In a Grain of Sand

Although Emerson’s essay “Nature” seems somewhat formal and stilted when seen in the light of Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden Pond, it is a remarkable document in and of itself and reveals the importance of “Nature” in transcendentalism. Emerson begins with the simple assertion that beautiful, natural places heal a man and make him feel better and, at their best, such places seem like sacred places. He then goes on to suggest that great man-made places are great because they integrate nature into those places. The great works of the mind, literature, poetry, and science, are also really a tribute to nature. Over time, however, man has fallen while nature, in contrast, still seems whole. Emerson argues, though, that man and nature are inseparable for “man carries the world in his head.” It is because we have lost sight of our relationship to nature that we come to identify ourselves with our thought and overestimate that thought. According to Emerson, the only way to recover our true selves, and our true greatness, is to rediscover our identity with nature and to once again feel nature running through us.

In the 1850’s, as today, men, particularly men who live in cities, seem to seek out nature as an escape from city life:

The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.

It seems a little amazing that people in the 1850’s were doing exactly the same thing people are doing today, except that today there are so many people trying to escape to nature that it has become nearly impossible to escape man and his civilization.

Emerson argues, though, that you do not have to truly escape the civilized world to find nature’s sanctuary:

It seems as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains, the waving rye-field, the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical steaming odorous south wind, which converts all trees to windharps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames; or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sittingroom, -- these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.

I suspect that this is the very reason you find so many web sites that include a picture of a flower that has just begun to bloom. People have rediscovered nature’s beauty in their own yard. It may not be a total escape to a beautiful location, but it connects us with “the most ancient religion.”

In fact, our attempts to create beautiful yards, temporary sanctuaries from work and the craziness of the city, are really little more than attempts to tap into this ancient knowledge:

He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence. This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves, to back their faulty personality with these strong accessories.

Many cultures, particularly those cultures where land has been at a premium of taken the art of gardening to new heights. For me, the art reached its peak in the Japanese Gardens.

Though Emerson seems to be exaggerating for rhetorical effect, he argues that:

Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret, concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us.

While this is an obvious overgeneralization, the great Romantic literature of the time certainly took this advice to heart. For that matter, Romantic literature is probably the only literature that really interests me, so maybe Emerson isn’t exaggerating too much.

Emerson argues that because man has fallen nature seems so grand to us.

Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man. By fault of our dulness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us. We see the foaming brook with compunction: if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook. The stream of zeal sparkles with real fire, and not with reflex rays of sun and moon

This quotation also suggests that when we rediscover the “nature” within us we will be as grand as nature itself. This is probably the most radical idea in the essay: that nature and man are one, that any division is merely a division of a mind run astray. Seen in light of later essays, this sense of nature suggests the Oversoul that is the essence of all things.

Emerson, like Blake, feels the world is whole, that it is possible to see everything in its parts

If we had eyes to see it, a bit of stone from the city wall would certify us of the necessity that man must exist, as readily as the city. That identity makes us all one, and reduces to nothing great intervals on our customary scale. We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural. The smoothest curled courtier in the boudoirs of a palace has an animal nature, rude and aboriginal as a white bear, omnipotent to its own ends, and is directly related, there amid essences and billetsdoux, to Himmaleh mountain-chains, and the axis of the globe.

For the poet, this is virtually the same as Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the one Einstein apparently was unable to find. Of course, I think Blake has expressed the same idea more succinctly:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

Emerson extends this idea, suggesting that all knowledge of the world first comes from inside man’s head:

Man carries the world in his head, the whole astronomy and chemistry suspended in a thought. Because the history of nature is charactered in his brain, therefore is he the prophet and discoverer of her secrets. Every known fact in natural science was divined by the presentiment of somebody, before it was actually verified. A man does not tie his shoe without recognising laws which bind the farthest regions of nature: moon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and numbers.

I must admit, though, that the scientist in me still has a hard time accepting this view of reality. I, like most people, still have the feeling that there is an objective, physical world outside of us that operates according to the laws of physics, though, of course, we are both subject to the same laws.

If Emerson asserts that man is one with nature and that both are perfect, then he has to account for how man has lost the ability to recognize this:

But the craft with which the world is made, runs also into the mind and character of men. No man is quite sane; each has a vein of folly in his composition, a slight determination of blood to the head, to make sure of holding him hard to some one point which nature had taken to heart.

and

Each prophet comes presently to identify himself with his thought, and to esteem his hat and shoes sacred.

In essence, man has cut himself off from nature through his thinking. Instead of being one with nature, man contemplates nature as something separate, something outside of himself. The more man thinks about it, the more cut off he feels. And, still, we sit at our computers writing about nature instead of going outside to work in the garden.

If we are foolish to fight with nature or to attempt measure our strength against her, we may well feel alienated. In such a world we may feel like those modern artists whose philosophy was ironically labeled “Naturalism.” These artists felt man was merely a victim of natural forces over which he had little or no control. In a time of despair, it’s easy enough to adopt such a philosophy:

We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons. If we measure our individual forces against hers, we may easily feel as if we were the sport of an insuperable destiny. But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and, over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form.

Emerson argues that the only way to avoid feeling like a victim of “destiny” is to re-identify with the forces of nature and to realize they are part of us. By doing so we can overcome our feelings of helplessness:

After every foolish day we sleep off the fumes and furies of its hours; and though we are always engaged with particulars, and often enslaved to them, we bring with us to every experiment the innate universal laws. These, while they exist in the mind as ideas, stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men.

In the end Emerson seems to come full circle, arguing that, though it is our thinking that cuts us off from nature, “nature is the incarnation of a thought:”

The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.

Nature, in essence, isn’t a thing, but, like thought, is an essence. The “things” of the world are “mind precipitated.”

Sounding a little like a Zen priest, Emerson advises:

Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time.

In other words, Be here, Be now. Live the moment, and you shall have no need of further wisdom.

Instant Karma Gonna Get You

Emerson is about as close as I get to formal religion, and at times I even wish he would write his essays less like sermons and more like rhetorical essays. Still, when I read an essay like “Compensation,” I remember why I was drawn to his writings in the first place, for Emerson manages to bring religion to our everyday life, and his argument somehow manages to make idealism seem pragmatic.

Just how he manages to do this might best be illustrated by contrasting his view of “Compensation” with the orthodox Christian view:

I Always wanted to be Ralph Waldo Emerson

Unfortunately there are two many differences between us for me to even think of emulating him. He was serene by nature, living in one place, practicing a simple Yankee practicality and piety. “He thought ‘noble things’ of God. His place on this earth preceded the Civil War, airplanes and autos, computers and the Internet.

For Emerson the world could fit together like a solved Rubic’s Cube. In the pastoral setting of Concord, Massachusetts, he wrote of the nature of the universe, constructing answers to life’s mysteries. After a Harvard education and entry into the ministry, he left his pulpit at the age of 29, finding he could no longer conduct communion with a whole heart to spend the rest of his life thinking, traveling to Europe, and gently living his life as a man who wrote.

Emerson to me has always been the more serene and confident of writer/philosophers. Of course, I have thought, he can be assured of his theories for very little had gone wrong in his life. He was able to attend Harvard, became a pastor of a Boston church, received fame and recognition for his writing, sailed to Europe and visited with Landor, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle. But Emerson suffered loss just as we all do. His first wife died two years after their marriage. A son by a second marriage died at the age of six. When Emerson was 69 years old his house burned. Emerson experienced the opposing forces of good, recognized calamity, received criticism for his work and understood such incidents were the taxes he paid for his productive life.


What would Emerson have written if he had lived in the twentieth instead of the nineteenth century? How would he have dealt with Osama Bin Laden, Enron, GW, cloning? His essays are so full of confidence and serenity they make me weep for that simpler time. And in this time of chaos, I wish everyone would read at least his essay “Compensation” and apply it to this time.

Emerson begins his essay

Ever since I was a boy I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation; for it seemed to me when very young that on this subject life was ahead of theology and the people knew more than the preachers taught.

People’s intuition is more powerful than expert discourse. From the insights of intuition would come “a star in many dark hours and crooked passages.” Emerson believed intuition was a universal part of every man, a skill “ahead of theology, perhaps better accessed by the people over the preacher.” Because all of us to some degree or another have intuition, we are all capable of understanding nature, choosing to construct right over wrong. There is no need for the expert to tell us what to do. As a leading Transcendentalist, Emerson reasoned we could all transcend the laws of man to reach a higher, more noble power to acquire insight.

Insight is based on the knowledge of the existence of compensation in all things. My definition of compensation is this: In nature is a balance between good and evil. A cheetah kills a deer for food. Good for the cheetah--bad for the deer. This balance extends into our world. Payment is made for every good in one’s life, and the opposite is also true: good can be found in every misfortune.

The Inevitability of Dualism

The first pages of Compensation explain this dualism and the fact that it is administered in this life as we live it on earth. We do not wait for heaven or hell of the afterlife to receive our reward or punishment.

In fact, the preacher is criticized and the parishioners admonished for not acknowledging compensation in this life--the preacher for assuming judgment “is not executed in this world; the congregation for accepting his word. Emerson saw this as a fallacy.

The fallacy lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring to the base estimate of the market of what constitutes a manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will; and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood

What was true was the Polarity, or action and reaction in

every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals;...

Emerson is very good at giving many examples to support his theory that an inevitable dualism bisects nature.

The cold climate invigorates. The barren soil does not breed fevers,
crocodiles, tiger or scorpions.

At first I thought there may be similarity of Compensation in Parmenides division of the world into pairs of opposites: “light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/nonbeing that Milan Kundera manipulates in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but the similarity doesn’t hold. Emerson patiently explains the duality exists in each entity as two parts of the whole and not on a continuum which would separate the opposing forces.

This same dualism must also be applied to man. I need to emphasize within each of us are found the two sides.

Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.

Don’t even think none of this applies to you. “Nature hates monopolies and exceptions.”

There is no way to tilt the scales in your favor, diminishing loss or grief. A balance exists in all things.

The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dear for his White House.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Though no check to a new evil appears, the checks exist, and will appear. If the government is cruel, the governor’s life is not safe. If you tax too high, the revenue will yield nothing. If you make the criminal code sanguinary, juries will not convict. If the law is too mild private vengeance comes in. If the government is a terrific democracy, the pressure is resisted by an over-charge of energy in the citizen, and life glows with a fiercer flame...

There is dualism in all things natural and man made.

These appearances indicate the fact that the universe is represented in every one of its particles...


Every occupation, trade, art, transaction, is a compend of the world and a correlative of every other. Each one is an entire emblem of human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its enemies, its course and its end...

The true doctrine of omnipresence is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb...If the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion; if the force, so the limitation...Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life...Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty. What we call retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears wherever a part appears.


Men seek to be great; they would have offices, wealth, power, and fame. They think that to be great is to possess one side of nature,--the sweet, without the other side, the bitter. This dividing and detaching is steadily counteracted...We can no more halve things and get the sensual good, by itself, than we can get an inside that shall have no outside, or a light without a shadow. There is a crack in every thing God has made.

Our action is over mastered and characterized above our will by the law of nature.

Harmony in this life is found then in the knowledge of how the natural universe operates and not in the attempt to oppose natural laws. I think of the scientists who are work on cloning, for example, and hope thought is given to the duality in the attempt. From successful cloning of animals may come benefit, but there will be a tax. At the moment I cannot think of any good that would come from cloning humans, thus upsetting the balance of nature.

The Recognition of Equity

Just as there is a balance in nature and in the institutions of man to acknowledge, there is also the recognition of equity in the social interaction between men and women. If equity among nations could be established what a peaceful world we could live in. It is the inequality among races and economies that lead to fear of the others. From fear comes the aggression and defense which cause wars.

All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear. While I stand in simple relations to my fellow-man, I have no displeasure in meeting him. We meet as water meets water, or as two currents of air mix, with perfect diffusion and interpretation of nature. But as soon as there is any departure from simplicity and attempt at halfness, or good for me that is not good for him, my neighbor feels the wrong; he shrinks from me as far as I have shrunk from him. His eyes no longer seek mine, there is war between us; there is hate in him and fear in me.

Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions.

The Compensation for Inequity

In the nature of the soul is the compensation for the inequalities of condition. The radical tragedy of nature seems to be the distinction of More and Less. How can Less not feel the pain; how not feel indignation or malevolence towards More?... The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases. His is mine. I am my brother and my brother is me.

I can yet love;...and the estate I so admired and envied is my own. It is the nature of the soul to appropriate all things. Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain. His virtue,--is not that mine? His wit,--if it cannot be made mine, it is not wit.

The Gift and Receipt of Favor

In order to maintain balance of equality, everyone must be aware of the goodness and benefit he receives and offer benefit to others in payment.

But for every benefit which you receive, a tax is levied. He is great who confers the most benefits. He is base,-- and that is the one base thing in the universe,--to receive favors and render none.

Human labor...is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that every thing has its price,---and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get any thing without its price,--is not less sublime in the columns of a ledger than in the budgets of state, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and reaction of nature.

The Battle between Virtue and Vice

Ever the optimist, Emerson thought virtue was in a constant battle with the forces of evil, an acknowledgment of how the dualism in nature works, that there is a constant tension between the two forces.


The league between virtue and nature engages all things to assume a hostile front to vice.

But misfortune exists. People lose money in the stock market, live with physical handicaps, bury loved ones. Just as there is a a tax to be paid for the good things that happen for us, there is also good to be found in tragedy.

The good are befriended even by weakness and defect. As no man had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him, so no man had ever a defect that was not somewhat made useful to him...Our strength grows out of our weakness.

Blame is safer than praise.

Thus do all things preach the indifference of circumstances. The man is all. Every thing has two sides, a good and an evil. Every advantage has its tax. I learn to be content.

The Compensation for Calamity

Such also is the natural history of calamity. The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men are advertisement of a nature whose law is growth...But to us, in our lapsed estate, resting, not advancing, resisting, not
cooperating with the divine expansion, this growth comes by shocks.

We do not believe there is any force in to-day to rival or recreate that beautiful yesterday...And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time.

A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. but the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius, for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wanted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.

...the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener is made the banian of forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods or men.

An acceptance of the natural balance in all things leads to serenity. This is also the attraction of Buddhism.

Exceptions to the Theory of Compensation

Some concepts are so powerful there is no compensating force.

There is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature. The soul is not a compensation, but a life.

Neither can it be said, ...that the gain of rectitude must be bought by any loss. There is no penalty to virtue; no penalty to wisdom; these are proper additions of being.


There is no tax on the good of virtue, for that is the incoming of God himself, or absolute existence, without any comparative. Material good has its tax, and if it came without desert or sweat, has no root in me, and the next wind will blow it away. But all the good of nature is the soul’s and may be had if paid for in nature’s lawful coin, that is, by labor which the heart and the head allow. I no longer wish to meet a good I do not earn, for example to find a pot of buried gold, knowing that it brings with it new burdens. I do not wish more external goods,--neither possessions, nor honors, nor powers, nor persons. The gain is apparent; the tax is certain. but there is no tax on the knowledge that the compensation exists and that it is not desirable to dig up treasure.

Is the theory of Compensation too romantic to be applied to life in the twenty-first century? Would we greatly benefit if such application were made?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Written in 1841

Diane McCormick

The preacher, a man esteemed for his orthodoxy, unfolded in the ordinary manner the doctrine of the Last Judgment. He assumed, that judgment is not executed in this world; that the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; and then urged from reason and from Scripture a compensation to be made to both parties in the next life.

In this version of reality, it’s assumed that the wicked may thrive here on earth, but they shall certainly be punished in the hereafter. And the good shall indeed suffer here in poverty, but they shall be rewarded in the afterlife for their virtue.

Emerson, of course, does not accept this version of reality, or he would have nothing to write about:

The fallacy lay in the immense concession, that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring to the base estimate of the market of what constitutes a manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will: and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood.

It certainly seems to me that that is a major, and unjustified, concession, though it may fit in well with the aphorism that the “meek shall inherit the earth.” One may even suspect that the very purpose of such lectures is to ensure the passivity of those attending service.

Emerson seems to base his overall argument on the concept that dualism is a necessary part of life:

An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

This dualism is found not only in material objects but in the very nature of man:

The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life.

Those of us who have been known to indulge one of our pleasure centers find it difficult to deny the common sense of his argument. Who can deny that too much ice cream brings its own pain while working out. On the other hand, work out too hard, and you’re in agony the next day. In some ways, this argument reminds me of Hegel who argued where “satisfaction through the external pursuit of power and property tends to be rejected in favor of the attempt to achieve an inner state of harmony and tranquility.”

Emerson’s argues that there is a leveling circumstance for all people:

There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others. Is a man too strong and fierce for society, and by temper and position a bad citizen, -- a morose ruffian, with a dash of the pirate in him;---- nature sends him a troop of pretty sons and daughters, who are getting along in the dame's classes at the village school, and love and fear for them smooths his grim scowl to courtesy.

Of course, this argument may not be quite as convincing as some of his other arguments. For instance, I’m not sure what kind of “leveling circumstance” it would take to bring Bill Gates down to the level of the ordinary man on the street. I’m not sure even Steve Jobs would wish such ill luck to fall on our friend Bill. Still, the bad luck that has befallen the Kennedy clan after Kennedy’s election makes anyone wonder if there isn’t such a force at work. Certainly “success,” at least as our society defines, it does not ensure that kind of success that many of us are trying to attain in our lives. *

Emerson makes an equally strong argument, at least when buttressed with two outstanding novels that followed shortly after his address, The Scarlet Letter and Crime and Punishment, that:

Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it.

Even modern psychology with its understanding of the subconscious seems to imply that secret guilt can be as destructive as overt punishment.

Every act rewards itself, or, in other words, integrates itself, in a twofold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature; and secondly, in the circumstance, or in apparent nature.

And while it may be questionable whether “Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certaintly,” there is at least a suspicion, as John Lennon pointed out, that “Instant Karma's gonna get you.

As he often does in his essays, Emerson resorts to mythology, that great reservoirs of human wisdom, to prove his point:

The Furies, they said, are attendants on justice, and if the sun in heaven should transgress his path, they would punish him.
Proverbs, like the sacred books of each nation, are the sanctuary of the intuitions.

While such sayings do not qualify as proof of an argument, they do suggest an enduring belief that such is true. Myths retain their appeal because they seem to capture universal truths.

Personally, my fondness for the absolutes of mathematics draws me to the following analogy:

On the other hand, the law holds with equal sureness for all right action. Love, and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.

This Swedenborgian reference to the power of love somehow rings true, though it may merely be due to my high school math teacher’s constant emphasis on balancing the equation and not to the validity of Swedenborg’s ideas. (though I was intrigued by the title of his most influential work, Heaven and Hell, and by the research that revealed that both Blake and Emerson were influenced by Swedenborg’s ideas)(So much to read, and so much yard work waiting to be done.)

Even if we are not totally convinced by Emerson’s argument, we are forced to consider the truth of lines like, “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.” I’ve certainly felt that way about the greatest “evil” in my life, the Vietnam War. Though I would give my very life to avoid repeating that disaster, I know that I learned more about myself and about human nature from my experiences there than through any other experience in my life.

For me, at least, it still remains to be seen whether the following is true:

And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.

Wisdom often seems to come at a high price, and our losses may well be part of the cost. At the very least, such losses teach us much about our selves and our beliefs. They are the proof that can only be known through the test.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that Emerson's concept of "compensation" seems valid to me. With a few obvious exceptions, you know, those that "prove the rule," life does seem to even out. At times it seems to me that our idea of "historical progress" is pure bull shit. There is no more happiness or unhappiness at one time then there is at any other time. You are either happy or you're not. No amount of material wealth can make you happier than the man who has no need for wealth.

What's more, if the truth be known, I’ve never wanted to be anyone but myself. An ex-girlfriend used to make fun of me for lacking imagination at Halloween because I could never come up with an idea for a costume. I lay the blame not on a lack of imagination, naturally, but on the fact that I never really wanted to be anyone but myself. I’ve never, even as a child, had a “hero” that I can remember. And I never wanted to live any life but the one I’m living now, though at times I certainly wish I had lived this one a little more wisely.

If life has taught me anything, it has taught me that the people I most admire are the people who truly live their lives according to their deepest beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a happier person than those I’ve known who lived a truly “Christian” life and demonstrated their love to others no matter how much money they might have had. They have no need of an afterlife.

Defining Transcendentalism

Download a copy of Emerson's essays at:

RWE

Although I doubt that the definition Emerson offers in “The Transcendentalist” is the ultimate definition of a “transcendentalist,” particularly since these artists disliked the term “transcendentalists,” it is as good a place as any to begin defining the term. Emerson begins by dividing the world into two broad categories, materialists and idealists, and identifying transcendentalism as a form of idealism as opposed to materialism:

What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842. 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.

In reality, this division seems nearly as old as philosophy itself:

In the order of thought, the materialist takes his departure from the external world, and esteems a man as one product of that. The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance.

This seems to be the same split that is seen between Plato and Aristotle. In light of Emerson’s definition, it’s easy to see why the transcendentalists were also sometimes known as Neo-Platonists.

Unlike the Platonists who tended to see the physical world as reflecting ideal forms or ideas, as described in Plato’s allegory of the caves, the transcendentalists see these truths as emanating from inside the individual:

Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.

Of course, Emerson doesn’t use “mind” in the sense that we usually think of mind, as he points out:

His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.

The mind is identified with the “Unknown Centre of him,” suggesting, of course, that even Emerson does not have an exact definition of this center, it is the ultimate mystery that lies at the center of our existence. In later works this unknown center seems to be identified with the Oversoul.

If we cannot directly see this “unknown center,” how can we know this mystery? Only indirectly, if we are to believe Emerson:

I -- this thought which is called I, -- is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax. The mould is invisible, but the world betrays the shape of the mould. You call it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me. Am I in harmony with myself? my position will seem to you just and commanding. Am I vicious and insane? my fortunes will seem to you obscure and descending

In this delightful metaphor, Emerson seems to suggest that we are man thinking. We can only truly know someone by how they shape their world. In addition, this metaphor emphasizes the fusion of the individual with the world, and the transcendentalists put particular emphasis on the individual.

The transcendentalists shared many characteristics with the European Romantics, who were reacting against Rationalism as manifested in science and in the industrial revolution. In fact, it has been argued that the transcendentalists are merely an American subset of the Romantic Movement. Certainly, they emphasized nature and the natural world just as European romantics did:

Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow.

And, like the Romantics, the transcendentalists emphasized intuition rather than logic as a means of attaining truth:

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them “Transcendental” forms.

In fact, Emerson seems to suggest that the reliance on intuition is the very essence of transcendentalism:

Although, as we have said, there is no pure Transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day; and the history of genius and of religion in these times, though impure, and as yet not incarnated in any powerful individual, will be the history of this tendency.

And, like the Romantics, the transcendentalists suggested that beauty and truth were identical:

But this class are (sic) not sufficiently characterized, if we omit to add that they are lovers and worshippers of Beauty. In the eternal trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, each in its perfection including the three, they prefer to make Beauty the sign and head.

As artists, of course, the transcendentalists emphasized beauty over truth:

We call the Beautiful the highest, because it appears to us the golden mean, escaping the dowdiness of the good, and the heartlessness of the true. -- They are lovers of nature also, and find an indemnity in the inviolable order of the world for the violated order and grace of man.

In emphasizing beauty as truth, the transcendentalists were clearly following in the footsteps of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Unlike many Romantics, though, Emerson seemed to be calling upon the transcendentalists to make a difference in the everyday world. He did not feel it was enough to escape the world:

The good, the illuminated, sit apart from the rest, censuring their dullness and vices, as if they thought that, by sitting very grand in their chairs, the very brokers, attorneys, and congressmen would see the error of their ways, and flock to them. But the good and wise must learn to act, and carry salvation to the combatants and demagogues in the dusty arena below.

One of the remarkable aspects of this philosophy that so emphasized individualism is that it also led to numerous reforms in society. These very people who found individualism so important found ways to also emphasize public good. Unlike many of their counterparts in Europe, the transcendentalists were actively involved in reforming society. Emerson’s desire to reform society is easily seen:

The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other, never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise; and, with the progress of life, the two discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves. Yet, what is my faith? What am I? What but a thought of serenity and independence, an abode in the deep blue sky?

Emerson clearly recognized the limits of Idealism and recognized the difficulty of living life successfully according to such a philosophy:

… there is no such thing as a Transcendental “party”; that there is no pure Transcendentalist; that we know of none but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal.

Despite such difficulties, Emerson became the leading advocate of this movement, so much so that he and the term transcendentalism sometimes seem synonymous.

A true definition of transcendentalism is probably only to be found in the varied works that this remarkable group of artists wrote. Certainly there are concepts like Oversoul that seem to be an essential part of transcendentalism that Emerson never even touches on in this particular essay.

Hopefully, the definition will become clearer in the discussion of several of Emerson’s essays that Diane and I will be covering for the rest of the week and in the discussion of other artists within the movement that will come later.

For more introductory material see Transcendentalists.com