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A careful reading of his essay ‘Intellect’ supplies a clearer understanding of what made Emerson ‘tick’. He is better seen not as an essayist, poet, or philosopher, but as a sage. Yes, even in modern times the world supplies sages and bards – men and women able to communicate exceptional, even supernatural wisdom and insight. Emerson’s appeal is universal because what he wrote was inspired by a source higher than the logical mind. He was one of those rare individuals who not only heard and recognized the voice of his Muse or Genius, but was able to write down what it told him without censoring, editorializing, or distorting the message. Emerson’s essay on Intellect is especially valuable because here we have an inspired genius writing about inspiration and genius.
Much speculation has been raised about Emerson’s method of composition. One common view is that he recorded inspired thoughts that came to him more or less spontaneously – during walks, reading, or reflection – in his voluminous journals. When it came time to write an essay, he simply culled relevant passages from his journals. This often gives his essays the appearance of a series of disconnected but provocative sayings.
If so, then more so than with most authors, the essence of Emerson’s thought can be presented as individual aphorisms. Here are examples from ‘Intellect’.
Source: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Intellect (1841). In: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 2. Essays: First Series. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-1904. (pp. 324–347).
The first questions are always to be asked, and the wisest doctor is graveled by the inquisitiveness of a child.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:325)
In the fog of good and evil affections, it is hard for man to walk forward in a straight line.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:326)
What am I? What has my will done to make me that I am? Nothing. I have been floated into this thought, this hour, this connection of events, by secret currents of might and mind, and my ingenuity and wilfulness have not thwarted, have not aided to an appreciable degree.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)
Our spontaneous action is always the best. You cannot, with your best deliberation and heed, come so close to any question as your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before sleep on the previous night. Our thinking is a pious reception. Our truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)
We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away, as we can, all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas. They catch us up for moments into their heaven, and so fully engage us, that we take no thought for the morrow, gaze like children, without an effort to make them our own. By and by we fall out of that rapture, bethink us where we have been, what we have seen, and repeat, as truly as we can, what we have beheld. As far as we can recall these ecstasies, we carry away in the ineffaceable memory the result, and all men and all the ages confirm it. It is called Truth. But the moment we cease to report, and attempt to correct and contrive, it is not truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328–9)
Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions, and have a separate value, it is worthless.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:329)
All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)
The differences between men in natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)
All men have some access to primary truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)
In common hours, we have the same facts as in the uncommon or inspired, but they do not sit for their portrait.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)
The intellect is a whole, and demands integrity in every work. This is resisted equally by a man’s devotion to a single thought, and by his ambition to combine too many.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:338–9)
Truth is our element of life, yet if a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth, and apply himself to that alone for a long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself, but falsehood.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)
The world refuses to be analyzed by addition and subtraction.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)
Neither by detachment, neither by aggregation, is the integrity of the intellect transmitted to its works, but by a vigilance which brings the intellect in its greatness and best state to operate every moment.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:340)
God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:341–2)
Happy is the hearing man; unhappy the speaking man. As long as I hear truth, I am bathed by a beautiful element, and am not conscious of any limits to my nature. The suggestions are thousandfold that I hear and see. The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress to the soul. But if I speak, I define, I confine, and am less.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:342)
One soul is a counterpoise of all souls, as a capillary column of water is a balance for the sea.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)
If Aeschylus be that man he is taken for, he has not yet done his office, when he has educated the learned of Europe for a thousand years. He is now to approve himself a master of delight to me also
.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)
The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344–5)
A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today. Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”
The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy. That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute. The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective. Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.
But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.
The Cart Before the Horse
The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities). The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita. Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.
In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well. I tend to agree with this view, personally. Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’. That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society. May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?
The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around. We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act’”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”
That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right. But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security. Do your duty: Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare! How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie? The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!
On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late. Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.
Materialism vs. Idealism
The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia. Now, to my mind – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation. What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine. This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism. Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that. But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention? Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative? I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.
We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett. That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education. A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked. Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative. But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?
Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary. Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America. But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values? Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books? And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?
A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today. Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience. The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals. One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history. And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons. Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.
Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure. Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system. The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear. But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.
The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.
Re: ** Your Response Concerning Syria **
Dear Rep. Lois Capps
California’s 24th US Congressional District
Thank you for informing me of your position on Syria.
May I remind you:
1. That there is a legitimate possibility that the Syrian rebels were responsible for the use of sarin gas in a Damascus suburb recently, with the precise intent of drawing the US into the conflict. And that the UN investigators have not made their report. And that it is foolish in the utmost for the Obama administration to commit itself before sufficient data are available with which to draw reliable conclusions.
2. That there is near unanimous consensus that the figure of 1,429 deaths is exaggerated, and that the actual number killed is significantly lower.
3. That even if there is a moral imperative to address the use of nerve gas in Syria, there is *not* a moral imperative for the US to act precipitously and unilaterally. Indeed, there *is* a moral imperative to respond in a responsible way, namely by dealing with the problem as one member of a community of nations.
4. There are far worse humanitarian calamities, such as mass starvation, which the US government pays no attention to. And that this double-standard reveals that President Obama is using the recent sarin gas event as a pretext for military intervention motivated for other reasons.
5. That in any case there is no such thing as a limited military action. Mission creep is a brute fact. Once released, there is no calling back the dogs of war, and one would be both extremely naive and ignorant of history to believe otherwise.