Monday, February 14, 2011

Emerson "The Transcendentalist" Part II Valentine's Day

Emerson continues that "the whole of ethics" follows from his idealist philosophy, his basic ethics being that one should be "self-dependent" which is to say that "the deity of man is to be self-sustained" and "society is good when it does not violate me."  I find some clarification of this in the following sentence: "All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought...." which is to say that reality is the inner you, which is divine and in fact is God.  This seems to entail an extreme version of belief in free will: "You think me the child of my circumstances:  I make my circumstances."  I change things with my thoughts.  "Jesus [being an example of a genius in the Idealist sense] acted so, because he thought so."  But, he argues, where I come from is something transcendent, a Fact "which cannot be spoken, or defined, or even thought, but which exists."  This leads, again, to belief in miracles, which seems to be defined as "the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influex of light and power" i.e. inspiration, the "spiritual measure of the inspiration" being "the depth of the thought" and not who said it.  That is, we should not concern ourselves with whether it was said by some great religious leader. The ethical position seems to be that although one is not an antinomialist (someone who believes that existing laws do not apply to oneself) one is free to break any law for a higher reason, for example lie as Desdemonda did or pluck corn on the Sabbath if one is hungry.  In this respect, Emerson believes that the Buddhist and the Transcendentalist are one, both being "grand and daring in human thought."  And yet, Emerson insists, no one has really achieved this goal: no one has lived "a purely spiritual life" in the sense of leaning entirely on their own character, although he does see the "lower animals" as living unconsciously in this way.  The idea is somewhat like the Chinese (both Confucian and Daoist) idea of the dao:  if you follow the dao you will be provided for as if by magic. I like to interpret this in a more secular way as that if you achieve a high state of harmony within yourself, through intense work on some project for example, then your surrounding environment will naturally collaborate. Emerson's whole philosophy is almost summarized in the following sentence:  "Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow."  There is a kind of unconscious taking over that happens when you find your true self.

This is all just leading up to what I want to say about this essay which is that it does give us an approach to a specific sort of thing not usually discussed in aesthetics books, i.e. the aesthetic qualities of a person.  The key idea of this essay is the notion of the beautiful person generally, and of the transcendentalist as a specific type of beautiful person.  And what I find myself thinking as I read through this essay is who are the beautiful persons in my life, and how little we search for beautiful persons today or guide our lives by apprehension of personal beauty.  I find myself thinking of George Washington and all his admirable traits:  someone who was seen as a beautiful person in his own time.  We have lost the beautiful person as an ideal.  We don't even think of talking about the beautiful person.  Most people on reading this essay focus on how Emerson gets Kant wrong, and he certainly does.  He thinks that Kant believes that the important class of ideas that do not come by experience are "intuitions of the mind itself" as though he believed in intellectual intuitions, which he did not. 

There is another distraction in this essay, somelike the odd discussion of genius in Schopenhauer, where we are supposed to admire the transcendentalist who betakes himself of "a certain solitary and critical way of living" although nothing solid has come of it.  We are supposed to admire them for preferring to "ramble in the country and perish of ennui" and actually shirk work as they cry out for something worthwhile to do, and even writing an Illiad is not worthwhile enough! 

Enough with distractions.  We are back on track with "if they tell you their whole thought, they will own that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature; that there are persons whom in their hearts they deaily thank for existing....whose fame and spirit have penetrated their solitude - and for whose sake they wish to exist."(88)  What is interesting here is the very idea of basing the meaning of one's existence of the beautiful person.  "To behold the beauty of another character, which inspires a new interest in our own...these are degrees on the side of human happiness to which they have ascended."  There's a Valentine's day comment for you!  Emerson himself admits that this is an "extravagant demand...on human nature."  They see so many imperfections. 

Emerson offers a picture of this experience.  It is in the "quality of the moment."  The example is a character Xanthus who brings home one recollection from the wars, that Pericles smiled on hm. 

So Emerson emphasizes Beauty.  Referring again to the Transcendentalists, he says that they "are lovers and worshippers of Beauty" and indeed prefer Beauty to Truth and Goodness as the head of the three.  So morality is understood in terms of aesthetics.  People often think that Emerson was indifferent to the fate of African-Americans, but what he says here is that "justice which is now claimed for the for Beauty - is for a necessity to the soul of the agent, not of the beneficiary."  His idea is that justice should be grace.  The beautiful is the highest becasuse it escapes "the dowdiness of the good and the heartlessness of the true."

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