09 September 2016

Emerson and Camus

In Ralph Waldo Emerson there is a fine mixture of idealism and pragmatism. Fate, Emerson says in his essay by that name, “is what must be overcome.” Fate is the name we give to whatever obstructs us. Fate is what humans cannot change: “The book of Nature is the book of Fate,” Emerson writes. Nature is the shape of things that must be: he uses the examples of the sheathed snake, the locomotive that works effectively on tracks but is of service nowhere else, or skates that slide along on ice but on dry ground “are but fetters.” Of course, modern science is busy at work trying to outdo Nature, but science, too, like the locomotive, has its limits that must be overcome. It seems that no sooner than one health crisis passes than another appears, and that with every technological advance that seem to improve our lot comes disadvantages that must be confronted and overcome. I think here of the uses of social media that change the opportunities and nature of personal communication and relationships.
     But Fate is also “the name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought; for causes which are unpenetrated.” And so, of course, Fate must be overcome. And this must be accomplished not by brute force because Nature cannot be defeated, but by thought: “Intellect annuls Fate.” Consistent with his Divinity School Address, Emerson says that a thinking man is always free and therefore, though subject to Fate, always able to overcome it. The world cannot be bent to suit the individual but the individual can meet the world and make it available. “Thought dissolves the material universe by carrying the mind up into a sphere where all is plastic. Of two men, each obeying his own thought, he whose thought is deepest will be the strongest character.” I have thought so for a time and prefer books and journals to standing weights always.
     And Emerson acknowledges that intellect alone is insufficient without will—the ability to act. Without will, Emerson accuses, we are cowards, and because we are helpless to act for our defense we search out saviors to help us. And here Emerson prefigures the idea in Camus’ The Plague. Tarrou says “What is natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” The plague is Nature and it must be overcome. The plague might not be understood in fact, but it must be met by action. And for both Emerson and Camus that decision to act—the will—is a moral act. Emerson says that “All insight is useless without will,” the courage to act. The idealist in Emerson trusts that the act will transform evil into good, or at least, ease the suffering of others until facts are considered and causes understood. And Camus’ Father Paneloux demands, “My brothers, each one of us must be one who stays!” We cannot abandon our responsibility: we have obligations. It is interesting to me to see the similarity to the 19th century idealist to the 20th century existentialist.


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