Posts Tagged ‘virtue’

Why did Nietzsche admire Emerson?

2014/08/08 3 comments

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.

Skepsis, sepsis, and epanalepsis

Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?

Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.

Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:

When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)

The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]

The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.

At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.

Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.

We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?

In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.

A first turn of the screw, pt. II: retelling as reliving

The time has come to fulfill yesterday’s promise of an exploration of the manner in which retelling is a form of reliving in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I have already explored this idea in the case of Beckett (links in yesterday’s post), and perhaps one day I will be able to synthesize Beckett and James, but today I hardly remember my thoughts on Beckett, and so will stick to James.

My first realization that the second narrator, in retelling her story, is reliving it came when she wrote, “I find that I really hang back; but I must take my horrid plunge. In going on the record of what was hideous at Bly I not only challenge the most liberal faith—for which I little care; but (and this is another matter) I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my dreadful way through it to the end.” (60, this volume) My realization was no great leap: she is quite explicit what is occurring. Moreover, not only does she state this idea, but she exemplifies it. The first words of her section of the story—“I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (11)—are echoed here in her speaking of her writing as taking a “plunge”.

There is also a disparity between these two quotes. The second speaks of memory, of remembering, not of reliving. At the outset of her tale, there is more of a distance between her and her writing. It is only gradually that her writing, as it were, takes on a life of its own. I think we see this best in the steady increase in prominence of the language of submission and mastery, of the narrator’s increasing tendency to insist upon being in the dominant position. (Tracking this increase helps me, at least, to understand why the story ends as it does.) This language conflicts with that of virtue: her self-presentation, from the start, is of herself as a virtuous person. She is desperate to be seen, publicly, in her virtue. Insofar as her writing is a form of remembering, this need dominates it: she remembers her own virtue so that others might remember it after her—writing gains her virtue an audience. But as the story goes on, we start to suspect that, however much she tells herself she is motivated by her (mostly self-imposed) duty to the children, her real motive lies in the need for domination. It is no accident that she refers to an instance in which Mrs. Grose provides her with information that “justifies” her as a “submission of memory” (74-5, my emphasis). The less her story becomes self-presentation, and the more it becomes reliving, the more her true motive shines through.

Considering this theme, of retelling as reliving, forces me to return to my thoughts of last night. There, in reflecting on the publicity of writing, and especially of its self-insufficient virtues, I worried a great deal about how I, as a reader, do not “believe” the governess, desperate as she is to be believed. Yet, insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, this problem vanishes, or at least splits. Now there are two stories to consider. One is the tale of the governess at Bly, struggling with apparitions of evil for the soul of a young boy and girl. The other is the story of the governess writing, a story that I do not receive secondhand, but watch unfold for myself. For the second story, there is no question of believing or not believing—do I not see it directly? And insofar as I am concerned with this story, the question of whether I may believe the first becomes subsidiary. Perhaps that story involves the “submission of memory” to the vicissitudes of the governess’ psychology—but these submissions bring me no sense of having been lied to. Rather, they are honestly presented phenomena, events in the second story I watch unfold.

Insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, it may be self-sufficient—that is, it may require no audience for its completion. Once the governess has written her story, her act is done, and she may die. There is nothing that requires a reader, an audience. In yesterday’s post, the reader was required because the virtues of writing were not self-sufficient. Today they are. But what, then, of the reader? What am I?

A first turn of the screw, pt. I: writing and publicity

2014/03/13 1 comment

These thoughts will inevitably be partial, as I have read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but once, and have hardly digested the closing pages, but I venture them nonetheless. For I do not pretend that a second reading will leave me with thoughts any less partial, only I know it will drive these thoughts I have now from my view. Better, then, to put them forth, that they might one day converse with my future.

I have been teaching, this semester, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius shares with the Stoics, with whom he might justifiably be lumped, the commitment to valuing only what is within one’s own control. Only one’s own virtue meets this strict criterion; hence, only one’s own virtue is an appropriate object of concern. Toward external events, indifference—and indifference especially toward reputation. Virtue is self-sufficient. It requires no audience. In this vein I recall also, from my Jewish upbringing, Maimonides’ teaching on charity: that the greatest gift is the one given by one who does not know the recipient, and received by one who does not know the giver. To publicize virtue spells trouble: it lets society in, with its petty demands for repayment, with its imposition of the sense of being in debt.

I find much admirable in this view, as I suspect anyone must, and much right in it, but as I read The Turn of the Screw I could not help but question it. The story is told in two parts, an introductory chapter by a first unnamed narrator, and the remainder of the novella by a governess at Bly, a haunted estate. The second narrator reveals throughout her need for an audience. She has a conception of herself as heroic, as struggling to save a human soul, as fortified in the face of danger, and she needs an audience for it. Within the text, she needs the belief of Mrs. Grose—the emotional nadir of the tale comes when she fears she has lost this belief, when Mrs. Grose does not see the apparition she sees.

But more than that, it comes out in the fact that she is writing. Sometime after the fact, she puts her story to paper. Part of this speaks to her need to be believed, her need to publicize her self-attributed virtue. That is what gets her over the activation barrier to start—and to continue—writing. (She makes it clear that her retelling of the story is a form of reliving it in all its dread, an idea that I have already explored in the case of Beckett’s trilogy. I have given this post the hopeful appellation “pt. I” in anticipation of exploring this further.) She writes this story in order to be read, in order for others to see what she has done. Her need for validation permeates the language throughout: how often she brings in the language of science—justification, confirmation, proof, falsification—and the language of the courtroom—judge, witness, trial, arraign! She needs objective support (science); she needs the vindication of a jury of her peers (court).

With this thought, we may compare her intensely serious self-presentation with the presentation, in the introduction, of her story as a bit of entertainment, to be judged by its gruesomeness and its dreadfulness, not its truth. It is received, not as something to be believed, but as something to be enjoyed. This reveals, almost comically, the extent to which she failed, but at the same time throws her intent in writing into sharper relief. (I will return to this disparity.)

But perhaps a greater part of it speaks to the very act of writing, which presupposes an audience, or at least the hope of one. The virtues of the writer cannot be private virtues, at least not without sacrificing the inherently public function of writing. Even in private writing such as journaling, one’s future self is an audience. Thoughts are not recorded to no end. One person writes, and another reads. Another way to put this is that the virtues of the writer are not self-sufficient in the way the Stoics conceived virtue. Even when they have been manifested in the writing of a text, they remain uncompleted. The act of reading, with its virtues, is yet to be done.

Moreover, this brings with it an element of instability, of risk. The most apt self-reflection in the novella comes after little Miles has been “bad”, and the governess finds that this equally puts her in a predicament. “I was confronted at last, as never yet, with all the risk attached even now to sounding my own horrid note.” (p. 71, this volume) She is not here speaking of writing, but she may as well be, for in writing down her story, in sounding her “horrid note”, she takes on a great risk: she cannot control how she is read. We already encountered this in the painful disparity between the way she so dearly wishes to be read and the way her story is presented in the introduction. But it comes out also, perhaps even more so, in how I read her. I do not take the story quite so crassly as the first narrator, yet neither do I take it in any way like that which the governess desires. (These very reflections are, I hope, ample proof of that.)

The Stoics were prudent in taking virtue to lie entirely within an individual’s control, in excluding from the domain of virtue anything that depended on others—for they aimed at tranquility of mind, a tranquility so perfect it could not be disturbed by any external event, so long as one maintained perfect virtue. If they were right to do this, and insofar as one aims for tranquility I believe they were, we must conclude that writing cannot aim at tranquility. One gets the sense, in reading Aurelius’ Meditations, that Aurelius perceived a vast gulf between individuals. Virtue, though it aims at the good of the whole, of which each individual is a part, is nonetheless a purely individual affair. Not so with writing, whose virtues submit themselves to the mercy of their readers. Writing takes a risk: it trusts its completion to people it has no basis for trusting. The virtue of our governess is out of her hands.

Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

2014/01/12 4 comments

Christianity, Kierkegaard is careful to tell us, is not a doctrine but a message. What does this entail? A message is to be lived, much more than believed. The individual task, for one who hears the message, is “living in it, expressing Christianity in one’s life.” (§141) Because of this, a message is addressed differently than a doctrine. A doctrine is given to a crowd that is asked to believe it. It is impersonal: it does not matter who said it, but only that it is true, and it speaks to all at once, regardless of who they are. A message, by contrast, is individually expressed, even when written—it does, that is, respond differently to different readers, contra Socrates in the Phaedrus. A message looks past the crowd to the individual. It is Socrates’ ability to do just this that makes him, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, more Christian than most self-professed Christians. “The great thing about Socrates was that even when he was accused and faced the People’s Assembly, his eyes did not see the crowd, but only the individual.” (§127)

The Bible, as the text carrying God’s message for humanity, is thus to be read in a very individual, personal manner. Kierkegaard laments that “no one any longer reads the Bible merely as an individual human being.” (§135) What is the danger of reading it as doctrine? It is that one attempts to sort out the precise way of characterizing the doctrine before one lives it—“always this sham that one must make sure the doctrine is in perfect shape before one can begin to live in accordance with it—which means that one never gets around to it.” (§135) But understanding can never precede living—as Kierkegaard insists, “temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” (§136)

Because the Bible contains a message and not a doctrine, there is a perpetuity to the Christian task: each individual and each generation must renew it. “The accumulated erudition of preceding generations is essentially superfluous.” (§141) Thus, the messenger’s task is not to draw firm, settled conclusions. That only encourages doctrine. Instead, one should “incite the listener to independent thinking”—it is for this reason that Plato, following Socrates, “does not draw any conclusions, but leaves a sting.” (§146) It is a sting that cannot be turned into doctrine, but can only yield further thought, further stings. (Things will be different regarding the message as it is presented in the Bible—which carries a special sort of authority—and as it is presented in Kierkegaard, who speaks without authority. But I don’t feel competent to discuss this in any depth.)

The problem of treating Christianity as a doctrine leads Kierkegaard to or past the brink of heresy: “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” (§135) I am only half-facetious—if that—when I suggest that Emerson may be the figure Kierkegaard desired.

Emerson is a messenger. He addresses individuals, and would spark them to change. What is his message? He is uncertain about the prospect of putting it into words: he thinks the influx of the divine is something ineffable, of which his essays are mere shadows. Yet there are themes. In “Circles”, he insists on the impermanence of all things. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial.” (411) There is the appearance of permanence, but it is just appearance: “Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known.” (404)

The thinker, insofar as the thinker is a lover and follower of truth, must thus forego any hope of stability. The thinker must be prepared for reform, must be ready to “cast away our virtues […] into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” (411) The valor of the thinker lies in “his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter.” (407) All may be superseded, the past, the force of habit be damned. The Emersonian thinker or scholar fundamentally unsettles: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” (407)

Because the thinker can only unsettle, the thinker must disclaim all authority. Kierkegaard did this too, quite explicitly—he spoke with no authority; all authority lay with God. So too with Emerson, for all their differences. “But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” (412)

Take at least five minutes to feel those words before returning to mine, I beg you.


Emerson’s task must be understood with this renouncing of authority in mind. He does not write to persuade, but to provoke. Emerson attributes this task to the poet, but that is false modesty: any task Emerson lays on the poet he lays on himself. “He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities.” (409) Emerson’s work is a sting, and it can only bear two offspring: the lives of those stung, and the stings to which those lives give rise. Sting begets sting, and nothing ever settles.

So there is an instability inherent in the Emersonian view, an endless succession of unsettlings, without resolution. In Kierkegaard, the Bible may provide some stability: as God’s message, it can serve as an anchor. But with Emerson, the Bible is only one more sting, one more provocation, and not the message itself. This is what we see in his Divinity School Address. For Emerson, the message is ever unwritten. All that exists is sting upon sting, sting giving rise to sting.

My title promises some discussion of prudence, so I had better deliver, lest I be besmirched as a man not of his word. Emerson is direct about prudence: “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.” (410) And Emerson speaks specifically of the sacrifice of prudence to some god—not the god of ease and pleasure, for then “he had better be prudent still”, but “to a great trust.” It is a trust in his virtue, whatever that may be, and a trust that external circumstance will not impede him from living his virtue, that marks the great man. What makes this trust possible? The answer lies at the beginning of Emerson’s essay, when he alludes to two consequences of the circular principle. One is the non-finality of all virtues. The other is what he traced in an earlier essay: the principle of compensation.

This principle gives Emerson a source of security. While it is impersonal, his principle of compensation gives him confidence in experimenting at the expense of prudence. In this way, it functions similarly to the way God functions for Kierkegaard, who in his diary often thanks God for gracing him with circumstances that helped him to remain devoted to his task. For both, there is a layer of safety.

But what if one cannot accept either God or compensation? What if one is resolutely atheist? Kierkegaard suggests the possibility of being a Christian without worrying if it is true: “What a great help it would be already in Christendom if someone said, and acted accordingly: I don’t know if Christianity is true, but I will order my whole life as if it were, stake my life thereon—then if it proves not to be true, eh bien, I don’t regret my choice, for it is the only matter I am concerned about.” (§157) But this, I think, requires suspension of judgment, which I lack. I actively believe otherwise, so this road is closed to me, even if I wished to take it.

So here is my question: is such a sacrifice of prudence to the god of a great trust possible for me if I believe that there is nothing in which to place my trust, but only a cold, inanimate universe, a mass of atoms swirling in the void? But here I must break off. I have asked a question words cannot answer. Only my life can answer that.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


This will be my final post in the Poetry and Prudence sequence, I believe. The first two may be found here and here. Many months ago I started planning a sequence of posts on this theme, mulling over them, gathering sources—and above all never putting any words onto any pages. After reading Emerson’s essay on “Prudence”, I decided to rescue the project from its neglect, mostly scrapping the original plan. When I began writing this post, I had no intention of its being—or not being—the last, but I think I pushed the question as far as it can go, or at least as far as I can now take it. So, I suppose, it is over.


I have looked at the following texts:

Søren Kierkegaard. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays & Lectures. Library of America.