Emerson's "Experience" Major Themes


The Difficulty of Reconciling Philosophy and Life

The basic view of the relationship between God, man, and nature expressed in "Experience" is essentially that found in Emerson's earlier idealistic expressions of Transcendental philosophy. Emerson stresses that God is the source of man's unlimited strength and power, and that insight into the divine is the ultimate goal of living. Emphasizing the unity of the universe, he writes that "Underneath the inharmonious and trivial particulars, is a musical perfection; the Ideal journeying always with us, the heaven without rent or seam."

Emerson presents the divine "First Cause" as the inspiration behind all the nobler actions of man, as opposed to material influence. He vigorously dismisses materially based interpretations of human nature (like phrenology), which view character as the fixed result of physical traits, and disregard the influence of the divine spirit. Intuition affords vision of divine unity, imparting meaningful wholeness and coherence to the many separate expressions of God in the material world and in human life. It also inspires man's hitherto unrealized inner potential. He metaphorically alludes to the undiscovered capabilities within man as analogous to the unexplored American west: "I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West." (Thoreau, too, developed the metaphor of "the West" in his work, notably in the essay "Walking.") Moreover, Emerson equates man's openness to spirit not only with his personal insight into the universal but with the ultimate transformation of society itself — "the transformation of genius into practical power."

However, as steadfastly as Emerson holds to his idealistic optimism, he recognizes in "Experience" that there is a discrepancy, a tension, between philosophical idealism and the experience of life. In the prefatory poem and throughout the essay, he acknowledges the thoughtful man's confusion as he confronts the forces that distort perception and prevent vision beyond the material into the divine, absolute, and permanent. He openly admits that philosophy is not life, that we cannot successfully alter the world we inhabit by imposing on it our sense of what it should be. Efforts to reform society don't achieve their desired results because, in the end, the gap between the ideal and the material cannot be so easily bridged. Grief at the loss of loved ones, one of the deepest human emotions, provides no insight into the relationship between the spiritual and the material, and leaves us empty and baffled. Even nature herself, our ally and tool for comprehending the universal, does not readily allow us to make sense of her operations in human life.

But although idealism and human experience are difficult to reconcile satisfactorily, nowhere in the essay does Emerson suggest that one must be chosen over the other. They are coexistent elements, not mutually exclusive. They merge into one another by graded steps, "life above life, in infinite degrees." Emerson urges us to keep our sights on the ultimate purpose of our existence — to understand our place in the universe and our relationship to God and nature — but at the same time to live life as it is, not worrying too much about the discrepancy between the two. "Life is not dialectics," he writes. It must be lived on its own terms, not confused with the higher realm that exists side by side with it and that surpasses it in significance. Our experience of daily life will eventually contribute toward a broader sense of the universal.

Emerson asserts that the specific societal forms, personal relationships, and human conditions that constitute our experience are, in the long run and from the broad view, insignificant. We may thrive as spiritual beings as well under one set of conventions and circumstances as under another. He advocates avoidance of wasting precious energy on trying to alter the externals of life. We may find meaning in even the most trivial transactions and relationships:

I settle myself ever firmer in the creed, that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious, as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us.

Moreover, he recommends embracing life, not merely grimly accepting it. He distinguishes between two points of view that we might describe today as the difference between seeing the glass half-empty and seeing it half-full:

I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe, and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods. I accept the clangor and jangle of contrary tendencies. I find my accounts in sots [drunkards] and bores also. . . . If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.

In attempting to analyze experience too closely, we fail to get from it what we can. Its lessons are learned "on the highway" — along the way, in the course of life, not through conscious intent to make sense of it. Emerson advises a tolerant, balanced approach, one that incorporates power (divinely granted and intuitively realized life force) and form (the particular external structures through which we express ourselves). We should aim toward the "middle region of our being," the "temperate zone," the "mid-world," the "equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry, — a narrow belt." There we may both live life as we must and yet remain open to higher reality.

Perspective and Insight

Emerson explores the subject of perspective in detail throughout "Experience." We need somehow to find higher unity behind the mass of confusing detail that we encounter on a daily basis.

Emerson employs the image of the rapidly spinning, multicolored wheel to suggest that it takes the proper perspective on a great many particulars to provide a sense of the whole: "Of course, it needs the whole society, to give the symmetry we seek. The parti-colored wheel must revolve very fast to appear white." He discusses the various forces that hinder our maintaining a sufficiently large vision, that diminish our receptivity to intuitive insight into universal truth. While engaged in living, Emerson points out, it is difficult for us to gauge exactly where we stand, to make out the broader meaning and the true value of our thoughts and actions. Certain inherent human traits impede our ability to see beyond the material and temporal.

Mood and temperament, for example, may prevent even the most thoughtful and gifted from realizing the divine power that flows into them. Emerson writes of "young men who owe us a new world, so readily and lavishly they promise, but they never acquit the debt; they die young and dodge the account; or if they live, they lose themselves in the crowd." Because we see only what we are inclined to see, temperament affects insight. The undersensitive are insufficiently receptive to intuition, and the overly sensitive are too overwhelmed by it to properly assimilate the vision it offers.

Furthermore, the human mind is so constructed that men need to consider objects and ideas separately and in succession, rather than all at once. But the universal perspective that we inwardly require demands comprehensive vision. Thus, there is a certain tension between how we are made up and the ultimate insight toward which we are drawn. And if we cannot apply our minds to individual objects and ideas except in succession, neither do we express our characters through action, nor perceive the characters of other men, except particular trait by particular trait, focusing at any given time on one quality to the exclusion of the others that make up the full range of human characteristics. In the course of a single lifetime, the intellect by itself has difficulty processing enough particulate manifestations of God in us and in our lives to allow the deepest kind of comprehension. Moreover, because divine power expresses itself through individuals sporadically, not continuously, the machinery of the intellect — which regards things sequentially and consequently may miss the opportunity to perceive the divine when it makes itself apparent — is somewhat at odds with the way God acts upon us. We need to look at things over a period of time and to receive impressions of them all at once, and this is beyond the capacity of the intellect. Revelatory intuition is therefore essential to the process of insight.

Emerson focuses on the elements of chance and spontaneity in his discussion of man's recognition of the divine force working in our lives. Human design and intention have limited effect. Only intuition allows us to transcend constraining factors in the way we process experience. And God's agency on our lives as comprehended through intuition leads to unpredictable results:

. . . I can see nothing at last, in success or failure, than more or less of vital force supplied from the Eternal. The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know. The persons who compose our company, converse, and come and go, and design and execute many things, and somewhat comes of it all, but an unlooked-for result. The individual is always mistaken. He designed many things, and drew in other persons as coadjutors, quarrelled with some or all, blundered much, and something is done; all are a little advanced, but the individual is always mistaken. It turns out somewhat new, and very unlike what he promised himself.

The unpredictable expression of the divine mind in human life is both paralleled by and understood through spontaneous intuition, which alone allows us to find unity and meaning in the particulars of our experience. Although the divine force behind human life is perceived sporadically, the absolutes that it expresses are permanent and unchangeable.

Toward the end of "Experience," Emerson explores subjectivity as an immutable condition affecting perspective, a given from which insight is, in the end, inseparable. He reminds us that "it is the eye which makes the horizon, and the rounding mind's eye which makes this or that man a type or representative of humanity. . . ." We can only see and evaluate things in relation to ourselves. We look for that which confirms the divinity within us, measuring one thing against another by what we need to see as well as by what we are capable of seeing. (Emerson thus develops a theme that he earlier expressed in Nature, particularly in his discussion of the way in which the poet picks and chooses subjectively among the objects of his consideration to create a unified whole in his work.) Man is the "receiver of Godhead," who feels "at every comparison . . . his being enhanced by the cryptic might," and requires what he perceives to reinforce his sense of his elevated position. Because subjectivity based on our intimate connection with God is part of the human constitution, intuition is all the more necessary to help us sort out the temporal from the absolute. We see everything — including moral issues — in relation to our own importance. Emerson contrasts our innate personal tendency to see morality in relative terms with the insistence of institutionalized religion on presenting it in absolute terms. Because the truly absolute emanates from a higher sphere, he thus indirectly underscores how unproductive it is to look for absolutes in the human scheme of things.

Emerson writes powerfully of revelatory insight into the permanent absolute that always lies beyond the temporal here and now:

Do but observe the mode of our illumination. When I converse with a profound mind, or if at any time being alone I have good thoughts, I do not at once arrive at satisfactions, as when, being thirsty, I drink water, or go to the fire, being cold: no! but I am at first apprised of my vicinity to a new and excellent region of life. By persisting to read or to think, this region gives further sign of itself, as it were in flashes of light, in sudden discoveries of its profound beauty and repose, as if the clouds that covered it parted at intervals, and showed the approaching traveller the inland mountains. . . . But every insight from this realm of thought is felt as initial, and promises a sequel. I do not make it; I arrive there, and behold what was there already. . . . I clap my hands in infantine joy and amazement, before the first opening to me of this august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sunbright Mecca of the desert. And what a future it opens!

Intuition thus works upon us both immediately and cumulatively, providing deeper and deeper insight into the divine and absolute. It will allow us to form a "new picture of life and duty." This new vision will reconcile skepticism and faith, will permit us to incorporate the particulate and polarized aspects of experience into a unified vision and, ultimately, to translate that vision meaningfully into life. But we must be patient. Moreover, even while we live life, we must maintain the independent self-reliance of thought that leads us to understand that our characters, relations, and actions derive their true meaning from a higher source.