Saturday, September 16, 2006


I'm not sure what to think of Emerson's essay Character. It doesn't even come close to reaching the profundity of Experience or the reasoned argument of The Poet. "Character" is rather bland and could easily be titled "What Character Means to Me." What character means to Emerson appears to be what we might call charisma combined with a more traditional definition of good character (moral, virtuous, etc). Emerson sees character as something divinely inspired: "The history of those gods and saints which the world has written and then worshipped, are documents of character." He also writes:

Divine persons are character born, or, to borrow a phrase from Napoleon, they are victory organized. They are usually received with ill-will, because they are new and because they set a bound to the exaggeration that had been made of the personality of the last divine person.
Therefore, one of our biggest problems is recognizing character when it arrives, not treating it with suspicion and closing our doors in its face, but welcoming it and doing it proper homage. Character is a bit strange in terms of other Emersonian qualities. While one can aspire to love, friendship, prudence and heroism, one cannot aspire to character. You either have it or you don't. And if you don't have it, then it's your job to recognize and honor it. That's about all there is to say on this little essay. I found the reading rather dull and my eyes got droopy a few times. I did, however, have an "aha!" moment while reading Michael Dirda's Book by Book the other day. In a section of his book on love he writes about Plato's Symposium and summarizes Plato's concept of love as such:
We typically begin by desiring the physically beautiful, but we should then ascend through stages of increasing spirituality to a contemplation of the transcendentally beautiful good, and true. Such is the origin of the concept of "platonic love."
Emerson is a Platonist! I've read that Emerson was influenced by Kant, but nothing I've read connects him to Plato, but clearly, the connection is there. Emerson is always starting with the physical and always insists that is must "ascend" whether it is love or beauty or compensation or experience, everything is a means to the spiritual. This is all well and good, but sometimes, I just wish a flower could be a flower and not a symbol for a higher natural law that comes from the over-soul. Sometimes I don't want a flower to mean anything. Sometimes I just want a flower to be. Next week's Emerson: Manners