Saturday, June 17, 2006

Just Deserts

I am sitting here watching the US and Italian World Cup match on my local Spanish station because the regular network stations think only baseball and golf are worthwhile. My high school Spanish is so rusty it is safe to say I don't understand a single word of the announcers except when they yell "Gol! Gol! Gol!" while the word throbs on the screen. While I watch, I am also thinking about Emerson's essay, Compensation. Emerson believes in a dualistic universe, for every good there is an evil, for every right, a wrong. Not only is the universe dualistic but every one of its parts is as well so that the "entire system of things gets represented in every particle." This works well with his theory of compensation. The theory developed from Emerson's dissatisfaction with the preaching of the doctrine of the Last Judgment, that judgment is "not executed in this world; that the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; [...that] compensation [is] to be made to both parties in the next life." To Emerson this is the ultimate in delayed gratification because it leads people to think that in the next life they will get to have as good a time as the sinners did in this one. He insists this is a fallacy and argues in his theory of compensation that justice is done now. The dualism of Emerson's universe is also a kind of cause and effect system. For instance, when the Italian player broke the nose of the US player, the Italian player got kicked out of the game. Sometimes, however, the compensation is not readily apparent, but according to Emerson and the "ancient doctrine of Nemesis, who keeps watch in the Universe," no "offence goes unchastised." Compensation is very much a karmic conception, except you pay your debt now instead of when you are reborn as a mosquito. I found it rather strange that Emerson uses proverbs as proof of compensation. He thinks that proverbs are examples of intuitive laws and gives as example tit for tat, eye for an eye, measure for measure, nothing ventured nothing gained, among others. While proverbs may be useful guides to life, I hardly think they can be said to be proof of anything. Emerson has stretched too far on this one, especially when he takes his theory into the realm of labor. Here, Emerson suggests that compensation works the same way, that money is not compensation but only a sign. The real compensation is knowledge and virtue. He chastises people who worry about being cheated for their work, but when last I checked, knowledge and virtue alone do not a dinner make. Still, we are not to worry, because "it is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself." There is suddenly a third party involved in the transaction, God. As long as a person performs an honest service, they can never be cheated:

If you serve an ungrateful master, serve him the more: Put God in your debt. Every stroke shall be repaid. The longer the payment is withholden, the better for you; for compound interest on compound interest is the rate and usage of this exchequer.
How this is any different than the doctrine Emerson purports to call a fallacy, I have not been able to figure out. The only thing in Emerson's thinking that is free from any kind of compensation is virtue. There is never a penalty for being virtuous or for any action that benefits the soul, "there can be no excess to love, none to knowledge, none to beauty, when these attributes are considered in the purest sense. The soul refuses limits, and always affirms an Optimism, never a Pessimism." And so his explanation for when bad things happen to good people is nothing but lame reasoning. He comes close to, but does not actually say, that the enlarging soul brings on calamity itself as an opportunity for growth. What he does say is that the compensation of calamity is a revolution in our way of life. Calamity, he says, promotes the "growth of character." We might not be able to see it right away, but with time it "assumes the aspect of a guide or genius." The one good thing about this essay is that Emerson does not insist that we cannot understand the workings of compensation, that God knows and directs all things and he has his reasons. We are still, however, meant to accept the "law" and continue to strive to be virtuous. It will enlarge our souls and we will eventually be rewarded with our final compensation. Personally, I find Emerson's idea of compensation nearly as dissatisfying as that of the preacher's he is arguing against. Sometimes the best explanation for things is simply "shit happens." Just ask the U.S. and Italian soccer teams who ended the game in a tie. Next week's Emerson: Spiritual Laws