Let the Force Be with You

About the time I thought I had Emerson figured out, I started reading “Experience” and decided I will have to dig a little deeper before I can make that claim. Compared to the anthologized works of Emerson I’ve been exposed to in the past, “Experience” seems much moodier and more pessimistic. Looking back, it adds new dimensions and depth to his more famous essays. I’m not quite ready to claim that I thoroughly understand this essay, especially since I’m reading it through my earlier misconceptions about Emerson, you know those ones promoted by your ex-high school teachers and ex-college professors.

[Luckily, this is a blog and I can come back and change anything I’ve written here any time I want, even if Google doesn’t realize that. Actually, I do that rather regularly, correcting typos and grammatical errors when I happen to re-read something I’ve written earlier. I’m still with Emerson when he says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” If you were wrong the first time, you were wrong. Fix it if you can, get over it if you can’t, and move on.]

Emerson begins his essay rather uncharacteristically, arguing that we cannot perceive reality:

Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

Not only do we lack perception, we often feel drained and lacking energy:

Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams.

Our life generally seems meaningless:

All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ’tis *wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue.

How ironic that the very escape from ordinariness confirms how boring and ordinary are everyday life is.

It seems truly extraordinary that someone who kept extensive journals of his life would say, “Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it.” If this genius shuns to record his life, what the heck are we doing trying to blog every day? Still, Emerson seems right on when he says:

So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.

In fact, original insights are damned hard to come by; most of us spend our lives rehashing the ideas of others and trying to make them our own.

The depth of Emerson’s emptiness is conveyed when he talks about his hope that suffering and death can somehow give meaning to his life:

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.

Most poignant of all is his admission that even the death of his young son has failed to make his life seem real:

Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.

The full depth of his despair is seen when he says, “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” If sorrow cannot teach us “reality,” what can? “Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.” Suddenly, Emerson begins to sound more like a modern-day existentialist rather than a Platonic Idealist.

He goes on to argue that our perception of reality is inevitably clouded by our temperament, and we are unable to perceive any true “reality:”

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.

When we are happy and good fortune shines on us, the Gods are wise and just. When bad luck befalls us, the Gods are arbitrary and fickle. Of course, our “moods” are not totally arbitrary; they are greatly affected by our own temperament:

Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature?


Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see. There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.

If we are foolish enough to let misfortune sour us on life, then how can we ever hope to see anything but misery in life?

For Emerson, not surprisingly, the greatest mistake is to fall into the illusion of science:

I knew a witty physician who found theology in the biliary duct, and used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver, the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound, he became a Unitarian. Very mortifying is the reluctant experience that some unfriendly excess or imbecility neutralizes the promise of genius.

Our witty physician sounds like modern psychologists, doesn’t he? No wonder modern readers under the sway of the physical sciences dismiss Emerson out of hand:

I see not, if one be once caught in this trap of so-called sciences, any escape for the man from the links of the chain of physical necessity. Given such an embryo, such a history must follow. On this platform, one lives in a sty of sensualism, and would soon come to suicide.

The reality, of course, is that physicians, if they are to have a personal life, have to live with the dilemma of viewing their patients as bio-mechanical devices to be treated as necessary while relating to families and friends on an entirely different level.

Amidst such despair, though, Emerson still sees hope in both the intellect and the heart. When we turn to these “higher powers” we awake from our nightmare:

But it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself. Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes. The intellect, seeker of absolute truth, or the heart, lover of absolute good, intervenes for our succor, and at one whisper of these high powers, we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare. We hurl it into its own hell, and cannot again contract ourselves to so base a state.

Even when inspired by intellect or heart, it is no easy matter to see behind the illusion to reality:

Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association. We need change of objects. Dedication to one thought is quickly odious.

The implication here is that there is no absolute Truth, truth is constantly changing; however, the reference seems ambivalent enough that he may be suggesting, instead, that Truth is difficult to find because it is static and our natural tendency is to be on the move.

In another relatively unusual statement for someone known for emphasizing individuality, Emerson says it takes the whole society and an understanding of failure and follies to find reality:

Of course, it needs the whole society, to give the symmetry we seek. The parti-colored wheel must revolve very fast to appear white. Something is learned too by conversing with so much folly and defect. In fine, whoever loses, we are always of the gaining party. Divinity is behind our failures and follies also.

Neither is it exactly clear what Emerson means by “dialectics” in the following:

Life is not dialectics. We, I think, in these times, have had lessons enough of the futility of criticism. Our young people have thought and written much on labor and reform, and for all that they have written, neither the world nor themselves have got on a step. Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve.

However, Emerson seems to imply that there has been enough talking about truth. What is required now is action. Action, muscular activity, not talking is the answer he suggests here:

There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency. Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question.

Although this seems like unusual advice for a man devoted to thinking about life, it is what he clearly implies here. Strange word, “sturdy.” Well-mixed people? Well-mixed in what sense?

More strange terms appear in the following quotation:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them. Under the oldest mouldiest conventions, a man of native force prospers just as well as in the newest world, and that by skill of handling and treatment. He can take hold anywhere. Life itself is a mixture of power and form, and will not bear the least excess of either. To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

and later

Human life is made up of the two elements, power and form, and the proportion must be invariably kept, if we would have it sweet and sound. Each of these elements in excess makes a mischief as hurtful as its defect.

It’s not all clear what Emerson means by “power and form” here, nor do I remember the terms appearing in other essays I’ve read so far. However, “native force” in this context seems to suggest some kind of innate life force, especially considering his advice about not thinking too much. (Critic Newton Arvin describes power as, “The fact of personal force, of superior vitality, of great individual energy aroused such enthusiasm in him that he was willing to make allowances for the irregularities to which these qualities might conduce.”) Form is obviously the opposing force to “power,” but it’s still not clear to me exactly what it means.

Clearly, Emerson is moving toward an active rather than meditative view of life. Happiness, escape from life’s meaninglessness, comes from tapping into the vital force:

I would gladly be moral, and keep due metes and bounds, which I dearly love, and allow the most to the will of man, but I have set my heart on honesty in this chapter, and I can see nothing at last, in success or failure, than more or less of vital force supplied from the Eternal.

Success or failure has less to do with morality or conformity than with the ability to tap into the vital force of the Eternal.

According to Emerson, this is the same force that is identified by Mencius:

The Chinese Mencius has not been the least successful in his generalization. "I fully understand language," he said, "and nourish well my vast-flowing vigor." — "I beg to ask what you call vast-flowing vigor?" — said his companion. "The explanation," replied Mencius, "is difficult. This vigor is supremely great, and in the highest degree unbending. Nourish it correctly, and do it no injury, and it will fill up the vacancy between heaven and earth. This vigor accords with and assists justice and reason, and leaves no hunger." — In our more correct writing, we give to this generalization the name of Being, and thereby confess that we have arrived as far as we can go.

In summary, Emerson argues that we can never see reality because of our limitations, our distorting lenses, but if we tap into the power of life we can overcome these limitations and be happy:

It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us.

We cannot worry about time and how long we have felt defeated and disillusioned. In a moment of solitude we can discover the secret power that lies within each of us and transform our life:

Patience and patience, we shall win at the last. We must be very suspicious of the deceptions of the element of time. It takes a good deal of time to eat or to sleep, or to earn a hundred dollars, and a very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life. We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart! — it seems to say, — there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.