To «meet» Emerson.
Those who have met Ralph Waldo Emerson do not consider him just a philosopher among other philosophers. Only those who have merely read him may think so, in the weak light of a book-learning approach, and that is what usually happens with most of the thinkers, even though quite original and talented.
«My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread of straw he carries in his bill into my web also» (Self-Reliance).
As a matter of fact, it happened that I made Emerson's acquaintance in a similar way, perceiving that scent and hearing that hum, not only because such experiences are really contained in those pages, hidden between the lines, but also because, obeying an inner voice, last summer I would carry those two books, Representative Men and Essays, wherever I went, wood, rock, where squirts of salt water or drops of a sudden, graceful rain would bathe the printed characters and the covers, while grains of sand, ground and bits of withered leaves would be trapped between the pages, which by then had become part of the scenery.
This suggested to me that a book, perhaps, is not merely a book but a living thought if it is able to bear without damage, or better still making the most of itself, not afraid of the unintentional injury, the bold innocence of the weaves and the grip of the summer sun. If nature bursts into it from everywhere, with the voices of the universe mixing themselves with the words, and commenting on their clear senses, expanding and developing them, so as to become symbols and metaphors of the infinite.
That's why when I started writing this Introduction I was certain that it would have been inappropriate to deal with this thinker observing the conventions that usually deal with this kind of writings. So I resolved, instead of writing, first and foremost, "on Emerson" and his work, to tell a story--How it happened that I met Emerson; or, the way he went into my life and became my friend--well knowing, nevertheless, that the best way to do so is one I am still looking for, of which this is only an advance. I mean that I will have to go beyond Emerson.
«Be yourself!», the "Sage of Concord" keeps repeating to me, like that Nietzsche (1)--keenly respectful, though very far from him--who proclaimed that he had no disciples, and said «Become what you are!» (1). Nevertheless both Nietzsche and Emerson had followers, though never encouraged (2). But Emerson had friends, like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, who honored him more with their own greatness than by proclaiming themselves Transcendentalist or, which is the same, Emersonian.
To go beyond Emerson?
If the best way to honor Ralph Waldo Emerson is to get one's own way without hesitations and timidity, even by sharply disagreeing with him on fundamental matters, the fascination and the inspiration will remain for ever, as well as the faculty of rising the tone of the speech beyond what is natural to expect. Here is the Emerson beyond whom, I believe, it is impossible to go. Here is the unique vibrations, the mysterious harmony of a mystic harp which seems to come down from the Platonic World of the Ideas, archetype which you can imitate, not reproduce but as nostalgia and dream. Isn't the whole of your life, after all, hung on dreams and nostalgia? «There's no road has not a star above it»--Emerson writes in his Journal. So he is a star for everything he is not to be compared to anyone else. He is the spring in its everlasting, amazing coming back, and in winter is the nostalgia of springtime.
Really masters are necessary.
A book found by pure chance.
It was by pure chance that I was allowed to be acquainted with Emerson. One day, in the early 70's, I bought in a remainder book-shop, probably the one situated in Piazza San Silvestro, in Rome, Gli uomini rappresentativi (Representative Men), a reprint of the 1944 Italian edition. I had never heard the Author mentioned, but vaguely, even though I was a student of philosophy. So I don't know why I bought it, perhaps because I liked the title, and moreover some "representative men" were such for me too, in a very personal spiritual hierarchy and above all Montaigne.
I took the small volume home, I had a look at it, which was enough to realize it was worth while reading, but in due course. So it happened that I didn't read it. However I kept it within reach ... until 1997! It is remarkable that, without knowing the reason, the book stayed for ages in a bedside table's drawer, among the three or four I usually read before falling asleep. Only two of them were never replaced, the Holy Bible and Gli uomini rappresentativi. The former because I would read it almost every night, the latter because I had always to start reading it, but wouldn't come to a decision. Why? Nowadays I think I have realized the reason, but in the course of those years I hadn't the faintest idea of it.
Finally it happened that I came to a decision, and I started reading. The time was ripe for it, the tesseras were gradually finding their places. It was a discovery, but without fanfare. It was like to face a fine image of myself, whom formerly I had caught only a glimpse of, and since then I would have accurately measured and sounded out in a very magnanimous way. It was a revelation which was expressed in the straightforward language of a clear, promising spring morning.
«A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. »
Here is the incipit of a revelation which can be written on the rocks or on the bark of a pine. The Wind Rose that sometimes comes to me and lets me have a glimpse of the most daring distances. There you have Africa, here is the Orient in a flooding, clearest light. Over there, opaque, the Western Lands stretch. Behind there the white North. Down here, from the Holy Land, the scream of the Prophets pierces the silence.
«To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,--and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.» (Self-Reliance)
But if this "self-reliance" can make everyone the Wind Rose of himself, it is Nature which shows us the way. Nature being metaphor of the divine, that is, in Emerson's language, of the Over-soul.
I had reached the stage where I was crossing the threshold of a new world. And I was perfectly aware of it.
«Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions ... » (Nature, 1836)
Therefore philosophy discovers its own inadequacy, at least until the moment in which one «learns from nature the lesson of worship». Then that essence (Spirit) which «refuses to be recorded in propositions»,
«when man has worshipped him intellectually, the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to leave back the individual to it.» (Ibid.)
«When man has worshipped him intellectually....»--so philosophy is uplifted to the Ineffable drawing of that Nature which «always wears the colors of the spirit».
Here is the central role which Nature comes to assume in Emerson. But let's see what this word exactly means for him:
«Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.» (Ibid.)
Well, let's be careful, the Emersonian idea of Nature is very wide! But Nature is "only" the symbol of the Spirit.
«From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.» (The Over-soul)
It is the other side of the "self-reliance", without which the latter would assume some Nietzschean nuance.
When the sailing-ship «Emerson» weighs anchor and lets herself to be leaded by the blowing winds deriving "from within", namely from her own soul, she realizes that words are utterly inadequate. And how could it be otherwise?
«Within man is the soul of the whole». «By yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith». (Ibid.) The soul of the whole speaks, lives, breathes in every man. All the virtuous actions, all the heroic and merciful acts, every wisdom and nobility tribute a spontaneous worship and naturally submit to it. Every act, thought, speech that the individual attributes to itself, finding in itself its own "ubi consistam", is blind and fragile. There is the seed of every moral and spiritual decline.
«I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold».
«Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.» (Ibid.) To the simples this wise «simplicity» speaks and every clue appears meaningful. Though «too subtile», «undefinable», «unmeasurable» this pure nature «pervades and contains us», constitutes the whole. And its reflection on Nature can annihilate in a flash the fatal effects of an overwhelming influence of the senses, which is evident in most of the human beings, as long as we don't «interfere with our thought» and we «act entirely».
Emerson calls that «Revelation».
«We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime. For this communication is an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life. Every distinct apprehension of this central commandment agitates men with awe and delight. A thrill passes through all men at the reception of new truth, or at the performance of a great action, which comes out of the hearth of nature. In these communications, the power to see is not separated from the will to do, but the insight proceeds from obedience, and the obedience proceeds from a joyful perception.» (Ibid.)
Emerson & America
Like an explorer I had reached the heart of the "continent Emerson" and had found on my way many riches. But I had dumped a good deal of ballast.
The scenarios I had been gazing at, of a pure and wild beauty, would remind me of the ones I had seen in a great country I had been traveling all over, some years before--the United States of America.
Really it doesn't take long to realize that the boundless American nature, with its astonishing variety, is always recalled in Ralph Waldo Emerson's lectures, and is one of the most important keys to an understanding of his thought.
Therefore, in a sense, I may say that my discovering Emerson has been a further exploration of that magnificent country. But also in another sense I might say the same thing. As a matter of fact, apart from the nature, Emerson and America are reflecting each other in regard to attitudes of mind and views of life, and perhaps he is as "American" as America is "Emersonian". As Josiah Royce noted, «Emerson would feel and speak as an American» and that is why, with The American Scholar (1837), according to the famous judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he wrote «the American Intellectual Declaration of Independence».
In other words, America made Emerson as well as Emerson made America.
«American idea, Emancipation, appears in our freedom of intellection, in our reforms, & in our bad politics; has, of course, its sinister side, which is most felt by the drilled & scholastic. But, if followed, leads to heavenly places.»
This is the "political Emerson", a censor of concrete America of his days in the name of an ideal America he would propose to his fellow countrymen with his volcanic power, emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity--«We live in Lilliput», he complains--, between an indignant protest and the blazing faith in one democracy to come, founded on the soul, and not on constitutions, governments and banks--nothing but idols.
«In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.»
«Governments have their origin in the moral identity of men.» (Politics)
What is most important, for Emerson, is that no state, institution and economic system can assume the right to constitute a higher principle than the Individual. He is on the same wavelength as his friends Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Carlyle by dissociating from both the alienation of the individual under the conditions of modern production and the way many contemporary Americans were, «with their vast material interest, materialized intellect, & low morals», he writes in his Journal in 1851.
As a result, one can, must, distrust state and government.
«Hence, the less government we have the better, - the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the prxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation. That which all things tend to educe, which freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and deliver, is character; that is the end of nature, to reach unto this coronation of her king. To educate the wise man, the State exists; and which the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State.» (Politics)
Is this utopia? It may be so, at least as long as we declare even the idea of emancipation, in the most comprehensive sense of the word, to be such. Certainly Emerson shows a way, an attitude of mind. Nevertheless, this apotheosis of individualism, pragmatically, suggests to him anything but extremist behaviors. He gets angry with bankers and politicians, but by advancing solid arguments. Yet in 1835 he writes in his Journal:
«Let Christianity speak ever for the poor & the low. Though the voice of society should demand a defence of slavery from all its organs that service can never be expected from me. My opinion is of no worth, but I have not a syllable of all the language I have learned, to utter for the planter. If by opposing slavery I go to undermine institutions I confess I do not wish to live in a nation where slavery exists... »
In 1844 he delivers a fiery, emotional speech calling for the abolition of slavery, and in 1851 he flings himself at the Fugitive Slave Law by delivering the former of two addresses on this subject (he makes the latter in 1854). «If our resistance to this law is not right--he says--there is no right». And he writes in his Journal :
«This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it by God.» (3)
Above all it would be amazing to see the symbiosis of two faiths almost always antithetical--that in the aristocracy of the spirit, and that in the liberté-egalité-fraternité principles.
This was the last discovery. If I think about the depressing political exhibitions of these days, it is quite comforting knowing that one can go on believing in democracy without being forced to agree its unbearable sectarianism, degeneration, and vulgarities, by its false prophets passed off as temporary accidents or inescapable counterbalances, finding out wonderfully confirmed the truth of which one has never to be ashamed--that the spirit is steadily, happily on democracy's side.
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