THE INFLUENCE OF EMERSON
by Paul Elmer More
So strength first made a way:When, therefore, we consider how the wisdom of prophets and philosophers in the past has so swiftly solidified into a formalism that holds the weaker in bondage like a strait jacket, and when we remember how our sage of Concord pointed out that Christianity too must needs fall into "the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion," when we reflect on the inevitable course of human thought, those of us who are lovers of Emerson - as I myself am a lover - need feel no grievance to be told that Emersonianism to-day is a sign of limitation, not of strength; of palsy, not of growth. I say Emersonianism, meaning the influence of Emerson as it works on large masses of men; but I would not imply that the individual reader of Emerson may not go to him for ever renewed inspiration and assurance in the things of the spirit. It is always so. The teaching of Plato was as true in the days of the later Academy, is as true now, as it was when Socrates disputed with his disciple in the market-place of Athens; yet almost in the space of a generation Platonism became a snare to those who rest in words and possess no corresponding inner vision of their own. So Emerson cannot escape his own condemnation of the wise: "Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade."
Only there is a difference to observe. The evil which has sprung from other systems of thought has been due chiefly to the very fact that they were systems and thus attempted to lay restraining hands on the ever fluent human spirit. Out of the pursuit of truth has grown a metaphysic; out of religious faith has developed a theology. But with Emerson the opposite is tree; the mischief that now works in his name is owing in large part to his very lack of system. Yet it is but a shallow reader who would go a step further and accept Emerson's quizzical profession of inconsistency without reserve. "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim," he said, but added immediately, "I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last." His essays ripple and recoil on the surface, but underneath there is a current setting steadily to one point. Indeed I have never been able to understand the minds of those who, like Richard Garnett, declare that the separate sentences in Emerson are clear, but that his essays as a whole are dark because composed without any central constructive thought and, in fact, filled with contradictions. It should seem that critics who find Emerson self- contradictory are just those who should never have meddled with him, for the reason that the guiding and formative principle in all his work is meaningless to them. Though often capricious in expression and on the surface illogical, Emerson, more than almost any other writer of wide influence, displays that inner logic which springs from the contant insistence on one or two master ideas. The apparent contradictions in his pages need but a moment's reflection and a modicum of understanding to reduce them to essential harmony. Like all teachers of spiritual insight he was profoundly impressed by the ubiquitous dualism of life. "Philosophically considered," he wrote in his first famous manifesto, "the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul." I will not stay to show how this commonplace of thought becomes fruitful of varied wisdom through the sincerity and depth of Emerson's vision. I think, in fact, that anyone who understands with his heart as well as with his head the central ideas of the essay on the Oversoul and of that on Experience will need no such guidance; he possesses a cue that will carry him like Ariadne's thread through all the labyrinth of Emerson's philosophy. Thus of the Oversoul it is written:
Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is related; . . . this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is ail accessible to us, self-sufficing and perfect in every hour;and of the Experience of nature it is written:
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what ties in its own focus.It is characteristic of Emerson's fine integrity that he never sought - as all systematic philosophies and religions hitherto had attempted - to bridge over the gap between these two realms by a scheme of ratiocination or revelation. He was content to let them lie side by side unreconciled, and hence his seeming fluctuations to those of shallow understanding. In conduct, however, he knew well how to draw the desired lesson from this dilemma. Indeed, I am not sure that all the manifold applications of his genius may not be found summed up in this single paragraph from his later essay on Fate:
One key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom and foreknowledge, exists, the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one, and the other foot on the back of the other. So when a man is the victim his fate, has sciatica in his loins, and cramp in his mind; a club-foot, and a club in his wit; a sour face, and a selfish temper; a strut in his gait, and a conceit in his affection; or is ground to a powder by the vice of his race; he is to rally on his relation to the Universe, which his ruin benefits. Leaving the daemon who suffers, he is to take sides with the Deity who secures universal benefit by his pain.But because Emerson's thought revolves so harmoniously about these two central principles, it does not therefore follow that he has a philosophical system. Not only does he make no attempt to connect them logically, but he is satisfied to apply now one and now the other of them to the solution of a thousand minor questions without much order or method. Hence it is that readers who carry to his essays a sense for ratiocination but no ultimate vision of truth find him both contradictory and obscure. And as he neglected to mould his own thought into a system, so he requires of those who come to him no systematic preparation. The truth that Emerson proclaimed is the old, old commonplace that has arisen before the minds of sages and prophets from the beginning of time; but they have each and all conditioned this truth on some discipline of the reason or the emotions. They have invariably demanded some propaedeutic, some adherence to a peculiar belief or submission to a divine personality, before the disciple should be carried into the inner circle of ennobled experiences. With Plato it was dialectics; with Buddha it was the noble eight-fold path and a comprehension of the twelve-fold wheel of causation; with Jesus it was Follow me. And in this system or discipline we seem to discern an authentication of their high claims. Bound up as we are with so many petty concerns, so many demands of the body, blinded by sloth and made callous by the conflict of so many material powers,- it is hard for us to accept with more than lip assent this call to the life of the spirit. These words that the philosophers and prophets utter so glibly - are they not mere words after all, we ask? Do they signify any reality of life that a man should barter houses and land for them? We need assurance that these ecstasies and these long contents of the spiritual man are not idle boasts, and so this discipline of faith we accept readily as a necessary part of the scheme of salvation. We have not ourselves partaken of such blessings, yet we can imagine that by some extraordinary means, some nimble gymnastics of the brain, we might be raised to these incredible heights. But now comes this Yankee prophet, offering the same spiritual exaltations freely and without condition to all. If we may believe him, a man shall walk out under the open sky and breathe the sweet influences of the spirit as cheaply as he inhales the untainted breeze. The preacher stands at the meeting of the ways and cries to all that pass by: Ho, ye who are wrapt in the swaddling clothes of reverence and obedience, cast aside these trammels and walk upright in your own strength. What have we to do with the sacredness of tradition? No law can be sacred to us but that of our own nature. Nay, follow the whim of the hour; consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous.
I am the owner of the sphere,And the wonder of it is that no man whose hearing is not utterly drowned by the clamour of the world can read a page of these essays without recognising that Emerson speaks with an absolute and undeceived sincerity. We remember his confession, that "when a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn," and it is with him as
When the harmony of heavenUpon the reader, despite himself it may be, there steals something of the pure and noble enthusiasm of the seer, and he knows straightway that the things of the inner life are real.
If this were all it would be well. If his message stood only as a perpetual instigation to the strong and a noble promise to inspired youth, we should have much to say of Emerson and little of Emersonianism. And, in fact, it would be indiscriminating to lay at Emerson's door the whole evil of a faded and vulgarised transcendentalism. He was but one of many; others - some, as Channing, even before his day - had taught the same facility of the spiritual life. Yet in him the movement came to its beautiful flower; we are justified in holding him mainly responsible for the harm that flowed from it, as we honour him for the glory that lay therein. And, alas, even in his own day, the doubtful influence of this fatally easy philosophy began to make itself felt. Hawthorne, the most stalwart observer of all that group, tells us how many bats and owls, which were sometimes mistaken for fowls of angelic feather, were attracted by that beacon light of the spirit. It was moreover impossible, he avows, to dwell in Emerson's vicinity without inhaling more or less the mountain atmosphere of his lofty thought; but in the brains of some people it wrought a singular giddiness. And if Emersonianism was mischievous to weak minds then, what shall we say of its influence in New England to-day - nay, throughout the whole country? For it is rampant in our life; it has wrought in our religion, our politics, and our literature a perilous dizziness of the brain.
There is a mysterious faith abroad in the land, which, however we grudge to say it, is the most serious manifestation of religion discoverable in these days. We call it Christian Science, or faith healing, or what not the gospel of a certain Mrs. Baker-Eddy; but in reality it does not owe its strength to the teaching of an ignorant woman in New Hampshire. It is a diluted and stale product of Emersonianism, and the parentage, I think, is not difficult to discern. To Emerson, as to Mrs. Baker-Eddy, sin and suffering had no real existence; a man need only open his breast to the random influences of heaven to lead the purely spiritual life. Nor is it correct to say, as some fondly suppose, that Christian Science or Emersonianism has any vital connection with Oriental mysticism. True, both Emerson and the sages of the East taught that spirit was the only reality and that the world of the body and of evil was a deception. "Life itself is a bubble and a scepticism and a sleep within a sleep," said Emerson, and the Hindu summed up the same thought in his name for the creator, Maya, illusion. But there is a radical difference in their attitude to this truth. Though the material world was in one sense illusion and unreality to the Hindu, yet in another sense it was tremendously real. Over the misery and insufficience of mortal existence he brooded in a way that to us is inconceivable; we call him a pessimist, and from our ordinary point of view rightly. He was haunted as with an infinite sadness by the vision of endlessly recurring birth and death, of ceaseless unmeaning mutation. To escape this life of unspeakable sorrow he laboured at vast systems of philosophy, he was ready to undergo, if needs were, a lifetime of crushing asceticism. He could no more have understood the jaunty optimism of Emerson than we can understand what we style his pessimism. There is a story - how authentic I do not know - that when Emerson was visiting Carlyle, the gruff Scotchman, who certainly believed heartily in evil and damnation, carried his guest to the slums of London and pointed out to him one horrible sight after another. "And do you believe in the deil, noo?" he would say; and always Emerson would shake his head in gentle denial. The story is at least ben trovato; it sets forth clearly the facile optimism out of which Christian Science was to spring. Such a creed, when professed by one who spoke with the noble accent and from the deep insight of an Emerson, was a radiant possession for seeking humanity forever; it is folly and inner deception when repeated parrot-like by men and women with no mental training and, visibly to all the world, with no warrant of spiritual experience. To suppose that you and I and our neighbour can at our sweet will cast off the impediments of sin and suffering is a monstrous self-deceit. So has the very lack of system in Emerson's message become a snare to mankind more deadly than the hardening systems of other philosophies. These are at least virile.
It is at best an ungrateful office to lay bare the harmful influence of a beloved teacher, and I would hurry over what little remains to be said. In politics the unreflecting optimism of transcendental Boston has given birth to that unformed creature called Anti-imperialism. I do not mean such anti-imperialism as would dispute on the grounds of expediency our policy in the Philippines or elsewhere - this is a question of statesmanship--but that "Saturnalia or excess of Faith" which wantonly closes the eyes to distinctions and would see a Washington in every Aguinaldo. It is a blinking of the eyes to those "unconcerning things, matters of fact," in political fitness as Christian Science was in moral fitness; it is the glorification of untried human nature preached by Channing, made beautiful by Emerson, acted by the Abolitionists, and reduced to the absurd by Mr. Atkinson. And the same optimism has made itself felt in recent New England literature. "The vision of genius comes by renouncing the too officious activity of the understanding and giving leave and amplest privilege to the spontaneous sentiment," wrote Emerson; and again, "The poet must be a rhapsodise, his inspiration a sort of casualty"; and yet again, "The Supreme Mind finds itself related to all its works and will travel a royal road to particular knowledges and powers";- excellent doctrine for a Shakespeare or an Emerson, a noble source of inspiration for all, indeed; but conceive the havoc it might work, has indeed actually wrought, when accepted literally by writers of a single talent. I was impressed recently by a criticism in the London Times which held up to ridicule the cheap enthusiasms, the utter want of discrimination between inspiration and twaddle, the flaccid sublimities, of a certain book by Lilian Whiting, which deals with the literary memories of those old Boston Days. It set me to reflecting on the widespread mischief done to New England writing of to- day by this self-abandonment to ecstasy and this easy acceptance of genius wherever it proclaims itself--in New England at least. Pessimism is morbid and stationary, but I sometimes think that the black hopelessness of a Leopardi would be better than this self-deceit of a facile optimism.
But enough. I feel already something of that shame which must have fallen upon the advocatus diaboli constrained by his office to utter a protest against the saints. Yet I trust my words will not be taken as directed against the sweet spirit of Emerson, whom I reverence this side idolatry; I have merely written on the ancient text, Corruptio optimi pessima.
P.S.--This essay was published in the Independent in connection with the centenary of Emerson's birth, May 25, 1903, and immediately drew from Mrs. Eddy a promulgation setting forth to all the world the extent of her education and denouncing the idea that Christian Science owes anything to Emerson, or to Greek or Roman. She and God alone, it appears, are to be accredited with this new faith. In view of the fact that Mrs. Eddy now numbers her disciples by the million - many of them educated and thoughtful people--we regard this promulgation as one of the most extraordinary documents in the history of religion.
Return to Writings of Paul Elmer More.