It is a perpetual depression to experience how the inspiritors of wordpress conspire to represent Emerson, an endless series of quotations (first mistake) that “uplift” only to servile self-content, and never to loftiness of sentiment (second mistake) – and upon noticing that many of these quotations seem never to appear in Emerson’s writing, it is hard to avoid the thought, however briefly it lingers, that perhaps it would have been better for us all had he never lived. Thus I will undertake briefly to explain why Emersonian self-reliance wants no part in contemporary self-content.
Superficially they are similar. There is a certain sort of conformity that demands of us that we sacrifice our quirks to society, that we make our appearances, our personalities, and such take the shape that the whims of fashion (whose?) dictate. Against this oppression comes the cry that we should not so slaughter ourselves, that we should love who we are, damn imposition to hell. Follow your own path, the beat of your own drum (if we want to drag Thoreau in), etc. All well and good. But what seems not to be considered, and what I take to be central to Emerson, is the question of just what it is you are loving – how much of it is the judgment of others, internalized? There is an element of self-critique to self-reliance, without which it is complacent self-content. Without it, we are “like sick men in hospitals, we change only from bed to bed, from one folly to another; and it cannot signify much what becomes of such castaways, – wailing, stupid, comatose creatures, – lifted from bed to bed, from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.” (1122)
In a related vein, there is in modern self-love an optimism that to be oneself guarantees success, is sufficient, is the end. But Emerson’s conception is experimental, and experiments often fail. Emersonian self-reliance is laced with skepticism. All is illusion – how many ways he makes this point in the essay from which this post is growing. More to the point, “With such volatile elements to work in, ‘tis no wonder if our estimates are loose and floating. We must work and affirm, but we have no guess of the value of what we say or do.” (1121) All knowledge of what is valuable, of what works, comes from hindsight, and the hindsight pertinent to our actions might not be our own. As actors, we can only guess.
Such a curmudgeonly piece is perhaps an unbefitting end to my reading of Emerson’s major works, and doubly unbefitting for my youth. My only apology is to rest in Emerson’s claim of the counterbalancing of forces – too much of the cheery (as distinct from the cheerful) perhaps demands a dose of the dour. And if this slight experiment should fail despite (or because of) my caveating, I take small solace in the thought that that really rather makes the point.
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.
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.
Emerson’s “Worship”, as I read it, is a strangely conflicted essay. With one of its faces, it offers strong denunciations of the reliance on custom and parties (“old dead things” – 1061) and on organized religion generally (“I do not find the religions of men at this moment very creditable to them” – 1058), and on dogma (“I do not think [skepticism] can be cured or stayed by any modification of theologic creeds” – 1062). Yet at the same time it looks to and relies on numerous ideas that can now only be considered as dogmas themselves – e.g., that we suffer from godlessness, that there is a moral order to the universe, that all actions are subject to a system of moral compensation. Emerson thus seems to engage in just that practice he so dislikes: apology.
This is unavoidable. Emerson himself showed, in Representative Men, how a great individual could be taken as representing something universal and eternal – and yet Emerson, in each essay, turned around and showed how these same individuals were flawed, tied to their own time, base, partial. Emerson is not immune from his own method, and in “Worship” this is especially apparent. Genius, Emerson tells us, is selective, and if I may pretend to genius for a moment, I can select from Emerson’s work two strains: the “true” Emerson, who launches himself into the future and reveals great truths, and the “false” Emerson, who is mired in the dogmas and attitudes of his time even as he thrusts against them. (Of course, it is important that it is my genius that makes this selection – Emerson could not have made it himself, for obvious reasons.) In “Worship”, the false Emerson has an especially strong voice. I shall, however, try to sift out one of the essay’s valuable strands.
What is worship, for Emerson? There are two conceptions presented in the essay. On the first conception, it is the seeing of the moral order to the universe. “Religion or worship is the attitude of those who see this unity, intimacy, and sincerity; who see that, against all appearances, the nature of things works for truth and right forever.” (1064-5) This is the false Emerson, the Emerson who lapses into a dogma when threatened by materialistic skepticism. (This is not the place for an extended discussion, but there are key parallels tying this essay into Emerson’s quite skeptical essay on Montaigne in Representative Men.)
But there is another conception in the essay. Emerson does not simply revile materialism. He has, in many ways, given it its due in the first five essays in The Conduct of Life, and that continues here:
Even the fury of material activity has some results friendly to moral health. The energetic action of the times develops individualism and the religious appear isolated. I esteem this a step in the right direction. Heaven deals with us on no representative system. Souls are not saved in bundles. (1062)
Materialism breaks up the idea of a common interest and so develops individualism. It focuses on the individual and not the common good. This is a step in the right direction because, in matters of the spirit, there simply is no common good: “Souls are not saved in bundles.” Each person is self-responsible and only self-responsible. There is no sharing of such burdens, no salvation by party. But this materialism has its costs: it leads to a certain aimlessness:
In our large cities, the population is godless, materialized, – no bond, no fellow-feeling, no enthusiasm. These are not men, but hungers, thirsts, fevers, and appetites walking. How is it people manage to live on, – so aimless as they are. (1059)
When all that is sought is comfort, the satisfaction of desires, then a person becomes a disjoint bundle of such desires, and not a unity. The strengthening of individualism can thus be accompanied by the loss of the individual. Emerson’s solution to this is, of course, self-reliance, on one’s own experience. Reliance on the experience of another (and this is what all reliance on doctrine is) is insufficient. Insufficient for what? For acquiring an aim, without which life is not “respectable.” (1071) Aims and self-reliance are intimately intertwined. The aimless individual, the mere bundle, lacks any self on which to rely. The presence of an aim, however, organizes this bundle, selects from among it what is valuable and suppresses what is not, and thereby yields a self on which one can rely. And this is the second conception of worship: if godlessness is aimlessness, and the having of an aim is, for Emerson, what is divine.
Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.
Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)
There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.
One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)
One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.
An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.
So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.
And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)
No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.
One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.
Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)
It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:
Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)
In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)
This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.
The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.