Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Honestest of All Writers

I must admit to being disappointed at Emerson's lecture, "Montaigne; Or, the Sceptic." Thus far in his lectures on Plato and Swedenborg, he spent quite a lot of time elucidating their ideas and then giving them an Emersonian twist. I expected the same with Montaigne. But over the course of 21 pages, Emerson spends only five pages directly discussing Montaigne. The rest of the time he spends playing Emerson the sceptic, decrying a few choice "diseases of thought." Within the short span of time Emerson spends on Montaigne, he uses a whole page explaining why he loves Montaigne so much. Then he explains he liked Montaigne even more upon finding out all of the great minds like Shakespeare and Blake loved him. We get a little Montaigne biography. And then Emerson gushing things like "Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers." And "You may read theology, and grammar, and metaphysics elsewhere. Whatever you get here, shall smack of the earth and of real life, sweet, smart, or stinging." Emerson praises Montaigne for his sincerity, his "masculine sense," for lacking enthusiasms and ambition, for being content, self-respecting, and for "keeping the middle of the road." Emerson does note, however, that there is one subject that raises Montaigne's passion: Socrates. The rest of the lecture belongs to Emerson trying to convince his listeners that scepticism is the best mode of life, it is the shade of gray between the "Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real," the materialist and the abstractionist. The problem with someone on one extreme is that he will not believe or listen to those on the other end. The ones in the abstractionist camp like to play in ideas and those on the materialist side think the others have lost their reason. Each side takes turns sticking it to the other. In the middle of all this resides the sceptic. The sceptic's strength comes in avoiding the extremes. He neither affirms not denies. He considers. It seems to Emerson that such a philosophy is like a ship that offers passage and mobility in the changing seas of thought. But society has a difficult time with sceptics. Man is a natural believer who wants to believe in cause and effect, direction and continuity. A sceptic throws a wrench into our desire to believe by asking questions. The sceptical, and thus the superior mind, will find itself "at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them." A sceptic is a "bad citizen" because he sees the selfishness in property and "penetrates the popular patriotism." Emerson believes that "some minds are incapable of scepticism." They may seem at times to be sceptical, but "the doubts they profess to entertain are rather a civility or accommodation to the common discourse of their company. They may well give themselves leave to speculate, for they are secure of a return." In other words, it's easy to go out on a limb when you don't really believe what you're saying. The true sceptic is often accused of being an infidel, an atheist, or impracticable. Nevertheless, a sceptic would rather "stand charged with the imbecility of scepticism, than with untruth." But even scepticism must fall to moral sentiment. And while a sceptic may appear immoral, the results are moral: "I play with the miscellany of facts, and take those superficial views which we call scepticism; but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes scepticism impossible." That statement seems a bit of a cop-out on Emerson's part. A capitulation. It's as if he's telling his audience that while he may ask hard questions, he is still holds same same morals as they do. There were precious few new words in this lecture, another disappointment. However, there were some familiar words used in interesting ways.

  • adamant. Noun. A legendary rock or mineral to which many, often contradictory, properties were attributed, formerly associated with diamond or lodestone. Emerson: "You that will have all solid, and a world of pig-lead, deceive yourselves grossly: you believe yourselves rooted and grounded on adamant; and yet, if we uncover the last facts of our knowledge, you are spinning like bubble on a river."
  • fluxion. Noun. A function corresponding to the rate of change of a variable quantity; a derivative; another term for flux. Emerson: "The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility." The meaning is quite clear from the way Emerson uses the word. I find it amusing however, that he never goes for the common word, he always has to go for the gussied up version.
  • quinsy. Noun. Inflammation of the throat, especially an abscess in the region of the tonsils. Emerson: "Montaigne died of a quinsy, at the age of sixty, in 1592." I always thought he died of the stone, not a tonsillitis sort of infection. That's the problem with there being no definitive biography of Montaigne.
Those are all the words I could dig out. Maybe next week will be better. Next week's Emerson is "Shakespeare; Or, the Poet"