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Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

2014/02/23 8 comments

My month long hiatus from Emerson, begun upon the completion of my readings of his Essays: First Series, I have mercifully allowed myself to bring to end. I bathe again in these cleansing waters, and through their efforts may come to see myself—perhaps, I hope—more clearly. Upon diving into “The Poet”, first of his Essays: Second Series, I immediately ran into an old thought: that form and content are inseparable.

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (Em. 450, Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures)

The notion that, in poetry, and even literary prose, the form is not separable from the content, but contributes ineliminably to it, is perfectly correct, perhaps even obvious, yet is so often repeated as to have become essentially empty. But Emerson has a way of making old thoughts new, of recovering what always remains new within them, but which has been obscured by their descent into the fogs of platitudicity. (In this way, he serves to liberate these thoughts from the prisons that have congealed around them—thereby “He unlocks our chains, and admits to us a new scene” [Em. 463], and so is a poet himself.) What results when Emerson dispels this fog? I want to approach the question via a critique of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), for reasons that will become apparent by the time I have reached my end.

Lucretius, as an Epicurean poet, finds himself in a bind. For, as an Epicurean, he must stick to the reasoning that established atomism—this is to be discovered by logic, and not invented by poetic artifice. The poetic form of his work, that is, cannot contribute any content to the Epicurean view, cannot play any role in the actual thinking of Epicurean thoughts. Yet, as a poet, he must justify the poetic form of the work, an especially difficult task if that form is more liable to obscure the arguments than enhance them. We may suspect that Lucretius’ real reason for his use of poetic devices and form is the sheer joy of it: “Joyfully I visit virgin springs and draw their water; joyfully I cull unfamiliar flowers.” (Lucr. I.928—I am using the translation by Martin Ferguson Smith, published by Hackett.) Yet he also gives us a more practical reason for his technique. He is writing the poem to Memmius, in an attempt to convert him and so save him. (For all their well-motivated, well-placed distaste for religion, the Epicureans could nonetheless be quite “religious” in their own behavior. This is not a criticism.) Lucretius is well aware that Epicurean doctrines, as materialistic doctrines always are, are liable to be off-putting. His poetic form is a correction for this:

Doctors who try to give children foul-tasting wormwood first coat the rim of the cup with the sweet juice of golden honey; their intention is that the children, unwary at their tender age, will be tricked into applying their lips to the cup and at the same time will drain the bitter draught of wormwood—victims of beguilement, but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health. I have a similar intention now, since this philosophy of ours often appears somewhat off-putting to those who have not experienced it, and most people recoil back from it, I have preferred to expound it to you in harmonious Pierian poetry and, so to speak, coat it with the sweet honey of the muses. (Lucr. I.938-948)

Lucretius’ poetic form is a sweet, external coating, but it has no impact on the contents inside. It is a bit of benevolent trickery: Lucretius hopes Memmius will, because of the poetic sweetness, imbibe the bitter Epicurean contents before he knows what he is drinking—a bit of paternalism justified, if at all, by the Epicurean promise to cure fear and anxiety.

Here is a philosophy of poetry that rejects—in a manner which is perfectly justified—the old thought in which I claim Emerson has found something new. Lucretius’ self-understanding of his application of poetic form is a good one, indeed the only one possible to an Epicurean, and if there is something lacking in this self-understanding we may suspect there is something lacking in the Epicurean philosophy generally. But the mere thought that form and content are inseparable is not enough to show anything lacking: better to give up that thought than Epicurus’ insights—after all, the loss of a platitude is no loss at all. To bring out the conflict, then, we shall have to understand what is new in Emerson’s thought—both come to light together.

For the Epicurean, there are only two sources of value in the world: pleasure provides positive value, and is to be sought, and pain provides negative value, and is to be avoided. Of course, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are not at all the same thing, any more than to seek truth and avoid error are the same, and the Epicureans take their stand: avoid pain even at the expense of certain pleasures. (One can, in this respect, liken them to Descartes, who makes the analogous move for the case of truth and falsity: avoid all error even if it comes at the expense of believing any truth.) To this end, the Epicureans make a twofold division of pleasures: there are kinetic pleasures and static pleasures. (They also make a threefold division of pleasures into natural + necessary, natural + unnecessary, and unnatural + unnecessary, but this division will not concern me.) Kinetic pleasures, such as the sating of hunger by eating, involve, first, a painful departure from some equilibrium state (in this case, being sated), followed by, second, a pleasant return to that state. The pleasure lies not in the state itself, but in the return to it—in that way, kinetic pleasures are possible only if they are preceded by pain. For this reason, the Epicurean says, they are to be minimized.

Static pleasures, by contrast, are those pleasures one feels simply in virtue of being in the equilibrium state. As they involve no departure, they involve equally no pain: they are pure pleasure. A paradigmatic example, I take it, would be the pleasure that results from being in a state of Epicurean tranquility: to know the nature of the world, and to know there is nothing to fear in death—this is to share in the blessed, perfectly undisturbed happiness of the gods. It is to be a god on earth. (We shall return to the Epicurean gods.) Lucretius’ goal is to bring Memmius to this state, but he can do so only by administering bitter medicine. Thus his sweet coating is needed. It is not part of the thought, however, and once Memmius is converted, the form becomes unnecessary, for the thought itself will sustain him, will bring him peace.

This twofold division of pleasures, which Emerson never, to my knowledge, brings up explicitly or implicitly, nonetheless seems to me the primary deficiency in the Epicurean view, from an Emersonian standpoint. The notion of a static pleasure implies a stable state, an equilibrium threatened, to be sure, by external forces, but which may be defended and preserved, and tranquility maintained. Emerson may perhaps allow such pleasures, and certainly would rank them above kinetic pleasures of the sort the Epicureans denounce, but for him there is a third pleasure, the highest: the pleasure of transition.

But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms. (Em. 458)

The persistent worry, for Emerson, is that any stable state, any purported equilibrium, will congeal into a prison—and then it hardly deserves the name “equilibrium.” It is for this reason that I said above only that Emerson “may perhaps allow” static pleasures—in much of his thought, in fact, he questions their very possibility. But even allowing for security’s possibility, there is still a higher insecurity. The soul ascends, not once, but perpetually, for falling follows each ascension. Where, for the Epicurean, there is a single metamorphosis by which one attains a perfectly blessed state, for the Emersonian there is only the perpetual perfection of oneself, without ever achieving a perfect state. “For, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.” (Em. 461) The Emersonian distrusts the state attained in favor of the state yet to be attained: each attained state is merely initial; power and joy lie in the movement of attaining, not in the having attained—“in the shooting of the gulf”, he says elsewhere (“Self-Reliance”). (I must confess my debt, in this language of attained and unattained, to Stanley Cavell’s marvelous Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.) Kinetic pleasure—for what else could this be called?—thus regains its priority over static pleasure.

This difference in ranking of pleasures is given voice in the Epicurean and Emersonian treatments of the gods. Epicurus, longing to dispel the fears associated with the gods of Greek mythology, imagined perfectly blessed, perfectly material creatures that could not be disturbed by the wailings of our prayers. Human happiness does not require intervention by the gods, but imitation of them. With the exception of his mortality, an insignificant difference, Epicurus was literally a god on earth, by Epicurean lights. Emerson, by contrast, will have no truck with perfection and stability in his gods: he praises the gods of the old mythology precisely for their defects—Vulcan’s lameness, Cupid’s blindness—and for the way the gods “use[d] defects and deformities to a sacred purpose”—“to signify exuberances.” (Em. 455)

Because kinetic pleasure, in this Emersonian sense, is nothing other than a change in form, we can understand why thought must create its own form, must not be something independent of form, capable of sweet or bitter expression. “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Em. 448) It is “Man Thinking”—as Emerson puts it elsewhere (“The American Scholar”)—who is so transformed, and there is no separation between the thinking and the being transformed. The thinking is the transition from the attained and imprisoning to the unattained and liberating form. The form, then, is integral to the liberation, and so to the thought. Thus we can see what is new in the Emersonian thought, while at the same time accepting what is impoverished in the Epicurean philosophy.

But here I run aground, again, on my old difficulty—already explored at the end of my series on Prudence and Poetry, but not there resolved, and so still an open wound, exposed to infection. I have not singled out Lucretius for critique by accident: it is he, or rather Epicurus, who was perhaps the first to create this wound. My trouble is that I cannot simply follow Emerson, and abandon Lucretius. For while there is too much good in Emerson’s vision of life for me to give it up, there is too much right in Epicurean ontology for it to yield so easily. I worry, in short, that my love of Emerson is not compatible with my commitment to an (broadly) Epicurean ontology.

This conflict may be captured, at the most general level, by considering that Emerson is an idealist, of sorts, whereas Lucretius is a materialist. This comes out in the following phrase of Emerson’s, one of my favorites from “The Poet”: “For all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.” (Em. 453) The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision. Every so often, I console myself with the thought that Emerson, perhaps, shared this knowledge—for instance, when he praises figures such as Pythagoras, Swedenborg, and Oken for having “introduce[d] questionable facts into [their] cosmogony” (Em. 462, my emphasis)—but in my sober moments I recognize these consolations as false, as desperate. I take more heart when Emerson speaks of the writer who “sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent” (Em. 463), for does this not suggest an idealism that is located not in nature herself, but in the thinker’s use of nature? And is it not then compatible with a dull but correct materialist ontology? Or is this simply another false consolation?

I cannot say. This is the perpetual tension of my thought. Epicurus and Emerson do battle within me. One day, perhaps, they shall be reconciled, or one shall vanquish the other. In the meantime, I can only hope to use their war as the (unstable) foundation of my own ascent. I can only hope, that is, to put them to use as my own exponents.

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Emerson in conversation with Herder I: Scholars and the invention of language

This semester, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a fascinating seminar on the ways in which philosophers (and others) have drawn the boundary between humans and ani­mals. This past week, we read Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Lan­guage. As the title suggests, it proposes to explain the origin of human language, involving along the way a great deal of reflection on the relation between human and animal language. Specifically, it suggests a human origin of language, against the hypothesis that language had a divine origin. I confess I do not find a great deal of value in the essay if it is viewed solely as an attempt to discern the historical origin of language. That seems to me a straightforwardly scientific question, and from that perspective Herder’s style of argument seems more confused than anything (of course this is an anachronistic assessment). Nevertheless, the essay is so expansive that within it I can find a hundred leads in interesting directions. It is pregnant with suggestions and simply calls for a little midwifery to draw them out.

This post is an attempt to do that. My method for doing that is to place Herder in a conversation with Emerson—specifically, I think that Herder makes a point that sits in an interesting relationship with Emerson’s project, and that what Emerson is doing may be illuminated by looking at Herder. I do not claim that Herder influenced Emerson—I do not know whether or not Emerson read Herder’s treatise, nor do I have any reason to suspect that he did, and moreover I have some reason to suspect that he did not. Perhaps soon I will devote a post to reflecting more on this method of proceeding, but for now I shall simply proceed. Theorizing may follow action. (Page references to Herder are to the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Edition of his Philosophical Writings.)

In the passage I want to consider, Herder is concerned to show that language did not arise as a particularly philosophical event, as the result of slow, inefficient reason.

Oh! If the human being is only destined to save himself from everything in such a slow, weak, inadequate manner … Through reason? Through reflection? How slowly this reflects! And how fast, how pressing his needs are! His dangers! (134)

This cuts directly against the philosopher:

Set a philosopher, born and raised in society, who has only trained his head for thinking and his hand for writing, set him suddenly outside all the protection and reciprocal comforts that society affords him for his one-sided services – he is supposed to seek his own means of subsistence in an unfamiliar land, and fight against the animals, and be his own protecting deity in everything. How helpless! (134)

The true origin of language must come from elsewhere:

The first experiences are not cold, slowly reasoned, carefully abstracting experiments like the leisurely, lone philosopher makes when he creeps in pursuit of nature in its hidden course and no longer wants to know that but how it works. This was precisely what concerned nature’s first dweller least. […] Is not his timidity combined with his weakness, and his awareness combined with all the subtlety of his forces of soul, enough by itself to provide him with a comfortable condition, since nature herself acknowledged that it was adequate for this? Since, therefore, we have no need at all of a timid, abstract study-philosopher as the inventor of language, since the primitive natural human being who still feels his soul, like his body, so entirely of a single piece is more to us than any number of language-creating academies, and yet is anything but a scholar … why on earth, then, would we want to take this scholar as a model? (135)

Here I think the connection to Emerson can be made. We see that, for Herder, it is the “primitive natural human being who still feels his soul… entirely of a single piece” who is the inventor of language, and not the philosopher. I want to understand this in a poetic or spiritual way: there is, Herder suggests, a certain primacy to the language that is developed in situations fraught with danger or treasure. This language, wrapped as it is in fear, desire, and delight, comes before the cool, abstract, disinterested language of the natural philosopher (just prior to the quotation above, Herder discusses Linnaeus). Praise the virtues of scientific language as you will: underneath it lies the language of passion, of man in a dangerous but rich environment. The scholar has no part in the origin of language.

I am not confident I know how to describe, succinctly at least, Emerson’s overarching project. But one strand of this project I think can safely be understood as an attempt to characterize the poetic invention of language. Physical things, for Emerson, are signs for spiritual facts, and the poet is someone who sees behind the material to the ideal, who, however briefly, is in contact with the ideal and can speak its language. Here Emerson runs together invention and discovery: it is by creative invention that we discover spiritual truth. The poet is thus someone who invents/discovers language. Thus one node in the constellation of images Emerson uses to attempt to approach a description of the ideal is through and through concerned with the origin of language, poetically understood.

Besides the poet, Emerson’s thought constantly returns to two other crucial figures. One is the rough, uncultivated man who is in close contact with the environment—Emerson here especially adverts to the image of the farmer. This person, in society, is probably the closest thing there is to Herder’s “primitive natural human being”. For Emerson, this character is generally brusque, direct, unconstrained by the general norms of etiquette that require appropriate levels of polite dishonesty.

Lastly, there is the central character of one of Emerson’s most famous pieces, “The American Scholar”. There, Emerson investigates the prospects of scholarship, its aims and the demands it makes on the scholars themselves. Here the scholar is not Herder’s bloodless character, cool and abstract, but someone who seems to possess the virtues of both the poet and the farmer. How does this happen?

What you notice as you read further and further into Emerson is that the figures he describes are never fully distinct. They seem, more than anything, to be aspects of a single, ideal person. Individual, actual people for Emerson are always partial: one of his most vivid images is of the person who is all ear, or all eye, or all hand. Such a person has developed a single organ out of proportion to all the rest, and so is deformed. Actual poets, farmers, and scholars are all deformed in just this way. The radical vision of “The American Scholar” is of a scholar who is equally poet and farmer—thus a scholar who is an inventor of language.

Thus we can see Emerson as responding (in the space of ideas if not in history) to Herder’s argument that the scholar cannot be the inventor of language. Emerson, on one level, more or less grants the point: actual, deformed human beings are not both scholars and inventors of language. But Emerson attempts to show, despite this, the possibility of the scholar who is proportioned, and so is as much farmer and poet as scholar. Emerson shows the prospects of the scholar who is the inventor of language.

Only rarely does the scholar arise who fulfills this vision. And in his more skeptical moods, Emerson himself suspects the ideal is unachievable, except perhaps in spurts and gasps. Nonetheless, the poetic, passionate invention of language remains the (Emersonian) scholar’s task. Emerson has recovered that possibility from Herder’s challenge.

Emersonian Reading and Academic Reading

2013/07/10 5 comments

There is one sentence in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” that Ameri­can scholarship, and academic scholarship more generally, abhors above all oth­ers. Emerson writes therein: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Reading, as Emerson conceives it, is or ought to be a fundamentally creative act. For Emerson, there is this form of creative reading (what I will call Emersonian reading), and then there is a second, more scholastic form of reading, which I will call academic reading. This post constitutes my attempts to come to grip with these two distinct ways of reading from the perspective of someone who intends to enter the academy, and who can expect to do a great deal of academic reading over the remaining course of his life.

Emerson expands on his conception of reading as follows:

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s. (Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, p. 59)

In my post from earlier today, I discussed at some length the tension between conformity and creativity as Emerson handles it. Creativity for Emerson is grasping the divine nature of the world, which a person can do only singularly: there is no way methodically repeat the actions necessary to grasp it. Certainly I cannot imitate anyone else and hope to succeed—that is conformity. But even self-imitation is impossible. Say I manage one creative act. If I try to repeat it, I am simply copying myself, and that is no better than copying another. A creative, liberating act, when repeated, becomes stifling and imprisoning, no matter from whom it originated.

Emerson in the passage above is suggesting that in reading, say Plato or Shakespeare, we can be creative, can grasp the spiritual laws behind the material world. But he also says that we cannot work our to creativity from a basis of imitation. Creative reading cannot, then, be a reproduction in our minds of thoughts formulated in the mind of another. If, in reading Plato, I am to grasp the divine, then, as I read Plato’s words, I must have a thought that is in some sense my own and not Plato’s. Alternatively, they may be seen as the same thought, but grasped differently. Either way, the reading requires my own input: I am not passively receiving wisdom from the author.

My prior posts on Emerson have in part been explorations of the way that Emerson exemplifies his own ideal of creative reading. I have focused on the ways that Emerson takes the words of other authors—including himself!—and positions himself as agreeing with them while nevertheless using their words in distinctly Emersonian ways.

These same posts, which explore Emersonian reading in this sense, can also be seen as embodying the opposite trend of academic reading. In academic reading, one tries to get at the heart of what another says, to ascertain its true (if not necessarily univocal and unambiguous) meaning, and to assess its truth-value (where applicable). In my posts, whether or not I succeed, I have tried to stick closely to Emerson, to elucidate what he thinks and to uncover the subtle rhetorical tools he utilizes to make his points vivid. I am, in short, producing academic readings of examples of Emersonian readings. The fact that I am producing such readings should suffice to indicate that I do not doubt the value of academic reading. While I hope in this post to elevate Emersonian reading (even as I fret about its place in the world and in the academy), I do not thereby mean to devalue academic reading.

I also suspect that Deleuze’s work in the history of philosophy is an instance of Emersonian reading. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, Deleuze states that in his readings he produces “monsters” (he describes the process in loving and smutty detail). He makes the thinkers with whom he engages come out as strange hybrids: Deleuze-Spinoza, Deleuze-Kant, etc. And yet, he insists, the process is not arbitrary: they must say everything he makes them say. While I have not directly engaged with Deleuze’s early historical works, his self-description of his works is a description of a sort of Emersonian reading. Deleuze dives into an author and finds Deleuze, but not through clear misreading. (Some might disagree on this last point; I am not competent to judge, obviously.)

As someone who is both fascinated by the prospects of Emersonian reading and who plans to enter the academy, I find myself frequently wondering what place there is in the academic world for Emersonian reading. As a general rule, I think it takes a fairly negative attitude toward this form of creative reading. This is seen in a variety of ways. One is the treatment of Emerson by academic philosophers, which doesn’t even rise to the level of hostility, but merely neglect. With Deleuze it is different: sometimes he is dismissed or ignored, but not systemically. But there is a striking incident that brings home the academic distrust of Emersonian reading. Deleuze changed his terminology from work to work, in part, I suspect, to stymy that form of reading. In an interview with John Protevi and another scholar (whose name escapes me), Deleuze scholar and philosopher of science Manuel Delanda comments on this tendency of Deleuze’s, saying that, as an analytic philosopher, he cannot tolerate such conceptual mayhem. In his (high quality) work on Deleuze, he imposes order by building a basic set of concepts that can span the whole of Deleuze’s work. In this way, he produces academic readings of Deleuze that are incredibly helpful in understanding how Deleuze treats science, but which can nonetheless feel like a form of betrayal. (Lest this seem like strong condemnation, I note that the Deleuze scholarship I’ve read that does not attempt such management of his conceptual apparatus is mostly dreadful.) I can add to the list the example of Nietzsche, who of course left the academy early in his career and was no doubt better for it. The case of Nietzsche is further interesting due to the ways he is sanitized when discussed in academic circles—even by those who protest his sanitization!

It makes sense that the academy would distrust Emersonian reading. It is bad enough to have to sort out Kant, Strawson’s Kant, Wood’s Kant, and Korsgaard’s Kant, let alone throwing into the mix Deleuze’s Deleuze-Kant and Emerson’s Emerson-Kant. Where boundaries between thinkers blur, where, say, Deleuze and Spinoza enter a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase), academic progress can seem to stall. Clear boundaries streamline the finding of solutions to problems, or at least contribute to a general clarification of the terrain. Emersonian reading seems to go against these academic virtues, and can even seem like a threatening encroachment of relativism (a charge that has been leveled at Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze alike). (Of course, relativism itself, in its various forms, is not inherently threatening—what is dangerous is relativism without the highest of standards. Of course all three of these thinkers insisted on such high standards, regardless of whether the label ‘relativist’ fits them well.)

There is one way that such reading makes its way into academic philosophy, though it is a somewhat tepid one. In his classic chapter on explanation (in The Scientific Image), Bas van Fraassen includes a section titled, “A Biased History,” in which he tells a self-consciously biased version of the history of the philosophy of scientific explanation. His goal in this is, as he puts it, to make his views on explanation seem like an inevitable result toward which previous scholarship has been progressing. This sort of progressivist tale (which forms an interesting counterpart to the postlapsarian tales I discussed this morning) is not at all believable as an academic history, but instead functions as a means for van Fraassen to carve out a space for his own creative addition to the debate. Van Fraassen is self-conscious about this, but the practice is hardly unique to him. As he says, all philosophers’ histories of philosophy are like this, by and large. But this is rather safe, all things considered, for the real interest lies not in the history but in what it makes space for. In a full-blooded Emersonian reading, however, there is no distinction between the “biased” reading and the space that this reading creates.

It is a serious question, in light of this, whether there is any real place in academic philosophy for this non-tepid form of philosophizing that takes creative reading as its wellspring. Perhaps it has a place at the margins, requiring the sanitizing work of scholars such as Delanda to be integrated into the natural order. It is certainly dangerous: when it prompts imitations by people without the talent or the original vision of an Emerson, the results are, as I said, horrid. (It exemplifies the dangers of anything goes relativism, that bogeyman in which no one believes, but which some nevertheless practice.)

[This post was prompted by a stimulating discussion I had with a friend who is well-versed in philosophy, but does not wish to be an academic philosopher, who expressed well-motivated skepticism about Emersonian reading and philosophizing and who got me fretting about the issue once again. Many thanks are due to him for the provocation.]

Creativity and Conditioning in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”

2013/07/08 1 comment

I want to continue looking at the way that Emerson navigates tensions internal to his work, this time looking at the relation between creativity (freedom, the creation of the new) and conditioning (custom, the influence of the past) in Emerson’s “The American Scholar”. As before, I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays and Lectures, pp. 51-71.

A bit into the oration, Emerson sets out a view of creativity:

Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his;—cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority, but springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair. (58)

Creativity is, unsurprisingly, set apart from custom and authority, from doing things the same old way. But in this passage, Emerson makes this contrast extreme: creation is “indicative of no custom or authority”; it springs “spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” The vision of creation espoused here is creation ex nihilo, completely unconditioned by anything that came before. Of course, this is impossible—even the most dogged defender of the existence of free will believes in parenting, after all. Moreover, the passage comes in a section in which Emerson is discussing what influences the scholar. He has completed the section on how nature influences the scholar, and is now discussing the influence of past thought. Moreover, one proper way for past scholarship to influence the scholar is by providing inspiration for creation. Any such inspiration is likely to be indicative of custom and authority.

What Emerson is doing here is, I think, presenting an image of a pure ideal that is unattainable in our world, conditioned as it is, whose application to the decidedly non-ideal world he will show as much as say. Similarly to the distinct movements I isolated in my previous post on Emerson, there are passages in “The American Scholar” that show us how to understand this passage, despite not referring back to it explicitly. One such passage comes two pages later:

The world,—this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order; I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life. So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. (60)

I count three indications of custom and authority in this paragraph, and there may be more. In the first sentence, there is a reference to Plato’s famous analogy of the cave and the shadows on its wall. The world is a shadow, as it is for Plato, but now the source of the shadows, the reality, is “the soul”. Plato’s analogy is thus subsumed under Emerson’s vision of self-reliance. Later, Emerson speaks of his dominion, referencing the biblical notion of human dominion over the earth. Again, in an old reference, Emerson finds himself by inventing a new, creative use of an old source. Finally, in the final sentence, comes a nod to Bacon’s famous “knowledge is power.” Emerson borrows Bacon’s inscription to show how his (Emerson’s) scholar is active, and not aloof and passive. All three quite distinct ideas are run together until they are currents in a single idea, Emerson’s. A page before, Emerson wrote, “one must be an inventor to read well.” Here, he exemplifies his point. The result of his reading of Plato, Bacon, and the Bible is his own invention. It is conditioned, but nonetheless creative.

This notion of unconditioned creativity carries in it another problem: the scholar will, it seems, be abstracted from the world of the moment. Emerson writes:

These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. (64)

Here is the picture of the philosopher, his head in the clouds, disconnected from the world around. Emerson is here praising it, and it goes hand in hand with his view of unconditioned creativity. For all reliance is to be placed by the scholar in himself, and none in the popular cry—this harkens directly back to the notion of creation “springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.” But we have already seen that that notion cannot work, and that in any case Emerson believes nothing of the sort. Why does it get reintroduced? For one thing, it provides a platform for Emerson to introduce a countervailing virtue. Here he has displayed freedom. But freedom is not the only virtue of self-trust. Bravery is another:

In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquility, amid dangerous times, arise from the presumption, that, like children and women, his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up. So is the danger a danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin,—see the whelping of this lion,—which lies no great way back; he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth defy it, and pass on superior. (65)

From the standpoint of bravery, the very aloofness of the scholar comes to seem ostrich-like rather than noble. From the standpoint of bravery, the scholar who see himself as part of a privileged class is no scholar at all. The scholar engages with the world around him. Whatever purity, creation, and freedom there is to be found, is to be found in the world in all its details. (Emerson later celebrates the emergence of a literature that explores the common and the low, and not just the high and sublime.) The scholar requires the bravery to face that world, and to see through it. Now we can understand why freedom/creativity should be presented as so pure an ideal initially: it allows Emerson to invoke a second virtue, bravery, by which this freedom finds a place in the world, a place in which it can operate effectively.

Throughout all of this, there is a subtle and profound troping of Plato going on. Plato, of course, separated the shifting, unstable world of becoming from the stable, eternal world of the forms. The appearance-reality distinction was the distinction between fleeting becoming and eternal being. Emerson invokes this distinction heavily. The world of the moment is mere appearance; the brave scholar who faces it sees through it; and so on. Yet Emerson then does something marvelous with it: he turns it on his head. He writes:

Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art, and persuade men by the cheerful serenity of their carrying the matter, that this thing which they do, is the apple which the ages have desired to pluck, now at last ripe, and inviting nations to the harvest. The great man makes the great thing. (65)

In Locke (who is mentioned and extolled earlier in the essay), we get a distinction between primary qualities (length, shape, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, taste, etc.). The former are taken to be more real; the latter less so. Even without Plato’s forms, the appearance-reality distinction survives, with primary qualities occupying the privileged side and secondary qualities the merely apparent face. But Emerson here shows his idealism for what it really is: it is a belief in the primary reality of “secondary qualities”. Great men alter not just matter (greatness is not a crude power to control), but can create new relations. They “give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art.” Emerson likens creative becoming to secondary qualities, those that exist only becomes minds exist to perceive them, and then sets these relations as the primary, poetic reality. Therein consists his idealism, and also his debt to and defiance of Plato (and Locke).

This then, is yet another example of the conditioned creativity that he extols, creativity that occurs in the world and has a definite history without which it would be impossible. That the essay so well exemplifies the position it sets out to defend is a substantial source of its brilliance. It also serves to reveal the essay’s major flaw. After setting out his view of the scholar in the abstract, Emerson closes the essay by relating his picture to specific conditions of the day. This transition makes sense within the context of the essay (Emerson has shown freedom; now he must show some bravery). More even than elsewhere in the essay, Emerson strives to be inspiring in his ending. This is sensible: it is a speech he gave before Phi Beta Kappa, and that context is one in which inspiring endings are appropriate. Of course, this is a custom, and so is ripe for Emerson to exemplify yet again the creativity he has championed. Sadly, he ends up lapsing into the naïve view that he worked so hard to qualify and deepen in the ways I discussed above. It sounds bold, but that is mere appearance: in reality, it is a faltering step, too conditioned, not free enough.

But this misstep mars the essay only slightly: much more than that, it reveals the altitude climbed earlier.