Emerson’s Incarnational Method

Right at the beginning of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson writes:

Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals.  The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these sides, to find the other.

I take this to be a method–Emerson’s method.  For us, raised as we have been to believe that there is a gulf fixed between sensation and morals, the method is hard to imagine.  To play the game one way, finding the morals in sensation, seems romantic.  To play the other way, finding the sensation in morals, seems crass.  And anyway, what exactly is Emerson saying?  Facts have sides?  They can be rotated, reoriented, so that the apparent side changes?

I am not really going to answer these questions.  Instead, I want the asking of them to provide the occasion for saying this:  Emerson writes scripture.  As he says in his essay on Goethe, “we too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.”  This is a close to a skeleton key to Emerson as I know.  The broad outlines of Emerson’s work become clear when we reflect on it.  Christian dogma treats Jesus, the God-Man, as the one who unites the heavens and the earthly world.  Emerson will dispense with the dogma but without dispensing with its structure:  the heavens do need to be united to the earthly world.  Jesus was taken to have done that in fact, ontologically, we might say.  But for Emerson Jesus is a man, merely a man.  Jesus, like Montaigne and Goethe, is a representative man, the greatest of representative men.  Still, a mere man.  For Emerson the Incarnation–the uniting of the heavens to the earthly world–is not something that has been done.  It is something that must needs be done.  Incarnation, for Emerson, is not so much a fact or a point of departure; it is more a conquest and a goal.  He writes toward it.  He writes his Bible.

Emerson urges his readers to unite the heavens and the earthly world in themselves; he asks his readers to become Incarnations.  Well, that is not quite right:  he reminds his readers that they are always already Incarnating, becoming more fully Incarnations than they are; his readers are to strive toward an ever more perfect unity of the heavens and the earthly world in themselves.  The heavens and the earthly world need to more fully interpenetrate one another.  The centerpiece of Emerson’s understanding of human greatness–this is it.  Over and over Emerson reminds and urges his readers:  Incarnate yourselves!

For Emerson, each human being is and is called to Incarnation.  Emerson begs us to hear and heed that call.  Because we are Incarnations we can hear it.  Because we can become more fully Incarnations we must heed it.

Emerson’s line about facts is an Incarnational method, a reminder that the good gamester of thought always understands each fact in relation to the heavens and the earthly world, and always works to reveal one when the other threatens to eclipse it.  To fail in the method is either to become a Docetist or an Ebionite about yourself, about everything, it is to leave your task of uniting the heavens and the earthly world undone.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Emerson’s Incarnational Method | Le Perfectionnisme | Scoop.it

  2. That’s why Emerson is closer than we may thought to a jewish tradition (The star of redemption from Rosenzweig!) or to express it in another way that it was not unnatural for Stanley Cavell to make Emerson a Jew (the writing of Thoreau being also a kind of Scripture for Cavell).

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