October 29, 2012

Ralph Waldo Emerson: How I 'Met' Him

After Montaigne, I “met” Emerson. That’s how I would summarize a very important part of the story of my intellectual life. To both of them I owe much of what I have achieved in my life as a thinking human being. Montaigne taught me what books really are, their deepest power, their incredible strength. Emerson, in turn, taught me what books are NOT, their inner limit, even though I couldn’t do without so many of them, including, of course, those by Emerson himself, Montaigne and many others, to say nothing about the Book of the books—but this is a completely different story.

What this post is all about is telling the story of how I met Ralph Waldo Emerson and how and why that meeting changed my life forever. For this purpose I am going to rewrite, with minor but necessary changes, what I wrote for the tribute website I created for Emerson several years ago.

Those who have met Ralph Waldo Emerson do not consider him just a philosopher among other philosophers. Only those who have merely read him may think so, in the weak light of a book-learning approach, and that is what usually happens with most thinkers, even those quite original and talented.

“My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread of straw he carries in his bill into my web also.” So Emerson wrote in his essay on “Self-Reliance.” As a matter of fact, it happened that I made Emerson’s acquaintance in a similar way, perceiving that scent and hearing that hum, not only because such experiences are really contained in those pages, hidden between the lines, but also because, obeying an inner voice, that summer of twenty-something years ago I would carry those two books, Representative Men and Essays, wherever I went, wood, rock, where squirts of salt water or drops of a sudden, graceful rain would bathe the printed characters and the covers, while grains of sand, ground and bits of withered leaves would be trapped between the pages, which by then had become part of the scenery.

This suggested to me that a book, perhaps, is not merely a book, but a living thought if it is able to bear without damage, or better still making the most of itself, not afraid of the unintentional injury, the bold innocence of the weaves and the grip of the summer sun. If nature bursts into it from everywhere, with the voices of the universe mixing themselves with the words, and commenting on their clear senses, expanding and developing them, so as to become symbols and metaphors of the infinite.

That’s why when I started writing about Emerson I was certain that it would have been inappropriate to deal with this thinker obeying conventions that usually rule this kind of writings. So, instead of writing, first and foremost, “on Emerson” and his work, I resolved to tell a story—How it happened that I met Emerson; or, the way he went into my life and became my friend.

“Be yourself,” he keeps repeating to me, along with Nietzsche, who proclaimed that he had no disciples, and said, “Become what you are!”  Nevertheless, despite the warnings, both Nietzsche and Emerson had followers. But Emerson had friends, like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, who honored him more with their own greatness than by proclaiming themselves Transcendentalists or, which is the same, Emersonians. Because the best way to honor Ralph Waldo Emerson is to get one’s own way without hesitation and timidity, even by sharply disagreeing with him on fundamental matters. Yet, the fascination and the inspiration will remain forever, as well as the faculty of rising the tone of the speech beyond what is natural to expect. Here is the Emerson beyond whom, I believe, it is impossible to go. Here is the unique vibration, the mysterious harmony of a mystic harp which seems to come down from the Platonic World of the Ideas, archetype which you can imitate, not reproduce but as nostalgia and dream. Isn’t the whole of your life, after all, hung on dreams and nostalgia?

“There’s no road has not a star above it”—Emerson writes in his Journal. So, he is a star for everyone who knows that he is not to be compared to anyone else. He is the spring in its everlasting, amazing coming back, and in winter is the nostalgia of springtime. Really masters are necessary.

The nine-year-old Ralph Waldo would carry to religious ceremonies Pascal’s Pensées instead of the prayer-book. In the days of his adolescence he had Plato as an inseparable mate, and later he met Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe—to them he dedicated one of his most remarkable works, Representative Men. And how not to remember his beloved aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who, as he noted, fulfilled a function that “nothing else in his education could supply?” With her enormous force of character and energy, this self-educated woman was an original religious thinker, and a tireless controversialist, “a Genius always new, subtle, frolicsome, judicial, unpredictable.” She advised Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

It was by pure chance that I happened to be acquainted with Emerson. One day, in the early 70’s, I bought in a remainder bookshop, probably the one situated in Piazza San Silvestro, in Rome, Gli uomini rappresentativi (Representative Men), a reprint of the 1944 Italian edition. I had never heard about the Author, even though I was a student of philosophy. So I don’t know why I bought it, perhaps because I liked the title, and moreover some of the figures whom Emerson had chosen to stand as “representative men” were ranked very high in my list of all time favorite authors, above all Montaigne and Shakespeare.

I took the small volume home, I had a look at it, which was enough to realize it was worth reading, but in due course. So, it happened that I didn’t read it. However, I kept it within reach ... until 1997! It is remarkable that, without knowing why, the book stayed for ages in a bedside table’s drawer, among the three or four I usually read before falling asleep. Only two of them were never replaced, the Holy Bible and Gli uomini rappresentativi. The former because I used to read it almost every night, the latter because I was supposed to be about to start reading it. Yet, I wasn’t able to come to a decision. Why? Nowadays I think I realize the reason why, but in the course of those years I hadn’t the faintest idea of it.

Finally I came to a decision, and I started reading. The time was ripe for it, the tesseras were gradually finding their places. It was a discovery, but without fanfare. It was as if I faced a fine image of myself, which formerly I had caught only a glimpse of. It was a revelation that was expressed in the straight forward language of a clear, promising spring morning.

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.“  Here is the incipit of a revelation that can be written on the rocks or on the bark of a pine. The Wind Rose that sometimes comes to me and lets me have a glimpse of the most daring distances. There you have Africa, here is the Orient in a flooding, clearest light. Over there, opaque, the Western Lands stretch. Behind there the white North. Down here, from the Holy Land, the scream of the Prophets pierces the silence.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment”  (Self-Reliance). Yet,  if this “self-reliance” can make everyone the Wind Rose of himself, it is Nature which shows us the way. Nature being metaphor of the divine, that is, in Emerson’s language, of the Over-soul. I had reached the stage where I was crossing the threshold of a new world. And I was perfectly aware of it.

It is a keenly philosophical sight observing the amazement of the children when they for the first time catch the sand and see it quickly vanishing from their hands. I felt something like this in the first stage of my discovery of Emerson, when I tried to understand the foundations of his thought. With that I don’t intend to suspect that Emerson, as a philosopher, has some weakness, nor hint I at the apparent lack of philosophical system of Emerson’s philosophy. If anything, I refer to what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of his thought: its essentially “worshipping” character.

“Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, 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. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions ... “ (Nature, 1836). Therefore philosophy discovers its own inadequacy, at least until the moment in which one “learns from nature the lesson of worship.”  Therefore philosophy discovers its own inadequacy, at least until the moment in which one “learns from nature the lesson of worship.” So accordingly, when man has worshipped that essence (the Spirit) which “refuses to be recorded in propositions,” the noblest ministry of nature is “to stand as the apparition of God. It is ”the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to leave back the individual to it.” (Ibid.)
That’s how philosophy is uplifted to the Ineffable drawing of that Nature which “always wears the colors of the spirit.” That’s the central role which Nature comes to assume in Emerson. But let’s see what this word exactly means for him:

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. [Ibid.]

In other words the Emersonian idea of Nature is very wide! But Nature is “only” the symbol of the Spirit.

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” [The Over-soul]

It is the other side of “self-reliance,” without which it would assume some Nietzschean nuance. When Emerson weighs anchor and lets himself be carried by the winds that blow “from within,” namely from his own soul, he realizes that words are utterly inadequate. And how could it be otherwise?

Within man is the soul of the whole. […] By yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. [Ibid.]

The soul of the whole speaks, lives, breathes in every man. All virtuous actions, all heroic and merciful acts, every wisdom and nobility tribute a spontaneous worship and naturally submit to it. Every act, thought, speech that the individual ascribes to himself, finding in himself his own ubi consistam, is blind and fragile. That’s where is the seed of every moral and spiritual decline.

I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. [...] Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law. [Ibid.]

This wise “simplicity” speaks to the simples, and every clue is meaningful. Though too subtle, indefinable, immeasurable, this pure nature “pervades and contains us” , it constitutes the whole. And its reflection on Nature can annihilate in one moment the fatal effects of an overwhelming influence of the senses, which is evident in most human beings, as long as we don’t “interfere with our thought” and we “act entirely.” Emerson calls that “Revelation.”

We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime. For this communication is an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life. Every distinct apprehension of this central commandment agitates men with awe and delight. A thrill passes through all men at the reception of new truth, or at the performance of a great action, which comes out of the hearth of nature. In these communications, the power to see is not separated from the will to do, but the insight proceeds from obedience, and the obedience proceeds from a joyful perception. [Ibid.]

Like an explorer I had reached the heart of the “continent Emerson” and had found many riches on my way through it. But I had had to dump a lot of ballast.

The scenarios I had been gazing at, of a pure and wild beauty, would remind me of the ones I had seen in a great country I had been traveling all over, some years before—the United States of America.

Really it doesn’t take long to realize that the boundless American nature, with its astonishing variety, is always recalled in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures, and that’s one of the most important keys to an understanding of his thought.

Therefore, in a sense, I may say that my discovering Emerson was a further exploration of that magnificent country. Yet, apart from the nature, Emerson and America reflect each other in regard to attitudes of mind and views of life, and perhaps he is as “American” as America is “Emersonian.” As Josiah Royce noted, “Emerson would feel and speak as an American,” and that is why, with The American Scholar (1837), according to the famous judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he wrote “the American Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In other words, America made Emerson as well as Emerson made America.

Emerson ended up having a major influence on the American political culture. This in spite of the fact that relatively few of his essays, speeches and lectures—nor even the most important—are expressly concerned with that matter. How come? The point is that Transcendentalism in itself showed a “practical” character, the central point of which was that a man, if renewed in soul, would be able to change, in the truest sense of the term, the world. Meanwhile Emerson had resolutely moved the traditional borders of philosophy, he namely had “evaded” the inclination to center on epistemology. There follows an idea of philosophy as a form of criticism of culture, centered on Emerson’s idea of America—”America,” he said, “is the idea of Emancipation.”  Which doesn’t prevent him from seeing the ills of his country. He wrote in his Journal:

American idea, Emancipation, appears in our freedom of intellection, in our reforms, & in our bad politics; has, of course, its sinister side, which is most felt by the drilled & scholastic. But, if followed, leads to heavenly places. 

This is the “political Emerson”, a censor of concrete America of his days in the name of an ideal America he would propose to his fellow countrymen with his volcanic power, emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity—”We live in Lilliput,” he complains—, between an indignant protest and the blazing faith in one democracy to come, founded on the soul, and not on constitutions, governments and banks—nothing but idols.

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. 

“Governments,” he writes, “have their origin in the moral identity of men” (Politics). What is most important, for Emerson, is that no state, institution and economic system can assume the right to constitute a higher principle than the Individual. He is on the same wavelength as his friends Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Carlyle by dissociating from both the alienation of the individual under the conditions of modern production and the way many contemporary Americans were, “with their vast material interest, materialized intellect, & low morals,” he writes in his Journal in 1851. As a result, one can, must, distrust state and government.

Hence, the less government we have the better, - the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation. That which all things tend to educe, which freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and deliver, is character; that is the end of nature, to reach unto this coronation of her king. To educate the wise man, the State exists; and which the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State. [Politics] 

Is this utopia? It may be so, at least as long as we declare even the idea of emancipation, in the most comprehensive sense of the word, to be utopistic. Certainly Emerson shows a way, an attitude of mind. Nevertheless, this apotheosis of individualism pragmatically suggests to him anything but extremist behaviors. He gets angry with bankers and politicians, but by advancing solid arguments. Yet in 1835 he writes in his Journal:

Let Christianity speak ever for the poor & the low. Though the voice of society should demand a defence of slavery from all its organs that service can never be expected from me. My opinion is of no worth, but I have not a syllable of all the language I have learned, to utter for the planter. If by opposing slavery I go to undermine institutions I confess I do not wish to live in a nation where slavery exists...  

In 1844 he delivers a fiery, emotional speech calling for the abolition of slavery, and in 1851 he flings himself at the Fugitive Slave Law by delivering the former of two addresses on this subject (he makes the latter in 1854). “If our resistance to this law is not right—he says—there is no right.” And he writes in his Journal: “This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it by God.”

As a political thinker, Emerson revealed itself to be equal to my most optimistic expectations. As from the pages of his works his political views were taking shape, my belief that I had met a unique thinker was growing up. The political thinker was actually worthy of the Man of God, the Poet, the Enchanter. Above all it was amazing to see the symbiosis of two faiths almost always antithetical—that in the aristocracy of the spirit, and that in the liberté-egalité-fraternité principles.

It was a glorious, bright Spring Equinox when I started writing this little essay. A few days later, when I set about lying down the final considerations, spring would go on handing out its gifts.  It had just stopped raining and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds. Of them some were white, some other gray or golden, and all were continuously changing their appearance and quarreling over the sky with the wide blue spaces.

Like those clouds, the aspects of Emerson’s thought which I put forward in these pages and the autobiographical flashes I placed here and there—blue as the sky which Emerson has shown me and that I have found out I had always had inside—were quickly flowing through my mind.

To whom are these pages dedicated? In the days of my “discovery” I had noted down, looking at the sea from the rocks - “To those who devote the worst to the Best.” At that time, too, the sun had been peeping out from behind the clouds. It was raining even while the sun was shining. I had been left perfectly alone, people had all run away—they will never know what they missed, what a baptism they deserted, in that afternoon golden light which made those rocks similar to the Rock on which the Paradise rises!

Later on, at the end of the summer, when I had completed my planned readings, I was fully aware of the work lying ahead of me—now you, too, know what it was.