Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism

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Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism

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William Batchelder Greene, “Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism.” The American Review 1 no. 3 (March 1845): 233-243.

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MR. EMERSON AND TRANSCENDENTALISM.

 

I. PERHAPS some of our readers are still ignorant of the meaning of the term Transcendentalism. We will, for their sakes, attempt a definition. Transcendentalism is that form of Philosophy which sinks God and Nature in man. Let us explain. God, man, and nature, in their mutual and harmonious relations (if indeed the absolute God may be said ever to be in relations) are the objects of all philosophy; but, in different theories, greater or less prominence is given to one or the other of these three, and thus systems are formed. Pantheism sinks man and nature in God; Materialism sinks God and man in the universe; Transcendentalism sinks God and nature in man. In other words, some, in philosophising, take their point of departure in God alone, and are inevitably conducted to Pantheism;—others take their point of departure in nature alone, and are led to Materialism; others start with man alone, and end in Transcendentalism. It is by no means difficult to deny in words, the actual existence of the outward universe. We may say, for example, that the paper on which we write has no more outward existence than the thoughts we refrain from expressing; we may affirm that it has merely a different kind of existence within our soul. When I say I perceive an outwardly existing tree, I may be mistaken; what I call a tree may have no outward existence, but may, on the contrary, be created by my perception. Who knows that a thing which appears red to me may not appear blue to my neighbor? If so, then is color something which I lend to the object. But why stop at color? Perhaps hardness and weight have no existence save that which the mind gives. Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without (says Mr. Emerson), or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.” “What differs it to me (he asks on another page) whether Orion be up there in heaven, or some god paint the image in the firmament of the soul?”

Fabre d’Olivet believed the outward universe to be so dependent upon the individual soul that we might properly be said to create it ourselves. He thought that we ourselves produced all forms and the world, that we might create whatever we would, isolatedly and instantaneously, and hoped to construct a system of magic on this fact as a basis. In truth, if all outward things depend for their being and manner of existence upon ourselves, and upon our inward states, a change in those states involves a change in outward nature. If we discover, therefore, the connection of our thoughts and feelings with outward nature, the whole universe is in our power; and we may, by a modification of ourselves, change the world from its present state into what we all wish it might become. Mr. Alcott thinks the world would be what it should be were he only as holy as he should be; he also considers himself personally responsible for the obliquity of the axis of the earth. A friend once told me, while we watched the large flakes of snow as they were slowly falling, that, could we but attain to the right spiritual state, we should be able to look on outward nature, and say, “I snow, I rain.” To Mr. Emerson a noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, “whether nature outwardly exists.” In the eighth number of the Dial we find a beautiful poem touching upon this theory, from which we make an extract:—

 

“All is but as it seems

The round, green earth,

With river and glen;

The din and mirth

Of busy, busy men;

The world is great fever,

Throbbing for ever;

The creed of the sage,

The hope of the age,

All things we cherish,

All that live and all that perish,

These are but inner dreams 

 

“The great world goeth

To thy dreaming.

To thee alone

Hearts are making their moan,

Eyes are streaming.

Thine is the white moon turning night to day,

Thine is the dark wood sleeping in her ray;

Thee the winter chills;

Thee the spring time thrills;

All things nod to thee—

All things come to see

If thou art dreaming on;

If thy dream should break,

And thou shouldst awake,

All things would be gone. 

 

“Nothing is if thou art not.

Thou art under, over all;

Thou dost hold and cover all;

Thou art Atlas—Thou art Jove—

The mightiest truth

Hath all its youth

From thy enveloping thought.”

 

Thus man is made to he the only real existence, and outward nature a mere phenomenon dependent upon him. Man exists really, actually, absolutely; but nature is an accident, an appearance, a consequent upon the existence of the human soul. Thus is the universe sunk, swallowed up, in man. The concluding lines of the extract are an example of the Transcendental Theology, an example of the swallowing up of God in man.

 

“Thou art under, over all;

Thou dost hold and cover all;

Thou art Atlas—thou art Jove.”

 

Materialism makes man the result of organization, denying the existence of separate and individual souls, and thus sinks man in nature: it also identifies God with the active powers of the universe. As Pantheism sinks man and nature in God, as Materialism sinks God and man in the universe, so Transcendentalism sinks God and nature in man. It must be confessed, however, that our Transcendentalists are, by no means, consistent. Sometimes they express themselves in a way that leaves us in doubt whether they are not, at bottom, Materialists. For example, the poem from which the foregoing extracts are quoted, is followed by another, of the same author, made up of beautiful and clear statements, where, in the midst of explicit repudiations of Transcendentalism, traces of the sensual system of D’Holbach are distinctly visible. We quote a few lines:—

 

“Dost thou dream that thou art free,

Making, destroying, all that thou dust see,

In the unfettered might of thy soul’s liberty?

      Lo! an atom crushes thee,

One nerve tortures and maddens thee,

One drop of blood is death to thee.

The mighty voice of nature,

Is thy parent, not thy creature,

Is no pupil, but thy teacher;

And the world would still move on

Were thy soul forever flown.

For while thou dreamest on, enfolded

      In nature’s wide embrace,

All thy life is daily moulded

      By her informing grace.

And time and space must reign

      And rule o’er thee for ever,

And the outworld lift its chain

      From off thy spirit never.”

 

Here the soul is evidently sunk in nature; it is, to use a mathematical expression, spoken of as a function of the universe.

II. Having spoken of some of the peculiar characteristics of the Transcendental school of philosophy, we shall now take occasion to say a few words concerning its origin and progress. But here it will be necessary to speak of the philosophy of Kant, a subject not easily handled. The fundamental postulate of the philosopher of Königsberg may, however, initiate the reader into the whole system. Here it is, as near as we recollect it.

 

“If any truth he present to the mind with a conviction of its universality and necessity, that truth was derived to the mind from its own operations, and does not rest upon observation and experience:

“And, conversely, if any truth be present to the mind with a conviction of its contingency, that truth was derived to the mind from observation and experience, and not from the operations of the mind itself.”

 

For example, we know that every effect must have its cause, and this truth lies in the mind with a conviction of its universality and necessity; this truth is derived, therefore, not from observation and experience, but from the operations of the mind itself; it is born not from outward nature, but in and, from the mind itself. In other words, to pass to the technology of the Scotch School, we are forced by the very constitution of our being, to admit this truth, so that the principle of causation may be said to be a law of our intellectual natures.

On the other hand, we say, we know the sun will rise to-morrow; but we are not absolutely certain of this fact. This second truth lies therefore in our minds with a conviction of its contingency, and not of its necessity, and is, consequently, not derived from a law of our intellectual natures, but from observation and experience.

By every fact of experience a revelation is made to the soul, not only of the idea which it has appropriated to itself, but also of those conditions of the external world, and of its own nature, which rendered that acquisition possible. For example, when we perceive moonlight, it is necessary, first, that there should be something out of us to produce the effect of moonlight upon our sensibility; and also, second, certain internal faculties which are receptive of the influences of moonlight. Without the outward object there is no perception, and without the inward faculties there is likewise no perception; for the moon shines upon the trees as well as upon me, but the trees do not perceive, being devoid of the perceiving faculty. Now the idea I have of moonshine might have been modified by a change either, first, in the outward object, or, second, in my perceiving faculty. Had the moonshine been different, it would have produced a different effect upon my sensibility, and, consequently, the idea would have been different. Had my perceiving power been different, the influence or effect of the moonshine would have been different, and the idea resulting would likewise have been different. All this is plain. Now the faculties of the mind are permanent, and always operate in the same manner; therefore, the truths given by the faculties, where nothing from the external world intervenes, are universal and necessary. But the outward world is always changing; therefore, the truths given by observation and experience are always contingent. Perhaps we can make this plainer by an illustration.

Our readers have undoubtedly seen machines for cutting nails; if they have not, the consequence is by no means grave, for the instrument may be easily described. A nail-machine is composed of a pair of shears, which are made to work up and down, sometimes by steam, sometimes by water-power. A man Stands before the machine and inserts the end of an iron plate between the two parts of the shears when they open—when the shears shut, they cut off a nail from this plate, and this nail depends for its size and shape upon the form of the shears—The machine is in operation. The plate is inserted, and the machine says, I perceive something hard, black, cold—what is this something I perceive Down come the shears, the nail is cut off, and rattles away into the box. Ah, ha! says the machine, I now begin to see into the mystery of those same perceptions of which I was conscious a moment ago. It was a tenpenny nail, it is long, four-sided, sharp at one end, and flat at the other. By this time the shears come down again, and the machine says, another tenpenny nail, by all that is glorious! This acquisition of knowledge is beginning to be interesting—I must know a little more of the philosophy of this business. So the machine goes on to soliloquise—Listen!

I have now, says the machine, in my experience, memory, or nailbox, several tenpenny nails., These were undoubtedly acquired from, the external world, and are all that I have as yet acquired from that world. Therefore, if aught beside tenpenny nails exist in the external world, I have no conception of such existence, and that world is, consequently, for me, a collection of tenpenny nails. The following appear, therefore, to be unvarying laws of actual existence: First, all things are long and four sided, and second, all things are sharp at one end, and flat at the other.

But stop! says the machine—let us beware of hasty inductions. An idea strikes me! About these same nails, I am not so clear that they were not formed by the concurrent action of two agents. Perhaps the material was furnished by external nature, while the form resulted from the law of my nature, the constitution of my shears, of my own nail-making being. The following conclusion, at least, cannot be shaken:—I may look upon every nail from two distinct points of view—first, as to its material, and second, as to its form; the material undoubtedly comes from without, and is variable; some nails are of brass, some are of iron; but the form is invariable, and comes from within. All my nails must belong, and four sided, and that universally and necessarily; but the material may vary, being sometimes brass, sometimes iron. This is plain; for I acquire all my nails according to the law of my nail-making being; that is, being translated from scientific into popular language, according to the form of my shears. After mature deliberation, I think I may take the following postulate as the foundation of all my ulterior philosophy.

 

“Whatever I may find in my nail-box, whether nails, or whatever else relating to nails, if I be convinced that it is what it is necessarily, and must be as it is universally, that same thing, whatever it be, was not derived to my nail-box from external nature, but finds the reason of its existence in the formation and shape of my shears.

“And, conversely, whatever I may find in that same nail-box, which is neither necessary nor universal, but variable and contingent, has its origin, and the reason of its existence, not in the formation and shape of my shears, but in the external world.”

 

Having relieved itself of this postulate, the machine continues its meditations in silence. The difference between the postulate of the nail-machine and that of the Königsberg philosopher, is by no means great. Let us use them both in endeavoring to get a clearer conception of the position of our transcendental friends. Do we not see all material objects under the relations of space? Is not space a necessary and universal form of all our sensible perceptions? But what says the postulate? The notion of space cannot come from the external world; for, if it did, it would not be attended with the conviction of universality and necessity with which it is attended. The notion of space comes then from the mind, and not at all from the outward world. (We speak as a Kantian.) Space then has no outward existence, and the supposition that it has, is the merest hypothesis imaginable. The arguments brought to prove such a position fall at once to the ground, for we have before proved that all our notion of space comes from within; and any inference from the within to the without, is utterly invalid. We may treat time in the same manner, for time is the medium in which, universally and necessarily, we perceive events. Sensible objects and events, are the iron, brass, the material of ideas—space and time are the form impressed by the shears. After all, what can we make of time and space? Simply this: time and space are the color of the intellectual spectacles through which we look on outward nature; they have no real existence, but are a distorting medium which we spread before our eyes whenever we look on the outward. (We give the Kantean statement.)

But it is impossible for any one to remain satisfied amid the skepticisms which arise from a denial of the real existence of space and time. If space and time are mere distorting media, through which we perceive outward nature, all our sensible perceptions are erroneous; and, if no new method of acquiring knowledge can be discovered, we may as well doubt of every thing. What shall we do then: This is the question asked by our Transcendentalists. The first course which presents itself to the mind is that of endeavoring to eliminate the elements of space and time from all our conceptions; but this is evidently impossible: we must, therefore, endeavor to transcend them. But how can we transcend space and time? This also is evidently impossible; and the nearest approach to such a transcendent position, is a self-deception by which we persuade ourselves that we have attained it, while we ignore every thing that tends to convince us that we are on the same standpoint with other men. The confused system of things seen from the point of view which seems to transcend space and time, gives us Transcendentalism. But why will this system sink God and nature in man? For this reason—When a man has cut himself off from every thing which is not himself, (which he must do if he attempt to transcend space and time) he must find the reason of all things in himself. But the reason of God and the universe are not to be found in man, and, if we seek them there, we shall deny both God and the universe, putting some chimera, which does find its reason in man, in their place and stead. Transcendentalism is, therefore, a sort of human Pantheism, requiring a conception of contradictions in the same subject.

To follow a transcendental writer, we must not endeavor to find the logical connection of his sentences, for there is no such logical connection, and the writer himself never intended there should he. We ought rather to transcend space and time (if indeed we can,) and follow him there. A transcendentalist never reasons; he describes what he sees from his own point of view. So the word Transcendentalism relates not to a system of doctrines but to a point of view; from which, nevertheless, a system of doctrines may be deduced. This explains to us why so many, whose desires were right, have been unable to read the writings of the new school. They have tried to find a system of doctrines where they ought to have looked for the point of view.

But to return to our postulate. We see every thing according to the law of cause and effect. The fact of causation is universal and necessary; for every fact of experience gives us, on one side, its material, which comes from the outworld, and on the other its form, which comes always in part from the law of causation. Let the reader turn for a moment to the postulate of the nail-machine. He will find that every truth which lies in the mind with a conviction of its universality and necessity, is derived to the mind from its own operations, and that it does not rest at all on observation and experience. But does not the truth that every effect must have its cause, lie in the mind with a conviction of its universality and necessity? The consequence is clear. The law of causation is another distorting medium through which we look upon the outworld, and we have no legitimate authority for affirming that the external world is in any way subjected to that law. It is true that we are forced to look upon nature under that relation, but the necessity of the case arises not from the fact of the reality of the law of causation, (we speak as a Kantian,) but from the constitution of our nature. But here all positive knowledge is annihilated. An idea is good and valid, if we may have any confidence in these forms of the soul; hut what is the relation of the form of the shears to the outward object independent of the machine? Who shall infer from the inward to the outward?

The system of Kant is one vast skepticism; admit the fatal postulate, and there is no dodging the conclusion. It will he seen that our transcendentalists have not been unfaithful to the thought of their master.

III. New systems of thought are propagated in various manners: sometimes by preaching, sometimes by private teaching, sometimes, as was the case with Mahometanism, by the sword. Neither of these methods has been adopted by the transcendentalists. Their doctrine has been a new religion rather than a new philosophy. Admission into their ranks has taken place by initiation rather than by instruction. In fact, many of the initiated seem to have remained ignorant, even to this day, of the peculiar doctrines of the school. The sect seems to have aspired to the construction of a new power in society, one that should maintain the rights of the instinctive tendencies of the soul against the encroachments of conventionalism. The force of the school has been much increased by the mystery which it threw around its operations—which were, indeed, the greater part of the time, no operations at all. Hence arose the form of action par coterie. Had the real character of the system been known, the curiosity of the world would have remained tranquil, and Transcendentalism, which, in a great measure, depended upon that curiosity for its actual existence, would have been stifled at its birth. There are, however, several objections against the form of operation par coterie. First, it is incompatible with the possession of powerful doctrines, for a sect holding to a strong creed is irresistibly impelled to preach it to the world and make converts. Secondly, a coterie inevitably forms a dialect for its own use, which cannot be understood by any except its own members, and a new conventionalism arises within the clique as bad as the conventionalism of the world; thus the main end of the establishment of the sect is defeated. Experience has shown that such is the natural course of events; for a cant has grown up and become current among the Transcendentalists which is worse, and more sickening, than that of the Millerites. Again, the ranks of a coterie are recruited, not by the earnest-minded, the thinking, but by those who are curious to dive into things shrouded in mystery, by those who are desirous of appearing to know more than their neighbors, of possessing some key to the secrets of the universe, of which the million are deprived. Thus, a movement beginning in strength degenerates into weakness; vain and airy speculation takes the place of philosophy, fancy that of imagination, and mystification that of reasoning. No poet can thrive in such an atmosphere, for the genuine poet speaks to universal humanity, and cannot be heard by a coterie, where they seek honor one of another. For these reasons, the transcendental movement, although commenced in strength, as a reaction against conventionalism, has totally miscarried. The strong members have left the coterie for the world, and those that remain keep up the form of existence without the power thereof.

A late reviewer of Mr. Emerson’s Essays remarks, that he (Mr. Emerson) has a large and constantly increasing circle of readers. It is well for Mr. Emerson that his works are confined to no such large and increasing circle; he speaks no longer to a coterie, to a private circle, however large and increasing. His works are beginning to he appreciated by his countrymen at large, and they will be judged, not by any conventional standard, hut according to their inherent merits. Private meetings of young ladies to settle the manner of the birth of the universe, the nature of social relations, and the basis of self-reliance, are no longer the only public to which he can appeal. The organization of the sect (and it has an organization, though without outward form and constitution) had a work to do which it has done. Its mission is past, let us call no names, but leave it to dissolve in peace. If the remains of a former vitality give it for a moment the form and appearance of life, let us respect its present insignificance, remembering the good it has done.

IV. The limits of this notice will not permit us to speak in order of each essay in Mr. Emerson’s new series. Like the ancient philosopher, who showed his customers a brick as a sample of the house he wished to sell, we shall select a small portion from the volume under consideration, as a specimen of Mr. Emerson’s whole edifice. Not that the parallel is by any means complete, for the portion we select, is, in itself, a living whole, and, although not a perfect exponent of the volume in which it is found, is, nevertheless ,a very good exponent of Mr. Emerson’s general doctrine. It might indeed be wished that the books of our Transcendental writers were somewhat more homogeneous. As they are now constructed, there is no connection between the beginning, the middle, and the end, no connection between the consecutive chapters. The Essay on “Experience,” however, seems to form a perfect whole, containing as much thought and poetry as any in the volume, and is, moreover, capable of being analysed: we select it therefore as the basis of our further remarks.

But here a difficulty arises. The soul, as we have seen in the beginning of this notice, creates all—man, the universe, all forms, all changes; and this wonderful power is possessed by each individual soul. Will there not then be necessarily a confusion, a mixture of universes, arising from the conflict of the creative energies of distinct souls? This difficulty may be made to vanish. Suppose, for a moment, that I have a magical power over some great public building, the City Hall for example; suppose every one of its parts, by a pre-existing harmony, to be made obedient to my will, so that when I will the windows to open and shut, the doors to turn on their hinges, &c., they immediately do it. Would not this City Hall, thus immediately obedient to my will, be a new body with which I am invested? Suppose I have power over a dog in the moon, so that he barks, runs, wags his tail, according to the action of my will, am I not existing “in this dim spot which men call earth,” and also, at the same time, in “the orbed maiden whom mortals call the moon?” In the first case I exist as a man, in the second as an animal of the canine species. Without doubt, I may have millions of bodies; there is no difficulty in the matter; all that I operate upon by immediate magical power, by magia, to use the technology of Jacob Behmen, is to me a body. So I may be in this world a man, and in the moon a dog; yet am I not two, but one, for one soul animates the two bodies. But mark! While I am immersed in things of time and sense, paying no regard to the soul, which is under and behind all, I think the man who is now moving about, trading and traveling on earth, to be myself, and only after deep thought, fasting, and meditation, do I find that I am also a dog. But here mysteries thicken. I am not only both a man and a dog, I am also neither a man nor a dog; for I am the soul that speaks through both. “What we commonly call man (says Mr. Emerson)the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not as we know him represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect; but the soul, whose organ he is, would he let it appear through his action, would make our knees bend.” The man, therefore, who has attained to right knowledge, is aware that there is no such thing as an individual soul. There is but one soul, which is the “Over Soul,” and this one soul is the animating principle of all bodies. When I am thoughtless, and immersed in things which are seen, I mistake the person who is now writing this notice, for myself; but when I am wise, this illusion vanishes like the mists of the morning, and then I know that what I thought to be myself, was only one of my manifestations, only a mode of my existence. It is I who bark in the dog, grow in the tree, and murmur in the passing brook. Think not, my brother, that thou art diverse and alien from myself; it is only while we dwell in the outward appearance that we are two; when we consider the depths of our being, we are found to be the same, for the same self, the same vital principle, animates us both. (We speak as a Transcendentalist.) I create the universe, and thou, also, my brother, createst the same; for we create not two universes but one, for we two have but one soul, there is but one creative energy, which is above, and under, and through all.

Well—but all this is no new theory, and whatever reverent disciple may have imagined that Mr. Emerson, or any “favorite of the gods,” has herein shown a wonderful originality, betrays a most triumphant ignorance of what is, and what has been. Such a doctrine was well known in the East, before history began; no man can tell when it arose, it is as old as thought itself. “Rich, (say the Vedas) is that universal self, whom thou worshipest as the soul.” We should strive, therefore, to disentangle ourselves from the world of matter, from the bonds of time and space, that we may take our stand at once in the ‘Over-soul,’ which we are, did we but realise it. We are the Over-soul, and we come into our own native home, when we attain to our true point of view, where the whole universe is seen to be one body. Then do we know of a truth that it is we who think, love, laugh, bark, growl, run, crawl, rain, snow, &c. &c. Mr. Emerson has given a beautiful expression to this thought:

 

“There is no great and no small To the soul that maketh all: And where it cometh, all things are; And it cometh every where.

“There is one mind,” says Mr. Emerson, in his Essay on History, “common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason, is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this Universal Mind, is a party to all that hath or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

 

It may easily be seen that this amounts to an identification of man with God; yet this system is by no means Pantheistic; perhaps, indeed, we may be permitted to coin a new term, and call it Human Pantheism. Pantheism sinks man in God—makes him to be a phenomenon of the Divine existence—but this system, so far from being an absorption of humanity in God, is an absorption of God into the human soul. A pantheistic friend once explained to me the difference between his system and that of the Transcendentalists.” I hold myself,” said he, “to be a leaf, blown about by the winds of change and circumstance, and holding to the extreme end of one of the branches of the tree of universal existence but these gentlemen (referring to the Transcendentalists),think themselves to be some of the sap.” But to return too the second series of essays. As we before said, we shall confine our remarks altogether to the essay on “Experience.” For the sake of connection and order, we will give a detailed analysis of the essay, stating the doctrine in our own words, but giving full quotations where the subject matter is interesting, that the reader may be enabled to judge of our faithfulness.

ILLUSION.—When a man wakes up, as it were, comes to a consciousness of his own existence, and asks himself the questions of his origin and destiny, as, whence came I? where am I going? why do I exist? he almost inevitably loses himself in the outworld. I am endeavoring, as the reader will remember, to state the substance of the Essay on Experience.) A chain of causes has preceded our birth and actions; and the deeds of this present time will be followed by a chain of results. But who knows any thing of these chains? “We find ourselves (says Mr. Emerson) in a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We awake and find ourselves on a stair: there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.” We appear to possess no power, no creative energy, independent of these circumstances. The soul within seems to slumber, and we attribute all to what is without; but while we float on, half seeing, living in appearances, the soul silently and secretly performs its creative acts, so that we are astonished at the end of a day when we have done nothing, to find that real effects have been produced. We seem lost to ourselves, having faith only in appearances. Where we ourselves are, all is mean; but where others are, there is beauty; for who knows but the thing which gives dignity to life may be with them while we feel that it is far from us. “It is said, all martyrdoms looked mean when they were suffered. Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every sail in the horizon. . . . I quote another man’s saying; unluckily that other withdraws himself in the same way, and quotes me.” Even adversity, affliction, the death of friends, have not power to awaken us to ourselves. While our eyes are thus fixed upon the outworld, we are lost to the reality of existence; these things are not the soul, neither have they power to move it. “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If to-morrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would he a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years, but it would leave me as it found me—neither better nor worse.”

TEMPERAMENT.—But even here we obtain a glimpse of the supremacy of the soul. Man sees only what he brings eyes to see. “We animate what we can, and see only what we animate. It depends on the mood of the man whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.” Temperament must always be taken into consideration. It is in vain that the landscape he spread out, if the beholder be of a cold nature, and regard it not. We are not the creatures of the outworld, for the outworld acts on us only according to our temperaments; and, in this, we already see some pre-eminence of ourselves over nature. And these outward things are not so outward after all as we have supposed. Politics, creeds, conventionalisms of societies, are not themselves causes trammelling us, but ill-looking accidents we have impressed upon nature. “I knew a witty physician who found theology in the biliary duct, and used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver, the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound he became a Unitarian.” A protest must, however, be entered against the consequences which flow from this doctrine of the temperaments. Temperament is final from the point of view of nature only, but a deeper insight will transcend it. The doctrine of temperaments, taken by itself, (says Mr. Emerson,) leads to physical necessity; but there is a door into every intelligence, which is never closed, through which the Creator passes, bringing with him light and higher knowledge.

SUCCESSION.—We are first deceived by the outworld, thinking it to be real, and ourselves a part of it; afterwards, when we have been undeceived by a consideration of temperament, we fall into new illusions, thinking temperament to be final. More thought will disclose to us the secret of this illusion also; it is this—each soul is constituted in a peculiar manner, subjected to moods and changes, and the soul, by its moods and changes, is the reason and ground of the temperaments, as these last are the reason and ground of outward nature. “The secret of the illusoriness is in the necessity of a succession of moods or objects.” Men are constituted each in his own way; there is little that is infinite in them. The nature of each creates his temperament, the temperament of each does its part in creating outward nature.” A man is like a bit of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand, until you come to a particular angle; then it shows deep and beautiful colors. There is no adaptation or universal applicability in men, but each has his special talent; and the mastery of successful men consists in adroitly keeping themselves where and when that turn shall be oftenest to be practised. We do what we must, and call it by the best names we can, and would fain have the praise of having intended the result which ensues.” If we take one man, two men, with their temperaments, natural character, or what you will, it is not enough; they cannot constitute the universal harmony. “Of course, it needs the whole society to give the symmetry we seek. The parti-colored wheel must revolve very fast to appear white.”

SURFACE.—Temperament finds its reason in the character of the individual man, and outward things are as the temperament of him who perceives them. But is this really so? Is the universe which we construct in thought, the same with that in which we have the good fortune, or the misery, to live? Nay, hut who art thou, O man, that askest? No good comes from too much prying into nature; the actual, it must be confessed, is against us, and, if we have faith in it, we lose our convictions of the supremacy of the soul. “Nature hates peeping, and our mothers speak her very sense when they say, Children eat your victuals, and say no more about it.” We find, when we think, either a contradiction in our thoughts, or a want of harmony with actual existence. We are therefore, of necessity, skeptics. Let us not, then, look too narrowly into philosophy and science, but live, as others, on the surface of things. “What help, indeed, from thought? Life is not dialectics. “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well upon them.” The wise man will live in the present. He knows that the appearances are at least appearances; of other things he knows little. “Five minutes to-day, are worth as much to me as five minutes in the next millennium. Let us he poised and wise in our own to-day. Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” This “perhaps they are,” is the profound sentence; we have proved them to be mere appearances, yet even the doubt presents itself—perhaps they are real. What shall we do amid these conflicting doubts? There is but one plan, enjoy the present, and let all these annoyances go by the board. Perhaps all is appearance, perhaps it is real, let us not look deep, but skate on the surface. “Great gifts are not got by analysis. Every thing good is on the highway.” Let us no longer be troubled by these high ethical questions which result in no good. Follow your own impulses and all will be well. How can a man have peace when he calls that crime which is no evil, but, on the contrary, according to nature? “Nature, as we know her, is no saint. The lights of the church, the ascetics, the Gentoos and Grahamites, she does not distinguish by any favor. She comes eating and drinking and sinning. Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law, do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weigh their food, nor punctually keep the commandments. If we will be strong with her strength, we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too much from the consciences of other nations. We must set up the strong present tense against all rumors of wrath, pastor to come.” Take things as they come, live in the present, enjoy the present, and ask no questions, “In the morning I awake, and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world, and even the dear old devil not far off. If we take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.”

“We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry—a narrow belt.” Live on the surface, and ask no questions.

SURPRISE.—It would, undoubtedly, be pleasant, if it were possible, to live in this world as knowing something beyond the mere surface of existence. But it is in vain that we construct our positive systems. “Presently comes a day, or is it only a half hour, with its angel-whisperings, which discomfits the conclusions of nations and of years!” Our systems never cover the right matters, always is there a gap through which the reality oozes out. “Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not. God delights to isolate us everyday, and hide us from the past and the future. We would look about us, and with great politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.” We are not what we wish we were, we are not what we think ourselves to be. “The ardors of piety agree at last with the coldest skepticism —that nothing is of us or our works—that all is of God.” “The individual is always mistaken. He designed many things, and drew in other persons as coadjutors, blundered much, and something is done; all are a little advanced, but the individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new, and very unlike what be promised himself.”

REALITY.—Temperament gives us the key to Illusion. Outward nature is as it is, because our temperaments are as they are. But, again, these temperaments are a new, and a higher illusion; they result from the necessity of succession in the moods of the soul But these moods also are finite and transient; where shall we look then for Reality? Nowhere but in the soul itself can it be found. We have described life as a flux of moods, but we must not forget there is that in us which is permanent and unchangeable. This unchanging principle is revealed to us by consciousness, and by it we are identified, now with the infinite God, now with the flesh of the body. So we may look upon ourselves from two distinct points of view; from the first, we are seen to be the absolute and unchanging God, from the second, we seem identified with perishable matter. “In our more correct writing, we give to this generalization the name of Being, and thereby confess that we have arrived as far as we can go. Suffice it for the joy of the universe, that we have not arrived at a wall, but at interminable oceans.”

SUBJECT OR THE ONE.—”It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorted lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw, now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us. Nature, art, persons, letters, religions,—objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of its ideas. Nature and literature are subjective phenomena; every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast. . . . . .The great and crescent self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the kingdom of mortal friendship and love. The soul is not twin-born, but the only begotten, and though revealing itself as a child in time, child in appearance, is of a fatal and universal power, admitting no co-life. Every day, every act, betrays the ill-concealed deity. We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us. It is an instance of our faith in ourselves, that men never speak of crime as lightly as they think: or, every man thinks a latitude safe for him. self, which is nowise to be indulged to another. The act looks very differently on the inside and on the outside; in its quality, and in its consequences. Murder in the murderer is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or fright him from his ordinary notice of trifles: it is an act quite easy to be contemplated, but in its sequel it turns out to be a horrible jangle and confounding of all relations. . . . Inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself. The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things, sooner or later, fall into place. As I am, so I see; use what language we will, we can never say any thing but what we are; Hermes, Cadmus, Columbus, Newton, Bonaparte, are the mind’s ministers.”

CONCLUSION.—”Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness,—these are the threads in the loom of time, these are the lords of life.” First we wake up to a full conviction of the real existence of the outworld; this is Illusion.

Then we recognize that we see the outworld only according to the constitution of our natures, and find that much we considered real was a deception arising from our Temperament. Here commences the emancipation of the soul from the illusions of sense, here commences the doubt whether nature outwardly exists.

After this, we find in ourselves a law of consecutive changes, which unlocks new mysteries, showing us more clearly that we create the outworld and then deceive ourselves by supposing our own creation to have an outward existence; this is Succession.

Then comes the rule of life. If these things are mere appearances, they are at least appearances, and are real to us; let us therefore live in appearances, skate on them, but never again allow ourselves to be involved in them; this is Surface.

But always, whatever rule of life we may form for ourselves, the soul intervenes; new appearances, new forms, spring up, unexpectedly to ourselves, and the rule of life is found to be futile; this is Surprise.

This intervention of the soul reveals to us the fact that we are the absolute God; this is Reality.

After this, the full truth flashes upon us, that we are not only God, but also nature, that God and nature are but aspects of the individual soul; this is Subjectiveness.

V. Such appears to be the meaning and connection of Mr. Emerson’s Essay on Experience. The other essays contain the same thoughts, the same general material, expressed in a different manner. We do not conceive it necessary to enter into any general appreciation of the system; its partial and inadequate character is manifest, and its errors expose themselves.

We have called this system Transcendentalism; but only by a gross abuse of language. Idealism and Transcendentalism are very different from the doctrine we have been examining; and we regret that our misapplication of terms has been rendered necessary by the popular usage. We shall take occasion to speak farther of this matter in a future article.

 

William Batchelder Greene, “Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism.” The American Review 1 no. 3 (March 1845): 233-243.

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Greene, William Batchelder, 1819-1878, “Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed October 21, 2018, http://library.libertarian-labyrinth.org/items/show/2458.