Saturday, October 21, 2006

We came this time for condiments, not for corn

The title of the post is what has got to be the best Emerson sentence ever. It appears in the essay Nominalist and Realist, and as near as I can figure, means something like, we came for the parts and not the whole. But seeing as how condiments are sometimes the best thing about a meal, it might make a perfect kitchen motto. For some reason I found the essay difficult to grasp. I had to read it twice before a dim bulb began to light up a very dark room. So Emerson experts of the world, forgive me if I massacre this one. The essay is about the conflict between the nominalist, a person who believes universals are names only and have no corresponding reality, and the realist, a person who believes universal concepts have an objective or absolute existence. What I think Emerson says about the whole thing is that both the particular and the universal exist and that they are complimentary. We live in the particular, but together we create a whole. Or Nature creates the whole since she is in charge. Emerson is very understanding about how everything can be so confusing. We are so busy getting on from day to day that we can't see the forest for the trees. And the person who sees nothing but the universal has no respect for the particular. In keeping to only one view or the other a person becomes over balanced. The "particularist" sees the details as an ends rather than the means to something more spiritual. The "universalist" spends so much time in the spiritual that he forgets how to function in the everyday. A person cannot live on bread alone, nor can a person live on spirit alone. Emerson doesn't appear to suggest a middle passage, but asks that we accept that both the particular and the universal can and do exist side by side and simultaneously. We each have our part to play and a particular essence or quality that Nature has given us, therefore we are each an individual containing a piece of the universal, participating in the particular and the universal at the same time. Problem is, we can't see the universal; it's simply too big, too much for us to grasp. And so it is our duty to carefully study the particular to discover what it reveals about the universal. We should therefore be prepared to give up our particular ideas as we learn something new about the bigger picture. What we know to be true today will be proved wrong tomorrow. We are a stubborn bunch, however, and persist in our errors. Good thing we have a guy like Emerson to set us straight. Are you here for the condiments, the corn, or the whole meal? Next week's Emerson: New England Reformers