I had observed long since that to give the thought a just & full expression, I must not prematurely utter it. Better not to talk of the matter you are writing out. It was as if you had let the spring snap too soon. [Emerson, Journal A]
For a while now, since completing my reading of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, I have felt that this blog has outlived its usefulness. In its early stages, the prospect of a readership induced me to write; without such a prospect in my mind, I would not have written out my ideas. Today, thanks to my efforts here, I am in the habit of writing for myself, and do not need an external audience – at least not yet. That has been the good effect of my blogging.
What, however, have I posted here but premature utterances, if my posts be considered in themselves and not for their role as a sort of training? Every idea on which I wrote was one I was in the process of working out but had not worked out fully. Nothing was a finished project, but always a work in progress. Yet the air of finality given them has, perhaps, prevented their further development: they were dropped from the tree before they were ripe, and now they rot.
For that reason, I believe it is time to cease blogging – but not writing. I now retreat into the solitude of my own thoughts, and set to work on myself for myself.
I have asked, and attempted answers to, this question before. Yet it returns to me, why two of my closest companions should themselves have been friends. How could Nietzsche, the arch-anti-idealist, find himself drawn irresistibly to an avowed idealist such as Emerson? And the answer is, perhaps, that Emerson was no idealist. Let me explain.
“Considerations by the Way,” the modestly titled seventh chapter of The Conduct of Life, finds Emerson in a curious place. On the one hand, he would provide rules for the conduct of life. On the other hand,
That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him. What we have, therefore, to say of life, is rather description, or, if you please, celebration, than available rules. (1079)
The essay perhaps never overcomes this ambivalence, structurally: at times it seeks to provide such rules, yet it never commits fully to the task. Similarly, it is at times celebratory, but sometimes, perhaps, a bit weary. When Emerson suggests, in one of his rules, that cheerfulness is the most important element of health, one wonders whether he was fully cheerful in writing this essay. Yet the vigor of his thought comes through, and nowhere more than in his celebration (of sorts) of vice. It is in this respect that Emerson was no idealist.
In what is already a quite Nietzschean turn, Emerson lambasts the masses:
Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is, that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses. (1081)
Emerson does soften his tone, in a way that Nietzsche perhaps would not have:
To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad heart in the observer, but, simply, that the majority are unripe, and have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion. That, if they knew it, is an oracle for them and for all. (1083)
The reason for this is that the masses do not think, or to rephrase the point, are not self-reliant. “The mass are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee.” (1082) Kant made it a categorical duty of reason to treat all rational beings as ends in themselves, and not as means. Emerson is more or less Kantian, only he is stingier about whom he will consider rational: the thinker is an end, the masses mere means. “The rule is, we are used as brute atoms, until we think: then, we use all the rest.” (1082) That is why Emerson would break up masses, and find individuals in them. If many are lost, so be it: “Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good. […] In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a century.” (1081) “This is bold practice, and there are many failures to a good escape.” (1085)
The lesson to draw from this wastefulness of nature, and from the unripe state of the masses, is “the good of evil.” (1083) What follows is a several-page discussion of the good effects that are can be brought about only by “evil”, cruel, harsh means – the bleeding heart could never manage them. This lesson, writ large, also proves true of the individual:
In short, there is no man who is not at some time indebted to his vices, as no plant that is not fed from manures. We only insist that the man meliorate, and that the plant grow upward, and convert the base into the better nature. (1086)
In this, Emerson shows his willingness to see vice as the origin of all virtue. This is his anti-idealism. Here Nietzsche must enter. In Daybreak, his book on “the prejudices of morality,” Nietzsche begins with the ultimate prejudice: the purity of the good:
Supplemental rationality. – All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable. Does not almost every precise history of an origination impress our feelings as paradoxical and wantonly offensive? Does the good historian not, at bottom, constantly contradict? (§1, Hollingdale translation)
This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s thought: that virtue originates in vice, that everything we now call good grew out of something we would call evil, and that the creation of new goods requires something evil. Nietzsche mature works deal extensively with tracing out lineages of such origin – of course in On the Genealogy of Morality, but really in every work from Daybreak on, except perhaps Zarathustra.
It is the prejudice of morality to deny such origins, to take them as basically contradictions. To take the good as pure as unmixed, as incapable of originating in the base materiality of this world – that, for Nietzsche, is idealism (one form of it, anyway). And it is just this form that Emerson rejects. I have noted before that Emerson preferred not to transcend dualisms, nor to quite embrace them, but to “reconcile” them without losing their antagonism. He prefers to see the virtuous grow out of the vicious, but would take pure vice before pure virtue.
Of course, Emerson never analyzed these origins in the same detail as Nietzsche. That is, perhaps, part of why Nietzsche lamented that Emerson had never “gone through some strict discipline, a really scientific education. As it is, in Emerson we have lost a philosopher.” (Quoted in Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of The Gay Science.) Yet he could still call him “the author who has been richest in ideas in this century” and claim that “I may not praise it, it is too close to me.” (Same)
If I am right, one of the ideas that Nietzsche found (I do not claim for the first time) in the rich well of Emerson, was the low origin of all high things.
The simplest reason why interpretations of Emerson dissatisfy is, they are inferior agents for their task. If an interpretation aims to clarify how one is to read the text interpreted, then Emerson is his own best interpreter. All that needs to be said, by way of interpretation of Emerson, is: keep vigilant watch for those passages where Emerson explains how Emerson is to be read.
Emerson’s use of dualisms shall be my case study. Emerson is difficult on this point – I do not deny that he needs interpretation; I deny only that he does not himself supply it – and it easy to misread Emerson as seeking to transcend dualisms. This temptation is made easier by the assimilation of Emerson to the American pragmatists, who really did want to transcend, abolish, overthrow, whatever, that whole “brood and nest of dualisms.”
I notice the tendency to this sort of misreading when I read scholarly literature about Emerson. Thus Branka Arsić – to pick on only that scholar who I happen to be reading now – wants to read Emerson as radical, as seeking to replace old with new, as taking these given oppositions (materialism/idealism, for one) and leaving us with something that isn’t quite either. But it is perhaps dishonest of me to place blame elsewhere: it is an error that pervaded my first years of reading Emerson, and this post is a corrective first and foremost against myself. (As an Emersonian, I am able to find in my reading of Emerson only my own thought, my good thoughts. This has a reverse movement: that I read in scholastic exercises on Emerson only my own flaws.)
Emerson’s essay on “Fate” (the first in his The Conduct of Life) contains his clearest statement of his relation to dualisms. As is his wont, he organizes the essay around a central opposition: between Fate (also called ‘nature’ and ‘cause and effect’ and ‘animal’) and Power (also called ‘liberty’ and ‘thought’ and ‘human’). On the first page, Emerson sets out his method:
If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character. This is true, and that other is true. But our geometry cannot span these extreme points, and reconcile them. What to do? By obeying each thought frankly, by harping, or, if you will, pounding on each string, we learn at last its power. By the same obedience to other thoughts, we learn theirs, and then comes some reasonable hope of harmonizing them. (943)
Fate and Power appear as two truths: all is fated, and we have power. “That is true, and that other is true.” There is no talk of transcending this dualism (how does one transcend truth?), of escaping the opposition: there is only the question of reconciling them. But we are not, at first, up to the task: “our geometry cannot span these extreme points.” Given this inability to encompass them, some provisional method is needed. This is the method of “pounding on each string” until its power reveals itself. Emerson deliberately switches from a musical (“harping”) to an artless (“pounding”) verb: even if the two are harmonized in the end, the method is not itself musical. There is something brute about it. Each shall be expounded, and only then will Emerson ask after reconciliation.
This is precisely the flow of the essay. There is, first, the strong statement of fatalism: we are limited Nature. Insofar as we may experiment (and Emerson is the great philosopher of experiment), what experiment teaches us is the limits set by nature. “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.” (952) We are different from animals, yes, but not in that we are free – it is only, our limitations differ. “The limitations refine as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at the top.” (952) There are “torrents of tendency,” and in their face resistance appears “ridiculously inadequate.” (951) Fate is not to be avoided.
But Power will have its turn. Man is not mere fate, “but a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” (953) Man can think, and insofar as man thinks, man is free. This is, to be sure, a rare event – Emerson registers his disgust with those who crow about liberty when they are slaves, “as most men are” (953-4) – but that freedom is rare is no objection to its possibility or even its reality. When the mind is roused to activity, it does not mind what is fated, but follows its thought.
Having given both sides voice, does Emerson achieve reconciliation? There is a certain appearance of it:
Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought;—for causes which are unpenetrated. But every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us, is convertible by intellect into wholesome force. (958)
Fate and Power are now inter-convertible. This is not, however, so much a reconciliation as simply a new insight about their opposition. Fate and Power may coexist; Fate is potential Power:
If Fate is ore and quarry, if evil is good in the making, if limitation is power that shall be, if calamities, oppositions, and weights are wings and means,—we are reconciled. (960)
Such is Emerson’s reconciliation: the antagonism is maintained, but is shown to be productive.
Indeed, what Emerson is doing fundamentally requires that the antagonism be maintained. Man is “a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” Abolish the poles, and man is abolished. Deny (transcendence is a form of denial) Fate, and Power is without “ore and quarry.” “History is the action and reaction of these two” (964) – and keeping in mind Emerson’s equivocation between history and biography, this means that biography is also this action and reaction. Therefore, to achieve a true reconciliation, a restoration of friendly relations, is to cease all movement, to lose all power and thought. It is idleness and sloth.
But Emerson does not misspeak when he talks of “reconciliation.” I am loathe to cite a dictionary, but must: to reconcile is “cause to coexist in harmony.” There is a sense of harmony in which antagonism is permitted, and it is this sense that characterizes Emerson’s dualisms – not only the one I have examined here. A.R. Ammons captured it well, in his poem “Terrain”:
…a habitat, precise ecology of forms
mutually to some extent
tolerable, not entirely self-destroying…
The problem of literary style in philosophy I understand as follows. Philosophy, as an endeavor, strives for clarity of thought. Why then should philosophers write in a style that seems to sacrifice clarity and perhaps other philosophical virtues to literary virtues? No doubt it will make the philosophy more interesting to read—if, at least, it is skillfully attempted—but it does so at the price of selling out, of trading a contextually proper virtue for a contextually improper virtue. The moral: philosophers should avoid literary stylistic maneuvers except insofar as they may be attempted without damaging the work’s philosophical merits.
As someone many of whose favorite philosophers are self-consciously literary in style—I am thinking primarily of Emerson and Nietzsche, but they are not alone—this problem recurs in my thought. Even as I read Emerson with delight, I find I cannot shake the niggling worry that I am being cheated—less, perhaps, by Emerson than by myself. Here, then, is another attempt to talk this worry out of my mind. I do not hold out much hope for permanent success; maybe I may silence it for a moment at least.
Emerson draws a distinction between thought that serves knowledge and thought that knowledge serves. I will call the former “reasoning” and the latter “thought”. So Emerson distinguishes between reasoning and thought. Reasoning is part of a collective human endeavor aimed at expanding our knowledge. It aims at truth that is impersonal, that could be discovered by anyone. The products, or results, of such reasoning, immediately become public property. Anyone may use them, and thus reasoning may be progressive. Moreover, while truth has a history of discovery, it is in a certain sense ahistorical: it was there all along. What is true in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is true regardless of how it came to be articulated in a particular country at a particular time by a particular person in a particular social and scientific setting. What matters is the results of reasoning, not the history of how those results were achieved—this may be seen in the (blamelessly) farcical histories of science presented in science classes. It is in this sense that reasoning serves knowledge: once the knowledge is attained, the reasoning drops away. Today, the sciences provide the paradigm examples of reasoning, but much of past and contemporary philosophy also consists of reasoning in this sense. This is, I suspect, the legitimate sense in which philosophy is “continuous” with the sciences.
Thought, by contrast, if it aims at anything, aims at something rather more like mental emancipation. We are trapped by conformity: to our society, to our past actions, to our past thoughts, and so forth. One philosophical task is to overcome these traps, i.e. to emancipate ourselves, and moreover to do so in a way that also spurs others to their own emancipation. Knowledge serves thought in that particular bits of knowledge (arrived at by reasoning) may play an integral role in the process of mental emancipation. But they are not its end. I take Emerson and Nietzsche to be engaged in thought, in this sense.
At almost every point, thought contrasts with reasoning. Reasoning is impersonal, but thought is intensely personal. What traps Emerson is not what traps Nietzsche. There is no public property with which to avail oneself, no penicillin for mental unfreedom. There is only the private struggle against one’s own captors. Because of this, where reasoning may be progressive, thought cannot be. That Emerson freed himself does not mean that I may start from a state of freedom—indeed, that Emerson freed himself yesterday does not mean that he may start from a state of freedom today: one of Emerson’s recurring themes is that we are continually finding ourselves trapped anew. The struggle is perpetual. As Emerson puts it, I believe in “History” (I paraphrase): “Every mind must go anew over the entire ground.” And because of this, history matters. My struggle for mental freedom carves out a particular path that is ineluctably shaped by my history, and no other struggle can be quite like it. Nothing universal or eternal is attained. Further, the results of thought are not public, not in the same way as the results of reasoning. Where anyone may believe the results of scientific inquiry as they stand (and, more epistemically riskily, also the results of much philosophical inquiry), there is nothing in Emerson that may be believed—or, at least, nothing that should be. For that would be only so much conformity. Emerson may only be taken up by an active process of appropriation, of making Emerson one’s own, thus of distorting Emerson into the shape of the reader. Finally, I take it to be clear today that truth, i.e. the fruits of reasoning, will not “set you free”—not intrinsically. Much additional work must be done to achieve emancipation using such knowledge. That work I take to be, not more reasoning, but the work of thought. And in that sense philosophy is not continuous with the sciences.
Here then is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. When one is engaged in reasoning, and turns to present the results of that reasoning, clarity and rigor of argument are the primary virtues. To sacrifice them to literary appeal would be a sort of hypocrisy, or at least a betrayal of the project. It would be to, in a sense, privatize what should be fundamentally public, in the sense of making the results, and the reasoning that supports them, most easily publicly accessible. By contrast, when one is engaged in thought, and turns to present that thought, clarity and rigor become tools, and not always the right tools. Emerson wishes to free himself, first, and to provoke others to free themselves, second. His writing is supposed to help accomplish both of these tasks. One aspect of Emerson’s conception of mental freedom is a suspicion of overly justifying oneself, for since one justifies oneself primarily to others, such self-justification threatens to lead one into conformity. (I take this thought to lie behind Nietzsche’s conception, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse, of a “Wille zur Dummheit.”) Emerson would be a hypocrite himself, would be abandoning the aims of his thought, were he to sacrifice style to transparency.
Examples may help. One of Emerson’s literary techniques is to take an image or a concept and circle around it, constantly leaving it and returning to it, as he does, for instance, in Nature. Another is his method of reversal, in which he apparently endorses an idea, only to reverse his position later on. These techniques are no friend of transparency: they leave Emerson’s notions without any definite, final formulation, and they make it more or less impossible to ascribe to him any quite definite position. Moreover, while both the posts above look at these techniques within an essay, both may be seen occurring across Emerson’s entire oeuvre (both his published works and his journals)—such is the fate of all of his core concepts: nature, idealism, self-reliance, scholarship, poetry, partiality… But if there is one thing that can be stated with certainty about Emerson’s views, it is that if Emerson were to hitch himself to a single, definitive statement of his thought, that would be, once more, conformity and unfreedom. So Emerson must write as he does.
There is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. It is necessary, where it is necessary, on pain of hypocrisy. I grant that this is as presented an unsatisfactory solution. It turns on a distinction between thought and reasoning that I have not made fully clear and moreover do not know how to make fully clear. It is a distinction, further, that, however desperately I cling to it, often seems to me something I grasp with my wishes much more than with my reason. My only apology is that I am not done thinking through this topic. The recurrence will not stop, and I must not hope for finality, but only report on a work in progress.
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[I confess this post’s debt to Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. A passage in chapter 3 on Emerson’s style gave me the idea for this post, and my distinction between thought and reasoning, though not phrased in those terms, is given expression in chapter 2 of that work. I already had some notion of the distinction, but Buell helped to sharpen it. Furthermore, it is to him that I owe the phrase “mental emancipation.” Buell also makes a useful distinction between emancipation of thought and emancipation from injustice, which, though I do not explicitly mention it above, has helped to clarify my thinking. I believe this covers my debts; I apologize to Buell for anything I may have inadvertently left out.]