Posts Tagged ‘self-reliance’

Pride over vanity

Emerson would rescue the vice of pride, as the natural counterpart to the vice of vanity. If we are suckered into love of opposites, we will believe that against vanity stands humility. That is a mistake, a half-truth. Pride is needed.

The virtues are economists, but some of the vices are also. Thus, next to humility, I have noticed that pride is a pretty good husband. […] Pride can go without domestics, without fine clothes, can live in a house with two rooms, can eat potato, purslain, beans, lyed corn, can work on the soil, can travel afoot, can talk with poor men, or sit silent well-contented in fine saloons. But vanity costs money, labor, horses, men, women, health, and peace, and is still nothing at last, a long way leading nowhere. (1004)

Pride is prudent, is a good economist. Vanity is a spendthrift. Let us have no talk here of the moral, the good in itself. Pride pays, while vanity costs. There is a first egotism, a first self-interest in the choice of that pride which can dispense with vanity.

Emerson, being himself the finest egotist the world produced, does not rest content with this single egotism. Pride has another:

Only one drawback; proud people are intolerably selfish, and the vain are gentle and giving. (1004)

The vain wish to be believed to be such-and-such, whereas the proud have no need for such “being believed to be.” Thus the vain will be sure to keep up appearances, to treat others well, so as to be thought well of – and not only by others. This is vanity’s egotism, the preening sort. Pride is too proud of itself to chase such shifting opinions, and neglects to make a show of giving. Pride cares for what it is, let the appearances land as they may. This is its second egotism.

Emerson offers a choice between egotisms: that of the vain and that of the proud. I cannot see that he leaves open a third path, one free of egotism altogether. He will stand no pure humility.

This choice of pride over vanity sheds light on Emerson’s finest formula for egotism: self-reliance. In the essay of that name, self-reliance is set apart from conformity. To be self-reliant is to be nonconformist. But nonconformity comes in two forms: the vain and the proud.

If the non-conformist or æsthetic farmer leaves out the cattle, and does not also leave out the want which the cattle must supply, he must fill the gap by begging or stealing. (1006)

This is a vain nonconformity, a form of self-obsession that imposes itself on its material without consideration for that material’s properties, that has not yet learned the rule of “Impera parendo” – command by obeying. (1007) How much pride it has to sacrifice, when it reduced to begging and crime!

Emerson speaks of self-reliance as a form of freedom, but this vain nonconformity ends in a version of slavery. It has not learned the secret of power, which secret might be called friction. The material obeys its own laws, and will tolerate no impositions, but learn what friction it offers up for use, and it offers up its wealth for the use of individual power. The greatest freedom is always built on the bedrock of the greatest constraint.

It is the pride of egotism to recognize this truth, and the vanity of egotism to ignore it.


Skepsis, sepsis, and epanalepsis

Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?

Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.

Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:

When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)

The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]

The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.

At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.

Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.

We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?

In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.

Transient sympathies

2014/06/05 18 comments

William Sharp MacLeay, at the start of his Horae Entomologicae, a once famous but now obscure work of natural history, apologizes for himself. “In offering to the public this, his first essay in Entomology, the author thinks it by no means unlikely that he shall incur the charge of aiming at innovations in the science.” MacLeay rests on the hope, however, that the sympathetic reader will recognize that he wishes rather “to reconcile with each other the observations of his predecessors” than “to controvert or obliterate the result of their labours.” Here is a scientific climate that mistrusts novelty and values tradition, in which the appearance of innovation always requires external justification. Novelty never justifies itself.

Something like this climate permeates Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare, in which Emerson is concerned to establish Shakespeare as a genius—though we now know that we must be cautious about what this means. Two facets of genius emerge in the essay: genius as borrower, and genius as impartial. These are closely intertwined.

“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality.” (710) It is the breadth of a man’s fine thoughts that earns him, from Emerson, the title of genius. The task of the genius, of the poet, is not to exercise choice in developing novelties. It is to be receptive what is good in the thought of his time, “forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.” (710) When the task is to present what is good, memory is as valuable as invention. The situation is that others speak well sometimes, and foolishly other times, and cannot tell the difference—it is the genius who can tell. Thus the geniuses of history “are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets.” (714) In sum: “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.” (710)

In the everlasting battle between tradition and invention, then, Emerson sides with tradition. It is not surprising that this should be so. There is something cheap about all innovation: it always seems to come to something not really new, and we suspect the great innovators have merely a talent for rearrangement. If, as has been posited, there is nothing new under the sun, innovation starts to seem a game, a triviality.

There are further reasons, which emerge in Emerson’s “waste stock” theory. “Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried.” (712) The tradition furnishes the materials of the lab bench, provides a ground. This grounding occurs in two senses. First, it supplies a foundation, a stable surface on which Shakespeare can work. It is ground, dirt—and not sacred. “Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done.” (712) Prestige attaches to individuals, to choice, to innovation, and prevents experiment. You cannot fool around with the sacred. Tradition furnishes grounding also in a second sense: it grounds the poet, prevents the poet from spinning off and losing contact with the world—spinning frictionlessly in the void, if I might steal that phrase. “The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within due temperance.” (712) In contrast with art for art’s sake, which leads to “freak, extravagance, and exhibition,” waste stock ensures points of contact. (713)

Emerson’s choice to side with tradition, then, is not quite a true allegiance to invention’s alleged enemy. Indeed, Emerson rather allies tradition with invention—is not prestige precisely what characterizes tradition, and what tradition renders infallible and unchangeable? Yet Emerson links it to innovation: tradition and invention fight, but that fight is between fixed inventions that have been accorded prestige, and novel inventions seeking it. The old fight to maintain their place; the new to usurp it—both play the same game. Emerson’s tradition will have nothing to do with this fight. The dead suffice for experiment only, and there is no place for the living to usurp: the only place to go upon death is the stockpile.

It is for this reason that genius is a borrower, even a thief. But to call the genius a borrower, a thief, to call the poet indebted—these terms all presuppose a certain theory of property, one proper to prestige and innovation (and the tradition built of dead innovations). This theory of property belongs to the dispute Emerson wishes to leave behind, and so Emerson must substitute a new one in its place: “Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it.” (715) Thought belongs to whoever can use it. This is not a free for all, not a matter of all thoughts belonging to all: “A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”

The genius is, then, if we stick with the old theory of intellectual property for a moment, a borrower. He experiments with the waste stock, and makes it his own. There remains the second aspect of genius: genius as impartial. In his highest flights of praise, Emerson praises Shakespeare for the “omnipresent humanity [that] coördinates all his faculties.” (722) Where the man of talents reveals his partiality, the “certain observations, opinions, topics” that enjoy “some accidental prominence,” “Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given.”

This conception of genius is both sympathetic and in conflict with the first definition. On the one hand, genius, as impartial, is comprehensive, selecting what is good in everything. Every innovation has a limited domain and is thus partial—impartial genius cannot, then, be innovation. Yet the first conception of genius admitted that genius had a history, that this history might be traced. Yet, Emerson tells us, “we are very clumsy writers of history”—we may write the facts of Shakespeare’s life, and of his influences, and yet see nothing of his genius. (719) To trace the history of genial theft is to miss the genius in it. There is a simple reason for this: “the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, who see the works, and ask in vain for a history.” (720)

There is tension, then, between the history of genius, the history of borrowings and thefts, and the ahistorical genius, the genius that seems to sit outside of time, eternal. Can this tension be resolved? Emerson eventually gives himself away. “There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits.” (723) This is a contradiction in terms: it is the very essence of representation to be partial, to select some aspects to represent and not others. The scientific representation idealizes here and abstracts there; the democratic representative cannot act on every opinion of her constituency. No representation captures the full detail of what is represented—if it did, it could not function as a representation.

When Emerson calls Shakespeare the creator of perfect representations, then, he is mythologizing. He is indulging in the myth of genius, of the great figure who comes out of nowhere and sets the world aflame. And he knows this is a myth, for he said so explicitly, earlier: “It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” (715) The end of the essay further confirms that Emerson knows this is a myth, for the end of the essay tears down Shakespeare, reveals Shakespeare’s own partiality. “Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weights Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.” (724)

What gives? What is Emerson doing, mythologizing Shakespeare in this way, only to turn around and strip him down to size? Emerson gives the answer: “Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” (720) In these sympathetic hours, Shakespeare’s thought becomes our own, because we use it, and experiment with it. When we are swept up in these movements of thought, then Shakespeare “is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably.” (722) Then we stand with him outside of time, then there is ahistorical genius. The thought is all that exists.

But these sympathies are transient—allow them to last too long, and what remains is devotion to prestige. To remain with Shakespeare when after the end of our Horae Shakespearicae is to become the worshipper of prestige, to find our thoughts burdened by that awkwardness that marks true theft. Emerson’s essay mirrors, in its movement, the passing of these hours. When his thought moves with Shakespeare’s, then Shakespeare seems that mythical being, the perfect representative. But eventually their movement drifts apart, and Shakespeare returns to his partiality, regains his history.

In the end, Emerson must bring down Shakespeare in this fashion. Were he not to reveal Shakespeare’s partiality, he would merely be establishing Shakespeare as an object of prestige, of sacred tradition, and would thus render Shakespeare unusable—just as the perfect representation is unusable. Emerson slanders Shakespeare out of respect, in a way. He sees a nobler future for Shakespeare than as a relic: he is converting Shakespeare into waste stock.

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Addendum on the transpersonal

I complained, in my previous post, linked above, about those who try to save Emerson from the charge of egotism by insisting that he takes self-reliance to be reliance on something transpersonal. It seems to me that this theory of intellectual property captures what is genuinely transpersonal in Emerson’s thought.

Emerson, in the essay on Montaigne, notes that “great believers are always reckoned infidels” because they cannot accept the dogmas “dear to the hope of man”—and that surely includes the dogma of a transpersonal moral order. (707) “I believe in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them?” But is not this “moral design of the universe” itself a dogma? To defend Emerson by insisting on his belief in this dogma does, so far as I can see, more harm than good.

The theory of property suggests an alternate understanding of this transpersonality—it lies in the possibility of appropriating thoughts, of making them our own. In the hours in which we share another’s thought, there is a transpersonal bond. And even if, in these high hours, our thought is novel, some future soul may share it, so even what is uniquely ours in our own time, if ever anything is, is transpersonal. But the way to this is self-reliance. It seems to me that Emerson recognizes, and, more than recognizes, insists, that our highest hours are transient. Self-reliance at other times—will that not just be egotism? To recognize the ubiquity of partiality seems to me to require admitting that Emerson’s philosophy, though it prizes the transpersonal in a certain sense, cannot avoid egotism.

Let us admit Emerson’s philosophy for what it is—it will not suffer from it.

Is Emerson safe to handle?

2014/05/07 9 comments

The knock on Walter Kaufmann, who is generally given credit for rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazis, is that in carrying out this rescue operation he to too great an extent sanitized Nietzsche, made him safe. Perhaps this was once necessary, but in the end the harsher aspects of Nietzsche must be recovered. It seems to me that the same might be said of readers of and writers on Emerson. It is worth asking, in reading secondary literature on Emerson, to what extent the author smoothes over Emerson’s rough edges.

This way of thinking about the literature on Emerson occurred to me while reading Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. Buell, in his discussion of Emerson’s twin lineages—American pragmatism, and Nietzsche—notes that James made Emerson safe in a way that Nietzsche did not. “The point is not that James was a company-man pedant, for he most certainly was not, but that even Emersonian wickedness was safely canonical and therefore somewhat anodyne for him as it was not for Nietzsche.” (239) This is not the first bit of inspiration I have received from Buell’s mostly quite good book. But despite owing Buell thanks for showing me this tool, I nevertheless feel compelled to turn it on him.

One of Buell’s concerns in the book is to show how, for Emerson, self-reliance is not egotism, for the self on which one is reliant is always something transpersonal, even impersonal. It is true that Emerson speaks this way, and I myself have, in the past, taken this as comfort in my reading of Emerson. But now I suspect that this way of reading Emerson is too easy and too convenient, and not faithful to Emerson himself. In one of the locations at which Buell discusses this aspect of Emerson, he picks up on what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (quoted in Buell, 236). (This quote is the one of which I was thinking when I wrote, yesterday, of “Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality.”) Buell comments that this shows “that the basis of the trust is that the inmost must be some sort of universal. Truth must be generated as personal experience, but personal experience can count as truth only insofar as it carries transpersonal, exemplary force.” (237)

This reading of Emerson is comforting, at least for those who stick by Emerson, because it mitigates his apparently extreme individualism, his advocacy of self-reliance even when one finds that one is “the devil’s child”. But I think Buell is putting too much hope in this purported “transpersonal, exemplary force” of the individual’s private truth—more hope than Emerson placed in it. (In what follows, I will presuppose familiarity with the themes of the short essay “Two poles of genius” that I wrote yesterday.)

Buell picks up on Emerson’s reversal of Kant to the extent that he grants that, for Emerson, “truth must be generated as personal experience,” whereas Kant’s tests of the universalizability of a maxim do not make any such detour through personal experience. That much, in Buell, is right. But it is not enough. It ascribes to Emerson the belief that what is arrived at through personal experience will be something universal, thus acceptable to all. I do not think Emerson had any such hope. In “Uses of Great Men”, the universalizing tendency of genius appears in animal guise: “every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature.” (628) [I wonder, by the by, whether this passage might not be a precursor to Nietzsche’s views on will to power.] Here, the universalization of genius does not proceed in a safe, friendly manner—it is an act of aggression, of violence, from which others have to protect themselves.

Where Buell takes Emerson’s insistence on the transpersonal to provide a way of evading the charge of egotism, of promoting reliance on oneself even at the expense of others, it seems to me that Emerson was well aware that his doctrine of self-reliance had precisely the implication that it will bring individuals into conflict, that any agreement between individuals will be partial and temporary (cf. his essays on “Love” and “Friendship”), that individuals need defenses from others. Buell is making Emerson safe.

Two poles of genius

2014/05/06 6 comments

Every attempt to fix a single view onto Emerson eventually comes to ruin. I have long felt the vibrations, as it rattled about my brain, of Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality, the taking of what is honest to oneself as what is honest for all. Of course this was not all Emerson said about genius, but it seemed the center around which Emerson’s views of genius were organized. It stood unopposed.

It stands opposed. Emerson writes, in the opening essay of Representative Men: “But true genius seeks to defend us from itself.” (623) It is only “vulgar talent” that wishes “to dazzle and to bind the beholder.” Now it seems that genius—always Emerson’s antithesis to talent—is not the imposition, at least in thought, of one’s own mind on all minds, but rather the defense of all other minds from just this imposition. I should have expected this moment of conflict, more than I did.

The first pole of genius is a perversion of Kant’s injunction to will only what can be willed as a universal maxim. Emerson twists it around: universalize what you will. But Emerson does not mean for petty egotism to run rampant. That genius should universalize what one wills is a test. Not the same as Kant’s test, but nonetheless not a test that all I desire will pass. There is a perpetual theme, in Emerson, that self-reliance should be something impersonal, that in it individuality should disappear. The individual disappears as Kant as well, but in a different way. Emerson reverses the directionality of Kant’s categorical imperative: rather than moving from what can be willed universally to what I myself shall will, the move is from what I will to the universal. Genius expands outward.

Yet such outward expansion is dangerous, for others, at least. Even if my genius’ belief in such universalization is genuine, should others follow me in this way, what results is mere conformity, and not more genius. For another to accept what I will is for them to go through my person and not their own—thus to give up self-reliance. Should genius get its way, should its expansion succeed, it would be to the detriment of genius. Thus the need for the second pole of genius, in which genius defends others from itself.

Genius is in conflict with itself, expanding outward even as it attempts to defend others from its expansion. Emerson’s writing lives out this conflict, defending a philosophy of self-reliance even while undercutting every attempt to pin this philosophy down to a single formulation. In this way, Emerson defends his readers from himself. Yet I take Emerson to have been aware that these defenses are insufficient on their own. He writes:

For nature wishes every thing to remain itself; and, whilst every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature, Nature steadily aims to protect each against every other. Each is self-defended. Nothing is more marked than the power by which individuals are guarded from individuals… (628)

The first visage of genius here appears, though it is not called by name. Against it, each individual has defenses. A vision of life emerges: it is the clash of genius with genius, my genius with yours, and my genius with my own. Such is the peril of life.