CARLYLE – EMERSON – THOREAU – R. L. STEVENSON – OSCAR WILDE – WILLIAM JAMES – SHAW – SANTAYANA – BERTRAND RUSSELL
…an author who did not need to hide from his readers… – Emerson
There are two main moral necessities for the work of a great man: the first is that he should believe in the truth of his message; the second is that he should believe in the acceptability of his message. It was the whole tragedy of Carlyle that he had the first and not the second.
+++++The ordinary capital, however, which is made out of Carlyle’s alleged gloom is a very paltry matter. Carlyle had his faults, both as a man and as a writer, but the attempt to explain his gospel in terms of his “liver” is merely pitiful. If indigestion invariably resulted in a “Sartor Resartus,” it would be a vastly more tolerable thing than it is. Diseases do not turn into poems; even the decadent really writes with the healthy part of his organism. If Carlyle’s private faults and literary virtues ran somewhat in the same line, he is only in the situation of every man; for every one of us it is surely very difficult to say precisely where our honest opinions end and our personal predilections begin. But to attempt to denounce Carlyle as a mere savage egotist cannot arise from anything but a pure inability to grasp Carlyle’s gospel. “Ruskin,” says a critic, “did, all the same, verily believe in God; Carlyle believed only in himself.” This is certainly a distinction between the author he has understood and the author he has not understood. Carlyle believed in himself, but he could not have believed in himself more than Ruskin did; they both believed in God, because they felt that if everything else fell into wrack and ruin, themselves were permanent witnesses to God. Where they both failed was not in belief in God or in belief in themselves; they failed in belief in other people. It is not enough for a prophet to believe in his message; he must believe in its acceptability. Christ, St. Francis, Bunyan, Wesley, Mr. Gladstone, Walt Whitman, men of indescribable variety, were all alike in a certain faculty of treating the average man as their equal, of trusting to his reason and good feeling without fear and without condescension. It was this simplicity of confidence, not only in God, but in the image of God, that was lacking in Carlyle. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Carlyle
The profound security of Carlyle’s sense of the unity of the Cosmos is like that of a Hebrew prophet; and it has the same expression that it had in the Hebrew prophets – humour. A man must be very full of faith to jest about his divinity. No Neo-Pagan delicately suggesting a revival of Dionysus, no vague, half-converted Theosophist groping towards a recognition of Buddha, would ever think of cracking jokes on the matter. But to the Hebrew prophets their religion was so solid a thing, like a mountain or a mammoth, that the irony of its contact with trivial and fleeting matters struck them like a blow. So it was with Carlyle. His supreme contribution, both to philosophy and literature, was his sense of the sarcasm of eternity. Other writers had seen the hope or the terror of the heavens, he alone saw the humour of them. Other writers had seen that there could be something elemental and eternal in a song or statute, he alone saw that there could be something elemental and eternal in a joke. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Carlyle
…he startled men by attacking not arguments, but assumptions. He simply brushed aside all the matters which the men of the nineteenth century held to be incontrovertible, and appealed directly to the very different class of matters which they knew to be true. He induced men to study less the truth of their reasoning, and more the truth of the assumptions upon which they reasoned. Even where his view was not the highest truth, it was always a refreshing and beneficent heresy. He denied every one of the postulates upon which the age of reason based itself. He denied the theory of progress which assumed that we must be better off than the people of the twelfth century. Whether we were better than the people of the twelfth century, according to him, depended entirely upon whether we chose or deserved to be.
+++++He denied every type and species of prop or association or support which threw the responsibility upon civilisation or society, or anything but the individual conscience. He has often been called a prophet. The real ground of the truth of this phrase is often neglected. Since the last era of purely religious literature, the era of English Puritanism, there has been no writer in whose eyes the soul stood so much alone.
+++++Carlyle was, as we have suggested, a mystic, and mysticism was with him, as with all its genuine professors, only a transcendent form of common sense. Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are alike appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates. Carlyle’s work did consist in breaking through formulae, old and new, to these old and silent and ironical sanities. Philosophers might abolish kings a hundred times over, he maintained, they could not alter the fact that every man and woman does choose a king and repudiate all the pride of citizenship for the exultation of humility. If inequality of this kind was a weakness, it was a weakness bound up with the very strength of the universe. About hero worship, indeed, few critics have done the smallest justice to Carlyle. Misled by those hasty and choleric passages in which he sometimes expressed a preference for mere violence, passages which were a great deal more connected with his temperament than with his philosophy, they have finally imbibed the notion that Carlyle’s theory of hero worship was a theory of terrified submission to stern and arrogant men. As a matter of fact, Carlyle is really inhumane about some questions, but he is never inhumane about hero worship. His view is not that human nature is so vulgar and silly a thing that it must be guided and driven; it is, on the contrary, that human nature is so chivalrous and fundamentally magnanimous a thing that even the meanest have it in them to love a leader more than themselves, and to prefer loyalty to rebellion. When he speaks of this trait in human nature Carlyle’s tone invariably softens. We feel that for the moment he is kindled with admiration of mankind, and almost reaches the verge of Christianity. Whatever else was acid and captious about Carlyle’s utterances, his hero worship was not only humane, it was almost optimistic. He admired great men primarily, and perhaps correctly, because he thought that they were more human than other men. The evil side of the influence of Carlyle and his religion of hero worship did not consist in the emotional worship of valour and success; that was a part of him, as, indeed, it is a part of all healthy children. Where Carlyle really did harm was in the fact that he, more than any modern man, is responsible for the increase of that modern habit of what is vulgarly cabled “Going the whole hog.” Often in matters of passion and conquest it is a singularly hoggish hog. This remarkable modern craze for making one’s philosophy, religion, politics, and temper all of a piece, of seeking in all incidents for opportunities to assert and reassert some favourite mental attitude, is a thing which existed comparatively little in other centuries. Solomon and Horace, Petrarch and Shakespeare were pessimists when they were melancholy, and optimists when they were happy. But the optimist of to-day seems obliged to prove that gout and unrequited love make him dance with joy, and the pessimist of to-day to prove that sunshine and a good supper convulse him with inconsolable anguish. Carlyle was strongly possessed with this mania for spiritual consistency. He wished to take the same view of the wars of the angels and of the paltriest riot at Donnybrook Fair. It was this species of insane logic which led him into his chief errors, never his natural enthusiasms. Let us take an example. Carlyle’s defence of slavery is a thoroughly ridiculous thing, weak alike in argument and in moral instinct. The truth is, that he only took it up from the passion for applying everywhere his paradoxical defence of aristocracy. He blundered, of course, because he did not see that slavery has nothing in the world to do with aristocracy, that it is, indeed, almost its opposite. The defence which Carlyle and all its thoughtful defenders have made for aristocracy was that a few persons could more rapidly and firmly decide public affairs in the interests of the people. But slavery is not even supposed to be a government for the good of the governed. It is a possession of the governed avowedly for the good of the governors. Aristocracy uses the strong for the service of the weak; slavery uses the weak for the service of the strong. It is no derogation to man as a spiritual being, as Carlyle firmly believed he was, that he should be ruled and guided for his own good like a child – for a child who is always ruled and guided we regard as the very type of spiritual existence – But it is a derogation and an absolute contradiction to that human spirituality in which Carlyle believed that a man should be owned like a tool for someone else’s good, as if he had no personal destiny in the Cosmos. We draw attention to this particular error of Carlyle’s because we think that it is a curious example of the waste and unclean places into which that remarkable animal, “the whole hog,” more than once led him.
+++++In this respect Carlyle has had unquestionably long and an unquestionably bad influence. The whole of that recent political ethic which conceives that if we only go far enough we may finish a thing for once and all, that being strong consists chiefly in being deliberately deaf and blind, owes a great deal of its complete sway to his example. Out of him flows most of the philosophy of Nietzsche, who is in modern times the supreme maniac of this moonstruck consistency. Though Nietzsche and Carlyle were in reality profoundly different, Carlyle being a stiff-necked peasant and Nietzsche a very fragile aristocrat, they were alike in this one quality of which we speak, the strange and pitiful audacity with which they applied their single ethical test to everything in heaven and earth. The disciple of Nietzsche, indeed, embraces immorality like an austere and difficult faith. He urges himself to lust and cruelty with the same tremulous enthusiasm with which a Christian urges himself to purity and patience; he struggles as a monk struggles with bestial visions and temptations with the ancient necessities of honour and justice and compassion. To this madhouse, it can hardly be denied, has Carlyle’s intellectual courage brought many at last. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Carlyle
[Matthew Arnold] blamed his contemporaries, Carlyle for instance, not for telling falsehoods but simply for telling popular truths. And certainly in the case of Carlyle and others he was more or less right. Carlyle professed to be a Jeremiah and even a misanthrope. But he was really a demagogue and, in one sense, even a flatterer. He was entirely sincere as all good demagogues are; he merely shared all the peculiar vanities and many of the peculiar illusions of the people to whom he spoke. He told Englishmen that they were Teutons, that they were Vikings, that they were practical politicians – all the things they like to be told they are, all the things that they are not. He told them, indeed, with a dark reproachfulness, that their strengths were lying neglected or inert. Still he reminded them of their strengths; and they liked him. But they did not like Arnold, who placidly reminded them of their weaknesses. – Chesterton, Intro. to Matthew Arnold’s Essays Literary and Critical
I have been speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years, and have not now one disciple. Why? not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers; but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me. What could I do, if they came to me? they would interrupt and encumber me. This is my boast that I have no school and no followers. I should account it a measure of the impurity of insight, if it did not create independence. – Emerson, journal, 1859, aged 56
Emerson. – Never have I felt so much at home in a book, and in my home, as – I may not praise it, it is too close to me. – Nietzsche, notes
The author who has been richest in ideas in this century so far has been an American (unfortunately made obscure by German philosophy – frosted glass) – Nietzsche, notes
We have not in Emerson a great poet, a great writer, a great philosophy-maker. His relation to us is not that of one of those personages; yet it is a relation of, I think, even superior importance. His relation to us is more like that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius…he is the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit. Emerson is the same…
+++++One can scarcely overrate the importance of thus holding fast to happiness and hope. It gives Emerson’s work an invaluable virtue. As Wordsworth’s poetry is, in my judgement, the most important work done in verse, in our language, during the present century, so Emerson’s Essays are, I think, the most important work done in prose. – Matthew Arnold
He is the first man I have seen. – George Eliot
Emerson represents a protest against the tyranny of democracy. He is the most recent example of elemental hero-worship. His opinions are absolutely unqualified except by his temperament. He expresses a form of belief in the importance of the individual which is independent of any personal relations he has with the world. It is as if a man had been withdrawn from the earth and dedicated to condensing and embodying this eternal idea – the value of the individual soul – so vividly, so vitally, that his words could not die, yet in such illusive and abstract forms that by no chance and by no power could his creed be used for purposes of tyranny. Dogma cannot be extracted from it. Schools cannot be built on it. It either lives as the spirit lives, or else it evaporates and leaves nothing. Emerson was so afraid of the letter that killeth that he would hardly trust his words to print. He was assured there was no such thing as literal truth, but only literal falsehood. He therefore resorted to metaphors which could by no chance be taken literally. And he has probably succeeded in leaving a body of work which cannot be made to operate to any other end than that for which he designed it. If this be true, he has accomplished the inconceivable feat of eluding misconception. If it be true, he stands alone in the history of teachers; he has circumvented fate, he has left an unmixed blessing behind him. – JJ Chapman, Emerson And Other Essays
Emerson. – Much more enlightened, adventurous, multifarious, refined than Carlyle; above all, happier…Such a man as instinctively feeds on pure ambrosia and leaves alone the indigestible in things. …Carlyle, who had a great affection for him, nevertheless said of him: “He does not give us enough to bite on”: which may be truly said, but not to the detriment of Emerson. – Emerson possesses that good-natured and quick-witted cheerfulness that discourages all earnestness; he has absolutely no idea how old he is or how young he will be – he could say of himself, in the words of Lope de Vega: “I am my own successor”. His spirit is always finding reasons for being contented and even grateful… – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man, 13
It is said that Emerson is not a philosopher. I find this denegation false or true according as it is said in blame or praise – according to the reasons proffered. When the critic writes of lack of method, of the absence of continuity, of coherent logic, &, with the old story of the string of pearls loosely strung, puts Emerson away as a writer of maxims and proverbs, a recorder of brilliant insights and abrupt aphorisms, the critic, to my mind, but writes down his own incapacity to follow a logic that is finely wrought. “We want in every man a logic; we cannot pardon the absence of it, but it must not be spoken. Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions and have a separate value, it is worthless.” Emerson fulfills his own requisition. The critic needs the method separately propounded, and not finding his wonted leading-string is all lost. Again, says Emerson, “There is no compliment like the addressing to the human being thoughts out of certain heights and presupposing his intelligence” – a compliment which Emerson’s critics have mostly hastened to avert. But to make this short, I am not acquainted with any other writer, no matter how assured his position in treatises upon the history of philosophy, whose movement of thought is more compact and unified, nor one who combines more adequately diversity of intellectual attack with concentration of form and effect. – Dewey
A certain mystical tendency is pervasive with him, but there are only one or two subjects on which he dwells with enough constancy and energy of attention to make his mystical treatment of them pronounced. One of these is the question of the unity of all minds in the single soul of the universe, which is the same in all creatures; another is the question of evil and of its evaporation in the universal harmony of things. Both these ideas suggest themselves at certain turns in every man’s experience, and might receive a rational formulation. But they are intricate subjects, obscured by many emotional prejudices, so that the labour, impartiality, and precision which would be needed to elucidate them are to be looked for in scholastic rather than in inspired thinkers, and in Emerson least of all. Before these problems he is alternately ingenuous and rhapsodical, and in both moods equally helpless. Individuals no doubt exist, he says to himself. But, ah! Napoleon is in every schoolboy. In every squatter in the western prairies we shall find an owner –
+++++“Of Caesar’s hand and Plato’s brain,
+++++Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.”
But how? we may ask. Potentially? Is it because any mind, were it given the right body and the right experience, were it made over, in a word, into another mind, would resemble that other mind to the point of identity? Or is it that our souls are already so largely similar that we are subject to many kindred promptings and share many ideals unrealizable in our particular circumstances? But then we should simply be saying that if what makes men different were removed, men would be indistinguishable, or that, in so far as they are now alike, they can understand one another by summoning up their respective experiences in the fancy. There would be no mysticism in that, but at the same time, alas, no eloquence, no paradox, and, if we must say the word, no nonsense.
+++++On the question of evil, Emerson’s position is of the same kind. There is evil, of course, he tells us. Experience is sad. There is a crack in everything that God has made. But, ah! the laws of the universe are sacred and beneficent. Without them nothing good could arise. All things, then, are in their right places and the universe is perfect above our querulous tears. Perfect? we may ask. But perfect from what point of view, in reference to what ideal? To its own? To that of a man who renouncing himself and all naturally dear to him, ignoring the injustice, suffering, and impotence in the world, allows his will and his conscience to be hypnotized by the spectacle of a necessary evolution, and lulled into cruelty by the pomp and music of a tragic show? In that case the evil is not explained, it is forgotten; it is not cured, but condoned. We have surrendered the category of the better and the worse, the deepest foundation of life and reason; we have become mystics on the one subject on which, above all others, we ought to be men. – Santayana, Emerson, in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion
Universally greeted, in his own day, as a revolutionary, he was, in point of fact, imitative and cautious – an importer of stale German elixirs, sometimes direct and sometimes through the Carlylean branch house, who took good care to dilute them with buttermilk before merchanting them to his countrymen. The theoretical spokesman, all his life long, of bold and forthright thinking, of the unafraid statement of ideas, he stated his own so warily and so muggily that they were ratified on the one hand by Nietzsche, and on the other hand by the messiahs of New Thought, that typically American bunkum.
+++++What one notices about him at home is chiefly his lack of influence upon the main stream of American thought, such as it is. He had admirers and even worshippers, but no apprentices. Nietzscheism and the New Thought are alike tremendous violations of orthodox American doctrine. The one makes a headlong attack upon egalitarianism, the corner-stone of American politics; the other substitutes mysticism, which is the notion that the true realities are all concealed, for the prevailing American notion that the only true realities lie upon the surface, and are easily discerned by Congressmen, newspaper leader-writers and Wesleyan clergymen. The Emerson cult, in America, has been an affectation from the start. Not many of the literary schoolmasters and other such bogus intelligentsia who devote themselves to it have any intelligible understanding of the Transcendentalism at the heart of it, and not one of them, so far as I can make out, has even executed Emerson’s command to ‘defer never to the popular cry’. On the contrary, it is precisely within the circle of Emersonian adulation that one finds the greatest tendency to test all ideas by their respectability, to combat free thought as something intrinsically vicious, and to yield placidly to ‘some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man.’ It is surely not unworthy of notice that the country of the prophet of Man Thinking is precisely the country in which every sort of dissent from the current hallucinations is combated most ferociously, and in which there is the most vigorous existing tendency to suppress free speech altogether.
+++++Thus Emerson, on the side of ideas, has left but faint tracks behind him in his native land. His quest was for ‘facts amid appearances’, and his whole metaphysic revolved around a doctrine of transcendental first causes, a conception of interior and immutable realities, distinct from and superior to mere transient phenomena. But the philosophy that actually prevails among his countrymen – a philosophy put into caressing terms by William James – teaches an almost exactly contrary doctrine: its central idea is that whatever satisfies the immediate need is substantially true, that appearance is the only form of fact worthy the consideration of a man with money in the bank, and the old flag floating over him, and hair on his chest. – Mencken, Selected Prejudices, Second Series (1920s)
From boyhood onward he kept journals and commonplace books, and in the course of his reading and meditation he collected innumerable notes and quotations which he indexed for ready use. In these mines he “quarried,” as Mr. Cabot says, for his lectures and essays. When he needed a lecture he went to the repository, threw together what seemed to have a bearing on some subject, and gave it a title. If any other man should adopt this method of composition, the result would be incomprehensible chaos; because most men have many interests, many moods, many and conflicting ideas. But with Emerson it was otherwise. There was only one thought which could set him aflame, and that was the thought of the unfathomed might of man. This thought was his religion, his politics, his ethics, his philosophy. One moment of inspiration was in him own brother to the next moment of inspiration, although they might be separated by six weeks. When he came to put together his star-born ideas, they fitted well, no matter in what order he placed them, because they were all part of the same idea.
+++++His works are all one single attack on the vice of the age, moral cowardice. He assails it not by railings and scorn, but by positive and stimulating suggestion. The imagination of the reader is touched by every device which can awake the admiration for heroism, the consciousness of moral courage. Wit, quotation, anecdote, eloquence, exhortation, rhetoric, sarcasm, and very rarely denunciation, are launched at the reader, till he feels little lambent flames beginning to kindle in him. He is perhaps unable to see the exact logical connection between two paragraphs of an essay, yet he feels they are germane. He takes up Emerson tired and apathetic, but presently he feels himself growing heady and truculent, strengthened in his most inward vitality, surprised to find himself again master in his own house.
+++++The difference between Emerson and the other moralists is that all these stimulating pictures and suggestions are not given by him in illustration of a general proposition. They have never been through the mill of generalization in his own mind. He himself could not have told you their logical bearing on one another. They have all the vividness of disconnected fragments of life, and yet they all throw light on one another, like the facets of a jewel. But whatever cause it was that led him to adopt his method of writing, it is certain that he succeeded in delivering himself of his thought with an initial velocity and carrying power such as few men ever attained. He has the force at his command of the thrower of the discus.
+++++His style is American, and beats with the pulse of the climate. He is the only writer we have had who writes as he speaks, who makes no literary parade, has no pretensions of any sort. He is the only writer we have had who has wholly subdued his vehicle to his temperament. It is impossible to name his style without naming his character: they are one thing. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
We miss in Emerson the underlying conception of growth, of development, so characteristic of the thought of our own day, and which, for instance, is found everywhere latent in Browning’s poetry. Browning regards character as the result of experience and as an ever changing growth. To Emerson, character is rather an entity complete and eternal from the beginning. He is probably the last great writer to look at life from a stationary standpoint. There is a certain lack of the historic sense in all he has written. The ethical assumption that all men are exactly alike permeates his work. In his mind, Socrates, Marco Polo, and General Jackson stand surrounded by the same atmosphere, or rather stand as mere naked characters surrounded by no atmosphere at all. He is probably the last great writer who will fling about classic anecdotes as if they were club gossip. In the discussion of morals, this assumption does little harm. The stories and proverbs which illustrate the thought of the moralist generally concern only those simple relations of life which are common to all ages. There is charm in this familiar dealing with antiquity. The classics are thus domesticated and made real to us. What matter if Æsop appear a little too much like an American citizen, so long as his points tell?
+++++It is in Emerson’s treatment of the fine arts that we begin to notice his want of historic sense. Art endeavors to express subtle and ever changing feelings by means of conventions which are as protean as the forms of a cloud; and the man who in speaking on the plastic arts makes the assumption that all men are alike will reveal before he has uttered three sentences that he does not know what art is, that he has never experienced any form of sensation from it. Emerson lived in a time and clime where there was no plastic art, and he was obliged to arrive at his ideas about art by means of a highly complex process of reasoning. He dwelt constantly in a spiritual place which was the very focus of high moral fervor. This was his enthusiasm, this was his revelation, and from it he reasoned out the probable meaning of the fine arts. “This,” thought Emerson, his eye rolling in a fine frenzy of moral feeling, “this must be what Apelles experienced, this fervor is the passion of Bramante. I understand the Parthenon.” And so he projected his feelings about morality into the field of the plastic arts. He deals very freely and rather indiscriminately with the names of artists, – Phidias, Raphael, Salvator Rosa, – and he speaks always in such a way that it is impossible to connect what he says with any impression we have ever received from the works of those masters.
+++++In fact, Emerson has never in his life felt the normal appeal of any painting, or any sculpture, or any architecture, or any music. These things, of which he does not know the meaning in real life, he yet uses, and uses constantly, as symbols to convey ethical truths. The result is that his books are full of blind places, like the notes which will not strike on a sick piano. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
You cannot always see Emerson clearly; he is hidden by a high wall; but you always know exactly on what spot he is standing. You judge it by the flight of the objects he throws over the wall, – a bootjack, an apple, a crown, a razor, a volume of verse. With one or other of these missiles, all delivered with a very tolerable aim, he is pretty sure to hit you. These catchwords stick in the mind. People are not in general influenced by long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a man’s most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the Universe. His works are a treasury of such things. They sparkle in the mine, or you may carry them off in your pocket. They get driven into your mind like nails, and on them catch and hang your own experiences, till what was once his thought has become your character. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
Your attention is arrested by the reality of this gentleman in his garden, by the first-hand quality of his mind. It matters not on what subject he talks. While you are musing, still pleased and patronizing, he has picked up the bow of Ulysses, bent it with the ease of Ulysses, and sent a shaft clear through the twelve axes, nor missed one of them. But this, it seems, was mere byplay and marksmanship; for before you have done wondering, Ulysses rises to his feet in anger, and pours flight after flight, arrow after arrow, from the great bow. The shafts sing and strike, the suitors fall in heaps. The brow of Ulysses shines with unearthly splendor. The air is filled with lightning. After a little, without shock or transition, without apparent change of tone, Mr. Emerson is offering you a biscuit before you leave, and bidding you mind the last step at the garden end. If the man who can do these things be not an artist, then must we have a new vocabulary and rename the professions.
+++++There is, in all this effectiveness of Emerson, no pose, no literary art; nothing that corresponds even remotely to the pretended modesty and ignorance with which Socrates lays pitfalls for our admiration in Plato’s dialogues.
+++++It was the platform which determined Emerson’s style. He was not a writer, but a speaker. On the platform his manner of speech was a living part of his words. The pauses and hesitation, the abstraction, the searching, the balancing, the turning forward and back of the leaves of his lecture, and then the discovery, the illumination, the gleam of lightning which you saw before your eyes descend into a man of genius, – all this was Emerson. He invented this style of speaking, and made it express the supersensuous, the incommunicable. Lowell wrote, while still under the spell of the magician: “Emerson’s oration was more disjointed than usual, even with him. It began nowhere, and ended everywhere, and yet, as always with that divine man, it left you feeling that something beautiful had passed that way, something more beautiful than anything else, like the rising and setting of stars. Every possible criticism might have been made on it but one, – that it was not noble. There was a tone in it that awakened all elevating associations. He boggled, he lost his place, he had to put on his glasses; but it was as if a creature from some fairer world had lost his way in our fogs, and it was our fault, not his. It was chaotic, but it was all such stuff as stars are made of, and you couldn’t help feeling that, if you waited awhile, all that was nebulous would be whirled into planets, and would assume the mathematical gravity of system. All through it I felt something in me that cried, ‘Ha! ha!’ to the sound of the trumpets.”
+++++It is nothing for any man sitting in his chair to be overcome with the sense of the immediacy of life, to feel the spur of courage, the victory of good over evil, the value, now and forever, of all great-hearted endeavor. Such moments come to us all. But for a man to sit in his chair and write what shall call up these forces in the bosoms of others – that is desert, that is greatness. To do this was the gift of Emerson. The whole earth is enriched by every moment of converse with him. The shows and shams of life become transparent, the lost kingdoms are brought back, the shutters of the spirit are opened, and provinces and realms of our own existence lie gleaming before us. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
It is solely as character that he is important. He discovered nothing; he bears no relation whatever to the history of philosophy. We must regard him and deal with him simply as a man.
+++++Strangely enough, the world has always insisted upon accepting him as a thinker: and hence a great coil of misunderstanding. As a thinker, Emerson is difficult to classify. Before you begin to assign him a place, you must clear the ground by a disquisition as to what is meant by “a thinker”, and how Emerson differs from other thinkers. As a man, Emerson is as plain as Ben Franklin.
+++++People have accused him of inconsistency; they say that he teaches one thing one day, and another the next day. But from the point of view of Emerson there is no such thing as inconsistency. Every man is each day a new man. Let him be to-day what he is to-day. It is immaterial and waste of time to consider what he once was or what he may be.
+++++His picturesque speech delights in fact and anecdote, and a public which is used to treatises and deduction cares always to be told the moral. It wants everything reduced to a generalization. All generalizations are partial truths, but we are used to them, and we ourselves mentally make the proper allowance. Emerson’s method is, not to give a generalization and trust to our making the allowance, but to give two conflicting statements and leave the balance of truth to be struck in our own minds on the facts. There is no inconsistency in this. It is a vivid and very legitimate method of procedure. But he is much more than a theorist: he is a practitioner. He does not merely state a theory of agitation: he proceeds to agitate. “Do not,” he says, “set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as false or true. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred, none are profane. I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past at my back.” He was not engaged in teaching many things, but one thing, – Courage. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
Essays is a book for a world in which history is arid, men are washed-out images of deferred or absent authority, virtue is held to be disadvantageous, laws are disbelieved and dishonoured, love is personal aggrandizement, friends are appurtenances, prudence is mere Yankee shrewdness, and nothing quite means enough to make life worth persisting in. – Cambridge Companion to Emerson, p113
The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one’s life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man’s significance had now shrunk into the phantom of an attitude, into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity – happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgment. – W James, Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord
What gave a flavor so matchless to Emerson’s individuality was, even more than his rich mental gifts, their combination. Rarely has a man so known the limits of his genius or so unfailingly kept within them. “Stand by your order,” he used to say to youthful students; and perhaps the paramount impression one gets of his life is of his loyalty to his own type and mission. The type was that of what he liked to call the scholar, the perceiver of pure truth, and the mission was that of the reporter in worthy form of each perception. The day is good, he said, in which we have the most perceptions. There are times when the cawing of a crow, a weed, a snow-flake, or a farmer planting in his field, become symbols to the intellect of truths equal to those which the most majestic phenomena can open. Let me mind my own charge, then, walk alone, consult the sky, the field and forest, sedulously waiting every morning for the news concerning the structure of the universe which the good Spirit will give me.
+++++This was the first half of Emerson, but only half; for his genius was insatiate for expression, and his truth had to be clad in the right verbal garment. The form of the garment was so vital with Emerson that it is impossible to separate it from the matter. They form a chemical combination, – thoughts which would be trivial expressed otherwise are important through the nouns and verbs to which he married them. The style is the man, it has been said; the man Emerson’s mission culminated in his style, and if we must define him in one word, we have to call him Artist. He was an artist whose medium was verbal and who wrought in spiritual material. – W James, Emerson
Through the individual fact there ever shone for him the effulgence of the Universal Reason. The great Cosmic Intellect terminates and houses itself in mortal men and passing hours. Each of us is an angle of its eternal vision, and the only way to be true to our Maker is to be loyal to ourselves. “O rich and various Man!” he cries, “thou palace of sight and sound, carrying in thy senses the morning and the night and the unfathomable galaxy; in thy brain, the geometry of the City of God; in thy heart, the bower of love and the realms of right and wrong.”
+++++If the individual open thus directly into the Absolute, it follows that there is something in each and all of us, even the lowliest, that ought not to consent to borrowing traditions and living at second hand. “If John was perfect, why are you and I alive?” writes Emerson. “As long as any man exists, there is some need of him; let him fight for his own.” This faith that in a life at first hand there is something sacred is perhaps the most characteristic note in Emerson’s writings. The hottest side of him is this non-conformist persuasion, and if his temper could ever verge on common irascibility, it would be by reason of the passionate character of his feelings on this point. The world is still new and untried. In seeing freshly, and not in hearing of what others saw, shall a man find what truth is. “Each one of us can bask in the great morning which rises out of the eastern sea, and be himself one of the children of the light.” …
+++++The matchless eloquence with which Emerson proclaimed the sovereignty of the living individual electrified and emancipated his generation, and this bugle-blast will doubtless be regarded by future critics as the soul of his message. The present man is the aboriginal reality, the Institution is derivative, and the past man is irrelevant and obliterate for present issues. If anyone would lay an axe to your tree with a text from 1 John, v. 7, or a sentence from Saint Paul, say to him, Emerson wrote, “‘My tree is Ygdrasil – the tree of life.’…Let him know by your security that your conviction is clear and sufficient, and if he were Paul himself, that you also are here, and with your Creator.” “Cleave ever to God,” he insisted, “against the name of God”; – and so, in spite of the intensely religious character of his total thought, when he began his career it seemed to many of his brethren in the clerical profession that he was little more than an iconoclast and desecrator.
+++++Emerson’s belief that the individual must in reason be adequate to the vocation for which the Spirit of the world has called him into being is the source of those sublime pages, hearteners and sustainers of our youth, in which he urges his hearers to be incorruptibly true to their own private conscience. Nothing can harm the man who rests in his appointed place and character. Such a man is invulnerable; he balances the universe, balances it as much by keeping small when he is small as by being great and spreading when he is great. “I love and honor Epaminondas,” said Emerson, “but I do not wish to be Epaminondas. I hold it more just to love the world of this hour, than the world of his hour. Nor can you, if I am true, excite me to the least uneasiness by saying, ‘He acted, and thou sittest still.’ I see action to be good, when the need is, and sitting still to be also good. Epaminondas, if he was the man I take him for, would have sat still with joy and peace, if his lot had been mine. Heaven is large, and affords space for all modes of love and fortitude.” “The fact that I am here certainly shows me that the soul had need of an organ here. Shall I not assume the post?”
+++++The vanity of all super-serviceableness and pretense was never more happily set forth than by Emerson in the many passages in which he develops this aspect of his philosophy. Character infallibly proclaims itself. “Hide your thoughts! Hide the sun and moon. They publish themselves to the universe. They will speak through you though you were dumb. They will flow out of your actions, your manners, and your face. …Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary. …What a man is engraves itself upon him in letters of light. Concealment avails him nothing; boasting nothing. There is confession in the glances of our eyes; in our smiles; in salutations; and the grasp of hands. His sin bedaubs him, mars all his good impression. Men know not why they do not trust him; but they do not trust him. His vice glasses his eye, cuts lines of mean expression in his cheek, pinches the nose, sets the mark of the beast on the back of the head, and writes O fool! fool! on the forehead of a king. If you would not be known to do any thing, never do it. A man may play the fool in the drifts of a desert, but every grain of sand shall seem to see… How can a man be concealed! How can a man be concealed!”
+++++On the other hand, never was a sincere word or a sincere thought utterly lost. “Never a magnanimity fell to the ground, but there is some heart to greet and accept it unexpectedly… The hero fears not, that, if he withhold the avowal of a just and brave act, it will go unwitnessed and unloved. One knows it, – himself, – and is pledged by it to sweetness of peace, and to nobleness of aim, which will prove in the end a better proclamation than the relating of the incident.”
+++++The same indefeasible right to be exactly what one is, provided one only be authentic, spreads itself, in Emerson’s way of thinking, from persons to things and to times and places. No date, no position is insignificant, if the life that fills it out be only genuine: –
+++++“In solitude, in a remote village, the ardent youth loiters and mourns. With inflamed eye, in this sleeping wilderness, he has read the story of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, until his fancy has brought home to the surrounding woods, the faint roar of cannonades in the Milanese, and marches in Germany. He is curious concerning that man’s day. What filled it? the crowded orders, the stern decisions, the foreign despatches, the Castilian etiquette? The soul answers – Behold his day here! In the sighing of these woods, in the quiet of these gray fields, in the cool breeze that sings out of these northern mountains; in the workmen, the boys, the maidens you meet, – in the hopes of the morning, the ennui of noon, and sauntering of the afternoon; in the disquieting comparisons; in the regrets at want of vigor; in the great idea, and the puny execution; – behold Charles the Fifth’s day; another, yet the same; behold Chatham’s, Hampden’s, Bayard’s, Alfred’s, Scipio’s, Pericles’s day, – day of all that are born of women. The difference of circumstance is merely costume. I am tasting the self-same life, – its sweetness, its greatness, its pain, which I so admire in other men. Do not foolishly ask of the inscrutable, obliterated past, what it cannot tell, – the details of that nature, of that day, called Byron, or Burke; – but ask it of the enveloping Now… Be lord of a day, and you can put up your history books.”
+++++Thus does “the deep today which all men scorn” receive from Emerson superb revindication. “Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.
+++++Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and as dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar. For Emerson, the individual fact and moment were indeed suffused with absolute radiance, but it was upon a condition that saved the situation – they must be worthy specimens, – sincere, authentic, archetypal; they must have made connection with what he calls the Moral Sentiment, they must in some way act as symbolic mouthpieces of the Universe’s meaning. To know just which thing does act in this way, and which thing fails to make the true connection, is the secret (somewhat incommunicable, it must be confessed) of seership, and doubtless we must not expect of the seer too rigorous a consistency. Emerson himself was a real seer. He could perceive the full squalor of the individual fact, but he could also see the transfiguration. He might easily have found himself saying of some present-day agitator against our Philippine conquest what he said of this or that reformer of his own time. He might have called him, as a private person, a tedious bore and canter. But he would infallibly have added what he then added: “It is strange and horrible to say this,… for I feel that under him and his partiality and exclusiveness is the earth and the sea and all that in them is, and the axis around which the universe revolves passes through his body where he stands.”
+++++Be it how it may, then, this is Emerson’s revelation: – The point of any pen can be an epitome of reality; the commonest person’s act, if genuinely actuated, can lay hold on eternity. This vision is the head-spring of all his outpourings; and it is for this truth, given to no previous literary artist to express in such penetratingly persuasive tones, that posterity will reckon him a prophet, and, perhaps neglecting other pages, piously turn to those that convey this message. His life was one long conversation with the invisible divine, expressing itself through individuals and particulars: – “So nigh is grandeur to our dust, so near is God to man!”
+++++I spoke of how shrunken the wraith, how thin the echo, of men is after they are departed. Emerson’s wraith comes to me now as if it were but the very voice of this victorious argument. His words to this effect are certain to be quoted and extracted more and more as time goes on, and to take their place among the Scriptures of humanity. “‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity shall you pace forth,” beloved Master. As long as our English language lasts, men’s hearts will be cheered and their souls strengthened and liberated by the noble and musical pages with which you have enriched it. – W James, Emerson
Emerson’s contempt for travel and for the “rococo toy,” Italy, is too well known to need citation. It proceeds from the same deficiency of sensation. His eyes saw nothing; his ears heard nothing. He believed that men travelled for distraction and to kill time. The most vulgar plutocrat could not be blinder to beauty nor bring home less from Athens than this cultivated saint. Everything in the world which must be felt with a glow in the breast, in order to be understood, was to him dead-letter. Art was a name to him; music was a name to him; love was a name to him. His essay on Love is a nice compilation of compliments and elegant phrases ending up with some icy morality. It seems very well fitted for a gift-book or an old-fashioned lady’s annual. …
+++++There is in Emerson’s theory of the relation between the sexes neither good sense, nor manly feeling, nor sound psychology. It is founded on none of these things. It is a pure piece of dogmatism, and reminds us that he was bred to the priesthood. We are not to imagine that there was in this doctrine anything peculiar to Emerson. But we are surprised to find the pessimism inherent in the doctrine overcome Emerson, to whom pessimism is foreign. Both doctrine and pessimism are a part of the Puritanism of the times. They show a society in which the intellect had long been used to analyze the affections, in which the head had become dislocated from the body. To this disintegration of the simple passion of love may be traced the lack of maternal tenderness characteristic of the New England nature. The relation between the blood and the brain was not quite normal in this civilization, nor in Emerson, who is its most remarkable representative.
+++++If we take two steps backward from the canvas of this mortal life and glance at it impartially, we shall see that these matters of love and marriage pass like a pivot through the lives of almost every individual, and are, sociologically speaking, the primum mobile of the world. The books of any philosopher who slurs them or distorts them will hold up a false mirror to life. If an inhabitant of another planet should visit the earth, he would receive, on the whole, a truer notion of human life by attending an Italian opera than he would by reading Emerson’s volumes. He would learn from the Italian opera that there were two sexes; and this, after all, is probably the fact with which the education of such a stranger ought to begin. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
There is an implication of a fundamental falsehood in every bit of Transcendentalism, including Emerson. That falsehood consists in the theory of the self-sufficiency of each individual, men and women alike. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
Emerson seems really to have believed that if any man would only resolutely be himself, he would turn out to be as great as Shakespeare. He will not have it that anything of value can be monopolized. His review of the world, whether under the title of Manners, Self-Reliance, Fate, Experience, or what-not, leads him to the same thought. His conclusion is always the finding of eloquence, courage, art, intellect, in the breast of the humblest reader. He knows that we are full of genius and surrounded by genius, and that we have only to throw something off, not to acquire any new thing, in order to be bards, prophets, Napoleons, and Goethes. This belief is the secret of his stimulating power. It is this which gives his writings a radiance like that which shone from his personality. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
Emerson himself was the only man of his times who consistently and utterly expressed himself, never measuring himself for a moment with the ideals of others, never troubling himself for a moment with what literature was or how literature should be created. The other men of his epoch, and among whom he lived, believed that literature was a very desirable article, a thing you could create if you were only smart enough. But Emerson had no literary ambition. He cared nothing for belles-lettres. The consequence is that he stands above his age like a colossus. While he lived his figure could be seen from Europe towering like Atlas over the culture of the United States.
+++++Great men are not always like wax which their age imprints. They are often the mere negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie. They become by revolt the very essence of all the age is not, and that part of the spirit which is suppressed in ten thousand breasts gets lodged, isolated, and breaks into utterance in one. Through Emerson spoke the fractional spirits of a multitude. He had not time, he had not energy left over to understand himself; he was a mouthpiece.
+++++If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson. The region of thought he lived in, the figures of speech he uses, are of an intellectual plane so high that the circumstances which produced them may be forgotten; they are indifferent. The Constitution, Slavery, the War itself, are seen as mere circumstances. They did not confuse him while he lived; they are not necessary to support his work now that it is finished. Hence comes it that Emerson is one of the world’s voices. He was heard afar off. His foreign influence might deserve a chapter by itself. Conservatism is not confined to this country. It is the very basis of all government. The bolts Emerson forged, his thought, his wit, his perception, are not provincial. They were found to carry inspiration to England and Germany. Many of the important men of the last half-century owe him a debt. It is not yet possible to give any account of his influence abroad, because the memoirs which will show it are only beginning to be published. We shall have them in due time; for Emerson was an outcome of the world’s progress. His appearance marks the turning-point in the history of that enthusiasm for pure democracy which has tinged the political thought of the world for the past one hundred and fifty years. The youths of England and Germany may have been surprised at hearing from America a piercing voice of protest against the very influences which were crushing them at home. They could not realize that the chief difference between Europe and America is a difference in the rate of speed with which revolutions in thought are worked out.
+++++While the radicals of Europe were revolting in 1848 against the abuses of a tyranny whose roots were in feudalism, Emerson, the great radical of America, the arch-radical of the world, was revolting against the evils whose roots were in universal suffrage. By showing the identity in essence of all tyranny, and by bringing back the attention of political thinkers to its starting-point, the value of human character, he has advanced the political thought of the world by one step. He has pointed out for us in this country to what end our efforts must be bent. – JJ Chapman, Emerson
We begin to live only when we have conceived life as tragedy, Yeats has said. The opposite was true of Emerson. Only as he refused to conceive life as tragedy could he find the courage to live the self-dependent life he required. – Whicher, Freedom and Fate, p46
Emerson’s idealism passed beyond Kant’s. He refused to rest content with the Kantian assertion that nature, as we perceive it, falls into patterns predetermined by consciousness… For Emerson, the mind does not create what it perceives; through intuition it knows the truth, the divine, directly. This immediate intuition into the divine mind became indistinguishable in Emerson from the imagination. – F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p42
If I could persuade men to listen to their interior convictions, if I could express, embody their interior convictions, that were indeed life. It were to cease being a figure, and to act the action of a man. – Emerson
[Emerson] himself said that though he did not have a musical ear, he had “musical eyes”. – F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p50
In spite of his fondness for Montaigne, [Emerson] had not a trace of skepticism in his being; and in spite of his profession of being a seeker, all his mature work proceeded from a priori deductive assertion. – F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p65
It was as true for [Emerson] as for the Vedantist, that the veil of Maya must be pierced, that man’s salvation was in his spiritual eye. – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p52
There…is [Emerson’s] deviation from the actual world, the tendency that caused him to say: “And what is Genius but a finer love, a love of the flower and perfection of things, and a desire to draw a new picture or copy of the same?” But as William James was to write in the margin of his copy: “There is no such flower, and love and genius both cleave to the particular objects which are precious because at the moment they seem unique.” – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p53
One weakness of [Emerson’s] poems that he deplored was that they did not contain sufficient evidence of the “polarity” of existence, of how its inevitable law is action and reaction, of how every statement contains the seed of its opposite. – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p63
[DH Lawrence] like Emerson before him, accepted the task of reviving Adam in himself and renaming the beasts of creation. – H. Gregory
In a fortnight or three weeks my little raft will be afloat. Expect nothing more of my powers of construction, – no ship-building, no clipper, smack, nor skiff even, only boards and logs tied together. – Emerson, letter to Carlyle just before the appearance of Essays (1841)
[Thoreau] when you talked of art, blotted a paper with ink, then doubled it over, and safely defied the artist the surpass his effect. – Emerson, journal, Aug 1847
R. L. STEVENSON
Writing was to him an art, and almost everything that he has written has a little the air of being a tour de force. Stevenson’s books and essays were generally brilliant imitations of established things, done somewhat in the spirit of an expert in billiards. In short, Stevenson is the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature. …
+++++It is no secret that Stevenson in early life spent much time in imitating the styles of various authors, for he has himself described the manner in which he went to work to fit himself for his career as a writer. His boyish ambition led him to employ perfectly phenomenal diligence in cultivating a perfectly phenomenal talent for imitation.
+++++There was probably no fault in Stevenson’s theory as to how a man should learn to write, and as to the discipline he must undergo. Almost all the greatest artists have shown, in their early work, traces of their early masters. These they outgrow. “For as this temple waxes, the inward service of the mind and soul grows wide withal;” and an author’s own style breaks through the coverings of his education, as a hyacinth breaks from the bulb. It is noticeable, too, that the early and imitative work of great men generally belongs to a particular school to which their maturity bears a logical relation. They do not cruise about in search of a style or vehicle, trying all and picking up hints here and there, but they fall incidentally and genuinely under influences which move them and afterwards qualify their original work.
+++++With Stevenson it was different; for he went in search of a style as Coelebs in search of a wife. He was an eclectic by nature. He became a remarkable, if not a unique phenomenon, – for he never grew up. Whether or not there was some obscure connection between his bodily troubles and the arrest of his intellectual development, it is certain that Stevenson remained a boy till the day of his death.
+++++The boy was the creature in the universe whom Stevenson best understood. Let us remember how a boy feels about art, and why he feels so. The intellect is developed in the child with such astonishing rapidity that long before physical maturity its head is filled with ten thousand things learned from books and not drawn directly from real life.
+++++The form and setting in which the boy learns of matters sticks in the mind as a part of the matters themselves. He cannot disentangle what is conventional from what is original, because he has not yet a first-hand acquaintance with life by which to interpret.
+++++Every schoolboy of talent writes essays in the style of Addison, because he is taught that this is the correct way of writing. He has no means of knowing that in writing in this manner he is using his mind in a very peculiar and artificial way, – a way entirely foreign to Addison himself; and that he is really striving not so much to say something himself as to reproduce an effect.
+++++There is one thing which young people do not know, and which they find out during the process of growing up, – and that is that good things in art have been done by men whose entire attention was absorbed in an attempt to tell the truth, and who have been chiefly marked by a deep unconsciousness.
+++++To a boy, the great artists of the world are a lot of necromancers, whose enchantments can perhaps be stolen and used again. To a man, they are a lot of human beings, and their works are parts of them. Their works are their hands and their feet, their organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. To a man, it is as absurd to imitate the manner of Dean Swift in writing as it would be to imitate the manner of Dr. Johnson in eating. But Stevenson was not a man, he was a boy; or, to speak more accurately, the attitude of his mind towards his work remained unaltered from boyhood till death, though his practice and experiment gave him, as he grew older, a greater mastery over his materials. It is in this attitude of Stevenson’s mind toward his own work that we must search for the heart of his mystery.
+++++He conceived of himself as “an artist,” and of his writings as performances. As a consequence, there is an undertone of insincerity in almost everything which he has written. His attention is never wholly absorbed in his work, but is greatly taken up with the notion of how each stroke of it is going to appear.
We have all experienced, while reading his books, a certain undefinable suspicion which interferes with the enjoyment of some people, and enhances that of others. It is not so much the cream-tarts themselves that we suspect, as the motive of the giver.
+++++“I am in the habit,” said Prince Florizel, “of looking not so much to the nature of the gift as to the spirit in which it is offered.”
+++++“The spirit, sir,” returned the young man, with another bow, “is one of mockery.”
This doubt about Stevenson’s truth and candor is one of the results of the artistic doctrines which he professed and practised. He himself regards his work as a toy; and how can we do otherwise?
+++++It seems to be a law of psychology that the only way in which the truth can be strongly told is in the course of a search for truth. The moment a man strives after some “effect,” he disqualifies himself from making that effect; for he draws the interest of his audience to the same matters that occupy his own mind; namely, upon his experiment and his efforts. It is only when a man is saying something that he believes is obviously and eternally true, that he can communicate spiritual things.
+++++Ultimately speaking, the vice of Stevenson’s theories about art is that they call for a self-surrender by the artist of his own mind to the pleasure of others, for a subordination of himself to the production of this “effect” in the mind of another. They degrade and belittle him. Let Stevenson speak for himself; the thought contained in the following passage is found in a hundred places in his writings and dominated his artistic life.
+++++“The French have a romantic evasion for one employment, and call its practitioners the Daughters of Joy. The artist is of the same family, he is of the Sons of Joy, chose his trade to please himself, gains his livelihood by pleasing others, and has parted with something of the sterner dignity of men. The poor Daughter of Joy carrying her smiles and her finery quite unregarded through the crowd, makes a figure which it is impossible to recall without a wounding pity. She is the type of the unsuccessful artist.”
+++++These are the doctrines and beliefs which, time out of mind, have brought the arts into contempt. They are as injurious as they are false, and they will checkmate the progress of any man or of any people that believes them. They corrupt and menace not merely the fine arts, but every other form of human expression in an equal degree. They are as insulting to the comic actor as they are to Michael Angelo, for the truth and beauty of low comedy are as dignified, and require of the artist the same primary passion for life for its own sake, as the truth and beauty of The Divine Comedy. The doctrines are the outcome of an Alexandrine age. After art has once learnt to draw its inspiration directly from life and has produced some masterpieces, then imitations begin to creep in. That Stevenson’s doctrines tend to produce imitative work is obvious. If the artist is a fisher of men, then we must examine the works of those who have known how to bait their hooks: in fiction, – De Foe, Fielding, Walter Scott, Dumas, Balzac. To a study of these men, Stevenson had, as we have seen, devoted the most plastic years of his life. The style and even the mannerisms of each of them, he had trained himself to reproduce. One can almost write their names across his pages and assign each as a presiding genius over a share of his work. Not that Stevenson purloined or adopted in a mean spirit, and out of vanity. His enthusiasm was at the bottom of all he did. He was well read in the belles lettres of England and the romanticists of France. These books were his bible. He was steeped in the stage-land and cloud-land of sentimental literature. From time to time, he emerged, trailing clouds of glory and showering sparkles from his hands.
+++++A close inspection shows his clouds and sparkles to be stage properties; but Stevenson did not know it. The public not only does not know it, but does not care whether it be so or not. The doughty old novel readers who knew their Scott and Ainsworth and Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade, their Dumas and their Cooper, were the very people whose hearts were warmed by Stevenson. If you cross-question one of these, he will admit that Stevenson is after all a revival, an echo, an after-glow of the romantic movement, and that he brought nothing new. – JJ Chapman, Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson was essentially the robust schoolboy who draws skeletons and gibbets in his Latin grammar. It was not that he took pleasure in death, but that he took pleasure in life, in every muscular and emphatic action of life, even if it were an action that took the life of another.
+++++Let us suppose that one gentleman throws a knife at another gentleman and pins him to the wall. It is scarcely necessary to remark that there are in this transaction two somewhat varying personal points of view. The point of view of the man pinned is the tragic and moral point of view, and this Stevenson showed clearly that he understood in such stories as “The Master of Ballantrae” and “Weir of Hermiston.” But there is another view of the matter – that in which the whole act is an abrupt and brilliant explosion of bodily vitality, like breaking a rock with a blow of a hammer, or just clearing a five-barred gate. This is the standpoint of romance, and it is the soul of “Treasure Island” and “The Wrecker.” It was not, indeed, that Stevenson loved men less, but that he loved clubs and pistols more. He had, in truth, in the devouring universalism of his soul, a positive love for inanimate objects such as has not been known since St. Francis called the sun brother and the well sister. We feel that he was actually in love with the wooden crutch that Silver sent hurtling in the sunlight, with the box that Billy Bones left at the “Admiral Benbow,” with the knife that Wicks drove through his own hand and the table. There is always in his work a certain clean-cut angularity which makes us remember that he was fond of cutting wood with an axe. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Stevenson
The fact is, that the whole mass of Stevenson’s spiritual and intellectual virtues have been partly frustrated by one additional virtue – that of artistic dexterity. If he had chalked up his great message on a wall, like Walt Whitman, in large and straggling letters, it would have startled men like a blasphemy. But he wrote his light-headed paradoxes in so flowing a copy-book hand that everyone supposed they must be copy-book sentiments. He suffered from his versatility, not, as is loosely said, by not doing every department well enough, but by doing every department too well. As child, cockney, pirate, or Puritan, his disguises were so good that most people could not see the same man under all. It is an unjust fact that if a man can play the fiddle, give legal opinions, and black boots just tolerably, he is called an Admirable Crichton, but if he does all three thoroughly well, he is apt to be regarded, in the several departments, as a common fiddler, a common lawyer, and a common boot-black. This is what has happened in the case of Stevenson. If “Dr. Jekyll,” “The Master of Ballantrae,” “The Child’s Garden of Verses,” and “Across the Plains” had been each of them one shade less perfectly done than they were, everyone would have seen that they were all parts of the same message; but by succeeding in the proverbial miracle of being in five places at once, he has naturally convinced others that he was five different people. But the real message of Stevenson was as simple as that of Mohamet, as moral as that of Dante, as confident as that of Whitman, and as practical as that of James Watt. The conception which unites the whole varied work of Stevenson was that romance, or the vision of the possibilities of things, was far more important than mere occurrences: that one was the soul of our life, the other the body, and that the soul was the precious thing. The germ of all his stories lies in the idea that every landscape or scrap of scenery has a soul: and that soul is a story. Standing before a stunted orchard with a broken stone wall, we may know as a mere fact that no one has been through it but an elderly female cook. But everything exists in the human soul: that orchard grows in our own brain, and there it is the shrine and theatre of some strange chance between a girl and a ragged poet and a mad farmer. Stevenson stands for the conception that ideas are the real incidents : that our fancies are our adventures. To think of a cow with wings is essentially to have met one. And this is the reason for his wide diversities of narrative : he had to make one story as rich as a ruby sunset, another as grey as a hoary monolith: for the story was the soul, or rather the meaning, of the bodily vision. It is quite inappropriate to judge “The Teller of Tales” (as the Samoans called him) by the particular novels he wrote, as one would judge Mr. George Moore by “Esther Waters.” These novels were only the two or three of his soul’s adventures that he happened to tell. But he died with a thousand stories in his heart. – Chesterton, Varied Types, Stevenson
When Mark Twain died, in 1910, one of the magnificos who paid public tribute to him was William H. Taft, then President of the United States. “Mark Twain,” said Dr. Taft, “gave real intellectual enjoyment to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come. He never wrote a line that a father could not read to a daughter.”
+++++The usual polite flubdub and not to be exposed, perhaps, to critical analysis. But it was, in a sense, typical of the general view at that time, and so it deserves to be remembered for the fatuous inaccuracy of the judgment in it. For Mark Twain dead is beginning to show far different and more brilliant colors than those he seemed to wear during life, and the one thing no sane critic would say of him to-day is that he was the harmless fireside jester, the mellow chautauquan, the amiable old grandpa of letters that he was once so widely thought to be.
+++++The truth is that Mark was almost exactly the reverse. Instead of being a mere entertainer of the mob, he was in fact a literary artist of the very highest skill and sophistication, and, in all save his superficial aspect, quite unintelligible to Dr. Taft’s millions. And instead of being a sort of Dr. Frank Crane in cap and bells, laboriously devoted to the obvious and the uplifting, he was a destructive satirist of the utmost pungency and relentlessness, and the most bitter critic of American platitude and delusion, whether social, political or religious, that ever lived. …
+++++One reads with something akin to astonishment of his superstitious reverence for Emerson — of how he stood silent and bare-headed before the great transcendentalist’s house at Concord. One hears of him, with amazement, courting Whittier, Longfellow and Holmes. One is staggered by the news, reported by Traubel, that Walt Whitman thought “he mainly misses fire.” The simple fact is that Huckleberry Finn is worth the whole work of Emerson with two-thirds of the work of Whitman thrown in for make-weight, and that one chapter of it is worth the whole work of Whittier, Longfellow and Holmes.
Mark was not only a great artist; he was pre-eminently a great American artist. No other writer that we have produced has ever been more extravagantly national. Whitman dreamed of an America that never was and never will be; Poe was a foreigner in every line he wrote; even Emerson was no more than an American spigot for European, and especially German, ideas. But Mark was wholly of the soil. His humor was American. His incurable Philistinism was American. His very English was American. Above all, he was an American in his curious mixture of sentimentality and cynicism, his mingling of romanticist and iconoclast.
+++++English Traits might have been written by any one of half a dozen Germans. The tales of Poe, printed as translations from the French, would have deceived even Frenchmen. And Leaves of Grass might have been written in London quite as well as in Brooklyn. But in Huckleberry Finn, in A Connecticut Yankee and in most of the short sketches there is a quality that is unmistakably and over whelmingly national. They belong to our country and our time quite as obviously as the skyscraper or the quick lunch counter. They are as magnificently American as the Brooklyn Bridge or Tammany Hall.
+++++Mark goes down the professorial gullet painfully. He has stuck more than once. He now seems fated to stick again. But these gaggings will not hurt him, nor even appreciably delay him. Soon or late the national mind will awake to the fact that a great man was among us – that in the midst of all our puerile rages for dubious foreigners we produced an artist who was head and shoulders above all of them. – Mencken, Mark Twain’s Americanism
His [Wilde’s] philosophy (which was vile) was a philosophy of ease, of acceptance, and luxurious illusion; yet, being Irish, he could not help putting it in pugnacious and propagandist epigrams. He preached his softness with hard decision; he praised pleasure in the words most calculated to give pain. This armed insolence, which was the noblest thing about him, was also the Irish thing; he challenged all comers. – Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, p28
The sight of their [some Florentine philosophers’] belligerent young enthusiasm has given me a queer sense of the gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young Ph.D.’s, boring each other at seminaries, writing those direful reports of literature in the “Philosophical Review” and elsewhere, fed on “books of reference,” and never confounding “Æsthetik” with “Erkentnisstheorie.” Faugh! I shall never deal with them again on those terms! Can’t you and I, who in spite of such divergence have yet so much in common in our Weltanschauung, start a systematic movement at Harvard against the desiccating and pedantifying process? – W James, letter to Santayana, from Orvieto, May 2, 1905
He approached philosophy as mankind originally approached it, without having a philosophy, and he lent himself to various hypotheses in various directions. He professed to begin his study on the assumptions of common sense, that there is a material world which the animals that live in it are able to perceive and to think about. He gave a congruous extension to this view in his theory that emotion is purely bodily sensation, and also in his habit of conceiving the mind as a total shifting sensibility. To pursue this path, however, would have led him to admit that nature was automatic and mind simply cognitive, conclusions from which every instinct in him recoiled. He preferred to believe that mind and matter had independent energies and could lend one another a hand, matter operating by motion and mind by intention. This dramatic, amphibious way of picturing causation is natural to common sense, and might be defended if it were clearly defined; but James was insensibly carried away from it by a subtle implication of his method. This implication was that experience or mental discourse not only constituted a set of substantive facts, but the only substantive facts; all else, even that material world which his psychology had postulated, could be nothing but a verbal or fantastic symbol for sensations in their experienced order. So that while nominally the door was kept open to any hypothesis regarding the conditions of the psychological flux, in truth the question was prejudged. The hypotheses, which were parts of this psychological flux, could have no object save other parts of it. That flux itself, therefore, which he could picture so vividly, was the fundamental existence. The sense of bounding over the waves, the sense of being on an adventurous voyage, was the living fact; the rest was dead reckoning. Where one’s gift is, there will one’s faith be also; and to this poet appearance was the only reality.
+++++This sentiment, which always lay at the back of his mind, reached something like formal expression in his latest writings, where he sketched what he called radical empiricism. The word experience is like a shrapnel shell, and bursts into a thousand meanings. Here we must no longer think of its setting, its discoveries, or its march; to treat it radically we must abstract its immediate objects and reduce it to pure data. It is obvious (and the sequel has already proved) that experience so understood would lose its romantic signification, as a personal adventure or a response to the shocks of fortune. “Experience” would turn into a cosmic dance of absolute entities created and destroyed in vacuo according to universal laws, or perhaps by chance. No minds would gather this experience, and no material agencies would impose it; but the immediate objects present to any one would simply be parts of the universal fireworks, continuous with the rest, and all the parts, even if not present to anybody, would have the same status. Experience would then not at all resemble what Shakespeare reports or what James himself had described in his psychology. If it could be experienced as it flows in its entirety (which is fortunately impracticable), it would be a perpetual mathematical nightmare. Every whirling atom, every changing relation, and every incidental perspective would be a part of it. I am far from wishing to deny for a moment the scientific value of such a cosmic system, if it can be worked out; physics and mathematics seem to me to plunge far deeper than literary psychology into the groundwork of this world; but human experience is the stuff of literary psychology; we cannot reach the stuff of physics and mathematics except by arresting or even hypostatising some elements of appearance, and expanding them on an abstracted and hypothetical plane of their own. Experience, as memory and literature rehearse it, remains nearer to us than that : it is something dreamful, passionate, dramatic, and significative.
+++++Certainly this personal human experience, expressible in literature and in talk, and no cosmic system however profound, was what James knew best and trusted most. Had he seen the developments of his radical empiricism, I cannot help thinking he would have marvelled that such logical mechanisms should have been hatched out of that egg. The principal problems and aspirations that haunted him all his life long would lose their meaning in that cosmic atmosphere. The pragmatic nature of truth, for instance, would never suggest itself in the presence of pure data; but a romantic mind soaked in agnosticism, conscious of its own habits and assuming an environment the exact structure of which can never be observed, may well convince itself that, for experience, truth is nothing but a happy use of signs – which is indeed the truth of literature. But if we once accept any system of the universe as literally true, the value of convenient signs to prepare us for such experience as is yet absent cannot be called truth : it is plainly nothing but a necessary inaccuracy. So, too, with the question of the survival of the human individual after death. For radical empiricism a human individual is simply a certain cycle or complex of terms, like any other natural fact; that some echoes of his mind should recur after the regular chimes have ceased, would have nothing paradoxical about it. A mathematical world is a good deal like music, with its repetitions and transpositions, and a little trill, which you might call a person, might well peep up here and there all over a vast composition. Something of that sort may be the truth of spiritualism; but it is not what the spiritualists imagine. Their whole interest lies not in the experiences they have, but in the interpretation they give to them, assigning them to troubled spirits in another world; but both another world and a spirit are notions repugnant to a radical empiricism.
+++++I think it is important to remember, if we are not to misunderstand William James, that his radical empiricism and pragmatism were in his own mind only methods; his doctrine, if he may be said to have had one, was agnosticism. And just because he was an agnostic (feeling instinctively that beliefs and opinions, if they had any objective beyond themselves, could never be sure they had attained it), he seemed in one sense so favourable to credulity. He was not credulous himself, far from it; he was well aware that the trust he put in people or ideas might betray him. For that very reason he was respectful and pitiful to the trustfulness of others. Doubtless they were wrong, but who were we to say so? In his own person he was ready enough to face the mystery of things, and whatever the womb of time might bring forth; but until the curtain was rung down on the last act of the drama (and it might have no last act!) he wished the intellectual cripples and the moral hunchbacks not to be jeered at; perhaps they might turn out to be the heroes of the play. Who could tell what heavenly influences might not pierce to these sensitive half-flayed creatures, which are lost on the thick-skinned, the sane, and the duly goggled? We must not suppose, however, that James meant these contrite and romantic suggestions dogmatically. The agnostic, as well as the physician and neurologist in him, was never quite eclipsed. The hope that some new revelation might come from the lowly and weak could never mean to him what it meant to the early Christians. For him it was only a right conceded to them to experiment with their special faiths; he did not expect such faiths to be discoveries of absolute fact, which everybody else might be constrained to recognise. If any one had made such a claim, and had seemed to have some chance of imposing it universally, James would have been the first to turn against him; not, of course, on the ground that it was impossible that such an orthodoxy should be true, but with a profound conviction that it was to be feared and distrusted. No : the degree of authority and honour to be accorded to various human faiths was a moral question, not a theoretical one. All faiths were what they were experienced as being, in their capacity of faiths; these faiths, not their objects, were the hard facts we must respect. We cannot pass, except under the illusion of the moment, to anything firmer or on a deeper level. There was accordingly no sense of security, no joy, in James’s apology for personal religion. He did not really believe; he merely believed in the right of believing that you might be right if you believed.
+++++It is this underlying agnosticism that explains an incoherence which we might find in his popular works, where the story and the moral do not seem to hang together. Professedly they are works of psychological observation; but the tendency and suasion in them seems to run to disintegrating the idea of truth, recommending belief without reason, and encouraging superstition. A psychologist who was not an agnostic would have indicated, as far as possible, whether the beliefs and experiences he was describing were instances of delusion or of rare and fine perception, or in what measure they were a mixture of both. But James – and this is what gives such romantic warmth to these writings of his – disclaims all antecedent or superior knowledge, listens to the testimony of each witness in turn, and only by accident allows us to feel that he is swayed by the eloquence and vehemence of some of them rather than of others. This method is modest, generous, and impartial; but if James intended, as I think he did, to picture the drama of human belief, with its risks and triumphs, the method was inadequate. Dramatists never hesitate to assume, and to let the audience perceive, who is good and who bad, who wise and who foolish, in their pieces; otherwise their work would be as impotent dramatically as scientifically. The tragedy and comedy of life lie precisely in the contrast between the illusions or passions of the characters and their true condition and fate, hidden from them at first, but evident to the author and the public. If in our diffidence and scrupulous fairness we refuse to take this judicial attitude, we shall be led to strange conclusions. The navigator, for instance, trusting his “experience” (which here, as in the case of religious people, means his imagination and his art), insists on believing that the earth is spherical; he has sailed round it. That is to say, he has seemed to himself to steer westward and westward, and has seemed to get home again. But how should he know that home is now where it was before, or that his past and present impressions of it come from the same, or from any, material object? How should he know that space is as trim and tri-dimensional as the discredited Euclidians used to say it was? If, on the contrary, my worthy aunt, trusting to her longer and less ambiguous experience of her garden, insists that the earth is flat, and observes that the theory that it is round, which is only a theory, is much less often tested and found useful than her own perception of its flatness, and that moreover that theory is pedantic, intellectualistic, and a product of academies, and a rash dogma to impose on mankind for ever and ever, it might seem that on James’s principle we ought to agree with her. But no; on James’s real principles we need not agree with her, nor with the navigator either. Radical empiricism, which is radical agnosticism, delivers us from so benighted a choice. For the quarrel becomes unmeaning when we remember that the earth is both flat and round, if it is experienced as being both. The substantive fact is not a single object on which both the perception and the theory are expected to converge; the substantive facts are the theory and the perception themselves. And we may note in passing that empiricism, when it ceases to value experience as a means of discovering external things, can give up its ancient prejudice in favour of sense as against imagination, for imagination and thought are immediate experiences as much as sensation is : they are therefore, for absolute empiricism, no less actual ingredients of reality. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James
In the discourse on “The Energies of Men,” certain physiological marvels are recorded, as if to suggest that the resources of our minds and bodies are infinite, or can be infinitely enlarged by divine grace. Yet James would not, I am sure, have accepted that inference. He would, under pressure, have drawn in his mystical horns under his scientific shell; but he was not naturalist enough to feel instinctively that the wonderful and the natural are all of a piece, and that only our degree of habituation distinguishes them. A nucleus, which we may poetically call the soul, certainly lies within us, by which our bodies and minds are generated and controlled, like an army by a government. In this nucleus, since nature in a small compass has room for anything, vast quantities of energy may well be stored up, which may be tapped on occasion, or which may serve like an electric spark to let loose energy previously existing in the grosser parts. But the absolute autocracy of this central power, or its success in imposing extraordinary trials on its subjects, is not an obvious good. Perhaps, like a democratic government, the soul is at its best when it merely collects and coordinates the impulses coming from the senses. The inner man is at times a tyrant, parasitical, wasteful, and voluptuous. At other times he is fanatical and mad. When he asks for and obtains violent exertions from the body, the question often is, as with the exploits of conquerors and conjurers, whether the impulse to do such prodigious things was not gratuitous, and the things nugatory. Who would wish to be a mystic? James himself, who by nature was a spirited rather than a spiritual man, had no liking for sanctimonious transcendentalists, visionaries, or ascetics; he hated minds that run thin. But he hastened to correct this manly impulse, lest it should be unjust, and forced himself to overcome his repugnance. This was made easier when the unearthly phenomenon had a healing or saving function in the everyday material world; miracle then re-established its ancient identity with medicine, and both of them were humanised. Even when this union was not attained, James was reconciled to the miracle-workers partly by his great charity, and partly by his hunter’s instinct to follow a scent, for he believed discoveries to be imminent. Besides, a philosopher who is a teacher of youth is more concerned to give people a right start than a right conclusion. James fell in with the hortatory tradition of college sages; he turned his psychology, whenever he could do so honestly, to purposes of edification; and his little sermons on habit, on will, on faith, and this on the latent capacities of men, were fine and stirring, and just the sermons to preach to the young Christian soldier. He was much less sceptical in morals than in science. He seems to have felt sure that certain thoughts and hopes – those familiar to a liberal Protestantism – were every man’s true friends in life. This assumption would have been hard to defend if he or those he habitually addressed had ever questioned it; yet his whole argument for voluntarily cultivating these beliefs rests on this assumption, that they are beneficent. Since, whether we will or no, we cannot escape the risk of error, and must succumb to some human or pathological bias, at least we might do so gracefully and in the form that would profit us most, by clinging to those prejudices which help us to lead what we all feel is a good life. But what is a good life? Had William James, had the people about him, had modern philosophers anywhere, any notion of that? I cannot think so. They had much experience of personal goodness, and love of it; they had standards of character and right conduct; but as to what might render human existence good, excellent, beautiful, happy, and worth having as a whole, their notions were utterly thin and barbarous. They had forgotten the Greeks, or never known them. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James
There is a sense in which James was not a philosopher at all. He once said to me : “What a curse philosophy would be if we couldn’t forget all about it!” In other words, philosophy was not to him what it has been to so many, a consolation and sanctuary in a life which would have been unsatisfying without it. It would be incongruous, therefore, to expect of him that he should build a philosophy like an edifice to go and live in for good. Philosophy to him was rather like a maze in which he happened to find himself wandering, and what he was looking for was the way out. In the presence of theories of any sort he was attentive, puzzled, suspicious, with a certain inner prompting to disregard them. He lived all his life among them, as a child lives among grown-up people; what a relief to turn from those stolid giants, with their prohibitions and exactions and tiresome talk, to another real child or a nice animal! Of course grown-up people are useful, and so James considered that theories might be; but in themselves, to live with, they were rather in the way, and at bottom our natural enemies. It was well to challenge one or another of them when you got a chance; perhaps that challenge might break some spell, transform the strange landscape, and simplify life. A theory while you were creating or using it was like a story you were telling yourself or a game you were playing; it was a warm, self-justifying thing then; but when the glow of creation or expectation was over, a theory was a phantom, like a ghost, or like the minds of other people. To all other people, even to ghosts, William James was the soul of courtesy; and he was civil to most theories as well, as to more or less interesting strangers that invaded him. Nobody ever recognised more heartily the chance that others had of being right, and the right they had to be different. Yet when it came to understanding what they meant, whether they were theories or persons, his intuition outran his patience; he made some brilliant impressionistic sketch in his fancy and called it by their name. This sketch was as often flattered as distorted, and he was at times the dupe of his desire to be appreciative and give the devil his due; he was too impulsive for exact sympathy; too subjective, too romantic, to be just. Love is very penetrating, but it penetrates to possibilities rather than to facts. The logic of opinions, as well as the exact opinions themselves, were not things James saw easily, or traced with pleasure. He liked to take things one by one, rather than to put two and two together. He was a mystic, a mystic in love with life. He was comparable to Rousseau and to Walt Whitman; he expressed a generous and tender sensibility, rebelling against sophistication, and preferring daily sights and sounds, and a vague but indomitable faith in fortune, to any settled intellectual tradition calling itself science or philosophy. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James
He probably conceived what he said more deeply than a more scholastic mind might have conceived it; yet he would have been more comfortable if some one else had said it for him. He liked to open the window, and look out for a moment. I think he was glad when the bell rang, and he could be himself again until the next day. But in the midst of this routine of the class-room the spirit would sometimes come upon him, and, leaning his head on his hand, he would let fall golden words, picturesque, fresh from the heart, full of the knowledge of good and evil. Incidentally there would crop up some humorous characterisation, some candid confession of doubt or of instinctive preference, some pungent scrap of learning; radicalisms plunging sometimes into the sub-soil of all human philosophies; and, on occasion, thoughts of simple wisdom and wistful piety, the most unfeigned and manly that anybody ever had. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.3 William James
The Chinese hate the phrase “logical necessity” because there is no logical necessity in human affairs. The Chinese distrust of logic begins with the distrust of words, proceeds with the abhorrence of definitions and ends with instinctive hatred for all systems and theories. For only words, definitions and systems have made schools of philosophy possible. The degeneration of philosophy began with the preoccupation with words. …Kung Tingan, said : “The Sage does not talk, the Talented Ones talk, and the stupid ones argue.”…
+++++For this is the sad story of philosophy: that philosophers belonged to the genus of Talkers and not the Silent Ones. All philosophers love to hear their own voice. …As time went on, the philosophers began to use more and more words and longer and longer sentences; epigrams of life gave place to sentences, sentences to arguments, arguments to treatises, treatises to commentaries, and commentaries to philological research; more and more words were needed to define and classify the words they used and more and more schools were needed to differ and secede from the schools already established; the process continued until the immediate, intimate feeling or an awareness of living has been entirely lost sight of… the few independent thinkers who have felt the direct impact of life itself – a Goethe, a Samuel Johnson, an Emerson, a William James – have refused to speak in the jargon of the Talkers and have always been intractably opposed to the spirit of classification. For they are the wise ones, who have kept for us the true meaning of philosophy, which is the wisdom of life. In most cases, they have forsaken arguments and reverted to the epigram. …
+++++…We have today a philosophy that has become stranger to life itself, that has almost half disclaimed any intention to teach us the meaning of life and the wisdom of living, a philosophy that has lost that intimate feeling of life or awareness of living which we spoke of as the very essence of philosophy. It is that intimate feeling of life which William James has called “the stuff of experience.” As time goes on, I feel that the philosophy and logic of William James will become more and more devastating to the modern Western way of thinking. Before we can humanize Western philosophy, we must first humanize Western logic. We have to get back to a way of thinking which is more impatient to be in touch with reality, and above all with human nature, than to be merely correct, logical and consistent. For the disease of thinking typified by Descartes’ famous discovery “I think, therefore I exist,” we have to substitute the more human and more sensible statement of Walt Whitman’s: “I am sufficient as I am.” Life or existence does not have to go down on its knees and beg logic to prove that it exists or that it is there.
+++++William James spent his life trying to prove and defend the Chinese way of thinking, without knowing it. Only…if William James had been a Chinese, he would not have written so many words to argue it out, but would have merely stated in an essay of three or five hundred words, that he believed it because it is so…for fear that the more words he used, the greater the chances for misunderstanding. But William James was a Chinese in his keen awareness of life and the varieties of human experience, in his rebellion against mechanistic rationalism, his anxiety to keep thought constantly fluid, and his impatience with people who think they have discovered the one all-important, “absolute” and universal truth and have enclosed it in a self-sufficient system. He was Chinese, too, in his insistence on the importance of the artist’s sense of perceptual reality over and against conceptual reality. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1939.
CAMBRIDGE, Nov. 28, 1908.
DEAR WELLS, “First and Last Things” is a great achievement. The first two “books” should be entitled “philosophy without humbug” and used as a textbook in all the colleges of the world. You have put your finger accurately on the true emphases, and in the main on what seem to me the true solutions (you are more monistic in your faith than I should be, but as long as you only call it “faith,” that’s your right and privilege), and the simplicity of your statements ought to make us “professionals” blush. I have been 35 years on the way to similar conclusions simply because I started as a professional and had to debrouiller them from all the traditional school rubbish.
+++++The other two books exhibit you in the character of the Tolstoy of the English world. A sunny and healthy-minded Tolstoy, as he is a pessimistic and morbid-minded Wells. Where the “higher synthesis” will be born, who shall combine the pair of you, Heaven only knows. But you are carrying on the same function, not only in that neither of your minds is boxed and boarded up like the mind of an ordinary human being, but all the contents down to the very bottom come out freely and unreservedly and simply, but in that you both have the power of contagious speech, and set the similar mood vibrating in the reader.
Be happy in that such power has been put into your hands!
+++++This book is worth any 100 volumes on Metaphysics and any 200 of Ethics, of the ordinary sort.
Yours, with friendliest regards to Mrs. Wells, most sincerely,
Most people either say that they agree with Bernard Shaw or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him. – Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, Intro. to the First Edition [entire]
…it is because I love life that I wish to keep it sweet, so as to be able to love it altogether : and that all I wish for others, or dare to recommend to them, is that they should keep their lives sweet also, not after my fashion, but each man in his own way. I talk a great deal about the good and the ideal, having learned from Plato and Aristotle (since the living have never shown me how to live) that, granting a human nature to which to appeal, the good and the ideal may be defined with some accuracy. Of course, they cannot be defined immutably, because human nature is not immutable; and they cannot be defined in such a way as to be transferred without change from one race or person to another, because human nature is various. Yet any reflective and honest man, in expressing his hopes and preferences, may expect to find many of his neighbours agreeing with him, and when they agree, they may work politically together. Now I am sometimes blamed for not labouring more earnestly to bring down the good of which I prate into the lives of other men. My critics suppose, apparently, that I mean by the good some particular way of life or some type of character which is alone virtuous, and which ought to be propagated. Alas, their propagandas! How they have filled this world with hatred, darkness, and blood! How they are still the eternal obstacle, in every home and in every heart, to a simple happiness! I have no wish to propagate any particular character, least of all my own; my conceit does not take that form. I wish individuals, and races, and nations to be themselves, and to multiply the forms of perfection and happiness, as nature prompts them. The only thing which I think might be propagated without injustice to the types thereby suppressed is harmony; enough harmony to prevent the interference of one type with another, and to allow the perfect development of each type. The good, as I conceive it, is happiness, happiness for each man after his own heart, and for each hour according to its inspiration. I should dread to transplant my happiness into other people; it might die in that soil; and my critics are the first to tell me that my sort of happiness is a poor thing in their estimation. Well and good. I congratulate them on their true loves : but how should I be able to speed them on their course? They do not place their happiness in the things I have, or can give. No man can set up an ideal for another, nor labour to realize it for him, save by his leave or as his spokesman, perhaps more ready with the right word. To find the comparatively right word, my critics seem to agree, is my art. Do I not practise it for their benefit as best I can? Is it I who am indifferent to the being of light? Who loves it more, or basks in it more joyfully? And do I do nothing that the light may come? Is it I who tremble lest at its coming it should dissolve the creatures begotten in darkness? Ah, I know why my critics murmur and are dissatisfied. I do not endeavour to deceive myself, nor to deceive them, nor to aid them in deceiving themselves. They will never prevail on me to do that. I am a disciple of Socrates. – Santayana, On My Friendly Critics, Soliloquies in England, p258-9
Apart from his well-known mathematical attainments, he possesses by inheritance the political and historical mind, and an intrepid determination to pierce convention and look to ultimate things. He has written abundantly and, where the subject permits, with a singular lucidity, candour, and charm. Especially his Philosophical Essays and his little book on The Problems of Philosophy can be read with pleasure by any intelligent person, and give a tolerably rounded picture of the tenets of the school. Yet it must be remembered that Mr. Russell, like Mr. Moore, is still young and his thoughts have not assumed their ultimate form. Moreover, he lives in an atmosphere of academic disputation which makes one technical point after another acquire a preponderating influence in his thoughts. His book on The Problems of Philosophy is admirable in style, temper, and insight, but it hardly deserves its title; it treats principally, in a somewhat personal and partial way, of the relation of knowledge to its objects, and it might rather have been called “The problems which Moore and I have been agitating lately.” Indeed, his philosophy is so little settled as yet that every new article and every fresh conversation revokes some of his former opinions, and places the crux of philosophical controversy at a new point. We are soon made aware that exact thinking and true thinking are not synonymous, but that one exact thought, in the same mind, may be the exact opposite of the next. This inconstancy, which after all does not go very deep, is a sign of sincerity and pure love of truth; it marks the freshness, the vivacity, the self-forgetfulness, the logical ardour belonging to this delightful reformer. It may seem a paradox, but at bottom it is not, that the vitalists should be oppressed, womanish, and mystical, and only the intellectualists keen, argumentative, fearless, and full of life. – Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, 1913, p111-2