Thursday, April 26, 2007

Emerson's "eternal revelation in the heart"

...and we're back.

On July 15th of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous "Divinity School Address" at Harvard University. The school publically disclaimed Emerson's speech, a speech that was far too radical to earn the institutional stamp of approval. Signalling the end of the great age of Enlightenment, Emerson declared:

Thought may work cold and intransitive in things, and find no end or unity; but the dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is sovereign over all natures; and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to break out into joy.

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another--by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself...

At Q-Majin, I hope to create a place where the thing that Emerson called sentiment is estimated as a higher and more sophisticated way of knowing than thought. In this first post, these two terms may remain ill-defined; but I hope to engage two of Emerson's other important terms: Law and heart.

To understand Emerson's Law, I first had to understand what is meant by heart. Consider an earlier usage, from the New Testament (Romans 2):

...when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

For Paul, the meaning of "Law" was clear -- it was the Old Testament Jewish law as it was written in the Torah. Paul argues that the law exists in all people regardless of whether the people have access to the Holy Scriptures. Not very orthodox of him.

Let me distinguish once and for all between thought and sentiment. I take Thought to be synonymous with the process of dialectical reasoning: think of all of the various propositioning and refuting between the time of Plato and Hegel. In my lifetime, in my experience, conscious thought been considered by many the only standard of genius or intelligence or wisdom. Indeed, looking back through the pages of history, I am convinced that, in almost every age since the mysteries were permanently sealed up in the Egyptian pyramids, thought has been the standard of intelligence. This was especially true in Emerson's day, when the Enlightenment of the 18th century had trickled down into popular Western and American culture. But Emerson balked at the idea that conscious thought was the only element of intelligence. I have frequently been labeled and dismissed as a Platonist or an idealist, but I reject the label insofar as Platonism is understood to be devoid of "higher law." (*Any refusal of my terms will not bother me at Q-Majin--if the word sentiment, or the word heart, makes you feel squishy and uncomfortable, feel free to choose another term for psychological phenomenon Z. If you believe that thought is all that human beings are capable of... well, keep thinking!--and come back to visit when the miracle happens.)

Emerson wrote, "The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance." To the last term, then: Law. For Emerson, the law is something that the soul or the heart must receive--it is not something constructed or actively created. Because the law is already in each of us, a person does not need to seek moral understanding outside of himself. Here, then, is Emerson's thunderbolt: my greatest responsibility is to discover myself. My deepest self. This task is not child's play.

One last comment on the Emersonian view before moving on: at times, Emerson collapses the distinction between sentiment and thought. Consider the movements in the following few sentences, and try to retain only the "Spirit" of Emerson's writing--forget the words if you can:

The expressions of this sentiment affect us more than all other compositions. The sentences of the oldest time, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant. This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Peria, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true... Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition. It cannot be received at second hand.

Now forget Emerson! His words are to the earnest seeker what a broken branch or a footprint are to the skilled woodsman and tracker: only evidence of something moved on long ago. The fruit will be ripe again by now, and growing on a different tree. We are hungry; the tree or bush or what it might be--I trust that we will recognize it when we discover it. Are your legs weary? Let the men and women of thought debate the more difficult questions, climb their barren, snowcapped mountains--we ask only for the fullness and joy that comes from sitting in the shade under fresh fruit... I promise the walk will not take long.

No: we are like the wide receiver who runs his route every play, never knowing when the quarterback will throw us the ball.

No: we are like the attentive students, their bright eyes.

No: we are the woodsman again, and now we are the tracker, now the broken branch, and now the trail itself.

No: we are like the arrow between bow and target, or the ball between hand and mitt.

No: we are the sperm and the egg; we are both. You are both.

No: we are the ones who have been born pregnant, who have died and given birth and lived a dozen lives.

Look there!--the trail has narrowed, but I can still make it out... there has been some growth, but I think I can see...


Cathy said...

Spring and Casey return. Ahhh . . .
Life is good. This little mouse will be doing a lot of lurking around the edge of that path as you clear the underbrush. Watch your feet :0)

ShanaRose said...

Casey, what is Q-Majin? I have googled it several times over, and have not been able to follow the trail...