The Philosophical Idealism of Emerson


Bakewell, Charles M. “The Philosophy of Emerson.” The Philosophical Review 12, no. 5 (1903): 525. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176675


IF to be a philosopher means to have a closely reasoned system of metaphysics, then doubtless Emerson was not a philosopher. But there is a far more general, and equally valid, sense in which we use the term philosophy, where it simply implies an attitude, whether reasoned, intuitive, or instinctive, toward life as a whole. For the most part, men spend their days in an abstract, and proportionately unreal world. Never was this truer than in these days of rigid specialization, and of none is it truer now than of those who pride themselves most on their close adherence to facts, and their freedom from all illusions; who thank God they are not as other men are or even as these idealists. We get habituated to our little private compartments and are apt to forget that into them only so much of truth comes as can filter through those particular lenses namely, our highly specialized points of view with which our private compartments are fitted out. I need not elaborate the point. We all know how lawyer, physician, merchant, politician, man-of the world, scientist, each, and all tend to settle down into the exclusive contemplation of life from the point of view of their special vocation. Yet, as human, man is always more than scientist, or lawyer, or merchant; and, if fully awake, feels the need of going visiting in his neighbors' compartments (as Goethe represents the babes in heaven borrowing successively the eyes of those who have seen to advantage here on earth); feels the need of rising above the limits of his private, compartmental points of view, and of endeavoring to get nearer to the world in its concrete variety and richness, that he may see things in the light of the whole. And whether a man deliberately and consciously seek this larger vision or not, none, or less, in his practical life, does he in effect adopt an attitude toward life as a whole. He shows in his conduct that there are certain things which he regards as of supreme importance, in the light of which all other things get their relative worth. In this sense it may be said that everyone is a philosopher. But, inasmuch as most men are such more or less instinctively and unconsciously, they have no firm grasp on their philosophy, and are apt to have as many philosophies as they have moods.


When we speak of the philosophy of a poet, we have in mind that attitude toward life as a whole which is the expression of his dominant, and more or less persistently dominant, mood. If he be a great poet, he is successful in presenting the things his genius touches upon in the light of the whole. Afterward, coldblooded philosophers, analyzing, distinguishing, reasoning, articulating, systematizing, may seek to raise to the level of scientific and demonstrative certainty the substance of the poet's vision, eliminating the errors, making sure the gains.


As in science there are certain workers gifted with a particularly strong and happy imagination, who leap beyond the facts in some large and daring generalization which after-workers by the score must test and verify, correct or discard; so in this effort of man to transcend the limits of any and all the special sciences, of any and all private limited points of view, and see things veritably in the light of the whole, the poet, his " eye in a fine frenzy rolling," o'erleaps the results of plodding reason, that he may paint the thing as he sees it. He deigns not to argue; he simply trusts to the immediate response in the sympathetically vibrating intelligence of him who hears. If, however, he be a great poet, he also paints for the " God of things as they are."


And philosophy, the after-thinking of poetry, may fix the gains the poet has made, trace them in all their ramifications, organize and make definite the vision, help to weave it into the fabric of civilization, and thus prepare the way for the larger vision of the greater poet to be.


I am well aware that this is not the popular view. The theory that holds sway in our generation at least, if we are to judge by noise and numbers, is one of thorough sensualism: art has nothing to do with ideas, least of all with philosophic ideas, its aim being simply to please. Yet, as a matter of fact, no serious-minded person ever quite lives down to such a view. It is rather true, as our own Sill wrote, that "All great literature dips continually into the underlying current of philosophical thought and ethical feeling. . .. Take, for instance, In Memoriam. You may discuss its rhythm, its epithets, metaphors, felicities, and infelicities as art you are still on the surface of it. The fact is that a thinking man has put a good lot of his views of things in general into it, and those views and his feelings about them are precisely the literature there is in the thing."


Certainly, this was Emerson's view. Philosophy and poetry were for him most intimately related, the latter seeking ever to reveal the beauty of truth, the former to make plain the truth of beauty. Yes, Emerson even held that the poets were to be the true philosophers of the future. He had a certain distrust of reasoning that did not culminate in poetry. For the poets alone are free to keep all doors open for light; they alone reflect truth in all its many-sidedness; they alone are not committed to their own past. This is the meaning of Emerson's distrust of consistency, the "foolish consistency." Do not feel bound by your past outworn insights; utter the vision of the present moment; do not try to make it tally with last year's vision; do the best you know now; don't bother to reconcile it with what you have done. People are sure to misunderstand you, but what of that? The man who is real, who is fully alive, has no time to be explaining himself. The only explanation he can offer is in his best present vision, in his best present action; he must be ever forging ahead. If he be but true to himself in every moment, honest and sincere, why, somehow, the different shreds and patches of his work will fall together and reveal the pattern that will be the consistent revelation of the character he is, and, therefore, of the message he owes the world, and the only message he has to give the world.


As I read Emerson's Essays and Poems with a view to his philosophy, I find that philosophy expressed in the continual iteration of three cardinal points. The first, which made inevitable his break with his church, and marked his entrance into philosophy, is an abiding sense of the contrariety among all finite expressions of truth, all finite efforts to realize the ideal. Truth is too large to be compressed into any formula of the understanding. No sooner have we succeeded in compacting the truth that hovers before the mind's eye into a neat word package than we find that we have advanced beyond. Once more we are busy modifying, emending, enlarging that expression, groping after the larger insight that just eludes our grasp, but ever entices us onward. This is one of the curious contradictions of reasoning. We can only think clearly insofar as we succeed in making our notions definite and clear cut; yet that very definiteness and clearness seems to be won by sacrificing other aspects of the same truth that we are trying to express. The letter will always kill. Thought tends to crystallize in the phrase, and the phrase is then substituted for the thought becomes dogma, convention, tradition, which are other words for idol. But the free spirit is a ruthless iconoclast and will rise on stepping-stones of its dead selves to the higher vision.


As with thought, so it is with action. The looked-for satisfaction never comes in any deed, nor in any outward circumstance. "The fiend that us harries is love of the best." The stagnation of life, the arrested development of character, is marked whenever the soul would settle down in the comfortable possession of neat cut and dried rules of action, or formulas of truth. Vain delusion. These things will surely imprison and possess and kill that soul.


This insight explains at once Emerson's hostility to the older orthodoxy with its definite dogmas and pretended finality, and also his opposition to the earlier deistic Unitarianism, which, with its equally final, definite, clear-cut formulas, differed from the older orthodoxy mainly in being more shallow and barren; and this also accounts for his contempt for all worshippers of convention. His life was a continual protest against all efforts to make the living soul feed on its dead past. This view Emerson has summed up in his poem entitled Uriel:


"Line in nature is not found.

Unit and Universe are round.

In vain produced, all rays will turn.

Evil will bless and ice will burn."


The poet then goes on to describe the consternation that Uriel's discovery caused in the "Holy festival:" How the "Stern old war gods shook their heads, “their occupation is certainly gone if a line cannot be drawn and how the "Seraphs frowned from their myrtle beds." This truth always comes as a saddening discovery to the indolently inclined, who would like to dally an eternity away lounging on myrtle beds. There is no rest for the weary; one can never say, "It is finished"; every end is a beginning; every summit attained does but reveal a higher summit, beckoning one on, and one must struggle forward or die. This view is also a rock of offense to the stubborn, hard-headed disciple of the word; and it is evidence of signal impiety to the mind of the fervent social or religious fanatic, on fire to reform the world by forcing it to take in unlimited doses his particular nostrum.


To Emerson, however, this insight simply meant emancipation from fear. It was the light that banished the demon of darkness from the world. Nature became at a stroke smiling, friendly, sane, and reasonable God's world through and through, and man's. To him it was the revelation at once of the infinite character of the human soul, and of the human character of the infinite universe. The old Greek joy in nature, calm and untrammeled, revived in him, and brought the seer of Concord that serenity and poise of mind which was ever one of his most pronounced traits of character.


The second point has already been indicated: the friendliness of nature. Nature is through and through ideal. Matter is but the living garment of spirit, the laws of matter but spirit's utterance of itself. And because this nature is intelligible to man, can be comprehended, owned, directed, and controlled by him, the spirit that utters itself therein is one and the same with the spirit that reveals itself in his thought and aspirations. "Nil humani mihi alienum" Emerson would erase the humani as being tautologous; for there is nothing in the wide world that is not human. Everything is fraught with meaning, which is the same as saying, everything is tinged and tinctured with mind; for meaning is certainly meaningless save in the presence of mind.


Emerson discusses idealism in one of his works. The discussion takes the form of a quasi-argument. It is very brief- occupies only a few pages; and he fairly apologizes for making it so long. The fact is, Emerson was a born idealist; the burden of proof, he assumes, always to rest on the man who would deny anything so perfectly obvious. In the world in which he daily lives, serene, upon the heights, spirit is the only absolute reality; all things are real only insofar as they can be read as the messages of spirit. The real is ever the ideal. In the discussion just alluded to, Emerson tells us that growth in culture makes idealism inevitable: First, there are the common experiences of everyday life which show how all things in nature are unstable, how they completely change with our shifting point of view. Compared with things, the mind, the seat of ideas, is fixed and permanent. Or again, he argues from the power of the poet to make nature plastic in the service of the ideal. Or, he appeals to the arguments of the philosophers which show that what we actually encounter in experience is not self-subsistent matter, but phenomena only, appearances within conscious experience. Finally, he reads the moral and religious experiences of mankind as one long record of triumphant spirit.


In his poem entitled Experience, he has given expression to this view. After speaking of the "lords of life" to whom we are all wont to bow down "use" and “surprise," "surface and dream," "succession swift and spectral wrong," "temperament without a tongue," and e'en the "inventor of the game omnipresent without name" - he goes on to describe how


"Little man, least of all,

Among the legs of his guardians tall,

Walked about with puzzled look;

Him by the hand dear Nature took;

Dearest Nature, strong and kind,

Whispered, 'Darling, never mind!

To-morrow they will wear another face,

The founder thou! these are thy race!'"


For the rest, Emerson's idealism remains vague, many-sided, if you will. In one place he writes: "Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one." In another passage, he declares that the soul is not organ, nor function; "Not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie an immensity not possessed, and that cannot be possessed." This is sheer mysticism, expressed with all the assurance given by immediate experience. To the man of the world, sunk in sense, who places chief value on events, honors, things, circumstances, such expressions must remain foolishness, but the seer is untroubled; he knows, for he has seen, has been near to the centre of reality, and his scale of values has been adjusted to his vision there.


Just at this point the philosophy seems in danger of becoming a blighting pantheism. One has, indeed, been awakened from the nightmare view of materialism into the living, throbbing world of purpose, of beauty, and of truth, where experience ever reveals, under whatever disguise, only spirit answering unto spirit. But, alas! it would seem, only to find that it is always the self-same universal spirit one encounters, of which we, these finite struggling individuals, are but transient modes mere fragments, blindly playing His game, and fancying ourselves tube real and free, working out our own purposes.

Much that Emerson says points this way. “The world runs round, and the world runs well"(Sill) Yes, so very well. Why should we fish ourselves to make it any better? From the point of view of the Universal Spirit the harmony is always there. The discord only seems to be. Whatever we may do or may not do, God's will be being accomplished. Does not such a view threaten paralysis of the will quite as much as the direst materialism? And was it not, after all, Emerson who said: " When I see a man all fire and fury for a certain reform, I feel like stopping him and saying: 'Why so hot, little man?'"


Emerson's pantheistic optimism is certainly the most vulnerable point in his philosophy. Emerson has been called the "Unfallen man"; and in truth he never seems to have had any vivid appreciation of the heinousness of sin, or of the bitter anguish that may overtake the soul. He was what Professor James calls a "once-born soul." To many this must give a touch of unreality to his vision. There seems to be for him no real problem of evil. The world spirit with whom he ever dwells is too much like the Epicurean gods:


"The gods who haunt the lucid interspace of sphere on sphere,

Where never sound of human sorrow mounts to mar

Their sacred everlasting calm."


When, however, Emerson reaches this point, he suddenly faces about. His generations of protestant ancestry, his puritan conscience, his modern love of liberty assert themselves. He avails himself of the poet's license to picture the different phases of truth, troubling not over-much about their logical consistency. And this brings me to the third point in Emerson's philosophy, his ethical idealism. We find him now preaching the sovereignty of ethics; emphasizing heroism, self-reliance, character; proclaiming the gospel of individualism, an individualism uncompromising enough to satisfy the most ardent of the eighteenth-century apostles of enlightenment. Every individual, he tells us, is unique. Each has a message which he, and he alone, can give, which the world needs, and which he owes to his fellowmen. Emerson recognizes the difficulty of reconciling this truth with his view of the absolute unity of the spiritual world, but is nonetheless sure that both views are somehow true, and that, as soul is supreme over matter, so the individual soul is, or may be, supreme in its world. All that is necessary is that man stand forth boldly for himself; do what his own peculiar capacities best fit him for doing; honestly, frankly, and steadfastly be himself. Most of our institutions and conventions seem expressly devised to make men insincere, to crush out individuality, and reduce alto the same mound. Hence Emerson's opposition to convention, tradition, dogma, authority. It is, of course, easier to lean upon others than to stand erect. But what the world needs is men of character. Most men will do anything rather than be themselves. In place of reporting the truth as they see it with their own eyes, they would rather tell the opinion that someone else holds of what someone else has recorded that someone else saw and held for truth. A lazy, pleasure-seeking age always finds already welcome for such weak-kneed conformists. They are not troublesome; they bear a definite well-known brand. The man who strays from the broad and beaten paths disturbs our reckoning, makes necessary new computations. Yet the world has need of such men. It is the great dissenters that have made the world move onward and upward; and the great dissenters have simply been the men who have given new readings of the world’s meaning by honestly, and fearlessly, and in all humility reporting what their inmost soul beheld when face to face with reality. The Great Spirit freely communes with every honest, every real self. In every such soul God is revealed anew. Suffering and disappointment may, from the worldly point of view, be the lot of such honest men, but never from their own. For they do not measure success by events, by outward circumstance, but by thinner wealth of the soul. No truth is plainer than that a man can rise superior to circumstances. We hear a great deal of environment, circumstance, temperament, as if these things were our masters. The man that has once truly and genuinely lived can laugh at these fears. He knows they are but shadows of the mind's own throwing. Your environment is not yours without your own cooperation, circumstances may all be mastered, temperament is the start, not the finish of life. You may indeed play the part of a thing, and then you will be mastered by things; but you need not. You may, if you will, be free. Character is yours if you will only have it so.


One of the most striking things about Emerson is the way in which he anticipated the practical wisdom of the present day. Take such a passage as the following from the essay on Experience: "Life is not dialectics. . .. Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve. . .. Objections and criticisms, we have our fill of. There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency from the omnipresence of objection. . .. Do not craze yourself with thinking but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. ... To fill the hour that is happiness; to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval. ... To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, that is wisdom. . ..Men live in a tempest of fancies, and the only ballast I know disrespect for the present hour." Those words might have been written yesterday by our chief exponent of the strenuous life. Let one dip into the practical essays almost anywhere; it is like giving the soul a cold plunge in the crystal springs of virtue. One returns to the fray all aglow with consciousness of power, and feeling, as Emerson's poet did, that "the world is virgins oil; all is practicable; the men are ready for virtue; it is always time to do right."


The real secret, however, of Emerson's hold at the present hour is to be found in the fact that he voices the aspirations of our western civilization taken at its best. That is why we like to honor ourselves by styling him " the true American philosopher, “or " the philosopher of democracy." Certain it is that we as a people are not held together by any ties of blood by our vaunted Anglo-Saxon ancestry but by a common ideal. It is the task of philosophy to give precise and adequate expression to that idea; it was the virtue of Emerson to bring into sharp relief many of its essential moments : a wholesome, whole-souled joy in life, an unfaltering optimism, a generous idealism; a trust in the absolute freedom and integrity of the individual, based on his infinite worthiness; a firm belief in the lawful boundlessness of his aspirations, and the real boundlessness of his opportunities, since he may dominate, and need not be dominated by, circumstances; a steadfast conviction, not that every human unit counts for one and no one for more than one, as the pseudo-democratic phrase runs, but rather that every man counts, or might count, for all, if he but thoroughly comprehended himself and that, too, although there is another aspect of the truth which with equal insistence maintains that every individual is unique; a willingness honestly to take the responsibility for one's own shortcomings, to recognize the clear call to " be a brave and upright man who must find or cut a straight path to everything excellent on the earth," and to count it shame to try to shift the blame for one’s failure to God or to nature or to one's fellow men; the belief that any reform that is to be of any real value must be addressed primarily to the inner man, to the spirit rather than to the surroundings of the body, the belief that has led to our trust in the efficiency of popular education; and, finally, in the line of conduct, the revolt against all forms of ascetic morality, all morbid broodings of conscience, and the substitution of the sturdy virile attitude that looks into the past only long enough to gather up its lessons and then directs itself wholly to the present in the light of the future, that is impatient of introspection and the super subtle analysis of motives as clogging action.


And while it is true that the poet will always lead and the philosopher follow, there is no reason why philosophy should lag as far behind as it frequently does. It is the sad truth that many of the reigning systems of philosophy are far better interpreters of a long-departed day than of modern life, for they manage to belittle or explain away much that is essential in modern civilization. The philosophy that would truly interpret the spirit of the present time must make ample provision for all its distinctive, positive, virile, individualistic strains, that Emerson appreciated so keenly ; and until it succeeds in doing so the wide-awake world of to-day will pay scant heed to the philosophers.


These, then, are the three chief phases of Emerson's philosophical attitude: (1) The inadequacy of every finite form of expression to reveal the fullness of truth, the inadequacy of every finite deed fully to realize the aspiration of the soul, the manifoldness of truth and the infinity of the soul; (2) the supreme and sole absolute reality of spirit; and (3) the absolute freedom and integrity of the individual human self, the sovereign worth of character. Through the first his vision gains breadth, through the second depth, while through the third his message acquires its profound moral earnestness.

It would be as easy as it would be gratuitous to criticize Emerson’s philosophy because he has not with faultless logic established these positions, because he has not woven them together by any definite method into a coherent system of truth. For he did not attempt to do this; and, in spite of the fact that certain portions of his writings wear a quasi-syllogistic garb, his standpoints throughout that of the seer and poet, who does but report the several phases of his inward vision, letting their union into the congruent whole take care of itself. Indeed, one feels almost like apologizing for trying to single out and give formal expression to the definite threads of meaning that run throughout his works, as if even that much analysis were a sort of murderous vivisection of the truth. Having yielded, however, to the temptation and made the attempt, one is forced to admit that Emerson introduced no essential modification of philosophical doctrine, made no original contribution to the solution of philosophy’s most perplexing problems. Yet, notwithstanding this, he has done yeoman's service in the cause of philosophy merely by making to prevail a certain philosophic posture and habit of mind. More than any other writer Emerson knew how to create the atmosphere of philosophy, so that men in reading him find their idealism voicing itself all unawares. What he says comes straight from the shoulder and strikes home. And although one would never turn to him for the baser materials of which systems are constructed, his writings will always remain the precious diamond mines of philosophy and ethics. Philosophers of the chair are apt to think too lightly of the service rendered their cause by the more direct method of the poet. His welding vision itis that makes the contact between philosophy's issues and the daily business of life, and out of the materials of past philosophies fashions the prophecy of the future.


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