Summary and Analysis
Emerson's essay "Experience" was first published without having been delivered as a lecture. It appeared in 1844 in his Essays: Second Series (published in Boston by James Munroe in October of 1844 and in London by John Chapman in November of 1844). Essays: Second Series, including "Experience," was issued in 1876 as the third volume of the Little Classic Edition of Emerson's writings, in 1886 as the third volume of the Riverside Edition, in 1906 as the third volume of the Centenary Edition, and in 1983 as the third volume of the Collected Works published by Harvard. The essay has been separately published, and also included in such collected editions as the 1940 Modern Library The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by Brooks Atkinson), the 1965 Signet Classic Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by William H. Gilman), and the 1983 Library of America Essays & Lectures (selected and annotated by Joel Porte).
Emerson prefaces "Experience" with a poem describing the solemn procession of the "lords of life" — the forces that affect all men's experience of common life. God — the "inventor of the game" — is an unnamed presence in the poem. Man walks in confusion among the lords of life. He is comforted by nature, who assures him that the lords will "wear another face" tomorrow, and that his position is, in fact, one of ascendancy over them. In the essay, Emerson explores the action of these forces on the way we live and understand our lives.
The experience of life is confusing, Emerson writes at the beginning of the essay. Gaining perspective on life while we are engaged in living is difficult. This confusion affects our perception of our place in relation to nature, and of our powers. We are unable to see beyond our material existence and to utilize the creative vigor that nature has given us, and cannot distinguish between our productive and unproductive efforts. The distance created by time's passage sometimes reveals that what we thought were unoccupied hours were actually our most fruitful periods. Only in the long view do we understand the proper value of everyday occupations and actions. In taking the short view, we lose sight of the quality and significance of our lives in the present. Moreover, everyday details so preoccupy us that little time is left for more serious considerations. Emerson writes that "the pith of each man's genius contracts itself to a very few hours." As the history of literature contains only a few original ideas that have been worked and reworked, so the history of society reveals only a very few spontaneous human actions beyond "custom and gross sense." Although we attribute great importance to the calamities of life, they actually have no lasting meaning. Grief does not bring us any closer to the people we have lost, and it does not change who we are. Emerson refers specifically to his own grief at the death of his son Waldo in 1842. Grief cannot teach us anything, nor can it bring us closer to understanding the material world. Moreover, nature does not like to be observed and prevents us from focusing too clearly on objects that might offer insight through the material.
Emerson turns to the subject of perspective, and to the way temperament and mood — both parts of man's makeup — affect perspective. He writes of dream and illusion, and of how we see only what we are capable of seeing. Genius is useless if receptivity is limited by some temperamental trait that prevents "a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life." A man's talents cannot be effectively applied if he does not care sufficiently for higher truth to look for it, if he is overly sensitive, if he wants to reform but is not equal to the task. Mood even influences the ebb and flow of the religious sentiment, and temperament cannot be fully transcended by the moral sentiment. But "so-called sciences" — medicine and phrenology (the study of the size and shape of the skull to determine a man's character and abilities) — exaggerates temperamental limitations on human possibilities by suggesting that temperament is materially predetermined. Pseudoscience defines man by his physical traits and reduces inner qualities to the level of matter. Although temperament does color our perceptions and constrains our potential, the material approach to it discounts higher intuitive capabilities altogether and fails to recognize the direct, spontaneous transforming connection between God and the individual. Emerson summarily dismisses the approach.
Like temperament, man's need to move in succession from one object of focus to another — his disinclination to regard any one thing for too long — also influences his perception of experience and the world. Our innate love of absolutes draws us toward the permanent, but our human constitution requires "change of objects." After we have formed an impression of a book or a work of art, we want to move on, even though our lasting sense of that object may not be fully developed. We crave the larger, broader picture. Each book or work of art offers only partial insight into the whole. Individual men, too, only represent particular aspects of human nature and capability, and do not expand to illuminate traits or ideas beyond those they possess. Each man has a particular talent, and his tendency is to reinforce and capitalize upon that talent rather than to grow in other ways. This self-limitation necessitates our examining all of humankind to gain a sense of the whole. We must look at the weak as well as the admirable examples, because God underlies all of them. Each individual has his own educational value, as do all aspects of human experience in society — commerce, government, the church, marriage, and the various occupations. Power (used by Emerson to signify a kind of divinely imparted life force) speaks alternately through various examples of humanity but does not remain permanently in any one of them.
Emerson emphasizes that philosophical awareness of the shortcomings of human experience does not constitute life itself. Life must be lived, not considered. Thought and writings on social reform are not successfully translated into the ends toward which they aim. Constant criticism of various institutions and courses of action has led to widespread indifference. Emerson urges the reader to tend to his own life as it is. The balanced individual who accepts life will extract what can be enjoyed from it. A man may thrive anywhere, under the "oldest mouldiest conventions" as well as in "the newest world." Emerson advises living to the best of our abilities in the present moment, "accepting our actual companions and circumstances," approaching each day as "a sound and solid good," and making the best of what life brings, the bad as well as the good. If we expect nothing of life, we will be pleasantly surprised to receive anything at all. If we expect much, we will inevitably be disappointed. Life's gifts are not obtained by analysis, but in the process of living. We need to look after our own affairs regardless of what others think we should be doing. Emerson recommends "the temperate zone" between the ideal and the material. Life is composed of both power (life force) and form, which must be balanced if health and soundness are to be preserved. Every quality, even the good, is dangerous in excess.
Our lives would be easier, Emerson writes, if we could simply attend to our ordinary daily routines. But we are susceptible to intimations from a higher source, which shake the common, limited vision of reality. Measured and predictable though daily life is, God isolates us in the present moment and from one another so that we will live and respond spontaneously, will heed the call of intuition. Both nature and man operate "by pulses" and "by fits," and chance plays a key role. Human intention and design are not always factors in the way life plays out. The most attractive person is the one who exerts power incidentally, not directly. The thought of genius always contains the unpredictable. The moral sentiment is always new, always comes without direct sensory experience. Our experience of life, too, contains an element of divine inspiration, which won't bear analysis. Man's vital force derives from the eternal, and its results cannot be controlled or predicted.
Emerson describes intuition as the means of perceiving the underlying unity behind the multiple expressions of God. Insight into the harmonious divine source does not come sequentially, but rather in flashes, which bring joy as well as vision. Intuition opens up whole new worlds to us. Man's consciousness is a constant, unchanging element that serves as a "sliding scale" to rank all that is experienced according to its origin in the divine "First Cause" or in material nature. The spiritual and the material coexist as "life above life, in infinite degrees." The key question is not what a man does, but what source — the divine and spiritual, or the material and temporal — motivates him to do it. The spiritual life force is tremendously empowering. How we express the life force through what we think and do is less significant than "the universal impulse to believe" — our receptivity. Spirit is conveyed directly to man, without explanation, and likewise is expressed directly through man, in his character and actions. It allows us to influence others without words and even without physical proximity. Openness to spirit not only imparts personal force, but also allows the ever-greater understanding of "life and duty, of a doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have." This new doctrine must embrace both society's skepticism and its faith, and will reconcile its limiting as well as its affirmative characteristics.
Human subjectivity is an inescapable force that causes us to project ourselves onto what we perceive in life, of nature, even of God. There is an inequality between the subject perceiving and the object perceived. Deriving our strength and inspiration from God, we need what we perceive to validate and enhance our sense of our own importance in the divine scheme, and we focus on specific particulars that reinforce this sense. In our subjectivity, we go so far as to excuse ourselves for traits and actions that we condemn in others, thereby accepting the relative rather than the fixed and absolute. Emerson points to sin, which subjective intellect perceives only in relation to itself, although when viewed from the framework of traditional religion is an absolute quality. Because of our subjectivity, in order for the soul to attain "her due sphericity" (a completeness reflective of the larger whole), we must be exposed to the full range of particulars.
Self-reliance is essential to avoid distraction by the many particulars that life brings our way. We must not pay too much attention to custom and opinion, must live our own lives and think our own thoughts, must keep our focus on the eternal. Emerson admits that the eternal and the material are essentially irreconcilable. He attempts to answer the question of what the practical results of understanding the relationship between idealism and experience might be. The effects of our explorations of truth, he answers, are cumulative, incalculable within the span of a single human lifetime. Moreover, while people in general place too much emphasis on doing rather than knowing, he himself accepts the primary value of knowing. He recognizes that the world he lives in is not the world he thinks it is, and trusts that he will some day understand this discrepancy. But we cannot resolve it by attempting to translate the world of thought into reality, as is attempted by various reform movements. Emerson urges patience, avoidance of squandering precious time and attention on inconsequential details of living, and persistent, optimistic openness to the intuitive insight that will bring "the light of our life." Ultimately, genius will be transformed into practical power.