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.”

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