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Emerson’s Intuitions

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a lifelong transcendentalist whose transparent eyeball had seen into the life of things. There he descried a friendly Spirit ceaselessly effusing benign ministrations to all sentient beings. With trenchant diction, soothing rhythms, erudite allusions, and priestly authority, the Concord sage bewitched unvaccinated minds into docile assent to dubious propositions. Even today, in classrooms, literary clubs, and reading parlors across America, wherever the facts of life are too hard to be endured, Emerson still claims converts. Jettisoning (when expedient) reason, evidence, and logic for the intuitions of what he called the Moral Sentiment, he dispenses medicinal precepts to queasy souls: Virtue is rewarded and vice punished, pessimists and skeptics are deluded, the moral sense is innate, truth shall prevail, God is within us. His proof for these Sunday-school axioms are earnest conviction and repetitive insistence.

Long before the war-to-end-all-wars reneged on its promise, before Auschwitz and Dachau, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before Hutu and Tutsi, the empirically minded had rejected Emerson’s cheery weltanschauung. Evil did not seem, as Emerson held, merely privative, an aberrant deprivation of the Good, but rather absolute, a sovereign force with the power to shatter optimism, joy, resolve, and faith. Moribund looks of agony were, as Emily Dickinson proclaimed, decidedly real, not sham convulsions staged by the maya. Dying eyes were soldered shut without having spotted anything eternally blessed. After the stupefying carnage of the Great War, when material progress, it seemed, was mocked by ethical regress, anyone who still fancied this the best of all possible worlds was bereft of imagination. Whoever or whatever created nature must, as John Stuart Mill noted, have an overweening fondness for bloodbaths. If, as Emerson averred, we lay in the lap of immense intelligence, it betrayed no discernible moral sense, unless for ill. An Over-Soul that suffuses benign influences abroad, an Eternal Lawgiver whose laws are ineffable, an Omnipotence with a penchant for hide-and-seek, a Virtue independent of deeds–how oddly these wisps of Eastern mysticism drifted into a jaded western world.

To Emerson, the wisps were iridescent, durable formations. Throughout his long life, he retained an unshakable faith in the essential goodness of the universe and the power of the individual to surmount adversity. His bedrock conviction was that “through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.” A biographer described an Emerson constitutionally unequipped for the paler casts of thought: “He was an ‘ambassador of the Highest’ and can no more lay aside the assured and aggressive attitude of the believer in that which alone is true and which he so declares, than he could lay off the formality of his manners.” Emerson may have agreed: “Some minds,” he said, “are incapable of skepticism. The doubts they profess to entertain are rather a civility or accommodation to the common discourse of their company. They may well give themselves leave to speculate, for they are secure of a return.”

Emerson’s cosmic affirmations are vexing not in themselves, but in the way he holds them. The Everlasting Yea permeates the world’s literature, East and West, past and present. Many have registered their staunch belief that, whatever the appearances, all is well. The following passage, cited by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, is not uncommon:

There came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence. I saw that the cosmic order is such that … all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.

As long as blithe seers do not try to validate their beliefs discursively, they do not invite criticism. Content with inner certitude, they may, like Walt Whitman, licitly decline “to sweat through fog with linguists and contenders.” But when they aim, as Emerson did, to convince the world their beliefs correspond to external fact, their statements are liable to the rules of evidence and the principles of sound reasoning.

Although Emerson often said that the ultimate Reality lies beyond rational demonstration, even verbal formulation–it is an Intuition, not a tuition, provocation, not instruction–his rhetorical deeds belie the putative ineffability. In his essays and letters, he habitually instructs as well as provokes, exhorts, and cajoles. And in the process he plunders the arsenal of polemic device. He narrates, illustrates, exemplifies, defines, classifies, compares, and contrasts. While he professed to loathe the science of logic (perhaps because he wasn’t good at it), he routinely tries to demonstrate that his perception of truth is valid. He draws conclusions from premises, seeks premises to support conclusions, infers causes from effects, and effects from causes. Despite the argumentative methods, he didn’t think of himself as a polemicist. When a friend asked him to amplify some dubious assertions in his essay “Divinity School Address,” Emerson responded thus:

I could not give an account of myself if challenged. I could not possibly give you one of the “arguments” you cruelly hint at, on which any doctrine of mine stands; for I do not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling what I think; but if you ask me how I dare say so, I am the most helpless of mortal men.

Disingenuous or not, Emerson’s cavalier attitude has pragmatic convenience. It licenses him to assert whatever he wishes without being obliged to make sense. Despite his protestations, Emerson in reality does a lot of explaining even though he says the wise are “explained without explaining.” When evidence to support the Everlasting Yea is available, Emerson clasps it. When reason serves, he embraces it. When logic and instance pall, he tosses them into the trash bin of the lowly Understanding and appeals to Spontaneity or Instinct, higher modes of apprehension. He then adopts the venerable Romantic precept that anything one strongly feels must be true: “Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.”

Emerson’s cosmic affirmations are thus sustained by rhetorical dodges and thematic evasions. Again, the affirmations are not in themselves necessarily objectionable. The rub lies in Emerson’s willingness to flout the norms of discourse to bolster them. Whatever their psychological status, the affirmations logically derive from a simple deductive formulation of the Understanding: Since all things (Emerson believed) proceed from a single Spirit, omnipotent and benevolent, everything must ultimately conduce to the good. As Alexander Pope said, “Whatever is, is right.” Logically, Emerson’s task is no different from the one that faced Enlightenment optimists. He must defang evil, the thousand natural shocks flesh is heir to, deny its reality, or transform it, as Emerson said, into good in the making. If evil cannot be defused, theodicy fails, be it Pope’s or Emerson’s. In one way or another, the entire corpus of Emerson’s writing evinces the magnitude of the task and his unsatisfactory way of coping with it. In the essay “Fate,” Emerson directs more attention than usual to cosmically sinister forces. Observing the way he first acknowledges their potency and then tries to emasculate them is instructive.

At the beginning of the essay, Emerson vows to “honestly state the facts,” and for a while he does. He dips into a Pandora’s box of horrors. He vividly depicts a bleak universe rigidly deterministic in both its natural and moral dimensions. At any moment, natural forces can undo us: “The planet is liable to shocks from comets, perturbations from planets, rendings from earthquake and volcano, alterations of climate, precessions of equinoxes. At Lisbon an earthquake killed men like flies. At Naples three years ago ten-thousand persons were crushed in a few minutes.”

Parasites and other “infusory biters” can in a trice wipe out whole villages: “The cholera, the small-pox, have proved as mortal to some tribes as frost to the crickets, which, having filled the summer with noise, are silenced by a fall of the temperature at night.” Entire species, including our own, are doomed to extinction: “The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born. But when a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.” Nature is a huge killing field rocked by ceaseless internecine combat: “The habit of snake and spider, the snap of the tiger and other leapers and bloody jumpers, the crackle of the bones of his prey in the coil of the anaconda–these are in the system, and our habits are like theirs.”

Fate is dictated by biological organization: “Ask the doctors if temperaments decide nothing?–or if there be anything they do not decide? Read the description in medical books of the four temperaments and you will think you are reading your own thoughts which you had not yet told.” Destiny is prefigured in the zygote: “At the corner of the street you read the possibility of each passenger in the facial angle, in the complexion, in the depth of his eye. His parentage determines it. Men are what their mothers made them. You may as well ask a loom which weaves huckabuck why it does not make cashmere, as expect poetry from this engineer, or a chemical discovery from that jobber.” Hormonal imbalances predispose sinners to vice: “Jesus said, ‘When he looketh on her, he hath committed adultery.’ But he is an adulterer before he has yet looked on the woman, by the superfluity of animal and the defect of thought in his constitution.” Our very thoughts are linked to the iron chain of destiny: “Thought itself is not above Fate; that too must act according to eternal laws.”

A pessimistic naturalist like Emile Zola or Stephen Crane could hardly state more emphatically than does Emerson the plight of a species victimized by internal and external forces:

The force with which we resist these torrents of tendency looks so ridiculously inadequate that it amounts to little more than a criticism or protest made by a minority of one, under compulsion of millions. I seemed at the height of a tempest to see men overboard struggling in the waves, and driven about here and there. They glanced intelligently at each other, but it was little they could do for one another; it was much if each could keep afloat alone. Well, they had a right to their eyebeams, and all the rest was Fate.

Emerson’s initial scenario of the human condition offers ample reason for naysaying. Here are Omar Khayyam’s helpless pieces of the game, Shakespeare’s flies to wanton boys, Herman Melville’s inscrutable malice of the universe, Emily Dickinson’s play that proves piercing earnest, Robert Frost’s design of darkness to appall. Here is the material for Bertrand Russell’s worst of all possible worlds, brainchild of a demonic prankster who, unlike Leibniz’s God, permitting a little evil so as to increase the good, allows a little good so as to maximize the evil. Had Emerson been by temperament less sanguine, or less adamantine in faith, he might have lashed out at the purblind doomsters that, as Thomas Hardy said, often strew more woe than bliss around our pilgrimages.

A less-mystical Emerson might have suspected that our “reasonable hours” are psychological aberrations, not revelations of eternal law:

The astonishment of life is the absence of any appearance of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life. Reason, the prized reality, the Law, is apprehended, now and then, for a serene and profound moment amidst the hubbub of cares and works which have no direct bearing on it–is then lost for months or years, and again found for an interval to be lost again. In fifty years we may have half a dozen “reasonable hours.”

Despite the paucity of evidence for the divine provenance of the reasonable hours, Emerson insists on it. He treats his stark opening tableau of human limitation as inconsequential. It becomes a rhetorical contrivance to accentuate a lyrical celebration of an indomitable human spirit. Throwing all consistency, reason, logic, and plausibility to the winds, he proceeds to rhapsodize on the power of the human will to subdue fate. Throughout the extended panegyric, he substitutes oracular declamations for demonstration. His brazen contradictions and non sequiturs might shame an undergraduate. Rather than address the real issues relating to free will and determinism–whether thought is material, what constitutes a “cause,” whether volitions must have causes and, if so, whether we can influence the causes–Emerson merely reiterates his conviction that freedom and fate coexist.

He delivers evasive paradoxes about compelled freedom and malleable necessity: “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.” And the inscrutable: “He who sees through the design presides over it, and must will that which must be. We sit and rule, and, though we sleep, our dreams will come to pass.”

Late in the essay, as if illuminated anew or oblivious to his earlier remarks, he startlingly abandons his claim for freedom and begins to extol inalterable necessity, now no longer menacing, but cosmically nurturing and beatific. Vanished are the “odious facts” necessary, he said earlier, to a true picture of life: “Let us build altars to the blessed unity which holds nature and souls in perfect solution, and compels every atom to serve an universal end…. The indwelling necessity plants the rose of beauty on the brow of chaos, and discloses the central intention of nature to be harmony and joy.” Those who persist in finding the facts odious must console themselves with the thought that their suffering benefits the cosmos: “The victim of his fate is to rally on his relation to the Universe, which his ruin benefits. Leaving the daemon who suffers, he is to take sides with the Deity who secures universal benefit by his pain.” Like Nietzsche, his dark-side, secular avatar, Emerson was unperturbed by the fate of the folk: “In certain men digestion and sex absorb the vital force, and the stronger these are, the individual is so much the weaker. The more of these drones perish the better.”

Since Emerson was adept at translating misery into a new tongue, everywhere he turned he found reassuring intimations of the Over-Soul. These confirmed his native optimism and nineteenth-century vision of progress: “No statement of the Universe can have any soundness which does not admit its ascending effort. The direction of the whole and of the parts is toward benefit.” Nature’s blood baths are transmuted into a miraculous alchemy of purification: “The whole circle of animal life–tooth against tooth, devouring war, war for food, a yelp of pain and a grunt of triumph, until at last the whole menagerie, the whole chemical mass is mellowed and refined for higher use–pleases at a sufficient perspective.”

To a sadist, perhaps. Emerson’s indefatigable yeasaying invites wry retorts because he wraps himself in the garb of rational discourse without honoring its spirit. He parades his own feelings and desires as universal truths. The problem with the approach is spelled out by Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy: “There are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.”

Like most Romantics, Emerson believed in a universal language of hearts. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,” he said, “is genius.” Had he eavesdropped on the hearts of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgeway (the Green River killer), and kindred monsters, he might have qualified his affirmations or at least had his hearing checked. Whether a dose of cynicism would have ministered to his ill reasoning, I shall not venture a guess. Fortunately for Emerson, many readers don’t require–or even want–mystic seers to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.