Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Euclid of Holiness

Mr. Emerson is a Plato groupie. He fairly gushes in his lecture "Plato; Or the Philosopher." To Emerson, Plato isn't just a philosopher, he is the philosopher, the philosopher to represent all other philosophers. If philosopher were one of Plato's ideal forms, Emerson declares Plato to be the closest thing to the ideal form we've ever had. Recall for a moment your Plato knowledge. One of his many themes is the idea of an ideal form, a sort of universal, unchangeable perfection. We cannot see these forms, we can only ever see their shadows (remember the Allegory of the Cave?). We can, however, gain a certain comprehension of forms through the use of the intellect. Our sense and imagination belong to the perceptual world which is made of nothing but imperfect shadows. Emerson declares right off the bat, "out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought." What entitles Plato to stand as a representative of philosophy is his breadth. He has, according to Emerson, taken into himself all the arts, sciences and "knowables." He is an "all-knowing Greek geometer," a "Euclid of holiness," who has defined philosophy with an unprecedented accuracy and intelligence never seen before or since. He has synthesized Unity and Variety by showing us the one in the many and the many in the one. Plato is a "great average man" far above us to be sure, but not so far above that we cannot see in him our "own dreams and glimpses." But as a "great average man" Plato has faults, though not many. Chief among the faults is that his writings lack the authority and power of a prophet. The other major fault of Plato is that he does not have a system. Emerson, however, deftly lays this shortcoming at the feet of Plato's disciples. Emerson defends any and all charges against Plato's greatness by insisting that he cannot be compared to the ideal form (which for Emerson ultimately means God because all forms come from the Almighty), but to other men. In this measurement, Plato is the man and everyone else mere boys. The essay itself is fairly straightforward. There is a section close to the beginning which I found a bit uncomfortable. Emerson is discussing the ideas of unity and variety which correspond in some degree with Plato's ideas of form and shadow (shadow is not Plato's word but I lack his exactness). Emerson divides the world into Nature (unity/cause/form/God) and Intellect (diversity/effect/shadow/creativity). He then assigns Nature to Asia (where their minds "incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity) and Intellect to Europe (land of "arts, inventions, trade, freedom") and says that while they are both great and important, Intellect is better. This is curious since Emerson lauds Plato for synthesizing the two, describing them, in essence, as two sides of the same coin. Even more curious is a paragraph that any advocate of Intelligent Design would find cozy. Emerson explains in terms of Unity and Diversity, cause and effect that God is Unity and therefore the ultimate cause of everything. Since Emerson believes that, I am, therefore, surprised, that he equates Europe with Diversity/effect and lavishes praise upon it. I mean, if you were going to split the world up as Emerson does, wouldn't you want your part of the world equated with what amounts to Plato's ideal forms? Emerson seems to be giving privilege to human creativity over the perfection of God. He is also re-ordering Plato's hierarchy. If you, reading this, know Emerson, please let me know if I am misreading. One more thing before I finish off the Plato lecture: vocabulary!

  • metempsychosis. Noun. The supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species (so that would be reincarnation, right?). Emerson: "...he saw the souls in pain; he hears the doom of the judge; he beholds the penal metempsychosis; the Fates, with the rock and shears; and hears the intoxicating hum of their spindle."
  • exercitations. Noun. Surprisingly, it means just what you'd think, "the act or an instance of exercising." Go figure. Emerson: "In view of eternal nature, Plato turns out to be philosophical exercitaions."
  • regnancy. Noun. Derivative of "regnant." Reigning; ruling; currently having the greatest influence; dominant. Emerson: "...what is, no doubt, incident to this regnancy of intellect in his work..."
  • saurian. Adjective or noun. Of or like a lizard (adj); any large reptile, especially a dinosaur (n). Emerson: "The human being has the saurian and the plant in his rear." Okay, so I know what Emerson means here, but I can't help picturing him with a dinosaur and a plant stuck to his backside. As a result, every time I read his sentence, I start smirking.
Such an educational post today! Next week's Emerson: "Swedenborg; Or, The Mystic"