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On the value of poetic philosophy

2014/01/02 3 comments

A philosophical friend of mine and I have been engaged in a long, slow conversation about the value of philosophy written in the poetic style. He, skeptical, attempts to characterize the reasons for this skepticism. I, sympathetic, grope equally for reasons in its defense. This conversation began anew today, and upon reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”, I found he wished to chime in. At the risk of ignoring Emerson’s own advice, which says that conversation can only be between two, I shall allow him here his voice. This leniency has proven ill-guided, for my intended three quickly became a crowd: Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence too, I discovered, lurked, awaiting their chance to speak.

Emerson, as so often, faces doubt about what he is saying. “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual” (385), he tells us: those holy moments of inspiration are, by the measure of arithmetic, only a small portion of our life, and when they have passed, we cannot do them justice in words. “Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.” (386) So Emerson talks to us, puts words before us, and they are more sacred than he thinks. They glow with that poetry that characterizes his best essays.

What Emerson is trying to do is to capture in writing something of these moments of inspiration, of the expansion of the soul out to the impersonal. What characterizes these moments? Life poses riddles, questions, problems—chief among them, the question of how to live. It is just this question, in all its forms, that is answered in these moments, and Emerson insists that there is something ineffable about the answers. “An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask.” (393)

Why should that be? In defending unpoetic philosophy, my friend stressed its emphasis on clarity and especially unambiguity, on being as little open to interpretation as possible. That allows the more direct transfer of knowledge. Language becomes thin, inessential except as a vehicle for a truth lurking behind it. In poetry, by contrast, there is an open-endedness of interpretation—or, as I prefer, experimentation. I would go so far as to say that poetry is only half accomplished when unread—only when a reader makes some use of it does it fully take form, for a moment. But that is my ontological commitment, not his. This open-endedness is, as he puts it, an anathema to philosophical unambiguity.

So it is. But my suggestion, which I find in Emerson as well, is that this clarity is good only for certain sorts of questions, and not for these riddles of life, as Carnap called them, somewhere. The solution to these riddles does not come via an intellectual exercise, but by living. As D. H. Lawrence puts it, “As for the words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from him, they are so many tremulations in the ether, and not alive at all.” What is wanted here is not philosophical clarity. It is, of course, possible that we are wrong here, that life’s questions may be sorted into two sorts: those answerable in words, and, the remainder, those answerable by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. I do not think so, but I have no argument.

But what can Emerson say in defense of his essay, which seems to attempt to answer such a question, and in words? “The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.” (393) Emerson’s essay does not give us this thing itself, and he is under no illusions about this. “The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.” (394)

What value there is in his essay must come from elsewhere than from its being a vehicle for some truth that we can acquire by reading it. And it is the open-endedness of his poetic style that makes this possible. I want to revive here in modified form the old philosophical distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. I derive it from D. H. Lawrence: “If you are a philosopher, you talk about infinity, and the pure spirit which knows all things. But if you pick up a novel, you realize immediately that infinity is just a handle to this self-same jug of a body of mine; while as for knowing, if I find my finger in the fire, I know that fire burns, with a knowledge so emphatic and vital, it leaves Nirvana merely a conjecture. Oh, yes, my body, me alive, knows, and knows intensely. And as for the sum of all knowledge, it can’t be anything more than an accumulation of all the things I know in the body, and you, dear reader, know in the body.”

There is, on the one hand, a knowledge that is impersonal, built up from the patient labors of philosophers and scientists and innumerable others, an edifice that can be constructed so patiently precisely because it can be conveyed in words, the less ambiguous, the better. On the other hand, there is “the accumulation of all the things I know in my body.” In the old distinction, this latter served as the building blocks for the former, the incorrigible foundation on which the latter was based. In the new, they are distinct: what is accumulated in the body cannot be transmitted.

Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writers, those who write from within, as actors, as those with experience, “as parties and possessors of the fact” (395), and those who write “from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.” He is tracking the same distinction. But again the problem arises: what is the value of his writing, even if it comes from experience. For those who read it, it seems, will be left only with the evidence of third persons, and will be spectators.

If the writing is to have value, then, it must be because it in some fashion provokes the one who reads it to some new experience, some new knowledge by acquaintance, and not new knowledge by description. Here, unambiguity is not the ultimate virtue, because there is nothing to be transmitted. The thickness of the language, which makes it open-ended, is necessary precisely so that a thousand readers may take it in a thousand directions, on the basis of their own experience, their own accumulations in the body. Lawrence puts it thus: “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.”

Lawrence is being polemical: he thinks philosophy, poetry, and science all lack this power—it is solely the province of the novel. Disagreed. But more interesting is the explicit awareness he has of the novel as something secondary. “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether.” What is primary is life; books are just in the service of this. This I take to be a characteristic trope of poetic philosophy: that it finds itself and must find itself something secondary.

Emerson, for instance: “The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done.” (396) The great poet, and the great philosopher-poet, urges us to forget him, that we might seek ourselves. The use of books is to turn us toward life, but once so turned, we do not need them, and even find them oppressive. “Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade.” (400)

Nietzsche has been patient, but now he insists on having his turn. At the end of part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “On the Bestowing Virtue”, Zarathustra takes leave of his disciples, and offers the following advice: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have denied me will I return to you.” Zarathustra is first a teacher, but “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only”—so Zarathustra is second a friend, but only after the pupils have left, have rejected him in favor of their own lives.

Now other voices, claiming the principle of fairness, say I ought to let them speak as well. Whitman and Plato I hear, and others I do not recognize. But my fingers are weary, and my thread in danger of being lost. The experience that originated this post is fading, and it risks falling further into description than it has. So I end it here.

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Poetry and Prudence II

2014/01/01 2 comments

An interesting phenomenon recurs across Plato’s corpus: Socrates, in critiquing some other, pushes the critique to a point where it rebounds on himself, where it poses an is­sue that he, qua philosopher, must confront. He threatens to undermine himself. In his dialogue Ion, Plato has Socrates take a rhapsode to task: does he have mastery over his subject, or only a sort of divine inspiration and madness? It must be the latter, for Ion is “so wonderfully clever about Homer alone.” Were he truly a master of his subject, whatever that might be, he should be wonderfully clever about all poets. Socrates here is toying with Ion, but his critique ends up extending to poetry in general. For the method of argument Socrates pursues is to understand how to tell whether Homer or, say, Hesiod speaks better about divination, a subject on which they disagree. Socrates argues—and Ion accepts—that one must know divination to do so, and hence a diviner is the one competent to say who has spoken better. Since poets would speak well about all of life, this criticism attaches itself not just to those who evaluate poetry, but to the poets themselves: to speak well about all of life, poets must be masters in all domains—or merely divinely inspired. “You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.”

Now we can see that this criticism actually has one further expansion: it extends to the philosopher. For the philosopher, too, would speak about all of life: of the auto mechanic, whether he is virtuous, of the doctor, whether she is virtuous, of the judge, of the janitor, of everyone. To master virtue and truth requires being able to apply the notions, and that—by the very criteria Socrates has set out in his critique of the rhapsode—requires having mastery over every domain. Is the philosopher, too, then, divinely inspired? Or can the intellect manage to achieve such mastery? Plato, in writing in a poetic style, and in reminding readers of Socrates’ daimon to whom he listens, certainly not does make it easy to straightforwardly place him on the side of the intellect.

In either case, we can understand why Plato’s dialogues repeatedly come up against the problem of conflict between philosophy and poetry. The war is a turf war: philosophy and poetry conflict because their domains are identical. And I can add a third character to this skirmish: prudence, which also extends itself around every domain. The conflict between philosophy and poetry is really the flip side of the conflict between poetry and prudence—and of course philosophy and prudence have a history of enmity probably more storied than either of the other conflicts. One need only think of Pyrrho, or the Cynics.

Emerson, in his essay on “Heroism”, explores poetry caught between these two antagonists. While the topic is heroism, Emerson does much to link it to poetry: “Heroism feels and never reasons” (374) and is divinely inspired—“Where the heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of fame.” (378) Moreover, “A great man scarcely knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision, his living is natural and poetic.” (376) So we have heroism described in a way that aligns it with Plato’s conception of poetry.

What, for Emerson, is heroism, precisely? It is a warlike attitude toward external evil, a contempt for safety and ease, self-trust, an extreme individualism, obedience to a secret impulse of character. It is ashamed of the body, loves temperance for its elegance and not its austerity, does not condescend to take anything seriously—it is “the unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments.” (380) It is a Stoicism of the blood, and not of the schools.

And it is opposed to philosophy. Emerson puts it plainly: “There is somewhat not philosophical in heroism.” (374) Interestingly, Emerson goes on to explain this: “it seems not to know that other souls are of one texture with it” (374)—this sounds very much like the counterpart to his advice, in “Prudence”, that one should “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366). Emerson, perhaps unintentionally, almost seems to collapse the distinction between philosophy and prudence. Maybe the reason for this is that the solution to both sorts of opposition is the same. But to see that we need to see his exploration of the heroism/prudence conflict, which he discusses in much more detail.

Emerson is clear: Heroism as “obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character” runs afoul of prudence, as “all prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good.” (374-375) Heroism, at the time of the heroic act, is almost inevitably condemned by prudence, which measures acts by how they yield sensual prosperity. Likewise, the prudent “reckon narrowly the loss of time”, while “the soul of a better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults of life.” (375) Heroism is ashamed of the body, not in a self-loathing, ascetic way, but it shows a disdain for sensual prosperity.

So poetic heroism finds itself in inevitable conflict with prudence. “It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence.” (374) How does it overcome prudence, these objections? By ignoring them, mostly. “The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world.” (379) Once the hero has felt the impulse, he must act on it, without regret, without any attempt at reconciliation with the world. “If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.” (379) Heroism simply ignores the reproaches of prudence. “Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.” (380)

Emerson’s solution is thus not an attempt at reconciliation of any kind, of easing the conflict. He sees the conflict, and he takes his stand: he stands on the side of heroism, of poetry. We saw in my essay on “Prudence” that his proposal there for reconciliation was lacking, that he left us in a position of inevitable conflict where reconciliation seemed impossible. “Heroism” seems to address this problem by giving up the attempt for reconciliation, by simply siding against prudence. Emerson simply closes his ears to the objections of prudence. And this is more or less his solution to the conflict with philosophy as well: the hero listens to his impulse, feels and doesn’t reason, if reason—i.e. philosophy—objects, no matter: the hero does not listen. Nietzsche gave this solution pithy expression: “To close your ears to even the best counter-argument once the decision has been taken: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” (Beyond Good & Evil, §107)

So perhaps our first problem is resolved—or at least dispensed with. But Emerson raises one further problem, with which I end.

To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the great multitude of suffering men. (380)

The asceticism of heroism is something that “common good-nature” assigns to those who enjoy a certain amount of luxury. In this, poetry/heroism is lumped with philosophy, another pursuit that seems to require luxury, requires time that need not be spent simply fulfilling one’s needs. Indeed, one reason why Feyerabend takes Plato to task for his elitism is precisely because he sees this elitism as effectively condemning people for not having leisure time—see the first dialogue of his Three Dialogues on Knowledge. Perhaps a will to stupidity and a contempt of ease and plenty are possible when one has—ease and plenty, but in more impoverished circumstances the cry of prudence is not so easily silenced. The facts of Emerson’s own life bear this out: he was able to retire from his job as a minister and embark on his dizzying experimental voyages only because of his first wife’s inheritance. So we face the problem: luxury seems to be a prerequisite for poetry—when luxury is absent, prudence has the upper hand. Nor can Emerson simply make an elitist move of Plato’s sort, for it is the very task of poetry to find what is poetic in the, broadly speaking, illiterate. Emerson, in this essay, does not resolve the problem. So it lingers.

And, moreover, this is nothing other than our first problem, the problem of truly reconciling poetry and prudence. So that problem has not been solved at all. We remain left with the question: can there be a reconciliation between poetry and prudence?

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My version of the Ion is in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Emerson’s essay is in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. For Nietzsche, I used the Penguin Beyond Good and Evil.

Daybreak meditation, §32

2013/12/04 1 comment

Over the past month or so, I have taken advantage of my daily walk to and from cam­pus to reflect on passages from Nietzsche’s Daybreak, after which I record some trace of my reflections. This is a record of one such meditation.

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Nietzsche is here discussing a problem of mechanics: there is a brake on our acquiring a new understanding of morality, and we must solve the problem of removing it. This brake is a certain pride that takes pleasure in suffering for the sake of a higher, exalted world. This pride is gratified to be able to suffer for morality, for the soul is thereby itself exalted. When informed that this supposed exaltation depends upon an error, a false understanding of morality, this pride shows the reaction typical of wounded pride: indignation. Pride, thus wounded, resists the new understanding. (§31 shows a similar effect of pride—a different pride? The same pride?—it resists the theory that says that man descended from the animals.)

Nietzsche does not much elaborate a solution to this problem. Instead, he offers a hint in the form of a question. “What force, therefore, will have to be employed if this brake is to be removed? More pride? A new pride?” I take this as a positive suggestion: a new pride is needed. But I am not strongly committed to the need being for pride specifically, it is enough that it be for some attitude like pride.

This raises a question: what sort of knowledge is Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality? Today, the word ‘knowledge’ calls to my mind a certain sort of description of how the world is. Applied to this case, Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality amounts to his description of the true nature of morality. Perhaps the essential feature of such descriptive knowledge is its objectivity: it can be passed on, verbally, to anyone, regardless of who they are.

Regardless of who they are—this means independent of what they feel, how they act, etc. Independent also of whether they are proud or modest. Perhaps Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality is of this sort. After all, Nietzsche says of this new pride only that it is needed to remove a certain brake on the understanding. Once this brake is removed, perhaps the new understanding may carry itself, simply because it is true. Truth may meet resistance from pride, to be sure, and may need a different pride to overcome that resistance, but once the resistance is removed, it needs no further support from that pride.

I worry about this reading of Nietzsche. My worry may be expressed succinctly: I do not think Nietzsche wants his understanding of morality to become a mere custom of thought. Let me explain. Nietzsche earlier reflected on the foundation of custom: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” (§30) Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality, in its first generation, is wrapped up in the entirety of Nietzsche’s project, with its vision for the future, its moods, its pride, its modesty. This is the first generation of the new understanding. To acquire this understanding one needs a certain pride that can overcome a different, resisting pride.

But if this understanding is merely descriptive, then when it is inherited, all of this context is lost. All that is inherited is the description, accessible to anyone. It is faceless knowledge. If it is mere descriptive knowledge about morality, then it is inherited divorced from all moods, virtues, and vices. It ceases to be first generation knowledge, as it were; it becomes a custom of thought, followed for different reasons and with different feelings (hence also accompanied by different actions) than in the first generation.

The alternative is that Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality, insofar as it is valuable, is valuable in its first generation. Here, “first generation” is untimely. Nietzsche, in The Anti-Christ, remarks that a primitive Christianity will always be possible—I take “primitive” here to be akin to “first generation”: he means a Christian life that is not inherited but discovered for oneself, with all the moods, virtues, and thoughts that are not inherited with Christian customs. Does Nietzsche exempt his own understanding of morality from this same process of impoverishment via inheritance? When, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he says he does not want disciples, is he not calling for his “followers” to possess his truths as first generation truths only, else not at all?

Perhaps Nietzsche’s understanding of morality is descriptive knowledge. But I worry.

Doubt and Climate

2013/09/07 5 comments

The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).

Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.

The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)

Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.

He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)

The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.

But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)

It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.

Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,

But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)

What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.

This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.

This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.

Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.

With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)

In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.

What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.

At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,

Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?

Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)

It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)

Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.

§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)

The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.

Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.

Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).

So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.