Sunday, 17 April 2011

Firkins on Emerson


From Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Oscar W Firkins, 1915


The secret of Emerson may be conveyed in one word, the superlative, even the superhuman, value which he found in the unit of experience, the direct, momentary, individual act of consciousness. This is the centre from which the man radiates; it begets all and explains all.

He may be defined as an experiment made by nature in the raising of the single perception or impression to a hitherto unimaginable value.


...the theory of the conduct of life is plain.

Life is a quest of thoughts, a pursuit of inspirations.

Beside these ends, land and goods and house and fame are nothing, and wife and child may count themselves lucky if they escape relegation to the class of baggage.

...for Emerson all values, even truth-values, are experimental; nothing counts that is not enjoyable, consumable, digestible; even knowledge is either nutriment or refuse.


Life is subjective, life is internal.

Receptiveness is the normal and happy state and conduct is instrumental to reception.


If the single experience is to be uniformly exalted, the universe must be cleared of evil; the grossest act or heaviest calamity must be viewed as the stammering of the divine power in its first untrained efforts to articulate.

Love, also, must be removed from individuals and concentrated on universal powers, if its riches are to be continuously available as the ornament and sustenance of life.

So, again, with the virtues. To give the moment its acme of exaltation, virtue must be viewed not in its special or partial aspect as justice, benevolence or fortitude, but in its supreme and pervasive aspect as the outcome and expression of the divine mind.

The whole philosophy contributes to the ascension and irradiation of the moment."



Firkins' masterly compression of Emerson's masterly exposition of the philosophy of the moment is not - nowadays - distinctively Emersonian, but mainstream in the thought of the 'spiritual but not religious', New Age mode among the intellectual elites of the West.

This has been an expanding line of thought from the beginning of the industrial revolution and through the decline of Christianity among the elite (Emerson got it (selectively) from the Romantics and Transcendental philosophers - the difference being that for Emerson it was primary and primarily a matter of conduct).

For Emerson, the journal, a collection of such epiphanic moments, was the primary mode of literary production - from which all others (lectures, essays, poems) were derived.


To live consistently by the philosophy of the moment - which Emerson did only very intermittently, since he functioned as a respectable and industrious patriarch - would be the act of a conscienceless psychopath: a parasite at best and perhaps something much worse.

But that is mere name-calling - what is wrong with this philosophy is that it is self-refuting: a self-conscious celebration of un-self-conscious life: an intellectuals abstract reflection upon the unreflective animism of the child or tribesman.

The intellectual takes his best moments, his moments of animistic connection, of bliss; and constructs from them (or tries to construct) his life: these moments are (presumably) to be held in mind, in memory, and used as a background to the mundane - or at least as a holiday from the mundane.

But the act of identifying, collecting, reflecting upon these moments is itself a movement away from them; a movement into abstraction.

So that life is an oscillation; what is worse an oscillation in which the meaningless predominates.


But then, why continue to live?

If life is about the moment, best it is perhaps to die during the absolute moment - rather than trying (and mostly failing) to capture more such moments.

Indeed, if each moment - properly appreciated - is all; then why should we spend our efforts in trying to accumulate such pearls; why try to make life a continuous chain of pearls if a single pearl contains everything?

And yet life goes on.


Hence the Emersonian life contains meaning but no purpose; and its meaning is (or ought to be) once for all - except for the deficiencies of the human mind - of memory - or the limitations of circumstance.

So, even regarded strictly on its own terms (and leaving aside its incompatibility with Christian truth), the Emersonian life is impossible, paradoxical, un-liveable.

Yet at the same time it captures - magnificently, a partial truth: that every moment potentially contains eternity.

Humans glimpse this partial truth, but for creatures such as we are, living in time, this truth is properly subordinate.