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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

31 AUGUST, 2015

The American Scholar: Emerson’s Superb Speech on the Life of the Mind, the Art of Creative Reading, and the Building Blocks of Genius

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“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary… A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”

On August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches of all time — a sweeping meditation on the life of the mind, the purpose of education, the art of creative reading, and the building blocks of of genius. He was only thirty-four.

Titled “The American Scholar,” the speech was eventually included in the indispensable volume Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness. Nearly two centuries later, his oratory masterwork speaks to some of the most pressing issues of our time and his piercing insight into the cultural responsibility and creative challenges of the scholar applies equally to the writer, the artist, and the journalist of today.

Long before our era’s foundational theories of how creativity works, Emerson argues that the fertile mind is one which connects the seemingly disconnected:

To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem.

Echoing Goethe’s insistence upon the importance of building one’s mental library of influences, Emerson considers the singular value of books to the developing mind:

[A] great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past… The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again… It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

But books — like any technology of thought, indeed — aren’t inherently valuable; we confer value upon them by the nature of our use. To deny ourselves the wealth of human genius contained in books, Emerson argues, is to rob ourselves of vital inspiration; but to rely on books as blind dogma is to blunt our own creative genius:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, — let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.

[…]

Instead of being its own seer, let it receive from another mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery, and a fatal disservice is done. Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence

Genius, says Emerson, is best nurtured by a balance of reading books and “reading” life — in fact, even more important than being a scholar by the lamplight of the study is being a scholar in the luminous school of life:

Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated. Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, — when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, — we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Click image for more.

And yet the pleasure of reading, Emerson reminds us in a remark that applies perfectly to this very speech, is unparalleled in granting us a sense of communion with kindred spirits and likeminds long gone:

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books… There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

But since the fruits of reading are ones we must actively reap, Emerson makes a beautiful case for the art of creative reading:

I would not be hurried … to underrate the Book. … As the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge… I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Tom Wolfe’s magnificent commencement address on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Emerson admonishes against mistaking the academic charades of knowledge for knowledge itself:

Colleges … can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit.

And yet the true scholar, Emerson argues, is the person able to bridge ideas with actions:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action… Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

[…]

I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.

[…]

He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.

In a sentiment that resonates with poet Sylvia Plath’s formative experience as a farm worker and philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to labor incognito at a car factory before entrusting her writings to a farmer, Emerson argues for “the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen” and insists that the true scholar must acquire learning not only by reading but by living fully:

If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, — in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day.

[…]

Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. Does he lack organ or medium to impart his truths? He can still fall back on this elemental force of living them. This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act… The scholar loses no hour which the man lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book. Click image for more.

With this, he turns to the role of the scholar in society — a role he sees much as William Faulkner saw the role of the writer and Joseph Conrad saw that of the artist. Emerson writes:

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.

But doing that, he points out, is an act of creative rebellion — one not for the faint of heart or timid of conviction, for those who insist on maintaining appearances will always push back against the tellers of truth. Asserting that the scholar must “defer never to the popular cry” — a piercing and timely incantation in our era of catering to the lowest common denominator of culture, where entire industries are built upon indulging the popular cry — Emerson urges:

In the long period of his preparation, [the true scholar] must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept, — how often! poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society… For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions, — these he shall receive and impart.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

In a remark particularly assuring amid the outrage culture of our time, Emerson admonishes against getting caught up in the fads of controversy:

The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, — happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly.

[…]

Free should the scholar be, — free and brave… Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance… The world is his, who can see through its pretension.

“The American Scholar” is a timeless and enormously nourishing read in its entirety, and a spiritually rejuvenating reread, as is just about everything in Emerson’s Essays and Lectures. Complement it with Parker Palmer, a modern-day Emerson, on the six pillars of the wholehearted life and Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a moral human being.

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15 JULY, 2015

35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature

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In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.

I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since.

He was only thirty-five.

Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.

Emerson writes:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!

Art by Christopher Marley from 'Biophilia.' Click image for more.

A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:

What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.

But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.

We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:

Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:

Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.

Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.

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26 JUNE, 2015

Emerson on What Beauty Really Means, How to Cultivate Its True Hallmarks, and Why It Bewitches the Human Imagination

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“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.”

Creative culture is woven of invisible threads of influence — someone sees something created by another and it sparks something else in their own mind. We can trace some of these influences, but thanks to the psychological phenomenon of cryptomnesia, few of these unconscious impressions are remembered by those who receive them, even fewer recorded, and fewer still retained by posterity — and yet the rare chance to witness the cross-pollination of great minds is nothing short of magical.

Every once in a while, I chance upon one such previously invisible thread of influence and am infinitely delighted to participate however obliquely, across space and time, in the continual weaving of our cultural fabric. This is precisely what happened when I was revisiting Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the beautiful writings of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for women in science.

In a journal entry from November of 1855, seven years after she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 37-year-old Mitchell recounts attending a lecture by Emerson, which “turned at length upon beauty” and impressed her greatly. Embedded in her intellectually smitten account is timeless insight into what makes a great public speech:

Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture. I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world. I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method, or order, or system. It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves, meeting with occasional meteors in its path; it was exceedingly captivating. It surprised me that there was not only no commonplace thought, but there was no commonplace expression. If he quoted, he quoted from what we had not read; if he told an anecdote, it was one that had not reached us.

I was tickled to track down this “beam of light” and — at the risk of being that pitiable reporter — to recover the ideas that so moved Mitchell, as articulated by Emerson in the original. Fortunately, I happened to have a copy of his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, and how to live with maximum aliveness — and struck gold: On page 1093, under the title “Beauty,” there appears the very lecture Mitchell attended.

To picture the great astronomer sitting awestruck in the audience that night only lends Emerson’s already luminous thoughts more electrifying sparkle.

He considers what beauty really means:

Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.

[…]

The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature, which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us.” And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitement — much of it superficial and absurd enough — about works of art, which leads armies of vain travelers every year to Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.

And yet Emerson is wary of confining beauty to a concrete definition, which constricts its expansiveness and inevitably damages its essence. Instead of a complete definition, he sets out to enumerate “a few of its qualities,” beginning with simplicity and a certain clarity of feeling:

We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.

Art from an animated primer on why bees build perfect hexagons. Click image to watch.

Nature, Emerson argues, is masterful at such unsuperfluous beauty:

Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength, with the least weight. “It is the purgation of superfluities,” said Michelangelo… In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture, to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.

From this unsuperfluous form springs an elegance and efficiency of function:

Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us… It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitness to its end, is an increase of beauty… The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly… The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lusters of the sea-shell begin with its existence.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the ideals of Japanese aesthetics, Emerson adds:

Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or, whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye… Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.

Illustration from 'Geometrical Psychology,' a series of 19th-century diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

But Emerson argues that this flow from one form into another requires a certain elegance of transition — an insight that defies our present fetishism of “disruptive innovation” and instead considers the key to meaningful, lasting works of beauty:

The fashions follow a law of gradation, and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode; and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offense in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again: and many a good experiment, born of good sense, and destined to succeed, fails, only because it is offensively sudden.

Beauty, Emerson argues, is what lends things their immortality — after all, if he wasn’t the thinker of beautiful thoughts and writer of beautiful words that made awestruck attendees preserve his ideas in their journals, these very writings on beauty wouldn’t be here today. He captures this elegantly:

Beauty is the quality which makes to endure… Burns writes a copy of verses, and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.

What Neil Gaiman asserted of stories — that they’re symbiotic organisms propagating by evolutionary laws — Emerson asserted of beauty more than a century and a half earlier:

In our cities, an ugly building is soon removed, and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.

The pinnacle of beauty, Emerson argues, is the human female form:

The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman… A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

And yet Emerson is careful to point out that true beauty isn’t something one objectifies — a static quality to behold — but something in dynamic dialogue with the intellect. The true beauty of a woman, as a supreme form of all true beauty, is something far more expansive than her aesthetic attributes:

We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long… They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them, and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.

[…]

And yet — it is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires… The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months, at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence.

Long before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Emerson notes:

The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.

To this I’ll add a necessary corollary: The key to being interesting is being interested — in the world, in other people, in the seething cauldron of phenomena and experiences and ideas we call life. Curiosity, therefore, is a supreme manifestation of beauty.

Emerson returns to the ineffable aspect of beauty and argues that much of what lends it its luster is precisely this quality of escaping the intellect’s analysis but enchanting the imagination. In a sentiment that calls to mind Stendhal’s theory of why we fall out of love, Emerson writes:

Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled… It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon. If I could put my hand on the north star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it, the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from Lou Reed's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven.' Click image for more.

He examines the deepest source of beauty:

The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful, is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature — sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone — has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful.

He remarks of the men and women we come to admire:

They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.

[…]

All beauty points at identity, and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object, there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music, or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things…

This is that haughty force of beauty, “vis superba formæ,” which the poets praise — under calm and precise outline, the immeasurable and divine: Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.

Centuries after Francis Bacon wrote of beauty as a function of virtue and shortly before social reformer Frederick Douglass pioneered the notion of “aesthetic force” as a powerful agent of change, Emerson arrives at the deepest well from which beauty springs — a kind of moral virtue:

All high beauty has a moral element in it… Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment — her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures remains an indispensable read. Follow the invisible threads of cultural influence in this particular portion to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means and Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness.

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25 MAY, 2015

Emerson on Small Mercies, the True Measure of Wisdom, and How to Live with Maximum Aliveness

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“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.”

In contemplating the shortness of life, Seneca considered what it takes to live wide rather than long. Over the two millennia between his age and ours — one in which, caught in the cult of productivity, we continually forget that “how we spend our days is … how we spend our lives” — we’ve continued to tussle with the eternal question of how to fill life with more aliveness. And in a world awash with information but increasingly vacant of wisdom, navigating the maze of the human experience in the hope of arriving at happiness is proving more and more disorienting.

How to orient ourselves toward buoyant aliveness is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) examines in a beautiful essay titled “Experience,” found in his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — that bible of timeless wisdom that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship and the key to personal growth.

Emerson writes:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them… 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. It is not the part of men, but of fanatics … to say that the shortness of life considered, it is not worth caring whether for so short a duration we were sprawling in want or sitting high. Since our office is with moments, let us husband them. Five minutes of today are worth as much to me as five minutes in the next millennium. Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are… Without any shadow of doubt, amidst this vertigo of shows and politics, I settle myself ever the firmer in the creed that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us. If these are mean and malignant, their contentment, which is the last victory of justice, is a more satisfying echo to the heart than the voice of poets and the casual sympathy of admirable persons.

Indeed, Emerson highlights the practice of kindness as a centerpiece of the full life, suggesting that our cynicism about the character and potential of others — much like our broader cynicism about the world — reflects not the true measure of their merit but the failure of our own imagination in appreciating their singular gifts:

I think that however a thoughtful man may suffer from the defects and absurdities of his company, he cannot without affectation deny to any set of men and women a sensibility to extraordinary merit. The coarse and frivolous have an instinct of superiority, if they have not a sympathy, and honor it in their blind capricious way with sincere homage.

An equally toxic counterpart to such self-righteousness, Emerson argues, is our propensity for entitlement, which he contrasts with the disposition of humility and gratefulness:

I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

Illustration by Julia Rothman from 'Nature Anatomy.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment almost Buddhist in its attitude of accepting life exactly as it unfolds, and one that calls to mind his friend and Concord neighbor Thoreau’s superb definition of success, Emerson bows before the spiritual rewards of this disposition of gratefulness unburdened by fixation:

In the morning I awake and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world and even the dear old devil not far off. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures. The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway. The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry, — a narrow belt.

Only by surrendering to life’s uncontrollable and unknowable unfolding graces — or what Thoreau extolled as the gift of “useful ignorance” — can we begin to blossom into our true potentiality:

The art of life has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Every man is an impossibility until he is born; every thing impossible until we see a success.

Or, as a modern-day wise woman admonished in one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, it pays not to “determine what [is] impossible before it [is] possible.”

A century and a half before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert illuminated how our present illusions hinder the happiness of our future selves, Emerson adds:

The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know… The individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new and very unlike what he promised himself.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures is indispensable in its totality. Complement it with his kindred spirit Thoreau on what it really means to be awake and the true measure of meaningful work.

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