With only two sections in NATURE to go — and a very short one entitled “Spirit” on tap for today — it’s tempting to finish up this book now and move on to THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. I’m not going to do that because Emerson’s final section, “Prospects,” rivals “Idealism” (which I covered yesterday) for complexity and density. So instead, I’m going to take stock of NATURE up to this point and set up tomorrow’s conclusion.
NATURE has surprised me. I didn’t expect the piece to be so difficult — and I didn’t expect some of my essays to turn into exegesis. Yesterday’s essay, in particular, had to go deep because it took multiple readings for me to gain a grasp of the material. I knew when I started with Emerson that I’d find shadows of Montaigne, Bacon, Shakespeare and Kant in his work and knew how much he inspired Whitman, Nietzsche and Thoreau, but I wasn’t prepared for how much Emerson anticipated 20th Century philosophy, including Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
A little reading yesterday brought to my attention voluminous writing from Stanley Cavell on these connections. That interested me, because Cavell was a mentor to director Terrence Malick, whose film THE TREE OF LIFE was the subject of my first Emerson essay. That seems like validation to me and I was tempted to dig a little deeper, but then I remembered Emerson’s opening call. To seek out second-hand interpretations is the most un-Emerson path a reader can take.
Similarly, I advise anyone reading my essays to understand what they are and what they are not. I am not attempting to uncover Emerson for anyone but myself. If what I write piques your interest, the logical next step is for you to read Emerson and make your own discoveries.
These essays — and those in the Montaigne Project — aren’t literary criticism. I can’t quite explain what I’m attempting to do in these posts, but I think Nietzsche comes close to capturing it in BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL:
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.
I make no claim to be producing great philosophy on these pages (anyone with analytic philosophical training no doubt dismisses these essays as not-philosophy, although Nietzsche would scold me for these statement — he loathed modesty.) But I do believe that I’m creating something of a memoir in these projects. These essays are the best reflection I can capture of my day to day thoughts. These are the issues that haunt me, these are the other works that seem related to the subject and, from time to time, I drop in experience from my life to illuminate my statements. I don’t write about my life much because I simply don’t think about it very often.
Which brings me to “Spirit” and the greatest difficulty that I’m having with NATURE — I’m not a man of faith. I find Emerson’s take on religion fascinating and in some ways appealing, but at times it all appears like a massive rationalization for avoiding atheism. If we define God down to the point where the Divine is a process and a mood, haven’t we actually killed Him? If we make God contingent on the natural laws of science, don’t we make his existence contingent on future scientific discovery?
By contrast, I find Kierkegaard’s view of religion much more logical — you cannot make a rational claim for God, you simply have to take the leap of faith. There are limits to our understanding of the universe, there are mysteries not only before our eyes, but in the quantum mechanics of life and in the dark matter of space. And the more we know about the world, the less rational claims for God become. At this time, a scientifically plausible definition of God would be a Creator who set off the evolutionary and entropic processes of our universe (and perhaps others), then walked away and let them grow at will. That universe as petri dish approach would suggest that we’re mere microbes in the eyes of God. Which only raises more questions — like why a Deity capable of creating life would bother experimenting with it, unless there are multiple bored Deities competing to see who can grow the most disgusting mold in their celestial dorm room.
This view, of course, falls right into the anthropomorphic trap, defining God with human motives. We can’t escape an understanding of God that excludes us as creations in his image. Any God that doesn’t create us in his image becomes unknowable and irrelevant to our lives … and any “plan” of this God would no more include us than we would include the well being of dust mites in our day-to-day thinking.
Emerson is on to this, even if he cannot let go of his convoluted faith. He writes:
We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages.
But just when I’m about to become discouraged in Emerson’s thinking, he throws out this glorious twisted metaphor of God:
Idealism saith: matter is a phenomenon, not a substance. Idealism acquaints us with the total disparity between the evidence of our own being and the evidence of the world’s being. The one is perfect; the other, incapable of any assurance; the mind is a part of the nature of things; the world is a divine dream, from which we may presently awake to the glories and certainties of day. Idealism is a hypothesis to account for nature by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry.
The most memorable line is the one about the divine dream, but I didn’t want to isolate the sentence because everything around it is important. The part about idealism is what Emerson covered in the last section, but it’s condensed and clarified beautifully here. Matter is a phenomenon, not a substance. Everything in the universe is in a state of flux, decay and transformation. Heraclitus has been translated many ways, but I prefer this one because it sounds most like The Dude in BIG LEBOWSKI:
Everything flows and nothing abides.
Or, you can’t step into the same river twice. There is still water and silt in the stream, but not the same water and silt. The mind is part of the nature of things, so it too is subject to error and entropy … but also to radical discovery and transformation. You can’t really know anyone, yourself included. As Nietzsche and Freud will tell us later, you can’t really know why you took any action in life, you can only guess and rationalize, fitting the past into an accepted narrative definition.
Then we get the amazing “divine dream” metaphor. We are accustomed to waking from various human dreams, finding enlightenment, ovecoming misconceptions. But here Emerson completely turns the metaphor on its head. It’s in our day-to-day understanding of the world, our relation to Dasein to use the language of Heidegger, that we exist in God’s grace, the Holy conception of the world. If it had ended there, the line would be profound. But it keeps finding greater depth, because we have the ability to awaken from this graceful dream and discover reality, the glories and certainties of the day.
Going back to my MATRIX analogy, what Emerson is saying here is that the MATRIX is God’s grace. It’s God’s dream that we live in and we have been given the gift of walking around in it. But, at the same time, we have the freedom to step out of this dream and if we choose to do so, we can discover the beauty of reality. This is a highly Gnostic way of thinking. We can become enlightened higher versions of humans who can see the world as it is. Like the Gnostics and later Kierkegaard, Emerson believes that this enlightenment can come from flashes of faith, but he also believes that it can come from a deep understanding of science or a poetic view of life.
The quote closes with a line that proposes idealism as an alternate theory to “carpentry and chemistry.” Maybe I’m way off base here, but I read that to mean that Emerson is pre-dating Darwin with an alternative theory of Creation. He doesn’t explicitly state the alternative, but he shows remarkable insight in sensing that a scientific theory is out there, waiting to be discovered.
Again, this is just my reading of Emerson, dependent on my personal thoughts and biases. As this chapter unfolds, it’s clear that Emerson never intends to walk away from God. To me, though, this God that he describes can be substituted with the phrase natural universe and would lose nothing in translation. Take this quote for example:
The Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws at his need inexhaustible power.
Going back to my earlier thought about the anthropomorphic trap, Emerson understands this as well, which is why he wants us to find an original view of God, not dependent on history:
We are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine.
How do we escape this trap? Through science and poetry, we find a way to clear the earth of human buzzing and see the world as it really exists:
You cannot freely admire a noble landscape if laborers are digging in the field hard by. The poet finds something ridiculous in his delight until he is out of the sight of men.
All of this sets up the final section tomorrow, where Emerson attempts to obliterate Aristotle with originality and intuition.