Emerson on Montaigne 1

Here is one of the great passages in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne:

Let us have a robust manly life, let us know what we know for certain.  What we have, let it be solid, and seasonable, and our own.  A world in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.

This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic, this of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting, doubting even that he doubts, least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good.  These are no more his moods, than are those of religion and philosophy.  He is the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own foe; that conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other.  It is a position taken up for better defense, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained, and it is one of more opportunity and range; as, when we build a house, the rule is, to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.

The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility.  The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion  A theory of Saint John, and of nonresistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial.  We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first, and limber as the second.  We want a ship, in these billows we inhabit.  An angular dogmatic house would be rent to chips, and splinters, in this storm of many elements.  No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea.  The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwellinghouse is built.  Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature.  We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errours, houses founded on the sea.

The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players…

The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own, some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success:  that he has evinced the temper, stoutness, and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust.  For, the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness.  Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers.  Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having itself a positive quality, some stark and sufficient man…These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.

Emerson here complicates together a remarkable number of lines of thought.  It will take me more than one post to identify some and to follow them out.  The line of thought I want to identify and follow out now is the characterization of Montaigne’s skepticism Emerson offers.

What strikes me about what Emerson offers is its modulating from an epistemological, through a moral and finally to an existential register.  Montaigne’s life is skeptical, he lives skeptically.  But that is not to say of his life that it centers on doubt.  Like Kierkegaard’s Climacus, Emerson’s Montaigne mistrusts De Omnibus Dubitandum Est.  For a skeptic of Montaigne’s sort, any reconsideration on knowledge is not ultimately so much epistemological, an attempt to determine how much, and exactly what, we know, as  axiological, a reconsideration of the value and place of knowledge in our lives.  What we need, we might say, is shipshape knowledge, knowledge fit for our billowy life.  The point is not whether knowledge is possible, but what value knowledge can have in a properly solid and intelligible way of living.  The secrets of life do not yield themselves up to epistemological methods, not even the method of doubt, but instead to a life lived in wise limitation–where that limitation is experienced, either by the person living it or those living lives he touches, as a fullness, a kind of charm–as something to rally to.  It is not experienced as mere self-denial, as a disownment of robustness, good temper, stoutness.  Quite otherwise.  The wise limitations limn the soul of man, allowing it to be taken as the blueprint for a house always already launched on the sea, built and rebuilt afloat.  It is with the sea that we need to find sympathy and likeness.

We believe that above the surface of the water, in the sky, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success; we believe that below the surface of the water, in the depths, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success.  But a world in the hand–on the surface of the waters–is worth two in the bush, whether we figure the bush as sky or depths.  We want to live without having to adapt, despite the fact that adapting is what we do, natural to us.  But Montaigne will have us adapt, have us exercise our skills and strive for success.  Compared to the bush-worlds, the world Montaigne tells us we are in is a world in which we must be gamesters, must be game.  But we can play the odds, so to speak, and build neither too high nor too low.  We may not have security but we can defend ourselves.  Our seafaring lives can be both stark and sufficient.

More On Emerson’s Incarnational Method

I intend to get to Emerson on Montaigne, really to get to it, soon.  But I find myself wanting, needing I guess, to say more about what I turbidly called “Emerson’s Incarnational Method“.  I was drawn to that phrase because it seemed, and still seems to me to educe something deeply important in Emerson, something both inspiring and difficult.  I addressed the inspiring last time.  I want now to address the difficult.  I do so with hesitancy, for reasons that should be apparent momentarily.

A common complaint about Emerson is that he lacks a sense of tragedy.  There is something to that.  Recall the awful scene of Emerson having Waldo exhumed, so that he can see that Waldo is dead, that Waldo’s dust is returning to dust.  Emerson wants to think and write Incarnationally; he wants to live that way.  But he cannot manage it resolutely.  (Can anyone?)  When writing to read in public, he tends always to see the relationship of fact to morals, to see the heavens in the earthly world.  And this makes him, and his urging his readers toward self-reliance and self-obedience, too Docetist.  He has a hard time with the hard facts, with the facts in relation to sensation. He writes from a luminous sense of omniscence, of omnipotence:  everything is transfigured, aglow with uncreated light.  But in his writing for himself, in his living, he finds that he is a dwarf, omni-nescient, powerless.  He is too Ebionite.  His son is taken from him in the sixth year of his joy, but Emerson cannot accept that.  Death, in particular the death of Waldo, seems like the triumph of sensation over morals, a putting-out of the uncreated light, darkness.  As he puts it in a journal entry (the one I am weaving into this post), he knows himself defeated constantly, but believes he is “born to victory”.

It strikes me that Emerson lacks a true sense of the sacramental.  (I believe this shows itself in Emerson’s (mis)understanding of religious ritual.)  For Emerson, creation itself is and should be sacramental, and the Incarnation he is and strives better to be is itself an instance of the sacramental, and is oriented toward the fullness of the sacramental.  The Incarnation finishes the sacramental activity of creation. Emerson needs to see the material as itself what realizes the spiritual, the tangible as what itself what realizes the moral.  But he all-too-often sees the material as opposed to the spiritual, the tangible as opposed to the moral.  So seeing, he all-too-often confronts facts divided, divided into the side that is related to sensation and the side that is related to morals.  So seeing, he becomes overwhelmed with the material, with sensation, and cannot find his way out of the darkness.  He would have Waldo immortal; he cannot imagine Waldo resurrected:  he is left with Waldo dead.  –How can someone born to victory be so defeated?

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.

Emerson Finds Montaigne

…[S]ince the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne my be unduly great, I will, under the shield of the prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a world or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip.

A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the essays remained to me from my father’ library, when a boy.  It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes.  I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.  It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.  It happened, when in Paris, in 1833, that, in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, I came to a tomb of Auguste Collignon, who died in 1830, aged sixty-eight years, and who, said the monument, “lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne.”  Some years later, I became acquainted with an accomplished English poet, John Sterling; and, in prosecuting my correspondence, I found that, from a love of Montaigne, he had made a pilgrimage to his château, still standing…and, had copied from the walls of his library the inscriptions which Montaigne had written there.

“I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.”  My life has been punctuated by books:  Plato, in high school; Plotinus and Schopenhauer and Santayana, in college; Kant and Austin, in graduate school; Wittgenstein and Frege, in my first years at Auburn; Marcel and Montaigne, in recent days.  Who knows what book will speak to him?  Or when?  But some books do speak so sincerely to our thought and experience that we cannot help but believe those books written by us–for how else could they have so undeniably been written for us?

Often when we read, the book says to us, “Your concern is not mine.  My hour has not yet come.”  But then, later, the book’s hour does come, and it reveals itself on time:  emerging from a pile of books knocked over in the corner of the study; called forth by some phrase in another book; mentioned repeatedly in conversation:  and then we read, we drink deep; the good wine was kept until now.  I simply cannot say with what delight and wonder I read Philosophical Investigations when I found I could read it, when its hour had come.  The thrill of the Preface to Foundations of Arithmetic had me running, more or less, up and down the department hallway, trying to get anyone whose office door was open to listen to me as I read passages from it aloud.  When I read Frege’s Three Principles, I had the feeling of great doors flung open suddenly–something I desperately wanted to understand was opened to me, even if it was not yet mine.  I think too of littler things:  the comic marvel of Austin’s footnotes; the incisive charm of Sellars’ occasional metaphilosophical pronouncements (“The landscape of philosophy is not only not a desert, it is not even a flatland”); and so on.  The many and varied pleasures of philosophical reading.

Emerson lived with Montaigne’s essays.  He did not just read them.  Our lives are read within our favorite books; the books are not read within our lives.  The covers of our favorite books enclose us.  Our lives are bound by our reading.

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