When I wandered into the library the other day and perused the philosophy section (as I am wont to do when I can catch the reduced-hours library still open), I found a book on “Transcendentalism in America”, by Koster. The very first page is a three-photo splash of Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman. Perhaps, I thought, this book will explain just what these folks were all about, what the thread of Transcendentalism was, and most important in satisfying my ignorance, what Emerson was all about, he the most famous of the three and the least accessible to me.
So, I am reading.
Was Emerson a philosopher? He thought so, I guess. And the quotes from him in this book tend to cover ground seemingly Neo-Platonic and even, perhaps, Stoic:
“A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”
“A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.”
“What we are, that only can we see.”
“As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.”
But what remains most apparent is that Emerson’s cart always seems to be hitched neither to stolid horses nor to hard men, but to clouds of mystic supposition. I read Koster’s remarks on him and I say, Yes, our pertinent time IS indeed the “everlasting now”, “the present, which is all there is” (as Koster puts it – for there is no past, except in its forming of “Now”, and no future, except in its becoming “Now”). Or I say, Yes, we see things not as they are, but as we are (quoting Anais Nin, I believe). But then at other times Emerson loses me:
“Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and by the very knowledge of functions and processes to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole.”
“Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it…. Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven.”
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature…. the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.”
“Who shall define to me an Individual?; I behold with awe and delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind; I see my being imbedded in it…. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy and unclean precincts of my body, my fortunes, my private will, and meekly retiring upon the holy austerities of the Just and the Loving – upon the secret fountains of Nature.”
Emerson finds it important “to feel after the evidence of things not seen”; and then, in the same breath and in supposed apposition, explain that one does that “to explain the mazes of mortal things.” The first I mistrust; the second (quite rightly a task for men, whether philosophers, laborers or businessmen) I must think can be explained only (if at all) with reference to concrete things. For the Emerson-inclined, how can he or she escape the wishful thinking that “feeling after” the misty “evidence” of still mistier “things not seen” only too easily leads to? How can one avoid a merely personal, pseudo-mystical cloud? How can one get a grip, EXCEPT by the corroboration and criticism provided by example and hard proof?
Notion vs. Ignorance vs. Facts vs. Blather. These are the four corners, you might say, of any serious discussion. Will or an idea or a need urges us a Notion, our Ignorance shapes it, then the visible or provable Facts re-shape it, and we repeat the re-shaping, continuing to trim away the mere Blather. Emerson went through this but, perhaps, either got stuck venerating the Blather, or simply dismissed as unimportant the facts available to refer to.