Sunday, 17 April 2011

Firkins on Emerson


From Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Oscar W Firkins, 1915


The secret of Emerson may be conveyed in one word, the superlative, even the superhuman, value which he found in the unit of experience, the direct, momentary, individual act of consciousness. This is the centre from which the man radiates; it begets all and explains all.

He may be defined as an experiment made by nature in the raising of the single perception or impression to a hitherto unimaginable value.


...the theory of the conduct of life is plain.

Life is a quest of thoughts, a pursuit of inspirations.

Beside these ends, land and goods and house and fame are nothing, and wife and child may count themselves lucky if they escape relegation to the class of baggage.

...for Emerson all values, even truth-values, are experimental; nothing counts that is not enjoyable, consumable, digestible; even knowledge is either nutriment or refuse.


Life is subjective, life is internal.

Receptiveness is the normal and happy state and conduct is instrumental to reception.


If the single experience is to be uniformly exalted, the universe must be cleared of evil; the grossest act or heaviest calamity must be viewed as the stammering of the divine power in its first untrained efforts to articulate.

Love, also, must be removed from individuals and concentrated on universal powers, if its riches are to be continuously available as the ornament and sustenance of life.

So, again, with the virtues. To give the moment its acme of exaltation, virtue must be viewed not in its special or partial aspect as justice, benevolence or fortitude, but in its supreme and pervasive aspect as the outcome and expression of the divine mind.

The whole philosophy contributes to the ascension and irradiation of the moment."



Firkins' masterly compression of Emerson's masterly exposition of the philosophy of the moment is not - nowadays - distinctively Emersonian, but mainstream in the thought of the 'spiritual but not religious', New Age mode among the intellectual elites of the West.

This has been an expanding line of thought from the beginning of the industrial revolution and through the decline of Christianity among the elite (Emerson got it (selectively) from the Romantics and Transcendental philosophers - the difference being that for Emerson it was primary and primarily a matter of conduct).

For Emerson, the journal, a collection of such epiphanic moments, was the primary mode of literary production - from which all others (lectures, essays, poems) were derived.


To live consistently by the philosophy of the moment - which Emerson did only very intermittently, since he functioned as a respectable and industrious patriarch - would be the act of a conscienceless psychopath: a parasite at best and perhaps something much worse.

But that is mere name-calling - what is wrong with this philosophy is that it is self-refuting: a self-conscious celebration of un-self-conscious life: an intellectuals abstract reflection upon the unreflective animism of the child or tribesman.

The intellectual takes his best moments, his moments of animistic connection, of bliss; and constructs from them (or tries to construct) his life: these moments are (presumably) to be held in mind, in memory, and used as a background to the mundane - or at least as a holiday from the mundane.

But the act of identifying, collecting, reflecting upon these moments is itself a movement away from them; a movement into abstraction.

So that life is an oscillation; what is worse an oscillation in which the meaningless predominates.


But then, why continue to live?

If life is about the moment, best it is perhaps to die during the absolute moment - rather than trying (and mostly failing) to capture more such moments.

Indeed, if each moment - properly appreciated - is all; then why should we spend our efforts in trying to accumulate such pearls; why try to make life a continuous chain of pearls if a single pearl contains everything?

And yet life goes on.


Hence the Emersonian life contains meaning but no purpose; and its meaning is (or ought to be) once for all - except for the deficiencies of the human mind - of memory - or the limitations of circumstance.

So, even regarded strictly on its own terms (and leaving aside its incompatibility with Christian truth), the Emersonian life is impossible, paradoxical, un-liveable.

Yet at the same time it captures - magnificently, a partial truth: that every moment potentially contains eternity.

Humans glimpse this partial truth, but for creatures such as we are, living in time, this truth is properly subordinate.




SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,

Firkin’s attempt to formulate a uniting principle to Emerson’s diverse oevre is clever, but incomplete, and obviously comes from his own preconceived opinion about life and reality.
I think the penultimate sentence of your quotation gets nearest to one of Emerson’s guiding principles.
This is the view of the universe as an expression of the Divine, and of the individual as a microcosm through which the Divine qualities can, with a fair wind, most purely express themselves.
This contrasts (and we must understand the historical situation in which this sensitive soul found himself, where the alternatives were cruel Calvinism, anodyne Unitarianism, or atheistic materialism) with the purely historical view of Christianity prevalent in Boston in the early 19th century.
It is a little known fact that the expression ‘God is dead’, usually attributed to Nietzche, who was an avid reader of Emerson’s Essays, originated in Emerson’s 1836 (?) Divinity School Address, wherein he told the fledgling pastors he was addressing that God was at that time worshipped AS IF he had died 1900 years before and as if nothing divine had happened since.
Emerson’s message was that the Divine is alive now, could be connected with in the immediate present, and had power to enthuse our conduct. He said that if these young men could not take such a message out to their flocks the church would die, was already dying, and so indeed it has largely turned out.
It was a message to balance the sterile worship of a memory, as opposed to a living presence.

Bruce Charlton said...

SoM - this post was by way of an 'answer' (or a response) to your comments on the previous Emerson post.

Have you read Firkins? It is probably the best book I have read on Emerson (and I have read a lot!)

I like your portrayal of the options facing Emerson - and I think it is accurate.

This, presumably, is why four major international religions were founded in the USA around Emerson's lifetime (Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists).

However, while his critique of existing Christianity (as he knew of it) was accurate, his solution was not coherent and was ultimately harmful (to others, if not to himself).

As you know, I think the fullness of Christianity can only be found in the Orthodox Church - in particular the mysticism which was so lacking in the versions known to Emerson.

Yet although necessary for some people (myself for instance, as well as Emerson) - mysticism as such is extremely hazardous (leading almost inevitably to spiritual pride) - so going it alone is not really an option.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
I am largely in accord with what you say, and have ordered the Firkins book.
In fact, I point out in my own book on Emerson that one of the main causes of the glass ceiling Emerson encountered after he had written the First Series of Essays was the fact that he could find no teacher or authoritative tradition capable of taking him beyond himself. He makes it clear in his journals that he was consciously looking for such a teacher, especially during his first European trip in the early 1830s.
By the way, I have just discovered that a talk I gave on Emerson about ten years ago at the Concord Museum is still extant on the C Span TV channel website. In case you are interested, the url is:
Just scan down the left hand sidebar till you come to ‘David Stollar, Emerson Biographer’.
This talk dwells mainly on the place of Emerson in the history of his nation. The following day I spoke on his ideas, but that talk was not recorded.