Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Virtue and its Substitutes: Emerson: Virtue is as Plant Does

RALPH WALDO EMERSON HAD A PRODIGIOUS TALENT: Writing. "He is a gifted writer, who can take a blank page of pager, pick up his pen, and as if by a miracle the page is soon covered with intelligible sentences," Simon admits. (One might also say some unintelligible sentences are part of intelligible sentences.) But Emerson suffered from prodigious intellectual and moral lapses: an unsound theology (pantheism), a lack of organization and system in both thought and in writing, and an absolutely disastrous moral recipe (spontaneity) based upon his pantheistic theology which divinized self, and de-divinized God, making us all God or each of us gods.

To encapsulate Emerson, to grasp his thought in the area of virtue, is almost hopeless as catching a sprite with a mousetrap, or taming a drop of water on a hot, greasy skillet. To read Emerson is to enter into a circular river, with shallows, shoals, rapids, and waterfalls, going deliciously round-and-round but not ever really getting anywhere. For Emerson it seems to be movement and not end that is important. Emerson is therefore as self-defeating, self-imploding, self-contradictory as a Buddhist Christian. He may be called Liberalism's (pan)theologian.

Emerson's notion of virtue is Thoreauian, but it comes with the additional twist of rank, proud pantheism which informs all that Emerson writes about moral virtue. Simon notes that Emerson also sports the Rousseauian "novel meaning of 'virtue'", but "makes this natural spontaneity proceed directly from a divine cause." Simon, 4. Spontaneity is the virtue of virtues for Emerson, because it is the spark of divinity in us. It is God in us that seeks to come out an express itself. Any curbing of such spontaneous self-expression--even by something like a traditional virtue or traditional dogma--is squelching God in Emerson's view. Society, in particular, is a wicked demon, and "is everywhere in a conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members." Simon, 5 (quoting Emerson) His recipe for virtue: non-conformity and inconsistency.

This is, of course, as foolish as a teacher of chefs suggesting that to his students that they cook Sunday morning pancakes not by following any recipe, but by following their spontaneity, so that if a particular student gets the urge to fix some flapjacks using rubber, hot sauce, and curdled milk: he ought to go right ahead and do it. He is a great chef, and anyone who tells him otherwise, including those retching on his pancakes, are in a conspiracy against him. After all, to be a great chef is to be misunderstood, for "to be great is to be misunderstood." Simon, 5 (quoting Emerson). But this is pure Emerson:
And so it goes: a commonplace followed by genuine insight followed by a half-truth followed by sometimes arrogant, sometimes unperceived contradictions.
Simon, 5.

This lack of system in Emerson clearly frustrates Simon, and it does suggest a sort of flippant lack of responsibility, a will-o'-the-wisp attitude to truth on the part of Emerson. But you won't find systems, or even the desire for systems in someone who says something like Emerson does in his famous essay on "Self Reliance":

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you, in your private heart, is true for all men, that is genius. . . . Great works of art have no more affecting lessor for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good humored flexibility the most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.

Simon, 4-5 (quoting Emerson)

In the area of virtue, Emerson appears to have one overriding or characteristic doctrine: he opposes the spontaneous to the voluntary. Spontaneity is placed opposite will. Spontaneity is sacrosanct "intuition," will and reason are "tuition." To "involuntary perceptions," "a perfect faith is due," but not so for the "voluntary acts of his mind." Simon, 6 (quoting Emerson). In his essay on "Spiritual Laws" Emerson states that "our moral nature is vitiated by any interference of our will." Simon, 7 (quoting Emerson). Clearly, for Emerson, the will (and reason) is only something that is used to curb spontaneity. If spontaneity is the sole human good, it follows that the exercise of will is, by definition, evil. It seems unquestionable that Emerson deifies spontaneity as the moral principle:
The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal self, on which universal reliance is grounded? What is the nature of the power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independent appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.
Simon, 6 (quoting Emerson) This is quite clearly a recipe for disaster. It is like giving the keys to the Porsche to a drunk teenager and suggesting he try to see fast he can drive it on a winding and treacherous mountain road in icy conditions. Emerson is cavalierly irresponsible. His doctrine represents a collapse of the notion of virtue:

People represent virtue as a struggle, and take to themselves great airs upon their attainments, and the question is everywhere vexed when a noble nature is commended, whether the man is not better who strives with temptation. But there is no merit in that matter. Either God is there or he is not there. We love characters in proportion as they are impulsive and spontaneous. The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues, the better we like him.

Simon, 7 (quoting Emerson). This, of course, means we should like the dissolute, the dissipated, the intemperate more than the steady self-imposed discipline of the Roman Stoic, or more than the dedication of love and purity of the Saint who governs his life and exhibits full compliance with all natural and theological virtues. In short, this is to reverse standards: Emerson is calling black white and white black, virtue vice and vice virtue. This is the devil talking, only talking through smooth Emersonian prose.

Spontaneity in Virtue: Proving Emerson False

(One might note, also the false Emersonian opposition between spontaneity and virtue. The good in some spontaneous impulse is measured with reference to the natural law and virtue; spontaneity is not the standard. And so spontaneity may, in a particular case, be horribly evil, and in another particular case, give rise to wonderful good. Moreover, to suggest that the Saints are not spontaneous is travesty. One could look through the annals of hagiography and cull out countless spontaneous acts of generosity and charity which mark the life of the Saints. Three which come immediately to mind: St. Martin of Tours offering his military cloak to the beggar, St. Francis of Assisi's kiss of a leper on the lips, and St. Maximiliam Kolbe offering his life in exchange for the life of the Jewish father and family man , Franciszek Gajowniczek at Auschwitz. I'll bet none of Emerson's spontaneous acts came close to achieving such tremendous moral beauty.)

Clearly, Emerson, like Rousseau, uses the word "virtue." But he does not mean "virtue" as traditionally understood. He takes the word virtue and uses it to his purposes. He jerry rigs the word virtue, sort of like the TV show character MacGyver who is able to improvise all sorts of things with the common place. Virtue's MacGyver, Emerson is able to improvise virtue from everything else but virtue! Unfortunately, what might work with gadgets in the unreal world of Television, does not work will with morality in the real world. So Emerson may say: act virtuously; but what he really is saying is: act viciously.

Perhaps, cutting to the quick, the best comment is Simon's observation that, though unquestionably stated in a "powerful way," Emerson's "spontaneous" morality based on pre-will, pre-rational instinct, is really advocating that we abide by "essentially the same force by which a plant grows and all things exist." Simon, 7.

Removed of its literary trappings, Emerson's doctrine is theological babble. He says, "ye are gods." But what he really means is "act like plants."

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