Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

Self-reliance and self-content

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.

A selection

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.

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.

A moody distinction

2014/05/28 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.