Man is the game we hunt. Man is the mystery we unveil. Part II

The manuscript of the lecture “Art”, which he read on 29 December 1836, is lost and the content was reconstructed by comparing his journal entries and his later essays on the topic.[1] In this lecture, Emerson claims that art like “every department of life” is an execution of its underlying law. Art is an expression of the universal mind; it is truth that needs to be uttered (see POH 42). Useful art as well as fine art is “the conscious utterance of thought” (POH 42) or to be more precise “the spirit creative” (POH 43), which is either aiming “at use or at beauty” (43), the role of the artist and his individual contribution to the creation of art is questioned and “[i]n either case, the personal contribution of the individual artist is necessarily subordinate: in the useful arts, to the power of nature […] in the fine arts, […] to ‘Ideal Nature’” (Sealts Jr. 84).

This dis-individualisation of the artist is, according to Richardson, the pinnacle of the “inescapable corollary of this insistence on one mind and common humanity” which constitutes a “repeated and consistent attack on individualism as commonly understood” (Fire 258). Hence, “Art” together with the other lectures in this series forms Emerson’s “complete critique of romantic individualism” which functions as the “necessary preparation of [his] new kind of self-trust” (Richardson, Fire 258).

Merton M. Sealts Jr. claims in his essay on the creative process in Emerson’s writing that in contrast to his lecture on art “Emerson’s next lecture, ‘Literature’ […] shifts emphasis from what he regarded as the spiritual basis of artistic creativity to its psychological and sociological implications” (85). This lecture is, according to Sealts, “characteristically Emersonian in tone and far more original in its ideas” than “Art” because for this lecture “he was able to draw more on his own experience as a writer and speaker — or, as he had come to think of himself by the mid-1830s, a Scholar” (85). Emerson himself describes the difference between art and literature, even though he of course acknowledges that literature is art (both useful and fine), as follows:

Whilst Art delights in carrying a thought into action, Literature is the conversion of action into thought. The architect executes his dream in stone. The poet enchants you by thinking out your action. Art actualises an idea. Literature idealizes action. (POH 55-56)

The reason why common people admire the poet’s work or venerate a speaker as a great man is because “he speaks that which they recognize as part of them but which they were not yet ready to say” (POH 57). And because literary works hold “valuable elements to the study of man”, because the poet teaches us something about ourselves, man complies with him: “That man I must follow, for he has part of me; and I follow him that I may acquire myself” (57). The study of literature cannot only teach the student something about himself but also about the zeitgeist of the epoch, in which the work was produced and consumed, as “[t]heir form is prescribed by a compound force of which two elements are; the peculiar genius of the poet; and the want of the times” (POH 61). As this quote shows, Emerson describes again like in “Art” before, what Richardson called a dis-individualisation of the artist/poet, even though Emerson affords him his talent which he calls the poet’s “own faculty” but denies him an actual choice in the forming of his literary composition (POH 60). Emerson asserts that owing to literature’s rating as “the sum and measure of humanity” or to be more precise as “a true history of man”, literature unlike conservative history can give man a projection into or maybe even a preparation for the future: “[literature] is thus the only source of true prophecy for the future” (POH 63). Towards the end of the lecture, Emerson picks up his criticism again and notes that despite the fact that “Our concern with literature is an element of History” (POH 66), we seldom see the lessons or the laws that lie at the roots of literature or any other department of  his history, which is why he hopes to clarify this for the audience by showing “the mighty analogies which pervade and liken them all” and “how all these parts have their roots in one mind and are therefore subject to one radical law” (POH 60).

The fifth lecture in this series “Politics” was delivered on 12 January 1837. Emerson opens his lecture by drawing a picture of the ideal state. However grand this idea is, he soon acknowledges that the reality looks quite different and that “the idea suffers some deduction” (POH 69). The main argument in this lecture, which is on a topic Emerson is less familiar with, is that “[i]t is plain that there are two objects for whose protection government exists: (1) Persons, (2) Property” (POH 70). According to Emerson, “the rights of all as persons are equal” but “their rights in Property are very unequal”, as the latter depends on the skills of a person (POH 71). Now, the crux of the matter is that throughout history these two rights were mixed up, which led to a tyranny of the rights of property over the rights as a person. Property created more powerful people whose wealth justified their legal superiority. Emerson continues in his lecture to show that politics like all the other examples of his philosophy of history “underlies the same necessity” namely “the firm law of human mind” (POH 73). In order to do so, the lecturer aims to show that all existing non-democratic states are nothing but misinterpretations of the individual’s wish “to submit himself to the verdict of the Universal Man” (POH 74); this misinterpretation is caused by the aforementioned confusion of the two rights. But there is hope, because “in the long run every thing that ought to be, will be” (POH 74) and despite all its corruptive and repressive powers, property steers trade. Trade as the antagonist of war is the reason why “nations have stretched out the hand to each other” (POH 81). Neal Dolan states that this understanding of trade is one example of the influence of Scottish Enlightenment on Emerson’s thinking. Trade as a peacekeeper conforms with one of the last steps of stadial or conjectural[2] history and according to Dolan “Emerson absorbed the Scottish outlook whole-cloth […] ‘Conjectural history’ is plainly visible in his earliest journals and notebooks, and it directly underwrite the pivotal early lecture series ‘The Philosophy of History’” (Dolan 114-15).

[1] See editorial note (Wicher, Spiller).

[2] Is “a four-stage theory of human progress, in which an evolving conception of property was the agent of transition from one stage to the next” (Dolan 113).

Content mine: D.P.P, ““- anything but history.” – Emerson and Carlyle on Meaning, Relevance and (Ab)Use of History”, D 2015.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Philosophy of History; The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vol. II 1836-1838. Eds. Stephen Whicher and Robert Spiller. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. 7-900. Print.

Dolan, Neil. “History”; Emerson in Context. Ed. Wesley T. Mott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 109-117. Print.

Richardson jr., Robert D. Emerson – The Mind on Fire. Berkley: University of California, 1995. Print.

Sealts Jr., Merton M. “Mulberry Leaves and Satin: Emerson’s Theory of the Creative Process”; Studies in American Renaissance. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1985. 79-84. Print.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Megan says:

    Great post! I love Emerson’s clever turns of phrase. Sounds like he’s a fan of Adam Smith. Someone really should email/tweet Trump a copy of Emerson’s lectures so that he’ll realize that it’s in his own self interest for nations to stretch out their hands to each other. Btw, did you see any monuments to Adam Smith in Glasgow while you were there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debra says:

      Not in Glasgow but in Edinburgh. There is this gigantic one in front of St. Giles (if I am not mistaken – has been a while since I saw it). The Royal Mile also has a Hume statue. Trump would need a brain first before he can even attempt to fathom Emerson.

      Liked by 1 person

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