Tag Archives: Emerson

Emerson on Fate (and more)

“There are two forces in Nature, by whose antagonism we exist; the power of Fate, Fortune, the laws of the world or however else we choose to phrase it, the material necessities on the one hand,–and Will and Duty and Freedom on the other.”

–“The Fugitive Slave Law,” delivered in New York (1854)

“Intellect annuals fate.” Or so Emerson says in an essay he worked on through the fall of 1851. It is the lecture that he delivered in the series in Boston “The Conduct of Life” and that is the opening essay in the collection of essays, The Conduct of Life (1860).

Emerson announces at the beginning of “The Poet” his intention to examine 1) the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, 2) the means and materials he uses, and 3) the general aspect of the art in the present time. He also conveys an antidote about a shepherd in a snowstorm:

The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it, — you are as remote, when you are nearest, as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison. (302)

The function of the poet is “emancipation.” As Emerson puts it, the poet “unlocks our chains and admits us to a new scene.” As his metaphors suggest, the measure of the intellect is for Emerson not merely a personal but a public power.

I recommend that you read “The Poet” (the last essay in the first series) alongside the first essay in the second series, “Experience.” There is a shift in tone of the essay as he attempts to describe the disposition of an argument that is so forcefully laid out in the first paragraph:

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. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. 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.

 He goes on, in the following paragraph, to continue this astonishing riff:

If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. 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. We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won with dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born. It is said, all martyrdoms looked mean when they were suffered. Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.

“Experience” has been read over the years as signaling a change of heart from Emerson’s earlier work—as some hope, to explain what some readers call a change of heart in the essay that appeared in the 1840s. However “Fate” was written in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, when Emerson was increasingly active in political affairs. “Fate,” as Robert Richardson summarizes, is “a vigorous affirmation of freedom, more effective than earlier statements because it does not dismiss the power of circumstance, determinism, materialism, experience, Calvinism, and evil” (500). The essay begins by asking his audience to turn from “the spirit of the times” to “the practical question of the conduct of life. How shall I live?” As Richardson, and Eduardo Cadava, have suggested, it is significant that the most adequate summary of the argument in “Fate” is the second address on the Fugitive Slave Act Emerson delivered in New York three years later.

It is significant as well that Emerson’s thinking about politics and social action brings the reader back to the most fundamental question about how to live. In “Culture” (1860), Emerson’s essay on education, one then finds a proposal that would be worth remembering for anyone interested in the relationship between fate and what we like to call freedom:

“Let us make our education brave and preventive. Politics is an after-work, a poor patching. We are always a little late. The evil is done, the law is passed, and we begin the up-hill agitation for repeal of that of which we ought to have prevented the enacting. We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education. What we call our root-and-branch reforms of slavery, war, gambling, intemperance, is only medicating the symptoms. We must begin higher up, namely, in Education.”


Texts are made out of other texts. Intertextuality is a useful term to describe this fact, in part, because it unsettles commonplace assumptions about authorship and originality. Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson approaches this idea in “Quotation and Originality”:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.

At about the same time Emerson was writing his literary essays the natural historian Charles Darwin’s writing was proposing that the essences of things were by definition relational. Darwin’s research led people to become more aware of how things are connected with other things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. John Muir makes a comparable comment in his journals during his first summer in the mountains of California. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he writes, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (My First Summer in the Sierra 110). Whether it is Emerson writing about quotation, or Darwin or Muir reflecting on the natural world, the study of relationships between things—and of things as sets of relationships—offers a useful analogy for the study of language and literature.

The Latin term intertexto means to intermingle while weaving. The French semiotician Julia Kristeva uses the term(1) in the essay “Word, Dialogue, and Novel” to describe the constitutive process. She argues that any text “is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (66). Here is how the literary theorist Roland Barthes puts the case:

Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of code, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc., pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks. (“Theory of the Text” 39)

The very existence of a text implies coexistence with other texts. Film adaptations of books, cultural references in television and film, remix and sampling in music—all of these practices are intertextual.


1. Literary and cultural theorists that discuss the concept of intertextuality include Vladimir Volosinov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Gennete. Volosinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1986) is a study of the relationship between language and society. Genette’s The Architext (1992), Palimpsests (1997), and Paratexts (1997) elaborate 1) the ways a text relates to other texts (transtextuality); 2) explicit quotation or allusion (intertextuality); 3) prefaces, interviews, publicity, reviews (paratextuality), commentary (metatextuality); 4) the play of one text off another (hypertextuality), and 5) generic expectations (architextuality).


Emerson, Whitman, Culture

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The American Scholar” (1838)

“Men such as they are, very naturally seek money or power; and power because it is as good as money, — the “spoils,” so called, “of office.” And why not? for they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is highest. Wake them, and they shall quit the false good, and leap to the true, and leave governments to clerks and desks. This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the materials strown along the ground. The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy, — more formidable to its enemy, more sweet and serene in its influence to its friend, than any kingdom in history. For a man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men. Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself. The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on. First, one; then, another; we drain all cisterns, and, waxing greater by all these supplies, we crave a better and more abundant food. The man has never lived that can feed us ever. The human mind cannot be enshrined in a person, who shall set a barrier on any one side to this unbounded, unboundable empire. It is one central fire, which, flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

“Culture” from The Conduct of Life (1860, rev. 1876)

“Culture is the suggestion from certain best thoughts, that a man has a range of affinities, through which he can modulate the violence of any master-tones that have a droning preponderance in his scale, and succor him against himself. Culture redresses his balance, puts him among his equals and superiors, revives the delicious sense of sympathy, and warns him of the dangers of solitude and repulsion.”

Walt Whitman

from Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas” (1871)

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted. . . .”

“We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement. Certain questions arise. As now taught, accepted and carried out, are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels, who believe in nothing? Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp’d away, like the bordering of box in a garden? You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards—but who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds? Lastly—is the readily-given reply that culture only seeks to help, systematize, and put in attitude, the elements of fertility and power, a conclusive reply?”

“I do not so much object to the name, or word, but I should certainly insist, for the purposes of these States, on a radical change of category, in the distribution of precedence. I should demand a programme of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the west, the working-men, the facts of farms and jack-planes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood. I should demand of this programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area. It must have for its spinal meaning the formation of a typical personality of character, eligible to the uses of the high average of men—and not restricted by conditions ineligible to the masses. “









Your Commonplace Book

As you become immersed in Emerson over the next few weeks I would like you to begin keeping notes in your “commonplace book.” You are looking for quotations that capture something worth capturing–statements, provocations, aphorisms, and so on. Below I have gathered a few that stand out to me, first from Emerson, and then from some of his readers:

“Literature is a point outside our hodiernal circle, though which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”

—“Circles,” 178

“All thinking is analogizing, and it is the business of life to learn metonymy.”

—“Poetry and the Imagination”

“One must be an inventor to read well.”

—“The American Scholar”

“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it”

—“Quotation and Originality”

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”


“The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action”

—“The American Scholar”

“Where do we find ourselves?”


“In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal. . . .”


“Cannot I conceive of the Universe without a contradiction?”

—“Journals, May 26, 1837?

“This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of man. Here are the materials strewn along the ground.”

—“The American Scholar,” 66

“What seemed, then, to be the more earnest and less critical of his hearers a revelation from above was in truth an insurrection from beneath, a shaking loose from convention, a disintegration of the normal categories of reason in favor of various imaginative principles, on which the world might have been built differently. This gift of revolutionary thinking allowed new aspects, hints of wider laws, premonitions of unthought-of fundamental unities to spring constantly into view. But such visions were necessarily fleeting, because the human mind had long before settled its grammar, and discovered, after much groping and many defeats, the general forms in which experience will allow itself to be stated. These general forms are the principles of common sense and positive science, no less imaginative in the origin than those notions we now call transcendental, but grown prosaic, like the metaphors of common speech, by dint of repetition”

—George Santayana, “Emerson,” Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 634

“Our philosophical habits will prompt us to interpret the surface of writing as its manner, its style, its rhetoric, an ornament of what is said rather than its substance, but Emerson’s implied claim is that this is as much a philosophical prejudice as the other conformities his essay decries, that, so to speak, words are no more ornaments of thought than tears are ornaments of sadness or joy. Of course, they may be seen so, and they may in a given case amount to no more; but this just means that expressions are the last thing to take at face value.”

—Stanley Cavell, “The Philosopher in American Life,” 740

“His writing dramatizes his agitations when confronted with the evidence that the words he is putting down on paper, including words of resistance and dissent, are themselves products of ‘previous human thinking,’ including his own. . . . Emerson is forever trying to liberate himself and his readers from the consequences of his own writing, not merely the consequences of other people’s writing. . . . He is saying that his own acts of composition, the very efforts at non-conformity that result in his troping of previous truths—that these fill him with apprehensions about encirclement and fixity.”

—Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism, 767–68

“The primary aim of Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke; the principal means by which he lived, spoke, and write is provocation. At the ‘center’ of his project is activity, flux, movement, energy.”

—Cornel West, “The Emersonian Prehistory of Pragmatism,” 743