way. That is what makes the antagonism irreconcilable. It is simply two necessary parts of what is ultimately the same thing, no antagonism at all. On the question of conservatism versus reform, we are all conservatives—if not yet, we will be.

Emerson’s skeptical method continues for a few pages more, but the damage is done. What more is there to be said in the debate, now that both parties have been revealed to be the same side all along? But these succeeding pages are not mere dead weight, for in them the character of the reformer starts to change. The character of the reformer stops looking like a conservative in disguise, and instead like something else, something we will see is the true, Emersonian Reformer, who stands at the end of a long line of Conservatives (here consisting of both the conservative and reform parties as Emerson has up to this point been discussing them). Consider the following passage, in which Emerson imagines a reformer talking:

All your aggregate existences are less to me a fact than is my own as I am born to the earth, so the Earth is given to me, what I want of it to till and to plant nor could I, without pusillanimity, omit to claim so much. I must not only have a name to live, I must live. My genius leads me to build a different manner of life from any of yours. I cannot then spare you the whole world. I love you better. I must tell you the truth practically; and take that which you call yours. (180)

These are not the words of a reformer who is a conservative in disguise, but the words of a true reformer. Accordingly, Emerson’s skeptical method ceases to function quite as a true Pyrrhonian requires: the rejoinders of the conservative start to seem more and more like pleading, and lacking in the solid ground of fact. For instance, the conservative, in response to just this passage (which I did not quote in full), says, “But they [the existing institutions] do answer the end, they are really friendly to the good; unfriendly to the bad; they second the industrious, and the kind; they foster genius” (181). But this we cannot believe, and we cannot believe it precisely because what is being defended are institutions.

What makes the conservative and the (non-Emersonian) reformer both conservatives is that both are concerned ultimately with institutions. The conservative prefers the old; the reformer wants to herald the new. Yet once the new institutions are established, they become the old, existing institutions—that is just why the reformer becomes the conservative. The Emersonian Reformer, by contrast, as the quote above shows, is supra-institutional. An institution is only a fact, not truth, and it can, in the end, only guarantee (to a greater or lesser extent) one thing: convenience, or comfort. On the basis of this comfort the conservative (including reformers) can object to the Reformer: “Is it not exaggerating a trifle to insist on a formal acknowledgment of your claims, when these substantial advantages have been secured to you?” (182).

The Reformer, however, is not driven by the promise of “substantial advantages”. He says, “the plant Man does not require for his most glorious flowering this pomp of preparation and convenience” (184). What an institution has to offer—“Greatness does not need it” (184). An institution, qua institution, possesses no value:

Instead of that reliance, which the soul suggests on the eternity of truth and duty, men are misled into a reliance on institutions, which, the moment they cease to be the instantaneous creations of the devout sentiment, are worthless. (187)

What Emerson has done, over the course of the essay, is thus not quite any of the three options I presented. While he takes the side of reform (option one), he does so only after showing how the split between conservatism and reform as it is generally understood is merely an in-house debate within the conservative party. That is, the ancient antagonism we think ineluctable is one behind which hides a deeper, more real antagonism. In this way, Emerson steps outside both positions (similar to the second option), but not in a spirit of cynical non-participation. Yes, the Reformer is supra-institutional, but not out of disdain for the debate, not out of an attempt to escape it, but because he simply has other, more important, more divine concerns, and he will not sacrifice these to the old antagonism. It is not that he looks down on it—he hardly sees it at all. Finally, Emerson takes a stance somewhat resembling the third option, the combinatorial option. For Emerson does not condemn the conservative party (neither it’s conservative nor reforming elements). Rather, he sees the conservative party, the party of institutions, as the ground on which the Reformer grows. But this is not quite a position of combination, either, in the sense that I initially discussed, for Emerson does not try to combine the best of both positions. He simply notes that the Reformer, the supra-institutional individual, only arises from the “wild crab of conservatism.” It is this ability to give rise to the Reformer that justifies conservatism; it’s value is entirely subordinated to the value of the Reformer.

I will let Emerson have the final word:

In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial plant, but grew here on the wild crab of conservatism. It is much that this old and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born. (189)