Earth

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.

– – –

Sources:

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

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Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Tomato

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mind

On Fables of the Mind

Back in the day when I was an ESL instructor at the University of Puerto Rico, I was assigned to teach a writing and rhetoric course centered on controversial and contemporary issues. Before I began to lesson plan, I encountered a wonderful editorial in the New York Times titled “Mystery and Evidence,” written by Tim Crane, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. The piece discussed the inability of science and religion to mesh simply because they are based on entirely different kinds of “evidence” and practices. I thought that it would be interesting to discuss this essay in class, not only because it would be a way to discuss the importance of secularization in academic writing (particularly in a deeply religious country such as Puerto Rico), but also because many of the claims were debatable. The class seemed to stomach the essay and digest it effectively, until I absentmindedly referred to Christianity as a myth.

I could tell that the use of this world deeply upset my students. One student in particular raised her hand, and asked if I was implying that the story of Christ is no different than the legend of Hercules. In my mind, I was thinking “absolutely.” But rather than concretizing my beliefs in front of the class, I simply mentioned that we were in that class to learn about writing and rhetoric, not to discuss religious beliefs. I always wonder what would’ve happened if I affirmed my lack of belief to my students, and if I argued that yes, I believe that in terms of realness, there is little difference between Christ and Hercules in my mind. But I didn’t do it, first and foremost because I didn’t deem it to be appropriate at the time, and secondly, because I am not there to force feed my beliefs down someone’s throat. After all, my distancing from Christianity was a long and arduous process based on my immersion into the realm of knowledge and academia, and personal issues I had with the church due to my stances on sexual orientation and the body. Meaningful changes take time… even though Emerson would argue that time is simply a bodily construct that our soul does not respond to.

Speaking of Emerson, I definitely feel at times as if I am being forced fed a set of ideas that I am unwilling to tolerate. His views on God, morality, and the soul definitely don’t mesh well with my ideological perspective, and at times I found myself grunting or rolling my eyes as I read his prose. Part of it has to do with his views towards science, empirical “world” knowledge, and philosophy: “The philosophy of six thousand year has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve” (Emerson 163). Another part has to do with his depiction of knowledge as a spiritually bound phenomenon that is inevitably linked to god himself; a claim that is asserted but not backed up by any logical evidence whatsoever, but rather, by a sense of aesthetic judgment (the world is too perfect, too beautiful, and too organized; thus, there must be a god). However, the more I immerse myself in Emerson’s prose, the more I begin to question. First and foremost, I do have to recall that Emerson is very much a product of his time in many aspects, a time in which religion had a firmer grasp on society’s cognizance. Although it is not entirely easy to be a person of science—with no religious beliefs—during this day and age, imagine how difficult it was during Emerson’s time?

The more I read Emerson’s words, the more it becomes apparent that he was not entirely bound by faith, and he not only questioned religion, but he openly challenges it (especially when concerning ritualistic practices). Emerson was overly aware of the fact that knowledge eliminates the “magic” of the world, thus reinforcing the notion that immersion into the exchange of knowledge and fact can lead to a weakening of faith based ideas and premises:

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make thing what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of the mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. (Emerson 70)

It’s ironic that through his addresses, sermons, and lectures, Emerson deeply strives to open our minds to the so-called reality that he has affiliated with, which at times seems deeply Christian and at other times seems like a Christian-tinged version of pantheism (god, the over-soul is in everything). And through his notions, the world is also reduced to a myth, a fable, a one-shot explanation for everything and anything… and to be frank, I’m not entirely sure that Emerson himself is always convinced with his beliefs.

First and foremost, although he indeed believes in a religious doctrine, his particular belief system consists of the rejection of practices and beliefs based on human ideological constructions. He rejects the notion of revering Christ as if he were god himself, and he goes as far as to call Christ a demigod, linking him to other mythical figures such as Apollo and Osiris (Emerson 73). At other times, especially within his poetry, Emerson seems to contradict notions that he himself posits, such as the fact that the over-soul resides in Nature and in humans. This is particularly noticeable in his poem “Hamatreya,” in which he clefts the supposed unity that exists between earth and humans: “Mine and yours; Mine, not yours” (Emerson, lines 28-29). Note that the first line of Earth’s song reinforces the notion that although it is believed that earth is shared or connected with humans, it is erroneous to believe so. This realization that the earth is not as connected or submissive to human will ultimately eliminates any sense of bravery that the speaker has, which implies that the “chill of the grave,” death itself, is the ultimate law of the universe that shatters the illusion of life. These ideas may seem slightly scrambled and nonsensical, but the point I’m trying to make here is that perhaps Emerson was more lost and confused than we may initially deem him to be.

Regardless of the view of religion of mythical belief, or the view of science as a “mere illustration and fable of the mind,” aren’t both aiming to describe and understand the world in one sense or another? Aren’t both perspectives limited, unable to cover the entire scope of our cosmos? I may have my own inclinations, but even then I must admit that there is only so much that science can explain at this point and time. But, as Thoreau posits in the third chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “In the mythus a superhuman intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn. In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun’s rays” (49). Religion and science, in their own particular ways, use supposition and creativity to come up with a logical set of ideas and tools that future generations can use on their own terms to understand and interpret the world. As Tim Crane posited, they are different practices that exist to achieve the same goal, only on different terms… both provide a sense of satisfaction, but both also leave you with a thirst (albeit not necessarily unquenchable). But as Crane ultimately posits, whereas science tries to understand the world via the elimination of mystery, religion approaches mystery as a necessary given. I for one, like mysteries to be reduced, if not solved.

Sources:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/mystery-and-evidence/

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393967921/

http://www.amazon.com/Concord-Merrimack-Rivers-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140434429/

 

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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On Knowledge and Belief in Emerson’s XXXIX Sermon

Charles Taylor, in his discussion of Disenchantment and Reenchantment in his book titled Dilemmas and Connections, posits that in the premodern world, meaning can be found not only within the mind of the individual, but it can also be found in objects present within the external world (290). Ostensibly, what is being argued here is that even in a hypothetical world with no sentient beings present, objects in a premodern world would still possess an inherent quality, or spirit, that would provide it with a meaning or a purpose. However, when we view this notion with a modern lens, it becomes apparent that we humans believe that the mind infuses meaning into the exterior world. On the other hand, we can simply don the non-modern lens and argue that neither the mind nor the exterior are more influential, and that both work in conjunction to create meaning, which is in and of itself a mental construct.

Thus, the division between the inside (the mind) and the outside (nature; the world) becomes increasingly complex because although objects and ideas that are not human-affiliated are considered to be outside of the mind, they still possess the ability to influence how the mind interprets an environment. In other words, the so-called inherent meaning infused within exterior objects has the ability to amalgamate with our interior mind, to the point that it can affect the way we view and approach the world (291). Therefore, the magical wall that creates this divide becomes disenchanted, leaving us with a whole. Nonetheless, there is a certain allure that exists within the maintenance of the interior and exterior division, for it is one that we have used to construct our understanding of the world up to this point. As Taylor would put it, the mentality survives, even if it’s in the background.

As I was reading Emerson’s XXXIX sermon, this struggle definitely became apparent and obvious. Although I view the relationship between the human mind and nature as an interdependent system, I couldn’t help but see a certain allure in Emerson’s rhetoric, especially when dealing with the roles that nature plays in our world. But even more so, what seemed to deeply trouble me in this sermon was the tension that exists in his argument: on one hand, he seems to posit that nature is an exterior force that obeys the rule of God and that follows a specific uninterrupted pattern; on the other hand, he explicitly mentions that the proper flourishing of plant and natural life depends on cultivation. What we are seeing here is a tension between nature as an independent system with its own sense of meaning, and the notion of nature as a system completely reliant on the human mind. I think this tension is further enhanced by Emerson’s view of nature and plant life as a mechanistic rather than organic entity, as exemplified by his discussion of the apple seed: “The little seed of the apple does not contain the large tree that shall spring from it; it is merely an assimilating engine which has the power to take from the ground whatever particles of water or manure it needs, and turn them to its own substance and give them its own arrangement” (Emerson 12). Note that the apple seed is depicted as an object that is designed to comply with a very specific function: to assimilate surrounding elements in order to promote growth and to provide nourishment for human beings. Note that Emerson goes as far as to denote Nature using spiritual allusions:

Do they not come from Heaven and go like Angels round the globe scattering hope and pleasant toil and recompense and rest? Each righting the seeming disorders, supplying the defects which the former left; converting its refuse into commodity and drawing out of the ancient earth new treasures to swell the capital of human comfort (Emerson 10).

Nature, and specifically the seed, from Emerson’s point of view, is an object with a meaning and a spirit of its own that serves as a commodity to human beings. It is viewed as an external object that follows a specific purpose, and that renders fruit that helps sustain generation after generation.

But, doesn’t our very need for nature’s commodities turn us into Angels as well? Has Emerson failed to see that we humans also scatter hope and recompense, and that it is our labor and willingness to cultivate that the apple seed has survived in the first place? Our very breath provides life to plants; we plant, water, fertilize, and care for plant life. Some plant species even exist solely because of human interest and endeavor—think of the avocado, a plant that has seeds that are too big to be propagated via natural animal consumption and defecation. But realistically speaking, it’s not that Emerson was unwilling to see this side of the coin, but rather, he was binded by the spell of a premodern world, in which science was still viewed as a force incapable of explaining the hows and whys of the natural world. We now take this for granted because we live in a disenchanted world, a world in which the idea of a self-sufficient, mechanistic, and teleological seed makes no sense. But why is it then that Emerson’s notions of humanity and nature seem so alluring and tantalizing? The answer is quite simple: although we may have a deep understanding of how the world works, we have no concrete idea of how and why it all started, and how and why it all exists. Sure, as a believer of science and empirical knowledge, I could simply state that due to a series of events, particles heated up and expanded, creating all matter and space as we know it; but due to the fact that this is all based on theoretical assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove, I am haunted by an everlasting and ever-increasing doubt: what if this is wrong? What if we currently do not have the knowledge or the capacity to even begin to understand the universe? What if I am wrong, and there actually is an entity or creative agent that can be labeled as God? What if nature IS an external agent with an inherent “spirit” designed to comply with a law created by this entity?

Personally speaking, I was disenchanted with religion years ago. But here I am in Notre Dame, and doubts are beginning to surface once again. I wish I can take Emersonian route, be entirely self-reliant on my thoughts and beliefs while paying no attention to outside influences, but is this even remotely possible? I know that disenchantment never really eliminates the influence of the mystical and the magical… despite my lack of religious belief, I must admit that it religion was an important part of my upbringing, and it most likely encoded many of my current values and ideologies. Could it be possible that the remnants of Emerson’s notions are slowly but surely growing in the background? Is it possible that his God-driven, mechanistic, and binary view of the world is but a seed hidden from our view, assimilating elements from our social and cultural environment and growing into a completely different tree? And even if this metaphorical tree will once again rot and wither away, will it not become the soil and the organic matter that is nourishing our current tree of knowledge?

Sources:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674055322

http://www.amazon.com/Emersons-Poetry-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393967921/