Overcoming the Oversoul: Emerson’s Evolutionary Existentialism
The stern old faiths have all pulverized. ‘Tis a whole population of gentlemen and ladies out in search of religions.
Flying back from Seattle to Tucson in July of 2003, re-reading Emerson for the first time in forty years before getting down to reviewing a new book about him, looking out the window to see Mount Rainier poking its snow-covered head through the clouds, I had a sudden vivid remembrance of things past, followed in rapid succession by a flash of insight, a Eureka! moment. The remembrance, like a clip from an old newsreel, replayed a scene from my almost weekly get-togethers with Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, Ray Smith, when we were all young professors teaching at universities in Detroit in the sixties. A recurrent field of debate, which we seemed unable to shake off, had to do with Emersonian optimism at a time when I was teaching Emerson’s essays and writing about his religious views and their relation to Kierkegaard. Joyce Smith, not yet celebrated as Joyce Carol Oates, was unremittingly ironic and satiric when it came to Emerson’s Oversoul and similar noumena, an irony very pronounced even then, in her twenties. Her underlying, if unspoken, query in the old days was, “How can you believe such claptrap?” She was particularly skeptical about the confidence in the decency of the “self that Emerson’s “self-reliance” depended upon. Given her vision of the horror and depravity that underlie human existence-fearful in her youth and increasingly savage in her later writings-she felt that all that could be depended upon to animate the self was a kind of primal barbarity, not the cosmic, upbeat, Rousseauvian, somewhat goofy wisdom that Emerson often seemed to convey. And as that period of my life was fetched up for me again while the plane made its way back to Tucson, I felt, after all these years, that hers was a challenge I had to reconsider and take seriously, though I’d now rephrase it as “How can someone as skeptical as you be conned by such fatuous optimism that human life has cosmic meaning after all?”
After that replay had come a flash of awareness that this was a very different Emerson from the one I had read long ago or, to put it another way, this was a very different me doing the reading. Forty years had produced major intellectual revolutions that changed scholarship, literary and cultural studies, and my equipment for understanding them. Since 2003 was the bicentennial anniversary of Emerson’s birth, I was about to read and review Lawrence Buell’s Emerson, which I figured (not incorrectly) would provide a global retrospective at the start of a new century. But what I could not have guessed from my sudden illuminations was that this book would turn out to be only the beginning.1
After a few days at home, I opened Emerson and read: “Instead of concentrating on a single narrative or topical strand, [this account] provides concise intensive examinations of key moments of Emerson’s career and major facets of his thought.” But would this extensive overview touch upon the materials of my epiphany? In the event, the absence of a single driving force or theme made this book of moderate length seem extremely long. The reader felt like someone given an opulent but fractured necklace whose beads were constantly rolling out of sight. But having said this, I need to add that Buell is one of the most intelligent, learned, and sane literary historians currently in practice, with almost forty years of involvement in Emerson studies. So although there was no single driving force, there were, nonetheless, several major themes, a few of which hovered around my own preoccupations: that Emerson’s recurring engagement with the individual and his deepest “self reflects an individualism largely purged of ego; that this self is compatible with the monism that pervades Emerson’s later thinking (i.e., everything is an expression of the unity of the universe); and that “he opened up the prospect of a much more profound sense of the nature, challenge, and promise of mental emancipation, whatever one’s race, sex, or nation might be.” Given Emerson’s consistent rejection of dead traditions and his avid importation of ideas from European and Asian thinkers, which he melded into his distinctive voice as America’s first public intellectual (and, indeed, its first major writer), he was always ready “to stray from paths of common wisdom into trains of thought that seem offbeat, bizarre, and sometimes downright scandalous.”
This straying is immediately visible in even the most brief account of Emerson’s career. As a Unitarian entering the ministry, he drifted into one of the usual roles for intellectuals of his time, but in 1832, at the age of twenty-nine, he gave a sermon announcing that he could no longer in conscience administer the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper (i.e., Holy Communion), because he did not believe it was Jesus’ intent for this to be an ongoing practice. This effectively ended his career in the church and started him on the road to public speaking, which developed into the lecturing/touring circuit then known as the Lyceum. Although his contemporaries describe him as a mild and gentle person, his addresses and essays say No! in thunder; and, given his years of close friendship with a younger Thoreau, it is more than plausible to infer an Emersonian genesis for Thoreau’s “I was not born to be forced,” one of the more resounding remarks in his abolitionist essay “Civil Disobedience.”
Emerson’s ministerial contretemps was followed in 1837 by another shocking performance, his Phi Beta Kappa address at his alma mater, Harvard, known as “The American Scholar,” in which he derogated intellectuals’ reliance on tradition, Europe, books, formalities, and secondhand ideas instead of on creative intelligence operating upon the actual world of nature and society. “Man thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (“God” in Emerson never means God, however, so this subject will require further attention below. Indeed, some of his contemporaries regarded him as an atheist.) This startling performance was followed by the even greater upheaval of 1838 when he gave an address to the Harvard Divinity School that was a religious counterpart to his trashing of scholarly timorousness and convention. This time scripture, church traditions and forms, adherence to the dead letter of custom, and the solidification of historical Christianity into a rigid myth of preposterous supernaturalisms issued in warnings that truth “cannot be received at second hand.” “Miracles, prophecy, poetry, the ideal life, the holy life, exist as ancient history merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspiration of society; but, when suggested, seem ridiculous.” Or to put it otherwise, “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat [i.e., something] long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” But revelation, he believed, is a permanent aspect of human consciousness, not a fait accompli that takes place only once. “Emerson’s god,” writes Buell, “is an immanent god, an indwelling property of human personhood and physical nature, not located in some other-worldly realm.” After a performance such as this, Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for thirty years, by which time he was probably the most celebrated intellectual America had yet produced.
Buell discusses these matters passim, particularly in his two best chapters, one on Self-Reliance and another on Religious Radicalisms. The possibility that self-reliance was a kind of dangerous, eccentric antinomianism leading to arrogant, ignorant, and narcissistic true-believers is what made Joyce Carol Oates understandably uneasy in our debates years ago. She was by no means alone in such an opinion. “Jane and Thomas Carlyle,” Buell reports, “were by turns infuriated and chastened by his saintly refusal to take offense when Carlyle attacked him head-on for moral naivete.” Henry James, Sr., thought Emerson a babe-in-the-woods about the problem of evil. Charles Eliot Norton alluded (in Buell’s paraphrase) to the aging Emerson’s “stubbornly vacuous cosmic optimism.” And even his good friend Thoreau could be highly critical of his evasions. But Buell makes it clear-as does a careful reading of Emerson himself-that the self in question is the deepest, most primal and impersonal “human nature,” a manifestation of the monistic force generating the universe rather than private lunacy or savage animality. This reliance, writes Buell, “requires not impulsive assertion of personal will but attending to what the ‘whole man’ tells you.” Unsurprisingly, Emerson did not find examples of such flawless self-reliance in any actual persons, since what he seems to have intended was an ideal, somewhat Rousseauvian, connection with the roots of our being, uncorrupted by the hypostatizations of transient culture, a connection expressive of the universe’s deepest tendencies as manifested in the quasi-mystical “now” moments of human existence-what Heidegger and Virginia Woolf were to treat as revelatory “moments of being.”
Buell has a good deal to say about Emerson’s importation of Asian literature into his own poems and the subsequent congeniality of Buddhism for other writers in the American canon. Quoting both Lafcadio Hearn and William James, he points out that “belief in a god figure is not a necessary ingredient of the religious. . . . Emerson and Buddhism stand for spirituality purged of creedal detritus.” This leads Buell into extensive treatments of Emerson’s influence on a wide range of thinkers and schools, from the American Pragmatists such as James and Dewey, who saw “spiritual ‘truth’ as justified by its productive value for individual lives,” to Friedrich Nietzsche, about whom Buell has much to say: “The vision of a Nietzschean Emerson also opens up the fascinating prospect of further, indirect continental percolations working through Nietzsche to Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida.” Nietzsche was in fact an extremely admiring reader, almost a disciple, of Emerson, and the parallel passages Buell quotes from both writers make a pretty strong case for concrete influence. As David Mikics explains it in a new book on this subject, “Friedrich Nietzsche discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1860s, as a schoolboy . . . became an immediate and, as it turned out, lifelong enthusiast of the American’s work [and] quickly discovered his crucial philosophical affinity with Emerson: a dream of individual power set against what Emerson called conformity, the common or official beliefs that surround us.”2 And beyond this, Buell traces Emersonian influence on Whitman, Santayana, Ralph Ellison, and many others.
Although the chapter on Emerson and philosophy is perhaps overly ambitious, coming off as fragmentary, too allusive, compressed, obscure, amends are made in richly informative chapters on Asian influence as well as on Emerson’s gradual drawing away from the abstractions of religion toward the concrete, pragmatic, everyday world of society, ethics, and politics, goaded by the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War. His summary of Emerson’s work as a social thinker is worth quoting: “As a diagnostician of the challenges of doing socially significant intellectual work in the face of social pressure and attendant self-division, Emerson had few equals, then or ever.”
Lawrence Buell touched so many bases with such profound resources that I was surprised to find my “new” Emerson mostly neglected. Clearly, I had a job ahead of me, a review not just of one new book but of a good deal else that would be needed to make the case for a revised Emerson. Other recent writings would provide some help, but there were older supporting materials that I needed to consider as well.
In an essay on “Emerson and the Higher Criticism,” Barbara Packer provided a useful starting point: “Throughout the eighteenth century biblical critics showed an increasing willingness to turn on the biblical texts the same principles of critical analysis that had been employed in the study of classical authors.”3 The effects of attention to internal evidence, secular history, linguistics, archaeology, editorial interventions, etc., were profound. Emerson on his own would probably have discovered the revisionary scriptural analyses of Herder, Eichhorn, and Michaelis with little difficulty, but the aftermath of his older brother William’s sojourn to Gottingen to study theology in 1824 was decisive. Like Waldo, William was in train to become a minister but after a short period of immersion in the new theology “he found his faith in the tenets of revealed religion deeply shaken by the critical questions he had been learning to ask.” By the time he returned from Germany, he had given up the idea of the ministry-and it wasn’t so long afterwards that Waldo cashiered his own clerical future by telling his Unitarian congregation that he could no longer administer Holy Communion.
From an early age, Emerson seemed to be at war with the hypostatizations of tradition and culture, which represented other people’s choices of nutrients for the soul. In his first major work, Nature, published as a book in 1838, we see the effects of German Idealism and Romantic subjectivity upon this indigenous mindset. Here, the seeds of his belief that each individual has “an original relation to the universe” are profusely watered, producing the question: “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us [emphasis added], and not the history of theirs?” If “every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind,” we have entered the familiar Wordsworthian Romantic territory in which nature is phenomena and spirit is noumena and the task of the human person is to draw his being from whatever inscrutable force produces, organizes, and infuses the phenomenal universe-an “ineffable essence which we call Spirit.” Many years later, by which time this dualism had been reduced to a monism and Emerson ceased speaking about Spirit with a capital S, he boldly states, “So far as a man thinks, he is free,” but, he adds, “nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a ‘Declaration of Independence,’ or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act.”
If Wordsworth rejected as inauthentic what seemed to him the excessively rule-driven poetry of Pope as well as the artificial forms of eighteenth-century polite society, turning to infants and folk culture for both formal and narrative features of his early poetry, Emerson (defending “children, babes, and even brutes” because “their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered”) rejected a whole scholarly tradition of secondhand bookishness in his first address at Harvard, telling the potential “American Scholar” that he needs an original, self-reliant, creative relation to the universe. And by the time he addresses Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838, an entire religious and theological tradition is scandalously badmouthed by the Emerson that some called an “atheist.” Religious insight cannot be received at second hand, he tells his audience, nor can the divine nature be attributed to only one or two special persons “and denied to all the rest.” Historical Christianity “dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons.” Rather, revelation is taking place all the time in everybody who has not been pre-empted by the ossifications of tradition and its terrorizing, hell-hurling forces. “The prayers and even the dogmas of our church are . . . wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and business of the people.” Jesus, the apostles, scripture, dogma-by being sanctified they have become dead myth. “None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed.” Elaine Pagels, in what amounts to a scholarly updating of the old Higher Criticism, has presented in her writings remarkably detailed accounts of the historically contingent procedures that resulted in certain texts and practices being selected and reified into scriptural and ecclesiastical canonicity while others are ignored. It’s not “God,” she points out, who is making these editorial decisions, but politically interested men who can only think the thoughts of their own time. And from new books on Catholicism we learn how recent dogmas like papal infallibility have entrenched themselves in the consciousness of believers as if they were ancient laws divinely dictated. Emerson was onto all this more than 150 years ago.
Beyond seeing Jesus as just a man (“the dogma of the mystic offices of Christ being dropped and he standing on his genius as a moral teacher . . .”), scripture as human productions of their time, miracles as metaphorical descriptions from a credulous age, revelation (popularly understood) as just “a telling of fortunes” (rather than what it really is: “a disclosure of the soul”), personal immortality as a sales pitch of Christ’s disciples, beyond all these Emerson sees ordinary prayer as an act of betrayal against the regularities of the universe: “Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. . . . [Bona fide prayer] is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.” This dualism believes in the first instance that our universe is run by immutable regular laws but then, contradictorily, believes that these laws can be overturned through prayer by the myriad whims of a vast human population while the universe continues somehow to function regularly even as cause and effect is violated. Rather, for Emerson, human beings participate in the monistic unity of creation (which he calls, for short, the Oversoul) that runs the same through planets, rocks, plants, animals, and the consciousness of humanity. This creator spintus is larger and more inclusive than any particular incarnations, so that “the philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul,” which could never be definitively mapped in any case, given the dialectics of consciousness.
At the very same time Emerson was articulating these thoughts in New England, Kierkegaard was expounding similar thoughts from Denmark in an attack against an historical Christianity that he found incompatible with faith. Turning Plato upside down to view “truth” as “becoming” rather than “being,” Kierkegaard saw reality as wholly dialectical: “Let it be a word, a proposition, a book, a man, a fellowship, or whatever you please: as soon as it is proposed to make it serve as a limit, in such a way that the limit is not itself dialectical, we have superstition and narrowness of spirit.”4 Emerson himself could have said this, and in fact did say it many times: “This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes”! For Kierkegaard, Truth is Subjectivity: “that which really happened (the past) is not necessarily reality. . . . There is still lacking in it the criterion of truth (as inwardness). . . : the truth for you. That which is past is not a reality-for me, but only my time is. . . . Historic Christianity is sheer moonshine and unchristian muddleheadedness. For those true Christians who in every generation live a life contemporaneous with that of Christ have nothing whatsoever to do with Christians of the preceding generation, but all the more with their contemporary, Christ.” Kierkegaard sees historical Christianity as a sequence of scriptural interpretations, new historical findings, revisionary church doctrines, etc., etc., all subject to short-lived moments of validity. As for a potential believer waiting to justify his faith by means of these temporalities, “Just two weeks before his death he looks forward to the publication of a new work, which it is hoped will throw light upon one entire side of the inquiry,” but faith-depending as it does on a subjective dialectic-will never be justified by events in the world. Meanwhile, what passes for Christianity in that mundane world is really “Christendom,” a kind of faux-pious aerosol spray that Christianizes ordinary secular depravity: “Swindling has remained just as in Heathendom . . . only now the swindling has taken on the predicate of ‘Christian.’ So now we have ‘Christian’ swindling.”5
Like Emerson, Kierkegaard writes at the inception of a movement later to be identified as existentialism, a product of Romantic subjectivity that rejects hypostatization of the past in favor of the authenticity of the ongoing moments of “being” that constitute “becoming,” of living in the creative power of the present moment out of which you make an intelligible life. Religion begins to be transformed into “religious experience,” playing down history, churches, and doctrines while authenticating itself as subjectivity and, except for the literalism of fundamentalism, is henceforth to be treated by “advanced” theologians as psychology. Although Emerson was willing to countenance (for heuristic purposes) the supra-historical force of an Oversoul, a putative world-spirit that lay within and authenticated human “being,” Kierkegaard fled from an Hegelianism that violated his deepest sense of truth as subjectivity.
But Kierkegaard was deceiving himself if he really believed that one could distinguish between Christendom and “real” Christianity or that historical Christianity could be dismissed while leaving a pure, uncorrupted, ideal residue in which one could place his faith. Christianity, like every other cultural concept and institution (e.g., Wagnerism, Freudianism), came into being at a certain time, before which there was no Christianity, neither in the flesh nor as thinkable thoughts. The Christianity in which Kierkegaard claimed to have faith was merely his own selection of data points from its history-in-the-world, in other words, from vilified Christendom. Once he eliminated historical Christianity, there was nothing left for him in which to have faith, no concepts, no vocabulary, no unsullied essence. Kierkegaard’s “faith in the absurd” (a purified Christianity that defied inauthentic historical orthodoxies) was even more absurd than he imagined.6
For Emerson, no problem of this sort had to be faced: when he gave up on historical Christianity, he knowingly ceased to be a Christian. He had left his church, spoken of Jesus as a human role model, and used biblical history and Christian dogmas simply as figures of speech, supportive exempla in his powerful rhetoric against the dead incarnations of past spirit. If being regarded as a believer required literal belief in scripture, then, in fundamentalist layman’s parlance, Emerson was indeed becoming the atheist that some of his detractors claimed. Or as Nietzsche, his devoted-but darker and more pessimistic-disciple, was famously to put it, “God is dead.”
This powerful existentialist strain, sweeping its way through Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and many others, reached its apogee (or nadir) in the writings of Heidegger. In Being and Time, Heidegger carried Emersonian subjectivity and self-reliance to a point of new extremity. If Emerson had rejected historical Christianity as a series of reifications that destroyed the authority of subjectivity, Heidegger went even further-rejecting not only the Catholicism of his youth but most of the Western philosophical tradition because of its conception of reality as fixed substances rather than psyches existing in time. Heidegger invented a bizarre lexicon of neologisms-Thrownness, Dasein, the They, the Nothing, Unconcealment-to characterize the psychodrama of being-in-the-world. The world itself, nature, society, other people, faded into the background against which Dasein (literally, “being there,” or individual consciousness) experienced itself in time, always open to new possibilities unless it allowed history and the They (the masses of mankind) to dictate the boundaries of human consciousness. Permitting the self to be cowed by such dictation destroyed-to use a Heideggerian buzzword-Authenticity. Being and Time is thus a vast enlargement of the theme that Emerson set forth in his “American Scholar” and “Divinity School” addresses, the need to leave oneself open to the unconcealment of Being. As his biographer Rudiger Safranski summed up this version of self-reliance, “What matters in Heidegger’s authenticity is not primarily good or ethically correct action but the opening up of opportunities for great moments, an intensification of Dasein. . . . Do whatever you like, but make your own decision and do not let anyone relieve you of the decision and hence the responsibility.”7 Like Kierkegaard, to whom he was greatly indebted, and Emerson (to whom the debt is unclear), Heidegger transformed philosophy and theology into an oftentimes solipsistic psychology, a psychology more extreme than that of his progenitors and, compared to Emerson’s (and even Nietzsche’s), peculiarly morbid, with its focus on anxiety and death.
After Heidegger’s overwhelming interrogation of Being, it would seem there could be little future remaining for existentialism, but this was assuredly not the case. Psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy, combined with questionings of both scriptural literalness and church authority, produced virtually a century of existential theology, writings that attempted to translate difficult ideas of philosophy and psychology into a more popular and therapeutic religious language. Today, however, these manifestoes more often than not come off as maudlin and stale. Books like Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be (with its existential, somewhat desperate, doubletalk about God as the “ground of being,” as “ultimate concern,” as “the God beyond God”) and Martin Buber’s I and Thou fanned flames that eventuated in the writings of Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich (a London suburb), whose Honest to God launched the Death of God movement of the 1960s. More recently, the writings of emeritus Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, ask “Is There a Future for the Christian Church?” and explain Why Chnstianity Must Change or Die, a case of deja vu all over again (and this time, Yogi Berra’s malapropism is le mot juste). Behind all this furious revisionist activity to flog the Anglican and Episcopal churches back to life lurk the ghosts of Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.
With repeated references to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Buber, Bishop Robinson dismisses as preposterous the traditional anthropomorphic God in the sky, a “being” who “exists” like any other in time and space, with a personality, preferences, emotions. He treats scripture, yet again, as myth and metaphor. In place of the God “out there,” he adopts Tillich’s language of depth, God as the ground of our being. “The question of God,” he writes, “is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky.” At the point of “love to the uttermost,” he continues many pages later, “we encounter God, the ultimate ‘depth’ of our being. . . . This is what the New Testament means by saying that “God was in Christ’ and that ‘what God was[,] the Word was.'”8
When I examined my shelf of religious writings from the sixties, I was reminded of the sizable industry generated by Robinson’s book: The Death of God Controversy, The Honest to God Debate, Radical Theology and the Death of God, The Death of God, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, and so on. Tumbling out of these volumes were typed carbons of letters I wrote to both Robinson and William Hamilton, an offbeat Episcopal theologian, as well as their replies. In a letter of three single-spaced, densely typed, vexed pages I asked Robinson a series of blunt questions, particularly challenging his preposterous claim as to what the writers of the New Testament really meant. And with all of the supernaturalism removed, I suggested, there was nothing much left of revisionist Christianity that differentiated it from conventional secular morality except yet another set of neologisms. Robinson wrote a graciously evasive reply: “I just do not accept that what I am trying to say is so totally out of line with traditional Christianity as you assume,” he repeats unconvincingly several times.
In “The Death of God Theologies Today,” William Hamilton was less genteel: “The breakdown of the religious a prion means that there is no way, ontological, cultural or psychological, to locate a part of the self or a part of human experience that needs God. There is no God-shaped blank within man. … As Protestants, we push the movement from church to world as far as it can go and become frankly worldly men. And in this world, as we have seen, there is no need for religion and no need for God. This means that we refuse to consent to that traditional interpretation of the world as a shadow-screen of unreality, masking or concealing the eternal which is the only true reality.”9
Hamilton’s outlook and my own in 1966 were just about identical liberal humanist views, with this major difference: Hamilton persisted in using traditional Christian terminology. But what difference existed between us apart from the terminology or what these words could now mean in their eviscerated condition I was unable to see. In my letter to him, I compared his use of “Jesus” to Crest toothpaste’s use of “Fluoristan,” “which in fact is the same fluoride present in all other similar toothpastes. . . .Jesus is just your patented name for a combination of qualities found elsewhere. . . .” If I simply changed my vocabulary, I asked him, would I be turned into a Christian like him, instead of a secularist whose beliefs were almost exactly like his own?
His reply was genial. “There may be actually no form of being in the world that the radical knows that some unbeliever doesn’t also know, but the radical Christian takes this historical figure [i.e., Jesus] as a model, paradigm, focus of loyalty, though wooden and lifeless forms of mimicry have to be watched.” Moreover, “A Christian is a man who somehow allies himself with the Christian community in some form, whatever that means. A man is defined, in part, by his choice of comrades. . . . But the fact remains that whatever our similarities might be, Jesus is the name of the difference.” This struck me then and strikes me now as pretty thin, not to say desperate, as a basis for spiritual rehabilitation. The mountains have labored and produced a mouse.
But wait, as they say on TV infomercials, there’s more! In the latest wave of Christian demystifications, Bishop Spong has produced “Christ and the Body of Christ: Is There a Future for the Christian Church?” a distillation of his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.(TM) The essay touches on most of the issues found in Robinson and his theological siblings from forty years prior, but in a take-no-prisoners finale, it concludes with a list of twelve theses summarizing his message and, indeed, existential revisionist theology altogether:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God[,] is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as Being supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless unless we find a new way to speak of God.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes the divinity of Christ, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newton world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbaric idea based on primitive concepts of God that must be dismissed.
Resurrection, ascension, ethics inscribed in stone, prayer to change events, life after death, churchly behavior-control through guilt-all these are trashed in the remaining theses. And finally, speaking against bigotry and prejudice in number twelve, Spong concludes that “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is.”
Except for the “God’s image” phrase, which is incomprehensible in the context of these twelve theses (but which is a telling sign of the conflicting paradigms that plague revisionist theology), this is a powerful, clear, forthright, and courageous statement. Nevertheless, it is little more than a reinvention of the wheel. There is not much new here that we had not heard from Emerson one hundred fifty years before. We have, in a sense, come full circle, an eternal recurrence, a flogging of a horse long since dead.
Where does all this leave us today with regard to Emerson and his legacy at the bicentennial of his birth? Emerson was a religious seer who rejected historical Christianity in particular and incarnations in general but who never relinquished the prophetic, missionary persona that animated his writings. Although he is indeed a co-father of existentialism with Kierkegaard, for some reason he has not generally been acknowledged as such. Even in Robert Denoon Cummings’ Starting Point,” a philosophical history of existentialism, Emerson cannot be found in the index, and the major emphasis there is on Kierkegaard and Heidegger. And how, in this undeniably existential light, is it possible for us to understand the seemingly numinous Oversoul, always hovering in the wings but, like the Holy Ghost, impossible to photograph? For a thinker who compulsively swept the Augean stables of moonshine (while providing plenty of his own), what can we make of this seeming inconsistency, this throwback into spooks (even though Emerson didn’t mind being inconsistent) ? What can I say to Joyce Carol Oates in defense of Emerson today?
Emerson was a prime mover behind revisionary interpretations of Christianity since the early nineteenth century. Although even earlier thinkers such as Hume, Gibbon, and Voltaire (to name the most notable) had attacked Christianity and superstition, they usually did so under the cover of self-protective irony. Emerson, however, living in a less constricting age and society, was not inclined to pull his punches, either rhetorically or as a short-lived Unitarian minister. This is not to say that he was not agonized by risky decisions he needed to make with regard to his career as a sage. In his recently published Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance,12 Kenneth S. Sacks provides an intimate portrait of Emerson’s life during his most dangerous years. Fearful of alienating the audiences of his Lyceum talks, a major source of income, he was very cautious about what he said and didn’t say to laymen about religion and politics. By fellow intellectuals he was sometimes criticized for indecisiveness and a failure to follow through in the real world. Or attacked as a madman by traditionalists. But when push came to shove, Emerson plowed boldly ahead. The “American Scholar” and Divinity School talks can make a reader catch his breath even today, and his essays in general rarely fail to shock. The self-reliance he preached in lieu of conventional scholarship and historical Christianity was not the self-involvement of a besotted narcissist. On the contrary, as these things go, it was rigorously impersonal. So who or what was this self that warranted so much deference?
Emerson’s views changed markedly during his lifetime as he followed new developments in the sciences, so that he was faced with the acrobatic task of reconciling his growing acceptance of materialism with his sense of the spiritual foundations of the phenomenal world. In two of his most powerful late essays, “Experience” and “Fate,” Emerson makes it clear that everything derives from matter, including the mind, and there can be no “spiritual” self or “free will” in the commonly used senses of an incorporeal soul enacting unmotivated behavior, a nonsense concept. On the one hand, he remarks, “So far as a man thinks, he is free,” but on the other, he takes back a lot: “If we thought men were free in the sense, that, in a single exception one fantastical will could prevail over the law of things, it were all one as if a child’s hand could pull down the sun. If, in the least particular, one could derange the order of nature,-who would accept the gift of life?” Although he remained optimistic until the end, his thinking became progressively darker as his awareness of human constraints grew more cosmic. he saw human beings as completely woven into the material web of the universe. There was only one sort of substance, not two. No Cartesian dualism could infect his sense of a monosubstantial universe that embraced all things.
Yet despite his willingness to countenance so much darkness, Emerson, like his existential theological offspring described above, needed to have some kind of escape valve from “meaninglessness,” because he saw the universe as a whole and human life in particular as essentially “moral,” despite their radical materiality. Morality indeed had been the theme of his early book Nature, the unity of mind and world, and it remained at the center of his thinking until the end, despite the considerable metamorphoses induced by science. In “Fate,” the escape valve was Power, the human ability to countervail, to outwit the chains of causation through intelligence and creative thinking. “Intellect annuls Fate,” he optimistically declared. Man “betrays his relation to what is below him-thick-skulled, small-brained, fishy, quadrumanous,-quadruped ill-disguised, hardly escaped into biped, and has paid for the new powers by loss of some of the old ones. But the lightning which explodes and fashions planets, maker of planets and suns, is in him.” This is the sort of marvelous stuff that makes Emerson so lovable after two centuries, even if he noted but didn’t want to expatiate on thinking as part of the same chain of causation as everything else. “Even thought itself,” he remarks, “is not above Fate: that too must act according to eternal laws,” but after noting it he conveniently forgets it in order to proclaim the emancipating force of brainpower.
How, then, are we to make sense of his contradictions, his hard-boiled realism and his Cloud Nine Romantic idealism? What could possibly reconcile the existential self, human “freedom,” the Oversoul, and the universe, somehow joining them together into a reasonably coherent view of reality? The answer seems to be that for Emerson, as surprising as it may seem, science in general and evolution in particular (indisputably visible in the quote just above) generated the spiritual glue that held his worldview together.
In her recent definitive book, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth, Laura Dassow Walls gives us the most thorough picture available of the massive role of the sciences in Emerson’s thinking, speaking, and writing.13 “A complete survey of Emerson’s reading in science would fill many volumes … : Goethe, Schelling, Lorenz Oken, Georges Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Fourier, Laplace, Adolph Quetelet, Davy, Faraday, Lyell, Kerschel, Alexander von Humboldt, Agassiz, Darwin, and Tyndall, among others.” Although “his most intensive reading in science occurred from 1830 to 1834, the years leading up to and following his resignation from the ministry and his first trip to Europe,” he “continued to read widely in science right into the 187Os.” The open-endedness of scientific discovery coordinated well with his sense that reality was “becoming” rather than “being,” and the ability of the sciences to bestow order on the universe reinforced his sense of reality as mind-driven, rational, moral. His visit in 1833 to the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris provided a powerful moment, recorded in his notebook, in which he saw specimens of insects, birds, and animals artfully arranged to reveal their phylogeny, in his words “an occult relation between the very scorpions and man,” or as Walls describes it, he saw “the organizing idea which had created them.” From the earliest essays and lectures, his writings are dominated by scientific references and figures of speech. he absorbed changes in scientific doctrines as they occurred and incorporated their lexicons into his rich and quirky prose.
Very early on, more than thirty years before Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Emerson had begun to use evolutionary language to describe the organization of life on this planet. His contemporary and friend, Moncure Conway, a minister with his own religious crises, remarks in his autobiography: “We who studied him [i.e., Emerson] were building our faith on evolution before Darwin came to prove our foundations strictly scientific.”14 And in his Emerson at Home and Abroad, he dwells for several pages on the Darwinian aspects of Emerson’s thought: “It was perfectly clear to him that the method of nature is evolution, and it organized the basis of his every statement.”15 Conway even recognized what we now would describe as Emerson’s existentialism: “The old phrases ‘Supreme Architect,’ ‘Almighty,’ ‘Providence,’ had become fossil to him whose deity had become subjective.” Yet there is almost no comment about Darwin in all of Emerson’s writings beyond obiter dicta about obtaining or reading a copy of Origin. Conway makes tantalizing allusion to a discussion he had with Emerson about Darwin when they met in Cincinnati, but what they said remains a cipher beyond his own reference to their circle as “pre-Darwinite Evolutionists.” Ralph Rusk, editor of the Emerson letters, ventures a tentative footnote that begins, “Emerson, who had been for many years an interested spectator of the march of science and a student of earlier speculations on evolution, must have been deeply stirred by Darwin’s great book,”16 but Laura Walls seems convincingly on target when she dryly remarks, “When Emerson came to read Darwin, which he did in 1860, he saw nothing he had not seen before-a fact that reveals little about Darwin and a great deal about Emerson.” What he had already seen were the writings of Lyell, Cuvier, Lamarck, Tyndall, Robert Chambers, and a host of other writers who touched, in one way or another, on evolutionary subjects before Darwin. None of these writers posed a threat to Emerson’s belief system because, as Conway put it, “Emerson held no such theism as could be affected by any scientific discovery or opinion.”
The most penetrating account of Emerson’s saturation with evolutionary ideas is still Joseph Warren Beach’s “Emerson and Evolution” from 1934.” Beach traces the evolution of Emerson’s ideas about evolution, from his early Coleridgean years involving a static “scale of being” with man at the top, more or less familiar from Pope’s “Essay on Man,” to a quasi-Darwinian assent to the “transmutation” of species, with the higher emerging from the lower. In the 183Os, Emerson accepted the notion of a not as yet evolutionary progress toward human beings, especially after the impact of his visit to the Paris museum: “There has been a progressive preparation for him [man] . . . the meaner creatures containing the elements of his structure. . . . His limbs are only a more exquisite organization-say rather the finish-of the rudimental forms that have been sweeping the sea and creeping in the mud.” Beach sees Emerson’s reading of Lyell and Lamarck as planting seeds that were “bound to sprout,” moving him past the “scale of being” stage and its supposition of a divine intervention that produced new species, to an increasingly evolutionary one, as in his second essay on nature: “It is a long way from granite to the oyster; farther yet to Plato and the preaching of the immortality of the soul. Yet all must come, as surely as the first atom has two sides.” By 1844, when he read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, it was, as Beach describes it, “the most plausible and comprehensive view of evolution that Emerson had ever encountered. But so familiar was this way of thought by then that it caused him neither shock nor excitement.” Chambers, however, rubbed Emerson the wrong way theologically: “What is so ungodly as these polite bows to God in English books? . . . Everything in this Vestiges of Creation is good, except the theology, which is civil, timid, and dull.” In 1854, he proclaimed that “the creation is on wheels, in transit, always passing into something else,” but he added a critical caveat: “The ends of all are moral, and therefore the beginnings are such . . . everything undressing and stealing away from its old into new form, and nothing fast [i.e., locked in place] but those invisible cords which we call laws, on which all is strung [emphasis added].” Moreover, the laws of nature and the laws of thought were the same, so that if their true order were to be found, the poet could “read their divine significance orderly as in a Bible.” If this were so, then “Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements?”
Emerson’s most startling and definitive statement on this subject appeared in a lecture from 1858:
You do not degrade man by saying, Spirit is only finer body; nor exalt him by saying Matter is phenomenal merely…. You will observe that it makes no difference herein whether you call yourself materialist or spiritualist. If there be but one substance or reality, and that is body, and it has the quality of creating the sublime astronomy, of converting itself into brain, and geometry, and reason; if it can reason in Newton, and sing in Homer and Shakespeare, and love and serve as saints and angels, then I have no objection to transfer to body all my wonder and allegiance.18
By the time Darwin’s Ongin appeared in 1859, Emerson’s evolutionary views had been pretty well formed.
Both Joseph Beach and Laura Walls, however, see Emersonian doctrine as falling far short of Darwinism. “The more he learns of natural history,” Beach writes, “the more certain he is that it is all a projection of the mind, an expression of the inherent moral purpose of the universe which is found in the human spirit.” Emerson was so disposed to see the laws of nature as intrinsically ethical that he took for granted that ethical concepts were embedded in “the intellectual system of the universe. he never glimpsed the idea that ethical concepts may be themselves the product of evolution [emphasis added].” Laura Walls, in a new essay on Emerson and Victorian science, sums him up as “a transcendental idealist, not a transcendental realist, willing from the start to concede, even celebrate, the role of the mind in making experience possible.”19 And given the practical orientation of his morality, in the final analysis she characterizes him as a pragmatist who never really understood the Darwin “who deposed Providence and enthroned chance as the governing power of the universe. This was the lesson of natural selection, the engine that drove evolution and Darwin’s real innovation.” Emerson saw order where Darwin saw happenstance. But Emerson’s order was not the fiat lux! of an external Providence that directed the universe. Zeus and his Christian avatars, after all, were dead. Rather, for him it was the internal rationality of the constituent elements of the universe itself. And herein, as Walls so aptly points out, lay Emerson’s biggest misunderstanding of all: “The key here lies in Emerson’s understanding of ‘laws of science,’ which starting in the twentieth century came to be merely descriptive rather than constitutive, but which in Emerson’s day were still understood to ‘govern’ nature, such that they should also ‘govern’ us.” Thus no transcendent lawgiver was needed since the raw materials of the universe were themselves legislative. The religious enterprise of the individual self was to decipher these laws through the promptings of its deepest being, an existential task that entailed the casting aside of society’s anachronistic directives in order to find “the truth for me.” For Emerson, the “problem,” whatever it was, had been solved. But for us? What finally can we make of it all at this late date?
Re-reading Emerson for the first time in four decades, I saw light bulbs flashing in ways that would have been impossible forty years earlier, before the Darwin-inspired “Modern Synthesis”20 and the growth of today’s cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology. And just as it is necessary now to give a heliocentric interpretation to an older text’s geocentric conclusions in order to try to understand what the author was driving at, there is no way I can now read Emerson as if the Modern Synthesis had not taken place.
Had Emerson lived his life several decades later, into the early years of the next century, when William James21 and Nietzsche were familiar presences, the residues of his nineteenth-century German Romantic Idealism would have faded even faster than they were doing. Emerson’s “spirit” and “spirituality” had already become less and less numinous, more and more material. His monism came to settle on matter, not thought, as the primal substance, and his gradual movement away from the ghostly immanence of the transcendent (whatever that oxymoron could have meant) into the somewhat less ghostly moral “law” embedded in matter follows a clear pattern. In 1836 he could write, “Idealism sees the world in God” as phenomena. But in 1837 he would tell his audience, “Out of unhandselled22 savage nature . . . out of terrible Druids and Berserkers23 come at last Alfred and Shakespeare.” More and more he refers to “human nature,” to one universal mind that becomes less and less transcendent, to babes, idiots, and savages being closer to nature. His familiar and unfamiliar quotables trace an evolutionary development that blurs the distinction between one and all: “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men”; “In all conversation between two persons tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature”; to “involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due”; “all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws”; and “Strong race or strong individual rests at last on natural forces, which are best in the savage, who like the beasts around him, is still in reception of the milk from the teats of Nature.” By 1858, “God” was just a figure of speech, and he was saying, “Spirit is only finer body.”
The meaning for us (if I may steal Emerson’s existential thunder) is patent: the Oversoul, the immanent laws, the universal mind and what pre-exists in it, and even “God,” as Emerson uses these terms, are what today we would refer to as human naturebut now understood in the terms prevailing in the postDarwinian cognitive sciences. Put very crudely, it means that everything human comes from the biochemical stuff of which we have been made throughout our evolutionary history. Nothing comes simply from “outside” because consciousness mediates all experience-and consciousness has evolved along with everything else. Nurture is not outside. Everything experienced by a subject is ultimately immanent. In a sense that Laura Walls did not think of when she correctly remarked that “the laws of science” are descriptive rather than legislative, human ethics and spirituality really are legislated by the stuff of which we are composed. (Recall Joseph Beach’s remark that Emerson “never glimpsed the idea that ethical concepts may be themselves the product of evolution.”) Given creatures like us, with bodies and brains like ours, “human nature” necessarily produces the myriad arts, sciences, ethics, customs, and religions that comprise the totality of human cultures-as well as the savagery from which they arise. No adventitious spooks are required to account for this-the “laws” of biochemistry and physics are spooky enough. Emerson’s bothersome “Self,” in which he had so much confidence, was not the narcissistic “Individual,” who sometimes turns out to be a savage “Berserker” suited to a story by Joyce Carol Oates. The “Self for Emerson was impersonal, universal. It was radical human nature. Radical, as in “of the roots.”
At the end of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker thoughtfully appends an alphabetized list of universally found characteristics of Homo sapiens, taken from Donald E. Brown’s Human Universals. The list is long, but here are a few representative samples: aesthetics, anthropomorphization, beliefs about death, body adornment, classification, collective identities, cooperation, crying, dance, empathy, figurative speech, good and bad distinguished, incest avoidance, jokes, kin groups, language, logical notion of same (and different), males more aggressive, moral sentiments, music, nouns, overestimating objectivity of thought, rituals, self distinguished from other, shame, statuses and roles. Here are found the springs of the legislated “ethics” inscribed in the universal “Self.” Emerson lived in a period in which “spirit” and “transcendence” and “Oversoul” were still some of the ways of talking about these things. A hundred fifty years later, the Oversoul is biochemistry is evolution is spirit is culture is ethics is human nature.
In recent decades the distinction between nature and nurture has gradually been eroding. Even after dismissing the foggy notion of “free will,” few cognitive thinkers consider us automata driven by inflexible genes. Matt Ridley’s recent Nature Via Nurture, Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, Quartz and Sejnowski’s Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, William Calvin’s A Brain for all Seasons, Pinker, E. O. Wilson, and the others are gradually arriving at a view of genes as devices that switch on and off depending on environmental and mental/physical states, as well as brains that physically alter on the basis of experience. Matt Ridley gives example after example in which it is impossible to call a human response genetic or cultural or experiential. Thinkers such as Peter Singer and Roderick Nash had already spoken of the widening circle of human empathy (as in the case of animal rights), which they saw as evolvements of human nature as developed by culture. Still, survival generally requires looking out for Number One, so nobody expects a human nature that prefers “the other” to one’s individualized self, though the Darwinians speak of “inclusive fitness,” the proclivity of non-reproducing people to abet the procreation of their more fit kin. Human nature, even amidst barbarity and Berserkers, is inscribed with ethics after all.
Emerson’s existentialism is in sharp contrast with the visions implied by his heirs, the existential theologians quoted above. Despite their eagerness to trash historical Christianity and its superstitions, in their heart of hearts they long for a renovated orthodoxy with a new and vaporous lingo to replace the old, even as they hang on to a body they have killed and eviscerated, befuddled about how they can bring it back to life. Emerson’s worldview, repelled by orthodoxies, was open-ended, evolving, unspecified, rejecting all incarnations as strictly pro tern. Apart from his belief in what I here am calling human nature, he had no institutional doctrines to offer. He would feel quite at home with the legacy of Darwin and its recent cognitive developments. Like Darwin himself, Emerson lacked a sense of tragic finality, even as his purview continued to darken. My guess is that he found the last sentence of Origin of Species worthy of assent: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
I would also venture to guess that Joyce Carol Oates and I, now forty years down the pike, would have a meeting of the minds were we to resurrect our bygone, half-joking argumentations about that troublesome old Oversoul.
May it rest in peace.
1 EMERSON, by Lawrence Buell. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $29.95.
2 THE ROMANCE OF INDIVIDUALISM IN EMERSON AND NIETZSCHE, by David Mikics. Ohio University Press. $49.95.
3 Barbara Packer, “Origin and Authority: Emerson and the Higher Criticism,” in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. by Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge, MA, 1986). Unattributed quote in the rest of this section is also from Packer.
4 Passages from Kierkegaard are taken from Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Preparation for a Christian Life, and Fear and Trembling.
5 It is worth calling attention here to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, still perhaps the definitive work on the historicity of the past and the impossibility of understanding it in its own terms.
6 For a more sympathetic account of Kierkegaard, written during the years when Joyce Carol Oates and I were arguing about Emerson, see: Harold Fromm, “Emerson and Kierkegaard: The Problem of Historical Christianity,” Massachusetts Review, Vol. IX, No. 4 (Autumn 1968).
7 Rudiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Cambridge, MA and London, 1998), p. 166. See also Harold Fromm, “Wrestling with Heidegger,” The Hudson Review, Vol. LI, No. 4 (Winter 1999).
8 John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia, 1963).
9 In Radical Theology and the Death of God, by Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton. (Indianapolis, New York, Kansas City, 1966).
10 Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring 2000).
11 Chicago and London, 1979.
12 UNDERSTANDING EMERSON: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, by Kenneth S. Sacks. Princeton University Press. $29.95.
13 EMERSON’S LIFE IN SCIENCE: The Culture of Truth, by Laura Dassow Walls. Cornell University Press. $36.95.
14 Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography, Memories and Experience. (Boston and New York, 1905), vol.1, p. 281.
15 Moncure Daniel Conway, Emerson at Home, and Alrroad (Boston, 1882), pp. 154, 157.
16 The, Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Ralph L,. Rusk (New York, 1939), vol. 5, p. 195.
17 University of Toronto Quartetrly, vol. 3, 1934, pp.474-97.
18 The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Athens, Georgia and London, 2001), vol. 2, pp. 97-8.
19 Laura Dassow Walls, “‘If Body Can Sing’: Emerson and Scientific Naturalism.” Emerson Bicentennial Essays, ed. by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society/Northeastern University Press, forthcoming 2004.
20 For the background to this, see the first part of my essay, “The New Darwinism in the Humanities,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. LVI, No. 1 (Spring 2003).
21 James, like Nietzsche, was a more than casual admirer of Emerson. In 1903 he delivered a eulogizing address on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
22 Seems here to mean “untested,” “untried,” “primitive.”
23 Murderous Viking warriors.
Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2004
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