Philosophical Films:


"Play it Again, Sam"

 

Philosophical Connection

In this case Being One's Self is so obviously the main theme of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as well as that of the film, that no pointers are needed. What may be useful is a reminder that the texts concerning Kant and Marx are also relevant for an understanding of individual identity.

Emerson: Being Oneself

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the leading thinker and writer of the New England Transcendentalists. New England Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement that flourished in Concord, Massachusetts and the surrounding region during the decades before the Civil War. Its major philosophical conviction--inspired by Kant's Transcendental Idealism--was that genuine human knowledge does not come from passively receiving sense impressions and social indoctrination from outside, but originates with the creative intuitions of thinking and acting individuals. In his own words Emerson characterizes this Idealism in his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalists" as follows:

As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. These two modes of thinking are both natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is the higher nature.

Emerson was born in Boston, where he started writing poetry at the age of nine. From 1817-1821 he attended Harvard College, after which he taught at a school for young ladies for a few years. He enrolled at Harvard Divinity School and then held several posts as Pastor and Chaplain. In 1835 he moved to Concord, where (apart from two trips to Europe) he spent the rest of his long life. There Thoreau became a close friend.

In 1838 he delivered his notorious address at Harvard Divinity School, which was too unorthodox for the majority of his listeners, and which was attacked at the time as "the latest form of infidelity." He was not invited back to Harvard for almost thirty years. Finding the pulpit at last too much of a constraint, he resigned all church-related positions and embarked on a career as writer and lecturer. Like most New England Transcendentalists, he favored and worked for progressive political causes: He supported the Abolitionists, protested against the eviction of the Cherokees from their ancestral lands, collaborated with Margaret Fuller, an early Feminist, and strongly sympathized with a number of social and educational reform movements. As a writer Emerson was highly successful, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. (Nietzsche, e.g., was one of his early and lifelong admirers.) Toward the end of his life, Emerson was acknowledged to be America's leading man of letters.

"Self-Reliance" (1842) is probably Emerson's most important and best known essay. Its explicit theme is a most radical concept of personal autonomy--a concept which justifies the description of Emerson as the foremost philosopher of American individualism. The essay's sub-text is the concept of living in the present, or timelessness--a concept that is closely connected with the idea of radical self-reliance. Following are some characteristic passages of the essay:

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for ll 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. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought.

Trust thyself!--every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlor what the pit is in the playhouse: independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by. He tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests; he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him; he does not court you. But the man is as it were clapped into a jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observes again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence--must always be formidable.

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each stockholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying 'What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?' my friend suggested: 'But these impulses may be from below, not from above'. I replied: 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil'. No law can be sacred to me but the law of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think hoe easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbados, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant, love the wood-chopper, be good-natured and modest, have the grace, and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home'. Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it--else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pulses and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost: Whim. I hope that it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or exclude company. Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee thou foolish philanthropist that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be, but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies--though I confess with shame I some times succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think you know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

"The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,--under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,--the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we do not know where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean 'the foolish face of praise', the forced smile that we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping willfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.

"For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlor. If this aversion had its origin in contempt or resistance like his own he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college? It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid, as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.

"The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency: a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing your orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

"But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do...

"What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, while all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

"Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,--means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it,--one as much as another. If therefore a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripening being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light: where it is, is day; where it was, is night: and history is an impertinence and an injury if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.

"Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think', 'I am', but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blooming rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are: they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he, too, lives with nature in the present, above time.

"And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;--the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea,--long intervals of time, years, centuries,--are of no account. This which I feel and think underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.

"Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. ..."

It is evident that Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is a perfect example of what de Tocqueville called "the philosophical method of the Americans." What the French historian observed as a pattern of social behavior, Emerson formulated as an explicit philosophical doctrine: An individual is true when he or she is entirely unencumbered by either social pressures or the dead weights of tradition. A true individual's life is personal in the most radical sense.

That this radical individualism is the culmination of a historical process, de Tocqueville already mentioned when he drew a line from Luther and Descartes to the Enlightenment and from there to the culture of the United States. In the case of Emerson this line of development can be shown to be even more closely related to the specific evolution of the Reformation--to what one might call the inner logic of Protestantism.

The single most important difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is the Protestant insistence on every individual's immediate relation to God, a relation which has no need of a mediator in the form of a priest, a church hierarchy, or a dogmatic interpretation of scriptures. This is why Luther translated the Bible into his native tongue, and why Protestants everywhere encouraged ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves. (At the time the Catholic Church felt so threatened by the idea of people interpreting scriptures for themselves that Tyndal, the first translator of the New Testament into English, was garroted and burned at the stake when he was captured by the Spaniards.)

It did not take long, however, for Protestantism to develop its own orthodoxy and authoritarian church structure. Many Protestants felt, therefore, that they had to break away from an establishment again, and in the process they radicalized their individualism with regard to spiritual matters. The Pietists, for example, taught that God's message was not necessarily tied to the letter of the Bible, but rather to its spirit, i.e., to what a faithful individual experiences while reading scriptures. Inspiration or intuition became more important than the externality of any text, although this was, of course, an intuition which was informed by a community of devout Christians. The spirit's independence from the mere letter of the Bible is, however, the precedent on which Emerson based the main point of his Divinity School Address: "[Truth] cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What [another] announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing."

Such sentiments were, of course, too radical for more conservative Protestants, and Emerson's fall from Harvard's grace testifies to the degree to which radical individualism was then experienced as a threat even among Protestants. Nevertheless, Protestantism continued to split into ever smaller sects because too many Protestants insisted on their personal understanding of scriptures instead of bowing to any clerical authority. Emerson was a member of the Unitarian church, one of the least dogmatic congregations in the history of Protestantism. Even this congregation, however, became too stifling in the end, and eventually caused Emerson to sever all ties to organized religion. The reason for taking this step had been foreshadowed in the Divinity School Address: "That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being. Already the long shadows of untimely oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever."

The underlying principle of this permanent Protestant revolution is an ever more radicalized relation between the inner and the outer. At the time of the Reformation it was the Bible as God's original word which was the inner as opposed to the externality of church, dogma, and ritual. Later the inspired interpretation of scriptures was the inner as opposed to the external text of the Bible. Finally it was intuition as such--independently of any external condition--which became the revelation of truth, and with this a logical development of Protestantism had found its ultimate consummation.

The Protestant emphasis on the inner as opposed to the outer finds expression in Emerson's deep passion to always live life from the inside out, and to avoid any tendency that attaches the spirit to externals. His remarks on the aesthetic culture of his day in "Self-Reliance" are typical: "Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also." Authentic is only that which comes from one's self and one's own situation; copying forms or expressions which others have created under different conditions is a loss of self, or a sign that one's own self is in a bad way.

The will to live out of one's self, rather than out of external resources, connects Emerson's Protestant heritage with a philosophy of time which in Western philosophy originates with the thought of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus lived during the 6th century B.C. in the Greek city of Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor. He is counted among the more important of the pre-Socratic philosophers, although very little of his writing has survived. What has survived has come down to us in the form of quotations by later Greek philosophers, and these quotations have often been altered and embellished by the writers who quoted them. Among the few quotations which are considered genuine by today's scholars are statements like "As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them", "War is father of all and king of all", and "Corpses should be thrown out quicker than dung." Yet, in spite of the scarcity of authenticated statements, Heraclitus has had a profoundly inspiring presence in the history of Western philosophy. He stands for a conception of being which is mostly antithetical to mainstream thinking, but which has had a significant effect on several thinkers who themselves became very influential.

Heraclitus's philosophy is usually summarized in the statements "Panta rei" ("Everything flows"), and "You cannot step into the same river twice." What these statements imply in terms of philosophy is the idea that nothing is as permanent as it appears to be, and that a wise way of living will not aim at any permanent states or possessions, but at living fully at every moment in the flow of time. Any notion of permanency is an illusion.

The principle of constant change applies to individual things as well as to the world as a whole, and to material things as well as to states of mind. Living things, of course, are very obviously subject to change; it is part of their definition that they come into being, that they grow and decline, and that they are mortal. Inanimate things, by contrast, seem to be permanent; rocks or mountains have often served as images of stability. Upon closer inspection, however, nothing can be said to persist forever; everything is subject to change. Realizing this, a person will look at the world with different eyes:

The human body seems to last at least for a lifetime, but in reality every cell in it will be replaced several times before the organism disintegrates. The body begins to look like a process rather than an entity. And in a civic sense a person is the same individual when she is born and when she dies, but in reality there is hardly any identity between a baby and an old woman. Marriage is expected to make a relationship between two people permanent, but the people change, and so does the relationship; the changes in the end turn out to be more significant than anything that seems to stay the same. Social systems, such as Feudalism or Capitalism, can exist for hundreds of years and be perceived as immutable and "natural." Yet, in the long run they turn out to be as perishable as watermelons or teeth. One may say that some things are comparatively more permanent than others, but in an absolute sense nothing can be said to exist forever. Reality is characterized by becoming, not by being. Change in every form, therefore, permeates all human affairs and relations as well.

Since everything changes, it would be unwise to try to live as if anything were permanent. Practical wisdom consists in adjusting to the impermanence of everything, and in living flexibly and with open horizons. Hanging on to earlier phases of one's self, for example, or clinging to past periods of one's life, is an inclination that a wise person will overcome. Thus Walt Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass:

O living always--always dying!
O the burials of me, past and present!
O me, while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever!
O me, what I was for years, now dead. (I lament not--I am content):
O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them!
To pass on, (o living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind!

It is not known whether Whitman knew Heraclitus's recommendation that "corpses should be thrown out faster than dung," but it is clear that Whitman's poem as a whole is an enthusiastic expression of Heraclitean wisdom. And so is Friedrich Nietzsche's poem "Ecce Homo" (Latin for "See, What a Man"):

Yes, I know from where I come!
Insatiable like the fire
Do I glow, consume myself.
Light is everything that I seize,
Ashes everything that I leave:
Fire am I without fail.

The metaphor of the poem describes a way of life which always transforms static mass into kinetic energy--accumulated possessions into actual, vibrant experiences. Existence, for Nietzsche, is not static, but a process; a life of self-abandonment and self-overcoming is wiser than a life of anxious self-preservation. "Fire--need and satiety" is another of Heraclitus's fragments. For Heraclitus fire is as much a symbol of change as the flowing waters of a river. Fire is a particularly apt symbol for a Heraclitean life because it transforms energy that is stored in dead matter into active energy, rather than the other way around. Most people are active to accumulate, to ultimately find rest. Heraclitus is the visionary of life as movement that keeps moving, as movement that does not aim at its own termination. "The way is the goal," as the Zen Buddhists put it.

Whitman and Nietzsche both admired Emerson, and the Heraclitean element in Emerson's writings undoubtedly was a major point of basic affinity between the three writers. Emerson in turn had a deep appreciation for Goethe, and he may have been familiar with Goethe's poem "Blissful Yearning" (published in 1806; here newly translated by Robert Kramer). The poem is yet another variation on the theme of life as a process. Its central metaphor is the death of a moth in the fire of a candle. Usually this image is used as a warning against foolish self-destruction by something that is attractive and deadly. Goethe is aware of this common interpretation. He offers his alternative vision to a minority of individuals who are prepared to let go of an old life as a precondition for gaining a new one: "Die, so that you may live." This can, of course, be understood religiously, as an image of death and resurrection. But in the thinking of the notoriously "pagan" Goethe it was taken as a metaphor for willingly dying to an old self in order to arrive at some sort of self-renewal:

Tell it to no one except the wise,
for the crowd will jeer and call you names:
The creature I most highly praise
is he who yearns for death in flames.

In the cool of night, where Eros calls you,
where you were conceived, where you begot,
a strange sensation soon befalls you
as the candle burns so still and hot.

No longer captive must you stay
within the dark of shadows waiting,
for new desire sweeps you away
and onward to a higher mating.

Now you draw near in spellbound flight,
though long you fare , you do not tire;
and finally, longing for the light,
you, moth, are all consumed in fire.

Until you know that this is best:
die--to find rebirth,
you will be but a gloomy guest
upon this darkening earth.

Emerson's Heraclitean orientation manifests itself in many ways--in "Self-Reliance" as well as in other inspirational essays. Whether he advises against the fetishization of past authorities and traditions, or whether he polemicizes against the "foolish consistency" of someone who does not dare to change his mind, whether he reminds the reader of the timeless existence of the rose, or whether he insists that any time is as good for living and creating as any other, the underlying assumption is always that existence is a process, and that the only time to really be is now: "Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases at the moment of repose. ...[Man] cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present--above time."

These considerations make it quite clear, incidentally, that Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance cannot be used to defend the acquisitive egoism which characterizes most of the capitalist economy and its ideological apologies. Emerson may be the foremost spokesman for American individualism, and there are in his writings passages like the polemic against helping the poor through charities and philanthropies ("Are they my poor?"). But this does not add up to a defense of the inalienable right to pile up riches, or a philosophical protection against the re-distributive taxation that political conservatives habitually oppose. Emerson would be a dubious ally of today's property-oriented libertarians. Toward the end of "Self-Reliance" he writes: "And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature."

How little acquisitiveness and possessiveness are part of Emerson's idea of a self-reliant person becomes strikingly clear when one reads Emerson's poem "Give All to Love" (from his collected poems of 1847):

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-fame,
Plans, credit, and the Muse,--
Nothing refuse.

'Tis a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
It dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
Untold intent;
But it is a god,
Knows its own path,
And the outlets of the sky.

It was not for the mean;
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
Valor unbending;
Such 'twill reward,--
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.

Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,--
Keep thee to-day,
To-morrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy-free;
Nor thou detain her vesture's hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
From her summer diadem.

Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
Heartily know,
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.

At first sight Emerson seems to advocates a paradoxical position. On the one hand he recommends following the passion of one's love unconditionally, to give up everything else in one's life for one's ardent love. On the other hand he recommends resisting the temptation to make the beloved person one's own, to turn her or him into a quasi-possession. On the one hand one's life is to consist entirely of loving the beloved, on the other hand one is to radically respect the beloved person's separateness and independence. On the one hand the beloved person is to be all in one's life, and on the other hand one is to be prepared at any moment to let the beloved person go. There seems to be an incompatibility in these recommendations, an incompatibility between the passionate desire of a lover, and the demand to keep oneself free of the beloved person--"free as an Arab."

If Emerson were a rationalist, there would not be any dilemma. In Kant's or Woolstoncraft's thinking, e.g., the passionate desire to make a beloved person one's own, i.e., to limit another person's autonomy in any way, would simply be recognized as an irrational emotion which would have to be controlled and suppressed by one's reason. In a conflict between passion and reason the latter would always take precedence in a mature and rational individual. In an Enlightenment context, in other words, respect for the autonomy of one's self and of other persons would always be the highest value, and an individual, even if troubled by feelings of love or jealousy, would always know what is right, and what to do.

Emerson, however, was not a rationalist. He belongs to Romanticism more than to the Enlightenment. Although he understood himself to be a Kantian in that for him any kind of knowledge originates in the self, and not in the outside world, he was quite different from Kant in that for him the innermost self was not reason, but rather "intuition", "instinct", or "spontaneity"--faculties that are not rational, but closely connected with deep passions and the dark drives of the body. Emersonian self-reliance is therefore not so much a matter of following one's rational deliberations, but rather the living out of one's untutored and perhaps primitive desires and feelings. In Emerson's individualism the impulses from "below" are not to be blocked or suppressed, but to be recognized and heeded as vital aspects of one's true self.

What reason is there, then, for Emerson to respect another person's autonomy? People who are passionately in love with someone are usually not so much concerned with that person's autonomy, but rather with their overwhelming desire to be close to the "object" of their love. And when they discover that the beloved person may have an interest in someone else, that they themselves may not be the exclusive source of deep joy in the beloved's life, disappointment, anger, hurt, and possessive jealousy are the most common reactions. Not infrequently the hurt feelings of passionate lovers turn into wild accusations, jealous rage, manipulative behavior, or even violence. There is a whole range of typical behaviors that suggests that love and possessiveness are deeply connected, that it is in a way natural for any lover not to respect the autonomy of the beloved. But if passions are superior to reason, if the passions are one's true self, and if one is "to give all to love," why should one not give in to the desire to make another person one's own by any means available? Why is it not all right for a lover to use all the manipulative means that people have developed to keep a beloved person within reach, if not under control--temptation by material wealth, enticing lingerie, the skillful activation of feelings of guilt, the coordinated pressure of relatives, or the legal sanctions of marriage?

The answer lies in Emerson's conception of the person as a process--a process as opposed to an immutable entity, a thing-like substance. Akin to the flame in Nietzsche's poem, the loving self exists as the process of feeling and desiring, not in the having secured the goal of his or her love. The lover's desire may consist in wanting to reach a goal, in the passionate wish to fulfill the desire in one way or another. But the important thing for Emerson (who in this respect, too, is a typical Romantic) is nevertheless the desire itself, not its end. To secure the affection of another person would be like acquiring property, and thus a loss of self-reliance. It would be an investment of myself in what I have, rather than in what I am. It would be self-alienation. Emerson (like Thoreau) repeatedly refers to the Arabs as an ideal that contrasts favorably with the Western way of life. He was thinking, of course, of the nomadic Arabs, the Arabs who were not tied to a particular place, whose lives were not weighed down by an excess of possessions, whose tents and furnitures were simple and not cluttered with material objects, and whose existence was therefore one of intensive experience and deep feeling, rather than one of dissipation in superfluous externalities. Their nomadic, unencumbered way of life is a symbolic as well as direct representations of Emerson's concept of existence as process. (An old joke put it this way: "Why are Arabs such good lovers?" "They do everything in tents".)

To keep oneself "free as an Arab" means to remain oneself, to remain a being that is in motion, and to resist the temptation of settling in something like a permanent place or a secured possession. That may not always be easy. To see a beloved person take an interest in someone else may be a crushing experience; it may look like the end of everything worthwhile. The urge to prevent such an occurrence, to spare oneself the feeling of such pain, may be overwhelming. Fear of this pain may prompt people either to never "give everything to love," or to tie down a beloved person by every means possible, even if it is clear that the beloved person has no interest in being the object of such obsessive attention.

Both ways are betrayals of one's self. Genuinely being one's self requires that one allow one's passions and feelings to develop without reserve, and that one experience their consequences to the fullest, whether these consequences are elating or painful. "Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us have the rattle in our throats and feel cold in our extremities; if we are alive let us go about our business," Thoreau wrote. It is one of the central tenets of New England Transcendentalism that life not only be lived by seizing the moment, but also by being open to the truth of life in a way that has become foreign to Western humanity.

It is not unnatural for people to avoid risks and hardships, to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of life, and to seek repose after exertion and turmoil. Periods of spiritual renewal and religious innovation are regularly followed by church-building and dogmatic ossification, and social or political revolutions often end with new hierarchical structures and ideological orthodoxies. The storm and stress of passionate relationships are routinely expected to end in the regularities of sanctioned marriages. Unavoidable as these tendencies may be, however, Emerson exhorts his readers to be on guard against them, as they indicate an inevitable diminution of life. What is valuable for him is not a new church, but the inner renewal which may lead to one. And what is important in revolutions is not the new society, but the awakening of the people that brings it about. "The one thing in the world of value is the active soul," as he puts it in "The American Scholar"--the process, not the product. And so it is not in the satisfaction of having the person that I love, but in the desiring of the beloved, wherever that may lead. If it leads to a deep loss, so be it. The loss itself is part of life as much as is death. "We crave only reality" when we truly are ourselves, and in the unabridged experience of this reality we fully live our life and grow. In the second stanza of his poem Emerson describes love as a "god." One may wonder what exactly he means when in the last stanza he says that "when half-gods go/ the gods arrive." The most likely reading seems to be that it is the departure of the beloved which is likened to the going of the half-gods, while the exact meaning of the arrival of "the gods" is deliberately left open. The important decision of the lover is to keep no hold on the beloved, even though he (or she) has given all to love. This decision opens up reality to the lover in a way no possessiveness will ever allow. It is because of this openness that "the gods" can arrive--new kinds of persons, insights, artistic creations, or whatever transcends a former stage of life.

An idea of what may come after a profound loss which is not plastered over with substitutes or pain-killing diversions is indicated by the following poem by Al MacDougall (first published in Nightsun #4 in 1984):

"Collapsed Star"

Now, head bruised, eye black,
far outside inner circles
and yet within the very center,
I glow like the night itself

from a Greek diner in the Bronx
at midnight,
and my anti-light
plays like a spray
over cities here
and thousand miles away.

It is an x-ray
separating men from their wealth,
and the black light
makes space vivid
with their human shapes and more.

I am the birth,
flinging men forth
out of prisons.

I am the whispering stranger,
and my strength
is tremendous as sin.
Call me the Depression.
Welcome me in!
I am the liberation of opposites.
Bearing the flames
of transfiguration I come.
See them flicker and alternate!

First my fires are jet black,
then through the hole
in my dark forehead it pours--
the streaming pure white
flame of night.

(From Jorn Bramann: Traveling Light, Copyright © 1998))

Back to top of the page
Back to Philosophical Films
Directory