I Want to Believe: The Perpetual Circularity of Truth and Power

We are told that everything has a beginning and an end. This, of course, is due to the fact that the human mind is constructed to perceive the world through temporality and linearity. However, as Emerson posits, perhaps the reason why the human mind is unable to pinpoint the beginning and the end of the cosmos, or nature, is precisely because these entities refuse to fit within the conceptual framework of human time: “This knot of nature is so well tied, that nobody was ever cunning enough to find the two ends. Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless” (“Fate” 273). Within the concept of nature, everything and nothing is knotted into this “object.”

Everything is connected. Everything is infinite. What a beautifully tantalizing thought. Humans are nothing but a twisted node amassed within the universal rhizome (a la Deleuze and Guattari), which has no beginning and no end. The notion of the cosmos having no end may seem extremely questionable, especially since it is surprisingly easy for humans to envision the end of our contemporary world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, doomsday predictions for December 2012—needless to say, we are obsessed with identifying the conclusion to anything that is introduced. But even if a doomsday were to arrive, and most of or all living creatures were wiped out from the face of the earth, “time” would continue to move on, and the factory of the world will continue its production: “Our Copernican globe is a great factory or shop of power, with its rotating constellations, times, and tides, bringing now the day of planting, then of reaping, then of curing and storing; bringing now water-force, then wind, then caloric, and such magazine of chemicals in its laboratory” (Emerson, “Perpetual Forces” 289).

Earth is a flawless machine and generator, capable of efficiently and effectively maintaining order, balance, and regeneration in the cosmos. And humans, although nothing but a node within this rhizome, have the power and the will to shift and readjust the roots within this metaphorical entanglement. Think about it. Every day, there is something threatening us. The world, although self-sufficient, is definitely not our friend—the elements of nature our constantly against us, and as seen with recent events such as hurricane Sandy, even the greatest of human powers, such as the social nexus of New York city, are impotent against the will of the world. But as Emerson posits, the will of humanity can be considered even stronger than the cold-hearted power of nature:

Now it is curious to see how a creature so feeble and vulnerable as a man, who unarmed, is no match for the wild beasts, crocodile or tiger—none for the frost, none for the sea, none for the fire, none for a fog, or a damp air, or the feeble fork of a poor worm […]—and yet this delicate frame is able to subdue to his will these terrific forces, and more than these. (“Perpetual Forces” 293)

Despite adversity, despite heartache, despite disaster, humanity continues to find a way to thrive in a universe that is designed to clash against us. The will of humanity is as infinite as the perpetual forces that shape and provide balance to this world.

These were the ideas that resonated within my mind when delving into Emerson’s essay titled “Fate” (from The Conduct of Life), his 1862 lecture “Perpetual Forces,” and a brief snippet of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s discussion of “The Sympathy of Religions.” And to be honest, these discussions not only resonated within my own belief system, but they ultimately shifted my original views towards Emerson; better said, they absolutely saved Emerson. Within these two Emerson readings, we are able to appreciate the transformation of a man who believed in God and traditional religion as the center of the moral universe, into a being capable of practicing his own “true” religion based on the triumvirate of a self-sufficient cosmos (i.e. nature), the transformative power of human beings (i.e. will), and perpetual forces (i.e. God, or a supreme overseeing force). But even more so, we see the emergence of a man who bases his beliefs and morality on the virtues of optimism, righteousness, evidence, and circularity.

Emerson’s view of power as a circulatory force is what made his own transformation so impressionable. No longer is humanity portrayed as a powerless and indefensible entity that is completely subdued to higher forces, but rather, the collective human will is viewed as a perpetual force of its own, equal, if not superior, to the forces of nature itself: “No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these” (Emerson, “Fate” 269). However, we must keep in mind that Emerson is not naïve when approaching the power of will, for although it possesses the ability to perpetuate the survival of mankind, it also has the power to ultimately destroy us if contained. As he points out with his discussion of the human genius, true intellect “must not only receive all, but it must render all. And the health of man is an equality of inlet and outlet, gathering and giving. Any hoarding is tumor and disease” (“Perpetual Forces” 295).

Human will and virtue may be considered perpetual forces as long as they engage with the circuitous flow that nature itself follows. If knowledge and will is self-contained within the individual, then this knowledge will fade from the face of the earth with death. Indeed, water is “infinite,” but that’s because it aims at self-purification and it follows a cyclical process. If water refused to evaporate or precipitate, the world would in no way be as perpetual as we deem it to be. Circularity is necessary for survival and existence. An avoidance of circularity is simply an imposition of the linear ideologies that haunt the human mind.

When it comes down to it, the notion of earth, the cosmos, and humanity being endless is indeed ideological, and it may be a completely misconstrued set of ideas. Our ideas are based on what we feel and experience. David Hume once posited that just because the sun rises every day, it does not imply that it will rise tomorrow. However, based on Emerson’s musings, I would like to posit the following: is there any harm in believing that the sun will always rise? Is there any harm in believing in the infinite power of human will or the perpetual forces of the cosmos, even if one day they may fail?

As idealistic as it may sound, we need these beliefs. We need something to rely on, even if it may not be true. I need to believe in the circularity of human knowledge, and the naïve notion that human power has no end. I need to believe that there will be a tomorrow, even when I am not around, and even if there is no life left on earth. I need to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, these notions are quite idealistic and almost Utopian, which gives reason enough to doubt them and ultimately discredit them. Despite their idealistic appeal, however, there is something completely comforting about the idea of a self-sustaining cosmos with meaning and purpose that can be transformed and metamorphosed with the enduring will of humanity.

True, this alludes to the false illusion that humans are in complete control of their destiny or their fate, while in turn eliminating the possibility for total predetermination. And although I can’t fully substantiate the reasons why these seemingly unsettling ideas provide comfort, and although I can’t offer evidence to back up these claims, I feel it to be true. Is this faith? Yes. It is belief without concrete evidence. Is this religion? Arguably so… it is a set of abstract principles based on my intuition of powers beyond my control. Perhaps, I am finding religion… a true religion, as Higginson would posit, unhinged from tradition or fact.

I want to believe. I need to believe.

– – –


Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson – Volume 2

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings

Image courtesy of xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


2 thoughts on “I Want to Believe: The Perpetual Circularity of Truth and Power

  1. man concept. says:

    For the “forever” hopeful:
    I agree with some points of your reflection. The need to believe….I believe in nothingness, but I also believe that we can do better, as humans, just because we have that capacity and if we want the best of things for us and our love ones, why not trying to do what we can for the others? Is a neat plan as a group. Because we know that we are capable of the most horrible things, so why don’t focus our attention in the “create” part? Humanist.
    However, I got some problems with the concepts here. First of all, the human mind “is not constructed to perceive the world through temporality and linearity”. The Greeks, for example, believed in a circle of life (Sisyphus) and death. There was no beginning nor end. The same happens with earlier civilizations (which might be what Emerson was inspired from? He read some classics?). Some religions started with the “in the beginning”, (Greeks believed Zeus created the word but time was not linear), but it was the Judeo-Christian tradition that stressed out that “in the beginning” and that there will be an end with fireworks and all. Since then, we think of life and time as linear.
    “Everything is connected. Everything is infinite. What a beautifully tantalizing thought. Humans are nothing but a twisted node amassed within the universal rhizome (a la Deleuze and Guattari), which has no beginning and no end.”-I can only agree with this in general terms: humans as a civilization. In fact, humans are a moment in life, that’s how I would put it. We are part of life, and will ever be. And of course we are connected with all the other living things that surround us, but only because we are part of a community, an equilibrium, not because something that is transcendental and beyond us.
    Moving on: “But even if a doomsday were to arrive, and most of or all living creatures were wiped out from the face of the earth, “time” would continue to move on, and the factory of the world will continue its production…”. Life will continue, somehow, somewhere. Not humans. We don’t care. We are a mere accident of evolution and we may prove it when we destroy ourselves, if we finally do. And then, as we learned from “Jurassic Park”, “life will find its way”, not “time”. Time is a human concept build to make sense of the passing-by of life. It does not exist by itself. Like God, we create it the notion so we can have some explanation. Because humans can’t stand chaos, can’t stand uncertainty, they need to know all of this means something, is going somewhere, it will have a result at the end. Which is the reason we need to believe, in whatever….human nature. (See how I go in and out as part of this “humans”).
    “The world, although self-sufficient, is definitely not our friend—the elements of nature our constantly against us, and as seen with recent events such as hurricane Sandy, even the greatest of human powers, such as the social nexus of New York city, are impotent against the will of the world.” The world is just the place where we happen to be. It does not have to be our friend nor enemy. Nature is as beautiful as it is ugly. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, are just manifestation of nature. They don’t happen because they want to make our life difficult, they just happen because that is life: there is sun, there is night, there is warm, there is cold, and there is a perfect day in the sun, and a day where things are volatile, all part of the circle or that “everything is connected”. Let’s take ants, who die every day because whoever bigger animal happened to step on them. Shit happens. And that’s what it is so hard for us to understand, how fragile life is. One day we are laughing with someone we love. The other day he/she is gone the rest of our lives…or we are….so no, nononononono,,,,there has to be something else! All the other animals accept this “fragility of life”, but we have “reason” to makes us unreasonable.
    So there is not a “cold-hearted nature”, it is just nature. The same thing as there is no good or evil. Like time, these are human categorizations to make some sense of the world. If you think about a storm and why it happens with no other external variables, what do you have? It just happens. Furthermore, it needs to happen. Like fall, like winter, like death, like birth….
    So even if humans do have the capacity to endure and actually use their reason, it is not an antagonism against nature. The universe was not “designed to clash against us”, it is not against us either. It is not like it haves a will or mind, just a variable of factors. Also, we are part of nature too, and maybe its most destructive force.
    I do think we need to believe, but we have to be careful. The sun may not shine tomorrow. Just believing it will because we need to believe it will, will not make it so. If it doesn’t, then that thing Emerson called human will, well, will need to be useful as we will adapt to no sun, or perish like many other species. In other words, yes we need to believe, but that won’t make it so. That’s reality. We have to do it, not believe, not have faith. Faith is just trying to close your eyes while yelling “no” at the Boggieman, while the Boggieman remains to be in front of you.

  2. Angel Daniel Matos says:

    Wow, thank you for all of your insights! Keep in mind that this post was really an attempt to understand the points that Emerson tried to make in his later works. Deep down, I want to believe and I need to believe, but this is extremely problematic due to all of the reasons you posit above, and so many more. The truth of the matter is that belief provides a degree of comfort to concepts and phenomena that are either fuzzy or extremely difficult to understand, which is why it is so seductive even though it may be faulty at times. And as you illustrate with ants, shit does indeed happen… but I think there is more than enough cynicism in the human world already. Perhaps belief is more productive (notice that I said perhaps) because it gives us something to work with.. whereas skepticism and cynicism is a blockage that prevents true passage. Deep down, I am a man of fact, but I try to leave some space open for belief… just in case.

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