Saturday, March 25, 2006

Science and Spirit

In Emerson's lecture "Swedenborg; Or, the Mystic," it is clear how much he likes order and classification. Right off he begins talking about classes of thinkers, the poet being of a higher class because he raises "men out of the world of corn and money, and console[s] them for the shortcomings of the day." This leads up to another class who "lead us into another region,--the world of morals, or of will." To this class belongs the mystic whose privilege it is to access the "secrets and structure of nature, by some higher method than by experience." Emerson's explanatory definition of a mystic is interesting. I takes its cue from Plato's idea of Reminiscence and the Hindu belief in transmigration of the soul. But Emerson doesn't believe in reincarnation. So he puts a twist on it by believing in religious ecstasy as a means for the soul to be in contact with the original soul (God) and thereby, upon returning from the ecstatic episode, able to remember what was seen and heard. Enter Emanuel Swedenborg. During his mystic explanation, Emerson comments that mystics generally pay a high price for their ecstatic trances. Most live in some kind of pain and eventually seem to suffer from mental illness because of all the "shocks to the mind." From a modern standpoint I thought it interesting that Emerson thought mental illness the result of ecstasies rather than ecstasies a result of mental illness as we are wont to view them today. Swedenborg, who was actually quite a good scientist before he turned to theology, was (and is) often viewed as insane. Emerson knows this and makes his mental illness observations into a positive by explaining:

As it is easier to see the reflection of the great sphere in large globes, though defaced by some crack or blemish, than in drops of water, so men of large calibre, though with some eccentricity or madness, like Pascal or Newton, help us more than balanced mediocre minds.
The old genius and divinity in madness argument. Doesn't work these days, but apparently it was still valid in 1845. While most people see a split between Swedenborg as scientist and as mystic, Emerson tries to reconcile the two just as he sees Swedenborg attempting to synthesize science and religion. There is a certain repetition of form in Nature and by studying this we could find a universality (this harkens back to Plato's idea of Forms) and connectedness between all things that would lead us to God:
He [Swedenborg] saw that the human body was strictly universal, or an instrument through which the soul feeds and is fed by the whole of matter: so he held, in exact antagonism to the sceptics, that "the wiser a man is, the more will he be a worshipper of the Deity."
It all sort of sounds like a search for a Theory of Everything except our current search for the theory is mechanical and theirs would lead them to first principles and God. As much as Emerson admires Swedenborg, he recognizes that the man had some major flaws. The foremost one being his Theory of Everything relying too much on God and not enough on science. Because while Emerson thought God should be included, he thought that too much theology and not enough science ruined Swedenborg's work. Instead of using theology to expand science, Swedenborg ended up limiting science. Emerson finds that Swedenborg's "system of the world wants central spontaneity; it is dynamic, not vital, and lacks power to generate life." Instead of allowing each man to see the world as a "living poem," Swedenborg makes the mistake of declaring everything in the physical world is symbolical of the spiritual world and then goes on to make correspondences. This is distasteful for Emerson because there is no room for individualism. In spite of Swedenborg's shortcomings, Emerson still greatly admires him. He believes that Swedenborg has come closer than any other in reconciling matter and spirit. And now for the words I had to look up:
  • missouriums. I am unable to find a meaning for this word but from Emerson's use of it I gather is means something like great. Emerson: "One of the missouriums and mastodons of literature, he is not to be measured by whole colleges of ordinary scholars." I like the use of mastodon here. Though I'm not sure it would be taken in a complimentary way if used to describe any currently living writers.
  • deliration. Noun. Aberration of mind; delirium. Emerson: "Their [Swedenborg's theological writings] immense and sandy diffuseness is like the prairie, or the desert, and their incongruities are like the last deliration."
  • vastation. Noun. The action or process of emptying or purifying someone or something, typically violently or drastically. Emerson: "He was let down a column that seemed of brass, but it was formed of angelic spirits, that he might descend safely amongst the unhappy, and witness the vastation of souls."
  • laminae. Noun. A thin layer, plate, or scale of sedimentary rock, organic tissue, or other material. Emerson: "The universe is a gigantic crystal, all whose atoms and laminae lie in uninterrupted order, and with unbroken unity, but cold and still."
  • erysipelas. Noun. An acute, sometimes recurrent disease caused by a bacterial infection. It is characterized by large, raised patches on the skin, especially that of the face and legs, with fever and severe general illness. Emerson: "One man, you say, dreads erysipelas,--show him that this dread is evil; or, one dreads hell,--show him that dread is evil."
The challenge for the week is to use these new words in everyday conversation. Will the person you say them to ask what they mean or pretend like they know already? Next week's Emerson lecture: "Montaigne; Or; the Sceptic." (Montaigne, how I've missed you!)