Posts Tagged ‘spiritual exercises’

Emerson and care of the self

2013/09/01 2 comments

In this I hope brief post, I want to bring Emerson in contact with Foucault, using Fou­cault to situate Emerson in an ancient tradition. I have recently begun reading Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject (a lecture series he gave toward the end of his life), and there is much in his description of the ancient tradition of care of oneself that is readily apparent in the pages of Emerson.

Foucault identifies three defining characteristics of ancient spirituality. First, “spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right” (Hermeneutics of the Subject, 15). Rather, the individual subject must be “changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself.” Access to truth requires a certain conversion, and the second aspect of spirituality is that this conversion can take various forms. Foucault isolates two possibilities. The first involves a movement of erōs, either a movement of ascension on the part of the subject, or a movement where the truth comes to the subject. The second possibility is askēsis, “a progressive transformation of the self by the self” (16). Having seen what is required for the subject to access truth, it remains to be seen what effect access to the truth has on the subject. The third characteristic of spirituality is that, in having access to the truth, “there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.”

This all sounds quaint today, for the successes of modern science are predicated on precisely the fact that it does not require transformation of the subject before one can know the truth. Scientific study may require the inculcation of a particular set of virtues (Steven Shapin has interestingly discussed this in his The Scientific Life), but that is not quite the same as what Foucault is targeting: it is no more spiritual than the inculcation of the virtues necessary to be a farmer or a journalist. They are, in Emerson’s terminology, virtues that relate only to fragments of men. They enhance a person’s ability to carry out a particular function, but not to be a whole individual.

I am, in all honesty, not sure to what extent the concept of spirituality as Foucault characterizes it can be brought into today, when our conception of truth is so dominated by the sciences. I am tempted to start by considering Emerson: a scientific text, an artistic work, a farmer’s crops—all these are only so many facts, and not yet truth. Truth is in the creative act, the shooting of the gap, and next to it the facts are flimsy and meek. But, especially since I cannot accept Emerson’s metaphysics, I am not quite sure just what it is to say that the creative act of self-overcoming grasps truth.

That is a task that I must continue to carry out as I read Emerson. I will not complete it here. Rather, I would like to consider a striking passage in his “Lecture on the Times” that I think situates Emerson in the very tradition of spirituality that Foucault, in his work, considers. [Page references, as always, will be to the Library of America edition of his Essays and Lectures.] Emerson begins by characterizing the disease of his time as follows:

A new disease has fallen on the life of man. Every Age, like every human body, has its own distemper. Other times have had war, or famine, or a barbarism domestic or bordering, as their antagonism. Our forefathers walked in the world and went to their graves, tormented with the fear of Sin, and the terror of the Day of Judgment. These terrors have lost their force, and our torment is Unbelief, the Uncertainty as to what we ought to do; the distrust of the value of what we do, and the distrust that the Necessity (which we all at last believe in) is fair and beneficent. Our Religion assumes the negative form of rejection. Out of love of the true, we repudiate the false: and the Religion is an abolishing criticism. A great perplexity hangs like a cloud on the brow of all cultivated persons, a certain imbecility in the best spirits, which distinguishes the period. We do not find the same trait in the Arabian, in the Hebrew, in Greek, Roman, Norman, English periods; no, but in other men a natural firmness. The men did not see beyond the need of the hour. They planted their foot strong, and doubted nothing. We mistrust every step we take. We find it the worst thing about time, that we know not what to do with it. We are so sharp-sighted that we can neither work nor think, neither read Plato nor not read him. (165)

With perhaps the exception of the claim that we all believe in Necessity, all of this holds as true today as it did in Emerson’s time. (For this reason I suspect the hullabaloo about modernism and post-modernism is a mere shifting façade obscuring the underlying constancy that has marked the time between Emerson and now.) I am suspicious that the disease is really as new as Emerson suggests, but that is unimportant for his deeper point. What matters is that it is a real disease of the spirit, and on that ground I think Emerson’s diagnosis is unimpeachable.

One form this disease takes is a too great intellectualism: criticism is leveled at the level of thought, but does not cause a new method of life. “The genius of the day does not incline to a deed, but to a beholding.” And then, in a passage magnificent beyond compare:

Then, talents bring their usual temptations, and the current literature and poetry with perverse ingenuity draw us away from life to solitude and meditation. This could well be borne, if it were great and involuntary; if the men were ravished by their thought, and hurried into ascetic extravagances. Society could then manage to release their shoulder from its wheel, and grant them for a time this privilege or Sabbath. But they are not so. Thinking, which was a rage, is become an art. The thinker gives me results, and never invites me to be present with him at his invocation of truth, and to enjoy with him its proceeding into his mind. (165-166)

Emerson is here contrasting two manners of thinking. One is thinking that is a “rage”, by which Emerson means those acts of thought whereby one grasps the truth. Of such experiences, there may be a record (in scientific works, in artworks, above all in actions), but these are mere facts, mere results, valuable because they hint at (but do not fully capture) the movement of thought that gave birth to them. These results are valuable precisely in virtue of their offering an invitation to be present with the thinker “at his invocation of truth.” Against this is the second form of thinking, that which aims only at results—results that are mere facts, and not truth, in the sense defined above.

This distinction I think reveals the deep spirituality (in the Foucauldian sense) at work in Emerson’s texts. While the results of thought are publicly available (whether they were produced by the first or the second sort of thinking), to possess and understand the results is not to grasp truth. To grasp truth one must participate in the movement of thought oneself, which cannot happen simply by following the works of others. Thus the first criterion is met.

Having thus diagnosed us, the natural response for Emerson is to attempt to treat the disease, and I think that is precisely what is the primary task of most of Emerson’s work. “Lecture on the Times” is not among the best of Emerson’s characterizations of his treatment—it’s primary value lies in its splendid diagnosis—and I hope to discuss this further when, in my travels through Emerson’s essays and lectures, I reach such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “The Poet”, as well as the entirety of The Conduct of Life. But “Lecture on the Times” does have one passage where Emerson suggests where to look for truth:

The main interest which any aspects of the Times can have for us, is the great spirit which gazes through them, the light which they can shed on the wonderful questions, What we are? And Whither we tend? We do not wish to be deceived. […] From what port did we sail? Who knows? Or to what port are we bound? Who knows? […] Over all their speaking-trumpets, the gray sea and the loud winds answer, Not in us; not in Time. Where then but in Ourselves, where but in that Thought through which we communicate with absolute nature, and are made aware that, whilst we shed the dust of which we are built, grain by grain, till it is all gone, the law which clothes us with humanity remains new? where, but in the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within, shall we learn the Truth? (168)

This is a succinct statement of his praise of self-reliance: it is reliance on “the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within” that leads us to grasp Truth, to see anew “the law which clothes us with humanity.” Here it might be tempting to think that, since these intuitions are within us, Emerson makes no demand for any movement of the subject, for any work on the self by the self. But this is a mistake. Again, “Lecture on the Times” is not the best place to see this (an essay like “Circles” better shows the need for constant self-overcoming and thus constant work on oneself), but it is not barren of suggestions. For instance:

What is the scholar, what is the man for, but for hospitality to ever new thought of his time? Have you leisure, power, property, friends? you shall be the asylum and patron of every new thought, every unproven opinion, every untried project, which proceeds out of good will and honest seeking. (169)

Making oneself a patron of new thoughts—this requires work. One sort of work mentioned in the essay is an overcoming of the “pusillanimous preference of our bread to our freedom.” It requires also overcoming our fear of any fact, for that will keep us from truth. So I conclude that Emerson also meets the second criterion of spirituality in the ancient sense. As for the third, for Emerson the very act of grasping Truth is self-overcoming as much as it is self-reliance, and there is the requisite transfiguration of the self upon the reception of truth.

This post did not end up as short as I had hoped, not even close, but then they never do. I hope, by way of compensation, that I have made a somewhat compelling case (albeit one in need of expansion via consideration of his other essays) for seeing Emerson as part of an ancient spiritual tradition, modifying and adapting it to the disease of his times, and ours.

Emerson as Bricoleur

2013/08/23 8 comments

Naturally, when I said that Henry Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice would be my final book be­fore classes started, I was lying—not because I intended to start a new book but because its falsehood was eminently predictable. I won’t finish it before classes start, but I have at least begun reading Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and already I have found something worth mentioning in relation to my recent series of posts on Emerson. (All page references are to the Hadot book.)

One of Hadot’s early tasks in the book is to clarify the way in which ancient Greek and Roman philosophical texts are to be read. Contemporary academic methods of reading tend to estrange the works from the contexts in which and purposes for which they were written, leading to certain methodological and stylistic aspects of the texts being systematically misunderstood or underappreciated. At the broadest level, the works are written not to convey doctrinal content, but to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress” (64). A fail­ure to understand this and the specific ways it manifests itself, or so Hadot argues, has led even “specialists in the field” to reproach ancient authors “for their bad writing, contradictions, and lack of rigor and coherence” (61).

I do not know whether Hadot’s reproach of the specialists is warranted—that is in any case not my interest. My interest lies rather in one specific ancient technique that Hadot identifies. Because so many works were commentaries on “authentic” authors the truth of whose work could not be disputed, one constraint on the commentators was the need to maintain a certain proximity to these authentic authors—albeit a proximity perhaps not recognizable as such by today’s standards, hence the specialists’ complaints. Hadot describes one way in which this closeness was maintained:

[…] this practice includes – and this is the most characteristic example – the literal use of formulae or words employed by the earlier tradition to which the author often gives a new meaning adapted to what he wants to say. […] What matters first of all is the prestige of the ancient and traditional formula, and not the exact meaning it originally had. The idea itself holds less interest than the prefabricated elements in which the writer believes he recognizes his own thought, elements that take on an unexpected meaning and purpose when they are integrated into a literary whole. This sometimes brilliant reuse of prefabricated elements gives an impression of “bricolage,” to take up a word currently in fashion, not only among anthropologists but among biologists. Thought evolves by incorporating prefabricated and pre-existing elements, which are given new meaning as they become integrated into a rational system. It is difficult to say what is most extraordinary about this process of integration: contingency, chance, irrationality, the very absurdity resulting from the elements used, or, on the contrary, the strange power of reason to integrate and systematize these disparate elements and to give them a new meaning. (65)

My suggestion here is that Emerson’s relationship to prior thinkers is much better understood as something very similar to this sort of bricolage, though not identical. I have gone some way toward making this suggestion in my posts on Emersonian and academic reading and on realism and idealism as medicine. I want to go a bit further here.

The first note to make is to draw attention to a superficial distinction between Emersonian bricolage and the bricolage Hadot discusses. Emerson at numerous points in his journals and essays disparages the institution of quoting. Quote Bacon, Emerson says, and Emerson will stop reading your work and go reread Bacon. Emerson does on occasion quote in his works, but it is a rarity. Thus, in general, he does not show the ancient reverence for established formulae. Nevertheless, he does show much the same irreverent reverence for doctrine, in a way that is likely to provoke the disdain of philosophers if they do not take care to understand what he is doing. That is what I want to explore here.

Again and again in his works, Emerson invokes the doctrines of names of past thinkers—Plato especially is a favorite. Bacon, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Swedenborg, and Montaigne are others who get frequent mention. What Emerson does with these philosophers, when he goes beyond namedropping, is to pick a doctrine of theirs and promote it, but with blasé disregard for the details of their position. From Plato, for instance, he takes the immortality of the soul, and from Kant the absolute moral law. From both, he takes his idealism in general (explored in one of the earlier posts linked above)—leaving aside that they espouse two quite different versions of idealism. But Emerson is neither Platonic nor Kantian. Emerson’s version of absolute moral law, for instance, is one that is compatible with his saying that, were he the devil’s child, he would act of the devil. And, in my experience, his use of the immortality of the soul is nothing more than a formula, rather than a worked out bit of doctrine. That is, Emerson brings it up at various points, always with a purpose in mind, but the purpose is served by the resonances of the formula itself, and does not require any defense of it as a doctrine. I have already argued, in my post on realism and idealism in Emerson, that he uses those doctrines in ways that specifically de-emphasize their status as doctrines and rhetorically position them so as to promote spiritual progress in his readers—indicating a commonality not just of method but of intent between Emerson and the ancients.

These examples could be multiplied, but unfortunately I do not have a handy list of references for them and have to write this from memory, so I cannot go into more detail about specific instances. I will try to touch on this in future posts, but here I will turn to a brief attempt to understand why Emerson adopts such a method.

One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth—Emerson’s Kantian-only-not absolute moral law. But, though we grasp the same truth as others, we cannot grasp it by imitation—this is why Emerson’s philosophy is irreducible to doctrine (in the way Hadot argues that ancient philosophy is not fundamentally doctrinal) and inseparable from some notion of spiritual progress. This is also why Emerson makes such heavy use of the rhetorical devices I’ve explored in my posts on his work: they perhaps subvert any easy doctrinal coherence of his essays, but they do so in a way that improves the reader who is sensitive to them.

The reason why this truth cannot be grasped by imitation is that the truth does not lie in the new state achieved, but in the “shooting of the gap” between the old and the new state. Doctrine—which can be shared by any number of people—is thus, precisely in virtue of its stability of content, unstable as truth in this Emersonian sense: this stability means that it becomes imitation (self-imitation counts!) and thus a barrier to Emersonian self-overcoming—thus the disparagement of quoting discussed earlier.

Emerson’s adoption of Kantian and Platonic (and other) formulae, which at the same time shows reverence for their genius and irreverence for the details of their thought, exemplifies this aspect of his philosophy. That Emerson can adopt the same formulae as past giants shows the connection between their thought and fortifies his contention of their being a single truth that is grasped again and again by the most disparate of philosophers. That Emerson adopts these formulae with such “carelessness” (by the lights of current standards of exegesis) illustrates precisely the instability of doctrinal truth: Emersonian truth cannot be arrived at by imitation, and so Emersonian use of e.g. Kant’s moral law cannot simply be an imitation of Kant (or even an extension of Kant, an internal improvement to Kant’s system, for that still is not self-reliance). What justifies Emerson’s use of these formulae (by the lights of his own system) is precisely that they are caught up in his own radical movement of thought, his own overcoming of both the past and himself.

We can also understand in light of these considerations why Emerson’s method differs from the ancients, even though both are a sort of bricolage. For the ancient authors, certain authors were authentic. An authentic author “could neither be mistaken, or contradict himself, nor develop his arguments poorly, nor disagree with any other authentic author” (74—Hadot is here quoting a work from Charles Thurot). The goal of ancient texts was to explicate the truth contained in these works. In this context, “any potential meaning, as long as it was coherent with what was considered to be the master’s doctrine, was consequently held to be true” (73—this is Hadot himself speaking). In this way of going about things, the works of these authentic authors stand as permanent accomplishments and so they can be imitated, explicated, etc. This creates a context for the appropriation of formula down to the word: the formula itself is an accomplishment that may be taken on in a new context.

For Emerson, however, accomplishments are not stable, as we have seen. Emerson explicitly makes this point in connection to the great thinkers of the past in “Literary Ethics”:

The book of philosophy is only a fact, and no more inspiring fact than another, and no less; but a wise man will never esteem it anything final and transcending. Go and talk with a man of genius, and the first word he utters, sets all your so-called knowledge afloat and at large. Then Plato, Bacon, Kant, and the Eclectic Cousin, condescend instantly to be men and mere facts.

In the presence of new genius, the products of old genius cease to be accomplishments and instead are mere facts to be appropriated by the new genius. Moreover, among Emerson’s innumerable reflections on the value and proper method of reading, he specifically says that we read (or ought to read) others to find ourselves, and so should only pay attention to those parts that we find confirm our own thought. Here there is no pretense of faithfulness to the old doctrine: it is material for the free play of genius, which may appropriate however it sees fit. And, particularly, genius may appropriate it in a thoroughly piecemeal manner. Older texts do not contain truth that must be located and explicated; instead, they hint at the past occurrence of a grasping of truth and so may point toward a future grasping of truth in the reader, but one that cannot be achieved by imitation.

It is not quite right to say that the ancients locate truth in particular texts, whereas Emerson locates truth in action. Indeed, it is part of Hadot’s very argument that ancient theory was inseparable from spiritual practice. But in ancient spiritual practice, there was a requirement of faithfulness to the text: explication of the text was itself a spiritual exercise. Emerson’s spiritual practice, by contrast, insofar as his essays exemplify it, does not impose this requirement: he thinks of texts in a fundamentally different way. But despite these differences, I believe we may see Emerson as a modern variant of the ancient bricoleur.