Essays By Palto

1. Chronology of Emerson's Life

1803 Born in Boston to William and Ruth Haskins Emerson.
1811 Father dies, probably of tuberculosis.
1812 Enters Boston Public Latin School
1817 Begins study at Harvard College: Greek, Latin, History, Rhetoric.
1820 Starts first journal, entitled “The Wide World.”
1821 Graduates from Harvard and begins teaching at his brother William's school for young ladies in Boston.
1825 Enters Harvard Divinity School.
1829 Marries Ellen Tucker and is ordained minister at Boston's Second Church.
1831 Ellen Tucker Emerson dies, at age 19.
1832 Resigns position as minister and sails for Europe.
1833 Meets Wordsworth, Coleridge, J. S. Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Returns to Boston in November, where he begins a career as a lecturer.
1834 Receives first half of a substantial inheritance from Ellen's estate (second half comes in 1837).
1835 Marries Lidian Jackson.
1836 Publishes first book, Nature.
1838 Delivers the “Divinity School Address.” Protests relocation of the Cherokees in letter to President Van Buren.
1841 Essays published (contains “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “History”).
1842 Son Waldo dies of scarlet fever at the age of 5.
1844 Essays, Second Series published (contains “The Poet,” “Experience,” “Nominalist and Realist”).
1847–8 Lectures in England.
1850 Publishes Representative Men (essays on Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Goethe, Napoleon).
1851–60 Speaks against Fugitive Slave Law and in support of anti-slavery candidates in Concord, Boston, New York, Philadelphia.
1856 Publishes English Traits.
1860 Publishes The Conduct of Life (contains “Culture” and “Fate”).
1867 Lectures in nine western states.
1870 Publishes Society and Solitude. Presents sixteen lectures in Harvard's Philosophy Department.
1872–3 After a period of failing health, travels to Europe, Egypt.
1875 Journal entries cease.
1882 Dies in Concord.

2. Major Themes in Emerson's Philosophy

2.1 Education

In “The American Scholar,” delivered as the Phi Beta Kappa Address in 1837, Emerson maintains that the scholar is educated by nature, books, and action. Nature is the first in time (since it is always there) and the first in importance of the three. Nature's variety conceals underlying laws that are at the same time laws of the human mind: “the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim” (CW1: 55). Books, the second component of the scholar's education, offer us the influence of the past. Yet much of what passes for education is mere idolization of books — transferring the “sacredness which applies to the act of creation…to the record.” The proper relation to books is not that of the “bookworm” or “bibliomaniac,” but that of the “creative” reader (CW1: 58) who uses books as a stimulus to attain “his own sight of principles.” Used well, books “inspire…the active soul” (CW1: 56). Great books are mere records of such inspiration, and their value derives only, Emerson holds, from their role in inspiring or recording such states of the soul. The “end” Emerson finds in nature is not a vast collection of books, but, as he puts it in “The Poet,” “the production of new individuals,…or the passage of the soul into higher forms” (CW3:14)

The third component of the scholar's education is action. Without it, thought “can never ripen into truth” (CW1: 59). Action is the process whereby what is not fully formed passes into expressive consciousness. Life is the scholar's “dictionary” (CW1: 60), the source for what she has to say: “Only so much do I know as I have lived” (CW1:59). The true scholar speaks from experience, not in imitation of others; her words, as Emerson puts it, are “are loaded with life…” (CW1: 59). The scholar's education in original experience and self-expression is appropriate, according to Emerson, not only for a small class of people, but for everyone. Its goal is the creation of a democratic nation. Only when we learn to “walk on our own feet” and to “speak our own minds,” he holds, will a nation “for the first time exist” (CW1: 70).

Emerson returned to the topic of education late in his career in “Education,” an address he gave in various versions at graduation exercises in the 1860's. Self-reliance appears in the essay in his discussion of respect. The “secret of Education,” he states, “lies in respecting the pupil.” It is not for the teacher to choose what the pupil will know and do, but for the pupil to discover “his own secret.” The teacher must therefore “wait and see the new product of Nature” (E: 143), guiding and disciplining when appropriate-not with the aim of encouraging repetition or imitation, but with that of finding the new power that is each child's gift to the world. The aim of education is to “keep” the child's “nature and arm it with knowledge in the very direction in which it points” (E: 144). This aim is sacrificed in mass education, Emerson warns. Instead of educating “masses,” we must educate “reverently, one by one,” with the attitude that “the whole world is needed for the tuition of each pupil” (E: 154).

2.2 Process

Emerson is in many ways a process philosopher, for whom the universe is fundamentally in flux and “permanence is but a word of degrees” (CW 2: 179). Even as he talks of “Being,” Emerson represents it not as a stable “wall” but as a series of “interminable oceans” (CW3: 42). This metaphysical position has epistemological correlates: that there is no final explanation of any fact, and that each law will be incorporated in “some more general law presently to disclose itself” (CW2: 181). Process is the basis for the succession of moods Emerson describes in “Experience,” (CW3: 30), and for the emphasis on the present throughout his philosophy.

Some of Emerson's most striking ideas about morality and truth follow from his process metaphysics: that no virtues are final or eternal, all being “initial,” (CW2: 187); that truth is a matter of glimpses, not steady views. We have a choice, Emerson writes in “Intellect,” “between truth and repose,” but we cannot have both (CW2: 202). Fresh truth, like the thoughts of genius, comes always as a surprise, as what Emerson calls “the newness” (CW3: 40). He therefore looks for a “certain brief experience, which surprise[s] me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time…” (CW1: 213). This is an experience that cannot be repeated by simply returning to a place or to an object such as a painting. A great disappointment of life, Emerson finds, is that one can only “see” certain pictures once, and that the stories and people who fill a day or an hour with pleasure and insight are not able to repeat the performance.

Emerson's basic view of religion also coheres with his emphasis on process, for he holds that one finds God only in the present: “God is, not was” (CW1:89). In contrast, what Emerson calls “historical Christianity” (CW1: 82) proceeds “as if God were dead” (CW1: 84). Even history, which seems obviously about the past, has its true use, Emerson holds, as the servant of the present: “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary” (CW2: 5).

2.3 Morality

Emerson's views about morality are intertwined with his metaphysics of process, and with his perfectionism, his idea that life has the goal of passing into “higher forms” (CW3:14). The goal remains, but the forms of human life, including the virtues, are all “initial” (CW2: 187). The word “initial” suggests the verb “initiate,” and one interpretation of Emerson's claim that “all virtues are initial” is that virtues initiate historically developing forms of life, such as those of the Roman nobility or the Confucian junxi. Emerson does have a sense of morality as developing historically, but in the context in “Circles” where his statement appears he presses a more radical and skeptical position: that our virtues often must be abandoned rather than developed. “The terror of reform,” he writes, “is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices” (CW2: 187). The qualifying phrase “or what we have always esteemed such” means that Emerson does not embrace an easy relativism, according to which what is taken to be a virtue at any time must actually be a virtue. Yet he does cast a pall of suspicion over all established modes of thinking and acting. The proper standpoint from which to survey the virtues is the ‘new moment‘ — what he elsewhere calls truth rather than repose (CW2:202) — in which what once seemed important may appear “trivial” or “vain” (CW2:189). From this perspective (or more properly the developing set of such perspectives) the virtues do not disappear, but they may be fundamentally altered and rearranged.

Although Emerson is thus in no position to set forth a system of morality, he nevertheless delineates throughout his work a set of virtues and heroes, and a corresponding set of vices and villains. In “Circles” the vices are “forms of old age,” and the hero the “receptive, aspiring” youth (CW2:189). In the “Divinity School Address,” the villain is the “spectral” preacher whose sermons offer no hint that he has ever lived. “Self Reliance” condemns virtues that are really “penances” (CW2: 31), and the philanthropy of abolitionists who display an idealized “love” for those far away, but are full of hatred for those close by (CW2: 30).

Conformity is the chief Emersonian vice, the opposite or “aversion” of the virtue of “self-reliance.” We conform when we pay unearned respect to clothing and other symbols of status, when we show “the foolish face of praise” or the “forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us” (CW2: 32). Emerson criticizes our conformity even to our own past actions-when they no longer fit the needs or aspirations of the present. This is the context in which he states that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines” (CW2: 33). There is wise and there is foolish consistency, and it is foolish to be consistent if that interferes with the “main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent,…the upbuilding of a man” (CW1: 65).

If Emerson criticizes much of human life, he nevertheless devotes most of his attention to the virtues. Chief among these is what he calls “self-reliance.” The phrase connotes originality and spontaneity, and is memorably represented in the image of a group of nonchalant boys, “sure of a dinner…who would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one…” The boys sit in judgment on the world and the people in it, offering a free, “irresponsible” condemnation of those they see as “silly” or “troublesome,” and praise for those they find “interesting” or “eloquent.” (CW2: 29). The figure of the boys illustrates Emerson's characteristic combination of the romantic (in the glorification of children) and the classical (in the idea of a hierarchy in which the boys occupy the place of lords or nobles).

Although he develops a series of analyses and images of self-reliance, Emerson nevertheless destabilizes his own use of the concept. “To talk of reliance,” he writes, “is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is” (CW 2:40). ‘Self-reliance’ can be taken to mean that there is a self already formed on which we may rely. The “self” on which we are to “rely” is, in contrast, the original self that we are in the process of creating. Such a self, to use a phrase from Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, “becomes what it is.”

For Emerson, the best human relationships require the confident and independent nature of the self-reliant. Emerson's ideal society is a confrontation of powerful, independent “gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” There will be a proper distance between these gods, who, Emerson advises, “should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day together should depart, as into foreign countries” (CW 3:81). Even “lovers,” he advises, “should guard their strangeness” (CW3: 82). Emerson portrays himself as preserving such distance in the cool confession with which he closes “Nominalist and Realist,” the last of the Essays, Second Series:

I talked yesterday with a pair of philosophers: I endeavored to show my good men that I liked everything by turns and nothing long…. Could they but once understand, that I loved to know that they existed, and heartily wished them Godspeed, yet, out of my poverty of life and thought, had no word or welcome for them when they came to see me, and could well consent to their living in Oregon, for any claim I felt on them, it would be a great satisfaction (CW 3:145).

The self-reliant person will “publish” her results, but she must first learn to detect that spark of originality or genius that is her particular gift to the world. It is not a gift that is available on demand, however, and a major task of life is to meld genius with its expression. “The man,” Emerson states “is only half himself, the other half is his expression” (CW 3:4). There are young people of genius, Emerson laments in “Experience,” who promise “a new world” but never deliver: they fail to find the focus for their genius “within the actual horizon of human life” (CW 3:31). Although Emerson emphasizes our independence and even distance from one another, then, the payoff for self-reliance is public and social. The scholar finds that the most private and secret of his thoughts turn out to be “the most acceptable, most public, and universally true” (CW1: 63). And the great “representative men” Emerson identifies are marked by their influence on the world. Their names-Plato, Moses, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, even Napoleon-are “ploughed into the history of this world” (CW1: 80).

Although self-reliance is central, it is not the only Emersonian virtue. Emerson also praises a kind of trust, and the practice of a “wise skepticism.” There are times, he holds, when we must let go and trust to the nature of the universe: “As the traveler who has lost his way, throws his reins on his horse's neck, and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world” (CW3:16). But the world of flux and conflicting evidence also requires a kind of epistemological and practical flexibility that Emerson calls “wise skepticism” (CW4: 89). His representative skeptic of this sort is Michel de Montaigne, who as portrayed in Representative Men is no unbeliever, but a man with a strong sense of self, rooted in the earth and common life, whose quest is for knowledge. He wants “a near view of the best game and the chief players; what is best in the planet; art and nature, places and events; but mainly men” (CW4: 91). Yet he knows that life is perilous and uncertain, “a storm of many elements,” the navigation through which requires a flexible ship, “fit to the form of man.” (CW4: 91).

2.4 Christianity

The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson attended Harvard Divinity School and was employed as a minister for almost three years. Yet he offers a deeply felt and deeply reaching critique of Christianity in the “Divinity School Address,” flowing from a line of argument he establishes in “The American Scholar.” If the one thing in the world of value is the active soul, then religious institutions, no less than educational institutions, must be judged by that standard. Emerson finds that contemporary Christianity deadens rather than activates the spirit. It is an “Eastern monarchy of a Christianity” in which Jesus, originally the “friend of man,” is made the enemy and oppressor of man. A Christianity true to the life and teachings of Jesus should inspire “the religious sentiment” — a joyous seeing that is more likely to be found in “the pastures,” or “a boat in the pond” than in a church. Although Emerson thinks it is a calamity for a nation to suffer the “loss of worship” (CW1: 89) he finds it strange that, given the “famine of our churches” (CW1: 85) anyone should attend them. He therefore calls on the Divinity School graduates to breathe new life into the old forms of their religion, to be friends and exemplars to their parishioners, and to remember “that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men value the few real hours of life; they love to be heard; they love to be caught up into the vision of principles” (CW1: 90).

2.5 Power

Power is a theme in Emerson's early writing, but it becomes especially prominent in such middle- and late-career essays as “Experience,” “Montaigne, or the Skeptic” “Napoleon,” and “Power.” Power is related to action in “The American Scholar,” where Emerson holds that a “true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power” (CW1: 59). It is also a subject of “Self-Reliance,” where Emerson writes of each person that “the power which resides in him is new in nature” (CW2: 28). In “Experience” Emerson speaks of a life which “is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy” (CW3: 294); and in “Power” he celebrates the “bruisers” (CW6: 34) of the world who express themselves rudely and get their way. The power in which Emerson is interested, however, is more artistic and intellectual than political or military. In a characteristic passage from “Power,” he states:

In history the great moment, is, when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage, with all his hairy Pelasgic strength directed on his opening sense of beauty:-and you have Pericles and Phidias,-not yet passed over into the Corinthian civility. Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity” (CW6: 37-8).

Power is all around us, but it cannot always be controlled. It is like “a bird which alights nowhere,” hopping “perpetually from bough to bough” (CW3: 34). Moreover, we often cannot tell at the time when we exercise our power that we are doing so: happily we sometimes find that much is accomplished in “times when we thought ourselves indolent” (CW3: 28).

2.6 Unity and Moods

At some point in many of his essays and addresses, Emerson enunciates, or at least refers to, a great vision of unity. He speaks in “The American Scholar” of an “original unit” or “fountain of power” (CW1: 53), of which each of us is a part. He writes in “The Divinity School Address” that each of us is “an inlet into the deeps of Reason.” And in “Self-Reliance,” the essay that more than any other celebrates individuality, he writes of “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE” (CW2: 40). “The Oversoul” is Emerson's most sustained discussion of “the ONE,” but he does not, even there, shy away from the seeming conflict between the reality of process and the reality of an ultimate metaphysical unity. How can the vision of succession and the vision of unity be reconciled?

Emerson never comes to a clear or final answer. One solution he both suggests and rejects is an unambiguous idealism, according to which a nontemporal “One” or “Oversoul” is the only reality, and all else is illusion. He suggests this, for example, in the many places where he speaks of waking up out of our dreams or nightmares. But he then portrays that to which we awake not simply as an unchanging “ONE,” but as a process or succession: a “growth” or “movement of the soul” (CW2: 189); or a “new yet unapproachable America” (CW3: 259).

Emerson undercuts his visions of unity (as of everything else) through what Stanley Cavell calls his “epistemology of moods.” According to this epistemology, most fully developed in “Experience” but present in all of Emerson's writing, we never apprehend anything “straight” or in-itself, but only under an aspect or mood. Emerson writes that life is “a train of moods like a string of beads,” through which we see only what lies in each bead's focus (CW3: 30). The beads include our temperaments, our changing moods, and the “Lords of Life” which govern all human experience. The Lords include “Succession,” “Surface,” “Dream,” “Reality,” and “Surprise.” Are the great visions of unity, then, simply aspects under which we view the world?

Emerson's most direct attempt to reconcile succession and unity, or the one and the many, occurs in the last essay in the Essays, Second Series, entitled “Nominalist and Realist.” There he speaks of the universe as an “old Two-face…of which any proposition may be affirmed or denied” (CW3: 144). As in “Experience,” Emerson leaves us with the whirling succession of moods. “I am always insincere,” he skeptically concludes, “as always knowing there are other moods” (CW3: 145). But Emerson enacts as well as describes the succession of moods, and he ends “Nominalist and Realist” with the “feeling that all is yet unsaid,” and with at least the idea of some universal truth (CW3: 363).

3. Some Questions about Emerson

3.1 Consistency

Emerson routinely invites charges of inconsistency. He says the world is fundamentally a process and fundamentally a unity; that it resists the imposition of our will and that it flows with the power of our imagination; that travel is good for us, since it adds to our experience, and that it does us no good, since we wake up in the new place only to find the same “ sad self” we thought we had left behind (CW2: 46).

Emerson's “epistemology of moods” is an attempt to construct a framework for encompassing what might otherwise seem contradictory outlooks, viewpoints, or doctrines. Emerson really means to “accept,” as he puts it, “the clangor and jangle of contrary tendencies” (CW3: 36). He means to be irresponsible to all that holds him back from his self-development. That is why, at the end of “Circles,” he writes that he is “only an experimenter…with no Past at my back” (CW2: 188). In the world of flux that he depicts in that essay, there is nothing stable to be responsible to: “every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten, the coming only is sacred” (CW2: 189).

Despite this claim, there is considerable consistency in Emerson's essays and among his ideas. To take just one example, the idea of the “active soul” — mentioned as the “one thing in the world, of value” in “The American Scholar-is a presupposition of Emerson's attack on “the famine of the churches” (for not feeding or activating the souls of those who attend them); it is an element in his understanding of a poem as “a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own …” (CW3: 6); and, of course, it is at the center of Emerson's idea of self-reliance. There are in fact multiple paths of coherence through Emerson's philosophy, guided by ideas discussed previously: process, education, self-reliance, and the present.

3.2 Early and Late Emerson

It is hard for an attentive reader not to feel that there are important differences between early and late Emerson: for example, between the buoyant Nature (1836) and the weary ending of “Experience” (1844); between the expansive author of “Self-Reliance” (1841) and the burdened writer of “Fate” (1860). Emerson himself seems to advert to such differences when he writes in “Fate”: “Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn that negative power, or circumstance, is half” (CW6: 8). Is “Fate” the record of a lesson Emerson had not absorbed in his early writing, concerning the multiple ways in which circumstances over which we have no control — plagues, hurricanes, temperament, sexuality, old age — constrain self-reliance or self-development?

“Experience” is a key transitional essay. “Where do we find ourselves?” is the question with which it begins. The answer is not a happy one, for Emerson finds that we occupy a place of dislocation and obscurity, where “sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree” (CW3: 27). An event hovering over the essay, but not disclosed until its third paragraph, is the death of his five-year old son Waldo. Emerson finds in this episode and his reaction to it an example of an “unhandsome” general character of existence-it is forever slipping away from us, like his little boy.

“Experience” presents many moods. It has its moments of illumination, and its considered judgment that there is an “Ideal journeying always with us, the heaven without rent or seam” (CW3: 41). It offers wise counsel about “skating over the surfaces of life” and confining our existence to the “mid-world.” But even its upbeat ending takes place in a setting of substantial “defeat.” “Up again, old heart!” a somewhat battered voice states in the last sentence of the essay. Yet the essay ends with an assertion that in its great hope and underlying confidence chimes with some of the more expansive passages in Emerson's writing. The “true romance which the world exists to realize,” he states, “will be the transformation of genius into practical power” (CW3: 49).

Despite important differences in tone and emphasis, Emerson's assessment of our condition remains much the same throughout his writing. There are no more dire indictments of ordinary human life than in the early work, “The American Scholar,” where Emerson states that “Men in history, men in the world of to-day, are bugs, are spawn, and are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’ In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, one or two approximations to the right state of every man” (CW1: 65). Conversely, there is no more idealistic statement in his early work than the statement in “Fate” that “[t]hought dissolves the material universe, by carrying the mind up into a sphere where all is plastic” (CW6: 15). All in all, the earlier work expresses a sunnier hope for human possibilities, the sense that Emerson and his contemporaries were poised for a great step forward and upward; and the later work, still hopeful and assured, operates under a weight or burden, a stronger sense of the dumb resistance of the world.

3.3 Sources and Influence

Emerson read widely, and gave credit in his essays to the scores of writers from whom he learned. He kept lists of literary, philosophical, and religious thinkers in his journals and worked at categorizing them.

Among the most important writers for the shape of Emerson's philosophy are Plato and the Neoplatonist line extending through Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, and the Cambridge Platonists. Equally important are writers in the Kantian and Romantic traditions (which Emerson probably learned most about from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria). Emerson read avidly in Indian, especially Hindu, philosophy, and in Confucianism. There are also multiple empiricist, or experience-based influences, flowing from Berkeley, Wordsworth and other English Romantics, Newton's physics, and the new sciences of geology and comparative anatomy. Other writers whom Emerson often mentions are Anaxagoras, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Jacob Behmen, Cicero, Goethe, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Mencius, Pythagoras, Schiller, Thoreau, August and Friedrich Schlegel, Shakespeare, Socrates, Madame de Staël and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Emerson's works were well known throughout the United States and Europe in his day. Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson's essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson's ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche's writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey.

Stanley Cavell's engagement with Emerson is the most original and prolonged by any philosopher, and Emerson is a primary source for his writing on “moral perfectionism.” In his earliest essays on Emerson, such as “Thinking of Emerson” and “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant,” Cavell considers Emerson's place in the Kantian tradition, and he explores the affinity between Emerson's call in “The American Scholar” for a return to “the common and the low” and Wittgenstein's quest for a return to ordinary language. In “Being Odd, Getting Even” and “Aversive Thinking,” Cavell considers Emerson's anticipations of existentialism, and in these and other works he explores Emerson's affinities with Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (CHU) and Cities of Words, Cavell develops what he calls “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” of which he finds an exemplary expression in Emerson's “History”: “So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self.” Emersonian perfectionism is oriented towards a wiser or better self that is never final, always initial, always on the way.

Cavell does not have a neat and tidy definition of perfectionism, and his list of perfectionist works ranges from Plato's Republic to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, but he identifies “two dominating themes of perfectionism” in Emerson's writing: (1) “that the human self … is always becoming, as on a journey, always partially in a further state. This journey is described as education or cultivation”; (2) “that the other to whom I can use the words I discover in which to express myself is the Friend—a figure that may occur as the goal of the journey but also as its instigation and accompaniment” (Cities of Words, 26-7). The friend can be a person but it may also be a text. In the sentence from “History” cited above, the writing of the “Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist” about “the wise man” functions as a friend and guide, describing to each reader not just any idea, but “his own idea.” This is the text as instigator and companion.

Cavell's engagement with perfectionism springs from a response to his colleague John Rawls, who in A Theory of Justice condemns Nietzsche (and implicitly Emerson) for his statement that “mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings.” “Perfectionism,” Rawls states, “is denied as a political principle.” Cavell replies that Emerson's (and Nietzsche's) focus on the great man has nothing to do with a transfer of economic resources or political power, or with the idea that “there is a separate class of great men …for whose good, and conception of good, the rest of society is to live” (CHU, 49). The great man or woman, Cavell holds, is required for rather than opposed to democracy: “essential to the criticism of democracy from within” (CHU, 3).


Works by Emerson

CWThe Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert Spiller et al, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971-
E“Education,” in Lectures and Biographical Sketches, in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883, pp. 125–59
The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 12 volumes, 1903–4
The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols., Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1910–14
The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William Gillman, et al., Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1960-
The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols, Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams, eds., Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1961–72
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton . 10 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964–95
(with Thomas Carlyle), The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964
Emerson's Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995
The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Ronald Bosco and Joel Myerson, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003
Emerson: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), ed. Kenneth Sacks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

(See Chronology for original dates of publication.)

Selected Writings on Emerson

  • Allen, Gay Wilson, 1981, Waldo Emerson, New York: Viking Press.
  • Arsić, Branka, 2010. On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Arsić, Branka, and Carey Wolfe (eds.), 2010. The Other Emerson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Bishop, Jonathan, 1964, Emerson on the Soul, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Buell, Lawrence, 2003, Emerson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cameron, Sharon, 2007, Impersonality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Carpenter, Frederick Ives, 1930, Emerson and Asia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cavell, Stanley, 1981, “Thinking of Emerson” and “An Emerson Mood,” in The Senses of Walden, An Expanded Edition, San Francisco: North Point Press.
  • –––, 1988, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 1990, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Abbreviated CHU in the text.).
  • –––, 2004, Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • –––, 2004, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Conant, James, 1997, “Emerson as Educator,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 43: 181–206.
  • –––, 2001, “Nietzsche as Educator,” Nietzsche's Post-Moralism: Essays on Nietzsche's Prelude to Philosophy's Future, Richard Schacht (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 181–257.
  • Ellison, Julie, 1984, Emerson's Romantic Style, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Firkins, Oscar W., 1915, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Goodman, Russell B., 1990a, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Chapter 2.
  • –––, 1990b, “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth Century America: Emerson and Hinduism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 51(4): 625–45.
  • –––, 1997, “Moral Perfectionism and Democracy in Emerson and Nietzsche,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 43: 159–80.
  • –––, 2004, “The Colors of the Spirit: Emerson and Thoreau on Nature and the Self,” Nature in American Philosophy, ed. Jean De Groot, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1–18.
  • –––, 2008, “Emerson, Romanticism, and Classical American Pragmatism,” The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy, ed. Cheryl Misak, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19–37.
  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1885, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Lysaker, John, 2008, Emerson and Self-Culture, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Matthiessen, F. O., 1941, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Packer, B. L., 1982, Emerson's Fall, New York: Continuum.
  • –––, 2007, The Transcendentalists, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Poirier, Richard, 1987, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections, New York: Random House.
  • –––, 1992, Poetry and Pragmatism, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Porte, Joel, and Morris, Saundra (eds.), 1999, The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Jr., 1995, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Sacks, Kenneth, 2003, Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Versluis, Arthur, 1993, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Whicher, Stephen, 1953, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ancient Greek thought held that poetry, drama, and other forms of fine art were imitations of reality, a reality that could be actual or potential. Indeed, their phrase for what we think of as “fine art” was “imitative arts”, and great importance was attached to poetry as an integral part of the Greek education. Some questions naturally spring from this broad theory of art, for example: what exactly is being imitated by the poet or artist? How is it being imitated, is the imitation a straight copy, a distortion or an improvement in some way? Finally this leads us to questions of the end of poetry itself, and its justification for existence, that is, why imitate at all and can we obtain knowledge and/or pleasure through it?

Both Plato and Aristotle, the foremost philosophers of their time, arrived at widely different answers to the questions above. This is because art was held to be an imitation of nature or reality, and Plato and Aristotle’s theories on nature and reality were widely different, as were their ideas on the mechanism of imitation. Their differing views on mimesis, as outlined principally in The Republic and The Poetics, were thus partly a consequence of their differences in their ontological and epistemological views of the world. There are other factors, too, which complicate the matter.

In Book II of The Republic, Plato begins a discussion of poetry which is concerned with gods and heroes. He condemns much of this poetry as lies, “and still further because their lies are not attractive” (Republic, II, p24). Many stories, Plato is saying, are not imitations of any reality but are outright falsities, on the grounds that since gods and heroes are by definition better than men, they cannot perform such atrocious acts as shown for example in Homer and Aeschylus (the examples in Republic 26-29). Such portrayals provide justification for men to commit such acts themselves, and therefore these misrepresentations of gods and heroes are harmful to a general populace.

Such poetry, then, is lies and may be an imitation, but it is not an imitation of any truth and therefore must be condemned. Imitation proper appears in the Republic in Book III, where Plato begins to consider the more complicated case of poetry concerning men. He begins with imitation as it is incorporated within a character’s role, as where a poet or dramatist “makes himself resemble another in either voice or gesture” (Republic, III, p37). Here Plato shows a preference for straight narrative, in that by simply narrating events the poet may avoid entirely the explicit imitation of those characters he is speaking of, and the actors, too, can avoid placing themselves in a situation where they would imitate the evil acts of evil characters (as they would perhaps not normally do). When, however, imitation is used as a form of diction, Plato comes to the conclusion that any such imitation which mimics men who are not of upright and intelligent nature is undesirable in the ideal city. Plato therefore seems to cover the case of his own dialogues, where he speaks through the mouths of Socrates, Adeimantus and Glaucon. Sir Philip Sidney acknowledges this in The Defence of Poesie, saying that Plato made “mistress Philosophy very often borrow the masking raiment of Poesy” (Gilbert 428).

Plato’s account of imitation would seem to be relatively simple at this stage; mimesis appears to be translatable as “representation”, an expression of character whereby the poet (using dialogue) and the actor (in a dramatic presentation) imitate a character. Furthermore, where that imitated character has undesirable traits, the imitation is to be avoided. And later, in Book X, Plato claims that most poetry of necessity contains evil men (in order to produce interest and pleasure), and this too forms a basis for a wide-ranging condemnation of poetry.

That imitation has harmful effects is a complex matter; Plato’s argument rests on several crucial assumptions concerning the effect of poetry on an audience. In Book II he claims that “a young man must not be allowed to hear that he does nothing strange when he commits the most shocking offenses” (Republic, II, p25). Such a claim recalls the dialogue of The Ion, in which “a whole series of the inspired” (Ion, p13) arose from a poet’s recitations; that is, the poet is inspired by the Muse and the audience is in turn filled with inspiration by the poet.

A much stronger argument against imitation appears in Book X of The Republic, where Socrates begins by saying “all the imitative arts seem to me ruinous to the mental powers of all their hearers” (Republic, X, p42). Plato then begins a detailed discussion explaining imitation from first principles – its mechanism and its relation to truth. The argument is based largely on the theory of Forms and certain relations between the art of poetry and painting. In this argument all art is taken to be mimetic, as opposed to Book III’s more limited use of mimesis. All imitation, Plato argues, has little connection with truth; poets work in a similar way to a painter, who imitates the appearance of a bed which in turn is made by a craftsman from an idea in nature (and therefore the work of God). “An imitator” is defined by Plato in terms of painting; since painting is concerned only with appearances (as opposed to, say, the use to which objects can be put), Socrates says “you call him who is not in direct contact with nature an imitator” (Republic, X, p45). Furthermore, the imitator, being so far removed from the truth, can have little knowledge of what he imitates so can thus have little conception of the inherent goodness or badness of his work. Rather it is their function to deceive: “the imitator seems all-wise because he himself is unable to distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and imitation” (Republic, X, p46) and later: “though he knows only how to imitate, yet to those who are as ignorant as himself he really appears to know” (Republic, X, p48).

In order to produce pleasure, poets must of necessity imitate “the disturbed and unsettled character” (Republic, X, p52), and so the poet “sets up a badly governed state in the soul of each individual” (Republic, X, p52), that is, causing a harmful effect upon the individual, which thus corrupts the state if practised on a wide scale (the political state being the prime concern of Plato). In short, such imitation deludes the senses and does not appeal to reason; this claim is based on Plato’s categories of the soul. His conceptualisation of both the political state and the individual soul separates reason and will (operations of the mind) from pleasure and the passions (occupations of the senses). In the doctrine of the Line the similar attributes of knowledge vs. illusion are approximated into a linear scale. Since poetry appeals to the more illusory sense perception, it is placed lower in the scale; it cannot therefore have any access to the Forms, the highest reality possible.

Comparing poetry with holding up a mirror to reality and with painting suggest that imitation is merely a representation of how things appear; under Plato’s scheme the poet is “an imitator of what he knows nothing about, a mere appearance” (Republic, X, p48). As with painting, so with poetry, says Plato; he does not treat poetry on its own terms. Indeed, there are several crucial differences between the arts of painting and poetry (as pointed out in John Dryden’s essay “A Parallel Betwixt Painting and Poetry”); for example, that the function of painting is to provide pleasure, while poetry’s function is to instruct. Certainly these arts use very different methods and it is difficult to conceive their functions as identical as Plato makes out. Indeed, the parallel that Plato assumes has been described even as “non-sensical”.¬† Plato takes the object of imitation to be the same in both; that is, they imitate appearances of things (which are essentially static, not active). Much of Plato’s condemnations of poetry stem from the view that poetry should represent truth, and truth is obtained through knowledge. Knowledge however is located within the various crafts (shipbuilding, generalship etc.), but it is plainly impossible that any man can have a perfect knowledge of all crafts to the smallest detail. Even if there were such a man, Plato would “send him away to some other city” (Republic, III, p41) anyway! Such an argument (using crafts as the location of knowledge) is common within Plato’s writings.

There is little in Book X of The Republic that would reconcile Plato with the poets. Poetry is imitative and corrupting and its purpose is simply to give pleasure to an audience. Plato says little of a possible didactic end in poetry; some imitations, he admits in Book III, are not harmful, such as those which portray morally good men performing morally good actions. But these would seem to be few; as Julia Annas comments, “he tries to censor Homer, but clearly not very much will survive the blue pencil” (Annas 100). Plato himself argues in Book X that to be interesting and to give pleasure, poetry of necessity must imitate “the soul easily vexed” (Republic, X, p52), so Plato’s condemnation of Homer comes as no surprise.

As to a didactic end in poetry, this too Plato addresses. Here he comes up with a seemingly unanswerable argument that is still used today in attacks on fiction; its essence is that if poetry is instructive and contains a moral message, why bother with imitation and the “masking raiment of Poesy” at all? Plato uses this in a sustained attack on Homer (Republic, X, p46-48). Thus Plato covers the case where there is a moral structure within poetry itself; that is, evil actions that are clearly portrayed as evil actions and to be condemned. All too often, though, poetry shows unjust men prospering while good men suffer.

It can be said that Plato had a very dim view of imitation art due to an obsession with truth or “forms”. In Books II and III this claim can hardly be justified, however; Plato does not condemn all imitation, but that imitation which is harmful to the moral character of the receiver, namely the representations or misrepresentations of gods, heroes and men which show them to be evil or acting without proper decorum. But in Book X he sees poetry, and indeed the imitative arts in general, as generally corrupting: “with a very few exceptions” (Republic, X, p52). Plato’s conclusion that poetry is nearly exclusively harmful is, as we have seen, based upon the twin arguments that poetry is imitative and that imitation is corrupting; and “how can something offered as a simulation (a mere appearance, dramatisation, or fiction) justify itself?” (Halliwell p7).

In The Poetics Aristotle examines poetry on its own terms; he pays much more attention to such aspects as genres and specific metres than did Plato. Like Plato, however, he considers all art a form of mimesis, though Arisotle’s use of the term differs greatly from that of his former teacher.

In The Poetics Chapter IV Aristotle claims that “man is very imitative and obtains his first knowledge by imitation, and then everybody takes pleasure in imitation” (Poetics, IV, p72). He in one sense narrows down the object of imitation. Plato used a theory concerning the painter, who often imitates static objects (such as a bed), and whose creations are necessarily static, and extended this theory to poetry. But Aristole argues from what would seem to be an obvious premise yet one that seems to be ignored by Plato: that poetry imitates men in action; a dynamic basis, not a static one. Where Plato argued against poetry from its relation to truth (embodied in the theory of Forms), though, Aristotle makes some similar arguments in relation to nature. With the Greek mimesis in poetry, then, the notion of the “real” (Forms, or the governing principles of nature) is assumed to be the object of imitation, as opposed to, say, the “beautiful”; there were no links made between art and aesthetics.

Aristotle classifies genres in relation to their means of imitation, instead of the usual distinctions made according to prose, verse or metre. Thus the object of imitation in tragedy are men who are better than us, and in comedy men who are worse.

Clearly Aristotle is conceiving imitation as a different process from Plato. The medium of imitation is taken to be three-fold: rhythm, language and harmony are used by practitioners of the arts, either separately or combined. There is no question of holding a mirror up to nature or reality; to see how Aristotle explains the mechanisms of mimesis, as with Plato, it is necessary to outline Aristotle’s theories on the relation between art and nature, in particular his claims that there is a parallelism between objects of art and objects of nature. While Aristotle nowhere makes a clear exposition of his theories on the mechanism of imitation from first principles (as does Plato in Republic X), there is enough material in The Physics to construct a coherent account. Some critics have ignored the implications of this parallelism between art and nature, stating that “there is no suggestion that he [Aristotle] is using the word mimesis in any novel sense; clearly he means that the situations, actions, characters and emotions portrayed must strike one as true to life” (Grube 70). Elsewhere Aristotle’s conception of imitation has been described simply as “Platonic”. However, I shall attempt to show that there is a direct and illuminating correlation between concepts in The Physics with those of The Poetics, (whether many of the parallelisms were consciously intended or not).

Firstly there is the conceptual notion of form and matter as integral parts of objects of nature. Aristotle places much more importance on form than matter, in opposition to the majority of pre-Socratic philiosophers (the Ionians, for example, who sought the basic substance from which all objects in the universe were fashioned). Instead, “the common feature that characterizes [substances and objects] seems to be that they have within themselves a principle of movement (or change) and rest” (Physics, p107). That is, objects are characterised by their form, which undergoes change, and it is in this sense that objects have a “nature”. Furthermore, the changes of nature are teleological: matter exists for the sake of the form, and it is the form which is the telos, or end. Objects of nature possess an inherent tendency to change towards an ideal form (that may not ever be fully realised), a movement from potentiality to actuality, and it is in this sense that some things are “better” than others. Each step in this continuous chain is necessary for the sake of the end, and no step occurs simply by chance, but by a cause or combination of causes. Art, too, is teleological; the only difference between them that Aristotle sees in this respect is that “in nature the cause of an event or a product is internal, in human art external to the effect. Both are equally ‘for a purpose'” (Guthrie 108). That purpose is deliberate in nature Aristotle denies; similarly “art does not deliberate” (Physics 199b).

Aristotle’s demands for a coherent and unified plot structure in The Poetics bear a strong resemblance to this “teleological chain”. Each event in a plot must be related to the next one and the preceding one by a “causal link” or an “organic connection”; that is, by probability or necessity. As well the plot must be a unity, such that if any event were removed the plot would be irreparably damaged; it must be complete and entire, and of reasonable size. We could say that the “matter” of a poem or dramatic play consists of the events and characters portrayed, while the “form” is equivalent to the structure, i.e. the plot. The plot is the “first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy” (Poetics, VI, 78); this recalls Aristotle’s theories on the organic, where living beings are conceptualised as matter (=body) and form (=soul). Importantly, however, Aristotle recognises that the study of matter is not completely subservient to eidos, or form: “art imitates nature, and it is the part of the same discipline to know the form and the matter up to a point” (Physics, II,194a).

Given, however, that eidos is “that for the sake of which”, ie. the end, we can draw up a (somewhat simplified) table:

Nature: teleological: objects exist for the sake of the end
end = FORM
causal links: “each step…in the series is for the sake of the next” (Physics 199a)

Poetry: teleological: “end is more important than anything else” (Poetics, p77)
end = PLOT
causal links: “one thing happens after an-other according to necessity or probability” (Poetics 90)

Hence Aristotle’s condemnation of episodic plots, where episodes are unconnected by probability or necessity, and his belief that the best plots are those in which even chance events “seem to happen as a result of a cause” (Poetics, IX, p83); that is, nothing occurs without significance, no matter how astonishing, just as in nature nothing is without significance. All incidents should be “the result of a cause” (Poetics, IX, p83), just as the changes of nature are results of causes (of which Aristotle distinguishes four).

Can we say, then, that by “art imitates nature” the structure of art mimics the teleological processes of nature?
Certainly this is the case with poetry; many parts of The Poetics can be seen as direct applications of the principles set out in Physics to poetry and drama (the Arts were, after all, somewhat outside Aristotle’s main fields of expertise). Which is not to say that Aristotle did not turn the full force of his analytical mind upon the subject, merely that his observations on poetry are consonant with his over-all theory of Becoming.

Aristotle says that “generally art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her” (Physics 199a). As well, that art and nature imply each other. Here art may be taken to mean the various “useful arts” or crafts (such as shipbuilding), and by extension the “fine arts” such as painting and poetry. There are important differences between the two, however; indeed, the distinction between them “was first brought out fully by Aristotle” (Butcher 115). Useful arts complete nature by supplying her deficiencies in the sense that they move further along the teleological chain to realise an end; applying this principle to fine arts leads to difficulty. Fine arts (such as poetry) rather imitate nature in the sense that they do not complete her, as do the useful arts, but imitate the teleological process whereby nature moves toward a specific end.

Both fine and useful art, then, are alike in that they resemble nature in their teleological motivations and both are subject to mistakes and limitations (such as are found in nature).

This, then, is how “art imitates nature” in a general sense. In The Poetics Aristotle claims that “imitators imitate men who are doing something” (Poetics, I, p70), that “tragedy is an imitation not of men but of actions and life” (Poetics, VI, p77). The objects of imitation are the actions of men, and the poets can imitate men as they are or better or worse than they are. It follows from this that the poet has it within his power to imitate real or imagined events; as S.H. Butcher puts it, the artist “may place before him an unrealised ideal” (Butcher 122). Plato claims that poets have but scant knowledge of that which they imitate (since they merely reflect as a mirror does), and indeed knowledge is an antidote against the lies of the poet. Aristotle’s theory would seem to oppose this; if the poet imitates things not as they are but as they might be, surely imagination if not knowledge comes into play.

In Chapter IX Aristotle claims that “poetry deals more with things in a universal way…to deal with them universally is to say that according to probability or necessity it happens that a certain man does or says certain things, and poetry aims at this” (Poetics, IX, p81). The central pre-occupation of Greek philosophy was the relation between universals and particulars; in Physics Aristotle says “we must advance from generalities to particulars; for it is a whole that is best known to sense-perception, and a generality is a kind of whole, comprehending many things within it, like parts” (Physics 184a). Again we see the application of Aristotle’s general metaphysical principles applied to poetry; for a tragedy is “serious and complete”, ie. whole, but comprised of various parts. And these parts must, of necessity, form a coherent totality since poetry is understood through sense perception. A generality is “a kind of whole”; elsewhere he states that “it is what belongs to many that is called universal” (Met. Z b34-1039a2), and this is what poetry “aims at”.

Continuing on this point, Eduard Zeller claims that “imitation consists not in a simple reproduction of the sensible appearance of things by art; it has rather to represent their inner reality; their forms are types of general laws…[poetry] has the right to idealise” (Zeller 197). The “inner reality” of things is consonant with Aristotle’s theory, which places form within objects, a dynamic aspect of their nature, in fact a cause for their very existence (matter is continually arriving to form); “‘nature’ means two things, the matter and the form, of which the latter is the end” (Physics, II, 199a). (Plato’s theory held that the “Forms” were transcendental, static embodiments of the universal which existed completely separately from human reality, and of which the natural world was but a distorted copy.) Further, that “their forms are types of general laws”; by this it is meant that a particular (e.g. a character) is representative of a species (such is often claimed of Shakespeare’s characters). Thus a particular embodies the universal; “in the characters as in the arrangement of the actions one must ever seek for the necessary and probable” (Poetics, XV, p90). Characters must be consistent their actions; and it may be argued, they differ from real life people in this way, hence poetry’s “right to idealise”. The credible is also to be aimed at, the poet should choose “probable impossibilities rather than incredible possibilities” (Poetics, XXIV, p107), and if this is done properly then “idealisation” of events is the natural consequence. That the various components of poetry must “strike one as true to life” is clearly a conflictual view to poetry’s idealising function, for in life there are many forces and inconsistencies which we fail to understand; by idealising, poetry gives meaning to these where none had seemed possible before. Just because events must display verisimilitude does not mean that they should directly reflect life as it is commonly conceived.

Poetry, then, is an imitation of the actions of men, dealt with in a universal way, bringing about pity and fear and the catharsis of same. Now nature is in perpetual motion, a motion which is from the potential to the actual, a continual process of Becoming (as opposed to Plato’s theories of Being). Poetry and drama, being forms of art and thus imitations of nature (in the above sense), imitate this process of change. Nature is, by definition, a “principle of motion and change” (Physics 200b), and poetry is similarly defined as an imitation of an action. The action, being an action of men, hence necessarily involves metabasis (change of fortune), perhaps effected through what Aristotle calls peripety or recognition, for these produce pity and fear, and “tragedy is an imitation of actions producing these feelings” (Poetics, XI, p84):

Nature: Becoming: motion, a change of form from potentiality to actuality
Poetry: Plot: an action, a change of fortune (e.g. by peripety, recognition, etc.)

Just as Aristotle’s conception of Physics is as the study of the changes undergone by natural objects (ie. nature), poetry can be thought of as the study of or an expression of the changes undergone by man (e g. from misery to happiness, ignorance to knowledge etc.), expressed through his actions. By “dealing with things universally”, just as the philosophy of nature deals with collections of objects with the same attributes, poetry becomes “more philosophic and more serious than history” (Poetics, IX, p91) which deals only with particulars.

Returning to Aristotle’s assertion that “art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish” (Physics 199a), it would seem that poetry, through imitation of the methods of nature (ie. teleology, universal wholes etc), and in transgressing the particular, can be thought of as “going beyond” nature, though this concept is more aptly applied to the more practical arts.

Imitation need not be a straight copy of reality (or of transcendent forms); its goals are the aims of the artist who may envision things not as they are but as they could be or should be. Men are better or worse “as the painters have made them”, and hence the poets as well. In Poetics Chapter XXIV: “the poet should choose probable impossibilities rather than incredible possibilities” (Poetics, XXIV, p107). Here the word “choose”, together with the previous arguments, imply that the imitative process, to “make”, must involve some sort of creative input by the poet, as opposed to a merely mechanical copying. Whether this is a direct consequence of the “madness” of the poets is problematic; the process of imitation, according to Aristotle, is no mere reflection without technai. Neither is mimesis simply a distorted symbolic representation of reality; its domain is the possible and the probable. In one sense it could be thought of as an abstraction or extension upon reality; and art, through imitation, must obey “nature”, the very principles that govern the universe.

In Ion Plato argues that the poet, or the imitator, can have no knowledge of what he imitates, an argument that is based largely on the division of knowledge into professions. The charioteer, the physician, and the general are given as examples of people who have an intimate knowledge of their craft because they are aware of the uses to which it will be put. As Socrates tells Ion, “it is clear that you are not enabled to speak of Homer by skill and knowledge” (Ion, p12) and later “but a divine power that moves you” (Ion, p13). In Aristotle poetry is an imitation of human action; the poet’s province lies in accomplishing this. Whether they are correct upon certain details such as the intricacies of the art of charioteering (an example put to Ion in Ion p17) is irrelevant according to Aristotle: “we may ask whether the fault is one of those essential to the art or is only incidentally connected with it” (Poetics, XXV, p109). The faults with art occur within art itself, says Aristotle – the only fault is to represent things inartistically; in other words, a fault with the imitation itself.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines imitation in the arts as “the imaginative representation of the actions, motives, or natures of men or of their environments” (p1090, 1987 version). Though it is difficult for us to think of “imitation” as a process involving imagination, this is getting closer to the sense used by Aristotle. Here, then, I am willing to offer my own definition of imitation as it is used by Aristotle in The Poetics: Mimesis is that process where the poet “makes universal”; that is, the structure of his creations mimic the general principles of nature (the governing laws of the very universe itself); events are put into a causal relationship or framework, so that the actions (of men) portrayed form a unified and sensible whole, and particular details are chosen so as to embody the universal principles being communicated. In fact, the best art imitates nature in all of the ways that Aristotle outlines in the Physics, and as I have attempted to show in the exposition above.

Thus, just as “motion and change” define nature, mimesis, more than anything else, is the central characteristic feature of poetry. Indeed, imitation is what defines a poet: “he is a poet because of imitation and he imitates actions” (Poetics, IX, p82). Where in Plato there was a “quarrel between poetry and philosophy”, by Aristotle’s scheme poetry is more philosophic even than history (a chronicle of “real” events). Where Socrates puts it to Glaucon that an imitator is “he who is not in direct contact with nature”, with Aristotle the best poets, in order to work their imitations, must be closely allied with nature. By accessing the universal, mimesis – and hence poetry – provides access to the “real”, the forces that lie behind our very lives.

Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato’s. Republic. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1981.
Aristotle. The Poetics. Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Butcher, S. H. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.
Dryden, John. “A Parallel Betwixt Poetry and Painting”. Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays (vol 2). London, Everyman, 1962.
Grube, G.M.A. The Greek and Roman Critics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.
Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy (vol VI). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Plato. The Ion. Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Plato. The Republic. (Books II,III,and X). Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Ross, W.D, ed. The Works of Aristotle vol II, (incorporating Physica, trans. R.P. Hardie & R.K.Gaye). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.
Zeller, Eduard. Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1931.

Like this:



This entry was posted in Essays and tagged Aristotle, philosophy, Plato. Bookmark the permalink.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *