Dennis Maust | Essays | Emerson and Tolstoy
Reflections from a Week with Emerson and Tolstoy:
Immersing oneself in Emerson and Tolstoy perspectives on how to live proved an incredibly challenging exercise, sometimes discouraging but most often energizing and enlightening. Sadly though, basing a comprehensive analysis on just five short readings by each author in one week at St. John’s College – essays by Emerson and short stories by Tolstoy – would fall desperately short both academically and persuasively. Supplementing the seminar readings with other works by each author might help – perhaps including Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address or 1836 Nature and Tolstoy’s Confession, begun in 1879, or What Then Must We Do?, published in 1886. However, even this slightly extended study would significantly neglect the prolific lifework of each author, and the results would surely disappoint.
This St. John’s Summer Study paper, regrettably, does not provide such a comprehensive, in-depth analysis, so the support material contained herein falls woefully shy of such an examination. However, as with most previous exercises and studies in the Master of Liberal Arts program (where a consuming desire always exists to dig deeper into authors’ or artists’ lifeworks and times, philosophers’ thoughts, influential predecessors, or specific cultures’ relationships to their surroundings), research into the body of work by both Emerson and Tolstoy overwhelmed.
The resulting conclusions included serendipitous pleasantries like discovering surprising “connections” between authors, artists, philosophers, and cultures. Connections, in the sense used here, imply similarities in thought, opinion, outlook, and philosophy. Discoveries of connections in the Liberal Arts can occur between methods as widely varied in form as, for example, the written word and a marble sculpture. In the case of Emerson and Tolstoy, connections initially occurred between non-fiction essays and fictional, though somewhat autobiographical, short stories.
These connections between Emerson and Tolstoy began to surface during a recent hot, dry, mid-July week in Santa Fe. In a light and airy second-floor classroom of the Faith and John Meem Library at St. John’s College, fate – or luck – granted a few Summer Classics Program participants the opportunity and good fortune to take part in two intensive and wonderfully soul-searching seminars. Dialogues during these two seminars provided morning enlightenment on the nature of Emerson’s thought and afternoon insight into Tolstoy’s life and times – as they both struggled with life’s meaning. Pleasant surprises occurred with each discovery of another connection or similar outlook between Emerson, the transcendental essayist, and Tolstoy, the novelist and storyteller. (Only four participants covered the five Emerson essays – four written in 1841 and one in 1844 – and the five Tolstoy short stories published between 1859 and 1904.)
Taking part in both of these practically simultaneous seminars also afforded the opportunity – and impetus – to begin a closer examination of Emerson’s and Tolstoy’s larger views on nagging questions about life, death, and how to live one’s life. Though comprehended with difficulty, Emerson’s essays put forth his views on answers to such questions. Tolstoy’s short stories, however entertaining, also offer his views on such questions. Indeed, when read alongside some of his autobiographical works, Tolstoy’s attempts to awaken his reader, through fiction, to certain personal values and philosophies become apparent. Noting with ease some initial connections between Emerson’s and Tolstoy’s writings during the week, my interest evolved from one of making more connections to one of finding a possible common overarching view about how to live one’s life. This continuing interest in Emerson and Tolstoy led to a subsequent two-month look at additional Emerson essays, Tolstoy writings, biographer and researcher comments, and to a review of previous Liberal Arts coursework.
The analysis that follows first points out several, though not necessarily all, Emerson-Tolstoy connections that presented personally plausible possibilities during the seminar week. While providing parenthetical essay or story synopses where helpful, the discussion specifically avoids advocating any definitive essay or short-story interpretations. Interpretations can often assume a very personal nature and, as experienced sometimes during the seminar dialogues, may vary quite dramatically. Also, since paraphrasing and overly summarizing passages might lead to charges of undue bias or misinformation in the conclusions of this analysis, this approach quotes passages directly and with enough detail to hopefully avoid such charges. Quoting gives readers the ability to quickly draw their own conclusions about the strength of connections. By heightening an interest in connections, this analysis hopes to evoke a healthy curiosity, providing encouragement for more academic and personal Emerson and Tolstoy reading.
Following a brief look at Emerson-Tolstoy connections, the analysis then points out some interesting additional connections that Emerson and Tolstoy, either separately or together, seem to share with other authors examined in previous Liberal Arts courses. Finally, drawing upon very cursory examinations of Emerson and Tolstoy biographies and autobiographical works, the exercise concludes with a look at their similar life events and an attempt to show connections between their larger views about how we should live our lives.
Although the first connections between Emerson and Tolstoy occurred with the first day’s readings, this evaluation makes no attempt to match each morning’s Emerson essay to each afternoon’s Tolstoy short story. St. John’s College did not, according to the tutors, order the readings in these two separate seminars with the notion of making such connections. Further, each daily seminar concentrated on only the text of that day’s assigned reading. Participants, according to the rules of dialogue, discussed only matters that each particular seminar text could support. Connections mentioned herein, therefore, arose as a personal experience with the two authors during the week at St. John’s, benefiting from little related discussion with tutors or other participants. The subsequent extension of connections to considerations regarding other Liberal Arts courses also reflects personal notions about questions important to the meaning of life.
One of the earliest connections made between Emerson and Tolstoy concerned their similar disdain for the undue emphasis individuals generally place on society, on following norms, and on seeking recognition and praise. In his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson repeatedly abhors the tendency toward constant worrying about societal acceptance:
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. (134)
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. (135)
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. . . .It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (136)
There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean ‘the foolish face of praise.’ (137)
Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. (147)
Likewise in “Experience,” Emerson rails against the loss of individuality and the susceptibility to mind-numbing customs when societal pressures overwhelm:
How many individuals can we count in society? how many actions? how many opinions? So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours. . . .So in this great society wide lying around us, a critical analysis would find very few spontaneous actions. It is almost all custom and gross sense. There are even few opinions, and these seem organic in the speakers, and do not disturb the universal necessity. (308)
Tolstoy echoes Emerson’s sentiments against societal opinion in two of his short stories. First, in “Family Happiness,” the main characters sometimes squabble as they struggle for happiness within their marriage. (Tolstoy references citing only page numbers refer to Short Works.)
‘Society in itself is no great harm,’ [Sergéy] went on; ‘but unsatisfied social aspirations are a bad and ugly business.’ (55, Sergéy to his wife Másha)
. . . I could not understand what he could object to for me in society life. I had a new sense of pride and self-satisfaction when my entry at a ball attracted all eyes. (56, Másha remembering her attitude toward Sergéy and society during their visit to Petersburg and Moscow)
. . . [a foreign prince] declared that I was the most beautiful woman in Russia. All the world was to be [at the ball]; and, in a word, it would really be too bad, if I did not go too. (57, Másha again)
‘It sickens me that the Prince admired you, and you therefore run to meet him, forgetting your husband and yourself and womanly dignity.’ (59, Sergéy in a riff with Másha)
‘. . . I saw you day after day sharing the dirtiness and idleness and luxury of this foolish society.’ (60, Sergéy continuing a riff with Másha)
Fashionable life, which had dazzled me at first by its glitter and flattery of my self-love, now took entire command of my nature, became a habit, laid its fetters upon me, and monopolized my capacity for feeling. I could not bear solitude, and was afraid to reflect on my position. My whole day, from late in the morning till late at night, was taken up by the claims of society. (64, Másha remembering her former self)
Next, in “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” a defining tool for self-analysis where the main character faces the inevitability of death – and, hence, an appropriate short story to read often during life’s journey – Tolstoy describes the sad, mundane life of Ivan Ilych, who thought his duties encompassed merely leading “a decorous life approved of by society” (261). With these additional “Ilych” passages, Tolstoy even more emphatically illustrates similar Emersonian points about society:
Even when [Ivan Ilych] was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty; and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority. (256)
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there were damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes - all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. (266, comment about Ivan Ilych readying a new home for his family prior to their move)
The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity. (268, Tolstoy on Ivan Ilych)
And the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys. This began with the School of Law. A little that was really good was still found there – there was light-heartedness, friendship, and hope. But in the upper classes . . . his official career . . . marriage . . . those preoccupations about money, a year of it, and two, and ten, and twenty, and always the same thing. And the longer it lasted the more deadly it became. ‘It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.’ (295, Ivan Ilych imagining his former life while in a conversation with the voice of his soul)
According to both Emerson and Tolstoy, then, we worry too much about society’s view of our distinct, individual lives. This constant seeking of approval and praise distracts from individual growth and development. Their comment about societal pressures seems an important point on which to reflect, for when we find ourselves wasting time trying to fit in, trying to live up to the expectations of society and to garner praise, we squander away valuable time necessary for work on ourselves, time necessary for examining our individual lives.
As seen in “Ivan Ilych,” Tolstoy gives death an important transformational role. Emerson, too sees death as one facet of life that sometimes jars us away from societal expectations and a comfortable, routine, and unexamined life. In “Compensation,” Emerson expands on the possible benefits of death experiences:
The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character. (171)
As a stark reminder that no one can escape death, Emerson in “Experience” offers this modest warning: “Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, There at least is reality that will not dodge us” (309).
In at least three of Tolstoy’s short stories, he addresses the transformational quality of death. He makes death the primary focus in two of them. From “Ivan Ilych” again, Tolstoy illumines:
‘Three days of frightful suffering and the death! Why, that might suddenly, at any time, happen to me,’ he thought, and for a moment felt terrified. But – he did not himself know how – the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Iván Ilých and not to him. (253, the thoughts and attitude of Peter Ivánovich – and most individuals – toward the death of someone else)
There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware. (274, Ilych’s thoughts)
‘When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing. Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying?’ (278, Ilych again, and also perhaps somewhat autobiographical)
‘It is impossible that all men have been doomed to suffer this awful horror!’ (279, disbelief of Ivan Ilych regarding the possibility of his own death)
But strange to say, all that had formerly shut off, hidden, and destroyed his consciousness of death, no longer had that effect. (281, the thought of death confronted Iván Ilých like never before)
In “Master and Man,” Tolstoy also focuses on death and reflects on life through the characters of Vasíli Andréevich, a landowner, and Nikíta, his peasant, stranded together in a snowstorm. Note Vasíli’s transformation through the following quotes taken sequentially from “Master and Man.”
Again [Vasíli] began counting his gains and the debts due to him, again he began bragging to himself and feeling pleased with himself and his position, but all this was continually disturbed by a stealthily approaching fear and by the unpleasant regret that he had not remained in Gríshkino. (486, Vasíli’s thoughts as consequences of being lost in the snowstorm take hold)
The more [Vasíli] tried to think of his accounts, his business, his reputation, his worth and his wealth, the more and more was he mastered by fear . . . (488)
[Vasíli] wanted to get up, to do something to master the gathering fear that was rising in him and against which he felt himself powerless. (488)
‘The copse, the oxen, the leasehold, the shop, the tavern, the house with the iron-roofed barn, and my heir,’ thought [Vasíli]. ‘How can I leave all that? What does this mean? It cannot be!’ (493)
. . . [Vasíli] was seized with such terror that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. ‘Can this be a dream?’ (493)
[Vasíli’s] terror had now quite left him, and if he felt any fear it was lest the dreadful terror should return that he had experienced when on the horse and especially when he was left alone in the snowdrift. At any cost he had to avoid that terror, and to keep it away he must do something – occupy himself with something. . . .then as was his custom when going out of his shop to buy grain from the peasants, he pulled his girdle low down and tightened it and prepared for action. (494)
Vasíli Andréevich stood silent and motionless for half a minute. Then suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase, he took a step back and turning up his sleeves began raking the snow off Nikíta and out of the sledge. Having done this he hurriedly undid his girdle, opened out his fur coat, and having pushed Nikíta down, lay down on top of him, covering him not only with his fur coat but with the whole of his body, which glowed with warmth. (495)
‘There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way . . .’ began Vasíli Andréevich.
But to his great surprise he could say no more, for tears came to his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. . . .
‘That’s our way!’ he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness. . . .
But he longed so passionately to tell somebody of his joyful condition that he said: ‘Nikíta!’
‘It’s comfortable, warm!’ came a voice from beneath.
‘There, you see, friend, I was going to perish. And you would have been frozen, and I should have . . .’
But again his jaws began to quiver and his eyes to fill with tears, and he could say nor more.
‘Well, never mind,’ he thought. ‘I know about myself what I know.’” (495-6)
But [Vasíli] did not think of his legs or of his hands but only of how to warm the peasant who was lying under him. He looked out several times at Mukhórty [their horse] and could see that . . . he ought to get up and cover him, but he could not bring himself to leave Nikíta and disturb even for a moment the joyous condition he was in. He no longer felt any kind of terror. (496)
And this waiting was uncanny and yet joyful. Then suddenly his joy was completed. He whom he was expecting came; not Iván Matvéich the police-officer, but someone else – yet it was he whom he had been waiting for. He came and called him; and it was he who had called him and told him to lie down on Nikíta. And Vasíli Andréevich was glad that that one had come for him. . . .
And he remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mirónov’s millions, and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasíli Brekhunóv, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled.
‘Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,’ he thought, concerning that Vasíli Brekhunóv. ‘He did not know, but now I know and know for sure. Now I know!’ And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer. (497-8)
Although Emerson comments on the possible life-changing effects resulting from the death of a close friend or relative while Tolstoy’s characters themselves confront death, both authors in their own ways see death as transforming life. Experiencing death, they write, causes the individual to reflect on life and provides motivation for changing one’s life – or at least one’s attitude – before the arrival of one’s own death.
Emerson and Tolstoy also connect on a somewhat less transformational subject than death – the subject of two people relating silently to each other when in a state of total awareness. Emerson describes it in at least two instances, once in “Circles” and again in “The Over-Soul.”
Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it. The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered. (257)
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. (237)
The action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid than in that which is said in any conversation. (242)
Tolstoy’s characters illustrate this concept of silent understanding in both “The Devil” and “Hadji Murád.”
She became silent. He too was silent and could not think how to break that silence. So they both understood that they had understood one another. (319, conversation between a mother and son)
The eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said. Without words they told each other the whole truth. (592-3, conversation between Hadji Murád and Russian Prince Vorontsóv)
Granted, the state of total awareness to which Emerson eludes probably evokes a more spiritual context than the silent understanding that Tolstoy’s characters experience. Emerson’s state of total understanding presumably deals more metaphysically with two people being one in consciousness, one in soul, one in God. Tolstoy’s characters most likely experience a total understanding of each other in the moment, given their present time, place, and circumstances. However, the microcosm of Tolstoy’s worlds serves to hint at the Over-Soul of Emerson’s transcendental philosophy.
Another connection between Emerson and Tolstoy concerns their varying attribution of spiritual or religious understanding to different classes of people. Emerson attributes virtually equal access to spiritual matters, stating in “Circles” that “The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy as well as you” (259). Tolstoy, however, in most of his story matter, idealizes the closeness of the peasant to nature and to God, attributing to simple peasants a far greater understanding about matters of life – and death – than money-hungry landowners can comprehend. For example, in “Master and Man,” Tolstoy writes about Nikíta the peasant as he struggles with the cold and the snowstorm after he and his master become desperately lost in the dark of night:
Like all those who live in touch with nature and have known want, [Nikíta] was patient and could wait for hours, even days, without growing restless or irritable. . . .
The thought that he might, and very probably would, die that night occurred to him, but did not seem particularly unpleasant or dreadful. It did not seem particularly unpleasant, because his whole life had been not a continual holiday, but on the contrary an unceasing round of toil of which he was beginning to feel weary. And it did not seem particularly dreadful, because besides the masters he had served here, like Vasíli Andréevich, he always felt himself dependent on the Chief Master, who had sent him into this life, and he knew that when dying he would still be in that Master’s power and would not be ill-used by Him. ‘It seems a pity to give up what one is used to and accustomed to. But there’s nothing to be done. I shall get used to the new things.’ (489-90)
He did not know whether he was dying or falling asleep, but felt equally prepared for the one as for the other. (491, Nikíta unable to get warm as he lay alone in the sledge)
Tolstoy, in his stories, attributes to his peasant characters the same affinity for God and nature that he witnessed in real life peasants. However, Tolstoy makes another differentiation between the religiosity of Russian peasants and Russian landowners using subtle characterizations of their respective religious practices. Complementing the text above, Tolstoy writes also in “Master and Man” about how Nikíta and Vasíli differently face the possibility of death:
‘Lord, heavenly Father!’ [Nikíta] muttered, and was comforted by the consciousness that he was not alone but that there was One who heard him and would not abandon him. (491)
[Vasíli] began to pray to that same Nicholas the Wonder-Worker to save him, promising him a thanksgiving service and some candles. (493)
Tolstoy seems to portray the peasantry as praying directly to God while the landowner class prays to their icons – or at least through their icons. In some of his autobiographical writings, Tolstoy specifically berates this iconolatry as an intermediate, false practice that particularly weakens the teachings of Jesus.
The death scene in “Master and Man” provides another connection between Emerson and Tolstoy: the concept of how individuals relate or should relate to one another and to God – or the soul. Note the similarities between first Emerson, in “Compensation,” and then Tolstoy, in “Master and Man.”
The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases. His is mine. I am my brother and my brother is me. If I feel over-shadowed and outdone by great neighbors, I can yet love; I can still receive; and he that loveth maketh his own the grandeur he loves. Thereby I make the discovery that my brother is my guardian, acting for me with the friendliest designs, and the estate I so admired and envied is my own. (169)
‘I’m coming!’ [Vasíli] cried joyfully, and that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep. . . .He was surprised but not at all disturbed by this. He understood that this was death, and was not at all disturbed by that either. He remembered that Nikíta was lying under him and that he had got warm and was alive, and it seemed to him that he was Nikíta and Nikíta was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikíta. He strained his ears and heard Nikíta breathing and even slightly snoring. ‘Nikíta is alive, so I too am alive!’ he said to himself triumphantly. (497-8)
With their strikingly close concept of coexistence, Emerson and Tolstoy seem to propose that all individuals emerge from one Something, in the end all somehow return to that one Something, and if individuals would only realize this intimate bond in the short finite time of Earthly existence, mankind would more appropriately care for one another. As Emerson intuits the brotherly bond, so too, Tolstoy gives credit to Vasíli for finally recognizing this bond in the hour of his death.
One more connection arrived at during the Emerson-Tolstoy seminar week dealt with the concept of gaining knowledge through personal experience. Emerson expresses this concept in “Self-Reliance.”
It is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail. . . .Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. (153)
Tolstoy expresses a similar notion in “Family Happiness” during an exchange between Másha and Sergéy, her husband, as they reminisce about an earlier time in their marriage:
‘Why did you never tell me that you wished me to live as you really wished me to? Why did you give me a freedom for which I was unfit? Why did you stop teaching me?’ (77, Másha)
‘all of us . . . must have personal experience of all the nonsense of life, in order to get back to life itself; the evidence of other people is no good.’ (79, Sergéy)
Tolstoy seems to echo the core of Emerson’s thought. To truly live, one cannot ultimately learn how to live from the words of others; to know life’s peace and meaning, one must go within, and gain personal experience, putting off – at least finally – support and teachings of others.
These six connections between Emerson and Tolstoy virtually jumped off the pages during that one short week in July, yet they comprise but a subset of Emerson-Tolstoy connections. More so, their discovery and the opportunity to reflect on them in the summertime serenity of the St. John’s environment – where the act of reflection seems to come with greater ease and deeper intensity than elsewhere – snowballed into subsequent thoughts about connections between Emerson and Tolstoy, other personal favorites, and readings from prior Liberal Arts courses. Indeed, the ensuing urge to follow these additional connections inspired the addition of the next dimension of this analysis.
A quote from Emerson’s “Circles” most profoundly and most eloquently introduces this section on Emerson and Tolstoy connections with other Liberal Arts courses.
Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it. We fill ourselves with ancient learning, install ourselves the best we can in Greek, in Punic, in Roman houses, only that we may wiselier see French, English and American houses and modes of living. In like manner we see literature best from the midst of wild nature, or from the din of affairs, or from a high religion. The field cannot be well seen from within the field. The astronomer must have his diameter of the earth’s orbit as a base to find the parallax of any star.
Therefore, we value the poet. All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Ariosto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities. He claps wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice. (257-8)
Emerson evokes so much meaning from these two wonderful paragraphs that they deserve reading and re-reading. Not only does Emerson credit literature for transporting us outside our present-day circle by using lessons from the ancients to help us understand better our present-day lives, but he also acknowledges a reverse truth. That is, grounding in our current affairs and lives helps us examine and discover the lessons of literature.
We “value the poet” – Emerson’s phrase probably implies artists, too – because the poet’s words encourage us and even shock us to take stock of our present lives, discard old and worn out habits, seek and see new possibilities, and live more meaningful lives. Emerson reiterates his concern about “habitual” living in “The Over-Soul,” noting “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual” (236). Here, Emerson tells us to wake up from our habits, increase our conscious life, and practice awareness from moment to moment, lest we sleep through revelations, whatever name we give their source.
Tolstoy displays a similar outlook about the repetitive, mind-robbing customs and habits of daily life, through Másha in “Family Happiness.”
I suffered most from the feeling that custom was daily petrifying our lives into one fixed shape, that our minds were losing their freedom and becoming enslaved to the steady passionless course of time. (49)
Másha’s comment on the dreary routine her and her sister’s lives took on since going to live on the country estate after the death of her parents reveals her fear about becoming numb to life and comfortable, yet passionless, with routine. Even more importantly, she relays her fear that daily custom would constrict their minds.
Tolstoy’s ill regard for dreary habits and the business – or busyness – of life surfaces also in two passages from “Ivan Ilych” and a passage worth considering again from “Master and Man.”
When nothing was left to arrange [in their new home] it became rather dull and something seemed to be lacking, but they were then making acquaintances, forming habits, and life was growing fuller. (266-7)
In all this [work] the thing was to exclude everything fresh and vital, which always disturbs the regular course of official business. (267)
And [Vasíli] remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mirónov’s millions, and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasíli Brekhunóv, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled. (498)
Ivan Ilych and his wife felt something amiss after settling into their new home and new work, but soon they occupied themselves with society, habits, and their busy lives, never taking the time to deal with their feelings. To them also, fresh ideas – as Emerson’s poet could provide – would only shake up their routines and disturb their comfortable, charted course; they preferred the safety and familiarity of routines. Ivan Ilych ultimately questioned the course of his life while on his deathbed, concluding finally that, yes, “he had not spent his life as he should have done” (299). Vasíli, too, facing his own inevitable death in the “Master and Man” snowstorm, reflected on his life, resolving that all his former worries about money and trappings with repetitive business deals really amounted to nothing – certainly they did not leave much time to discover the essence of life and how to live.
Concepts like disdain for life’s habits, customs, and routines, as expressed by Emerson and Tolstoy, made connections with personal readings of Eastern teachers like G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, J. Krishnamurti, and others. Surprisingly, an initial Liberal Arts course examining Modes of Being in Western Literature, including works by Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980), also made similar connections. In To Have or To Be, Fromm differentiates two fundamental modes of experience: having and being. When speaking of consumerism and the quest for property as a modern form of having, Fromm remarks
that as far as leisure time is concerned, automobiles, television, travel, and sex are the main objects of present-day consumerism, and while we speak of them as leisure-time activities, we would do better to call them leisure-time passivities. (27)
Later, and more philosophically, Fromm addresses how the idea of property relates to negative notions about habits:
Ideas and beliefs can also become property, as can even habits. For instance, anyone who eats an identical breakfast at the same time each morning can be disturbed by even a slight change in that routine, because his habit has become a property whose loss endangers his security. (74)
Fromm rather accurately addresses the discomfort and consternation felt by almost all individuals when an unexpected event – perhaps just forgetting to visit the grocery store to restock the breakfast pantry – contributes to disturbance of a routine like enjoying one’s morning coffee or cereal. Traffic accidents, mechanical problems, exceedingly harsh weather, and even phone calls or surprise guests constitute other examples that might disrupt daily rituals.
However, though individuals become agitated at most disruptions to daily habits, such disruptions can also serve to wake up the mind to an increased consciousness. They can serve to jar the mind out of its often-trancelike state of existence. Indeed, Gurdjieff used a method called the “stop exercise” to freeze in place his students at random moments. While frozen in their tracks, his students necessarily became more conscious of their breathing, their muscles, and their thoughts. They woke up – at least temporarily.
While examining and effectively acknowledging the deleterious effects that habits, customs, and the need for societal approval contribute toward a having mode of existence, simply avoiding these types of activities – or passivities, as Fromm regarded them – does not provide positive instruction toward existence in the being mode. Emerson and Tolstoy share two notable connections with other writers in the Liberal Arts concerning the process of becoming, as writers often refer to the personal growth toward existence in the being mode. One connection, initially discussed above as a connection between only Emerson and Tolstoy, involves the transformational role that death plays in disrupting an individual’s perceived safety and ease with daily routines. Many writers see this role of death as a necessary step in awakening individuals from their sleeplike existence. The second connection involves the portrayal of becoming as a lifelong process of struggle requiring intensive, conscious work on the self.
Like Emerson’s and Tolstoy’s acknowledgment of the transformational power of death already discussed, many other writers regard death as the ultimate interruption and wake-up call to a life filled with comfortable routines. Experiencing the death of a relative or close friend as Emerson previously remarked, or coming alarmingly near to death oneself, produces effects on an individual’s thinking that generally begins his or her journey on a path toward becoming. In fact, Tolstoy bemoans soldiers who in battle fail to take to heart what he sees as the most significant aspect of death. In “Hadji Murád,” Tolstoy writes:
None of them saw in this death that most important moment of a life, its termination and return to the source whence it sprang – they saw in it only the valour of a gallant officer who rushed at the mountaineers sword in hand and hacked them desperately. (570)
For these soldiers, life goes on, as if they expect death and perhaps even glorify it but learn nothing of significance from its occurrence. The death of their companion fails to open their eyes and minds to a more examined approach to living their own lives.
For many writers, death provides a stark transition point in life. Several writers use it as their primary subject matter; others acknowledge its importance toward an individual’s becoming. Jung claims that “it is hygienic . . . to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and the shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose” (112). Mystics – and certainly some religions – proclaim the death-birth-becoming cycle. Chogyam Trungpa, a spiritual guide, instructs that “The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death” (Enlightenment). These teachers echo death’s same transformational quality of which Emerson wrote earlier.
Poets, too, romanticize the transformational powers of death. Goethe both heeds death and warns:
And as long as you don’t have this quality,
This: Die and become!
You will be but a dismal guest
On this murky earth. (81a)
Walt Whitman provides a somewhat gentler approach to the transformative aspect of death in “Oh Living Always, Always Dying” from Leaves of Grass:
O living always, always dying!
O the burials of me past and present,
O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever;
O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;)
O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look
at where I cast them,
To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind. (399)
With all these acknowledgments about how an individual can change – should change – when confronting death, perhaps Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, late twentieth-century psychiatrist and authority on death and dying, best expresses the link between death and becoming when she notes the following:
[I]f we look at death from a different perspective, then we can see that it is the promise of death and the experience of dying, more than any other force in life, that can move a human being to grow. All of us, even those who have chosen a life of non-growth – of playing out the roles prescribed by others – feel within our innermost selves that we are meant for something more in this life than simply eating, sleeping, watching television, and going to work 5 days a week. That something else, that many can’t define, is growth – becoming all that is truly you and at the same time, more fully human. (117)
Whether awakened through an experience of death or some less-emotionally disrupting event, the individual experiencing transformation – if truly changing – soon realizes the work required thereafter to progress to a constant state of being. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson maintains that nothing of value will come to those who do not work diligently at life and throughout life: “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till” (133). Taken within the context of promoting individualism and nonconformity in this essay, Emerson seems to echo Socrates’s maxim about the non-worth of the unexamined life. Work diligently during life or die a meaningless death.
Tolstoy echoed Emerson’s idea of toil and struggle in his elevated status of Russian peasants. From “Master and Man” above, Nikita already sounded his thoughts about possibly dying:
[Death] did not seem particularly unpleasant, because his whole life had been not a continual holiday, but on the contrary an unceasing round of toil of which he was beginning to feel weary. (489-90)
This Emerson-Tolstoy connection about toil, weariness, and death immediately connected with author Chaim Potok from another Liberal Arts course. At one point in The Chosen, Reuven’s ill father noted his son’s concern about his health and work ethic, stating that God told a dying Moses, “‘You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.’” Reuven’s father continued:
A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. (204-5)
Potok, through his literature, makes the same point as Emerson and Tolstoy: to give life meaning requires unrelenting work, ceaseless struggle to become, endless striving. Goethe, though, provides the classic example of man struggling to become, toiling against the temptation of an easy life filled with possessions – a having mode of existence. Goethe’s Faust, poetry encountered in yet another Liberal Arts course, tells the wanderings of the main character who enacted a bet and signed a pact with the devil. The devil promises Faust unlimited worldly goods: “Commit yourself and you shall see / My arts with joy. / I’ll give you more / Than any man has seen before” (183). Faust responds:
If ever I recline, calmed, on a bed of sloth,
You may destroy me then and there.
If ever flattering you should wile me
That in myself I find delight,
If with enjoyment you beguile me,
Then break on me, eternal night!
This bet I offer. (183)
In this counteroffer, Faust offers the devil his soul if only the devil can turn him from his unrelenting search for life’s meaning, his never-ending struggle to become.
After Faust experiences a lifelong series of tempting pleasures and other worldly encounters, the devil finally admits at Faust’s death, “No pleasure sated him” (469). Faust only experienced contentment at the moment of death, offering these words:
This is the highest wisdom that I own,
The best that mankind ever knew:
Freedom and life are earned by those alone
Who conquer them each day anew.
Surrounded by such danger, each one thrives,
Childhood, manhood, and age lead active lives.
At such a throng I would fain stare,
With free men on free ground their freedom share.
Then, to the moment I might say:
Abide, you are so fair!
The traces of my earthly day
No aeons can impair.
As I presage a happiness so high,
I now enjoy the highest moment. (469)
Faust seems to relate that to experience the highest moment of happiness and contentment – a moment that can occur only at death – the individual must strive each day, throughout his entire existence, to lead an active life and continually earn his freedom. At no point should an individual rest on his laurels; at no point before death does the struggle to become cease; at no point does one finally arrive until one finishes his toil on “that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
With Faust’s pronouncement to “lead active lives,” the connection to Fromm’s having and being returns. “Having refers to things and things are fixed and describable. Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable” (87). Fromm further echoes and helps restate Faust’s pronouncement:
The mode of being has as its prerequisites independence, freedom and the presence of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active, not in the sense of outward activity, of busyness, but of inner activity, the productive use of our human powers. [To be active] means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, to “list,” to give. (88)
One gets the sense that Fromm attempts to describe here the human experience of the mode of being, the characteristic of being active. However, he acknowledges later that “words only point to experience; they are not the experience” and in trying to express the experience, the experience itself dries up, dies, and becomes “a mere thought” (88). Fromm concludes one cannot actually describe being but can help others to understand the concept only by sharing experiences of it.
Fromm brings this connection back full circle to Emerson. While Fromm admits to the indescribability of the mode of being, Emerson, like Fromm, also tries to point to it and to its opposition to the mode of having, especially in “Self-Reliance.”
Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming. (142)
Life only avails, not the having lived. . . .This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. (144)
Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not be what each is, but a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has if he see that it is accidental – came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him and merely lies there because no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is, does always by necessity acquire; and what the man acquires, is living property, which does not wait the back of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” (152-3)
Neither Goethe nor Fromm nor Emerson quite get their hands wrapped around the concept of being to describe it in enough detail to provide individuals with a recipe for living their lives. Fromm alone acknowledges its indescribability. However, the connection between their words and the dichotomy of having and being seems unmistakable. Emerson, like Goethe and Fromm, warns that a life of becoming cannot be gotten by acquiring things, be they property, people, or ideas. A life of becoming involves constant striving, perpetual renewal, putting off of societal approval and praise, and a turning inward toward a more conscious awareness.
With these words about modes of existence in mind, one last connection to another Liberal Arts subject may help movement towards an answer to how to live. It involves process theology – a theory of God formulated in modern times by Alfred North Whitehead around 1925 and carried on by, among others, Charles Hartshorne, student of Whitehead, and David Ray Griffin. The similarity between some of Emerson’s words and the metaphysical properties of Whitehead’s process theology seem remarkably coincidental though not highly improbable, noting their Harvard connection. Whitehead served as Professor of Philosophy at Harvard beginning in 1924 at the age of sixty-three, and Emerson attended Harvard and lectured there. Whitehead, himself a lecturer, likely familiarized himself with Emerson’s writings and lectures. However, although Emerson died some twenty-one years after Whitehead’s birth, evidence of correspondence or communication between them did not present itself in the research, albeit incomplete, for this discussion.
As a subtopic of one Liberal Arts course, process theology (also referred to as naturalistic theism) presented an alternative solution – a theodicy, even – to the question of God’s existence complicated by the problem of evil in most traditional theodicies. To even broach its possible connection with the words of Emerson requires at least a minimal understanding of process theology. Hopefully, through the following short selection of Hartshorne excerpts, this student of Whitehead adequately introduces the principles of and makes the argument for process theology to the degree needed for this analysis.
The fact that we are spatially limited means that we have neighbors around us; but the universe has no neighbors. A conscious individual without neighbors seems conceivable only as deity. God has no environment, unless an internal one. Thus either He is infinite, or He is finite somewhat as the universe perhaps is, but certainly not as we are. (245)
But what once existed, and now has “ceased to exist,” is apparently not only limited in scope, it even appears not to exist at all. Is it something, or is it nothing? If you reply that it once was something but that now it is nothing, you have scarcely clarified the matter. For something cannot literally become nothing. . . .And yet, in what sense is the no-longer-existent nevertheless something? (246)
[D]eath is not sheer destruction, the turning of being into not-being. To me at least it is a truism, though one often forgotten, that whatever death may mean it cannot mean that a man is first something real and then something unreal. . . .The only question is: Was it there all along as a life that was going to be lived? (247)
[The] whole of space-time as a single complex entity is real, not now or then but just eternally. . . .It does not happen or become; it just is. (248)
I agree . . . that the contrast between past and future is that between actual and potential individualities. Being is intelligible as the abstract fixed aspect in becoming, and eternity as the identical element in all temporal diversity. (248)
[W]e must also break once for all with the idea of death as simple destruction of an individual. Either individuals are eternal realities – items in a complex of events (so called, for on this view they seem to lose their character as happenings) which as a whole never came to be and cannot cease to be but simply is – or else individuals are not eternal, since there are new ones from time to time, but yet, once in the total reality, no individual can pass from this total. An individual be comes, he does not de-become or unbecome; he is created, he is not destroyed or de-created. (249-50)
But again, what then is death?
Death is the last page of the last chapter of the book of one’s life, as birth is the first page of the first chapter. Without a first page there is no book. But given the first page there is, in so far, a book. . . .The book is already real as soon as the possibility of my death arises; and, as we have argued, reality, whether or not it is created, is indestructible.
We must, however, distinguish between continuing reality, in the form of retained actuality, and reality in the form of further actualization. . . .Perhaps [some] views of heaven are only mythical ways of trying to grasp the truth that death is not ultimate destruction but simply termination, finitude.
To say that the book of life, be it long or short, is indestructible suggests at least a potential reader of that book for any time in the future. . . .Immortality as thus constituted has been termed “social immortality.” . . .No human being will, it seems fairly clear, strictly speaking, “read” even a page in the book we will have written by the act of living, the book of our experiences, thoughts, intentions, decisions, emotions, and the like. Even while we live no one else quite sees the content of our own experience at this or that moment. . . .[A]t best one never intuits the exact quality of another’s experience. . . .The only positive account of this reality which can be imagined, so far as I can see, is that there is an individual who is not subject to the incurable ignorances of human perception, understanding, and memory but who from the time [George] Washington [for example] was born has been fully aware of all that he felt, sensed, thought, or dreamed, and of just how he felt, sensed, thought, or dreamed it.
In short, our adequate immortality can only be God’s omniscience of us. (250-2)
The time and place to look for the rewards of virtue are now and here. If you cannot on earth find good in being good and ill in being or doing ill, then I doubt whether you will find it in any heaven or hell. After all, if love is to be the motive, then scheming for reward or avoidance of punishment must not be the motive; and what should not be motive is irrelevant.
But words are slippery and inadequate. While I have the notion that the theory of heaven and hell is in good part a colossal error and one of the most dangerous that ever occurred to the human mind, I also think that it was closely associated with certain truths and that it requires intellectual and spiritual effort to purify these truths from the error. (254)
My participation must be now. . . .Moses perhaps did not especially mind not entering the promised land, so long as he could know it would be entered and that this entering was his doing or, at least, that he had done his part toward it. (256)
How can I know what it will mean to posterity that I now listen to Mozart for an hour? Perhaps nothing of any significance. And this applies to much of my life. But there is One to whom it may mean something. For while God is already familiar with Mozart He is not already familiar with the experience I may now have of Mozart. (257)
In this sense we can interpret “heaven” as the conception which God forms of our actual living, a conception which we partly determine by our free decisions but which is more than all our decisions and experiences, since it is the synthesis of God’s participating responses to these experiences. It is the book which is never read by any man save in unclear fragmentary glimpses; but is the clearly given content of the divine appreciation. (258)
Lequier . . . pointed out that in making ourselves we, in so far, decide what God is to contemplate in us. One might say that we mold the picture which forever will hang in the divine mansion. God will make as much out of the picture in beholding it as can be made; but how much can be made depends partly upon the picture and not merely upon the divine insight in seeing relations and meanings. The true immortality is everlasting fame before God. (259)
Living without zest is sad, and to do so forever – (261)
The above treatment of process theology by way of Hartshorne hopefully paints a picture of or at least sketches the finite individual’s contribution to and participation in the infinite. Before moving directly to Emerson’s own words, David Ray Griffin, current professor of philosophy of religion at Claremont School of Theology, builds on Hartshorne’s philosophy to help better describe process theology, relating the finite to the infinite, man to God. Note how he, too, circles back to the concepts of having and being.
[N]ature is comprised of creative experiential events. The term ‘events’ indicates that the basic units of reality are not enduring things, or substances, but momentary events. Each enduring thing, such as an electron, an atom, a cell, or a psyche, is a temporal society, comprised of a series of momentary events, each of which incorporates the previous events of that enduring individual. (5)
To say that all events are experiences is therefore not to say that they are very similar to human experiences; it is only to say that they are not absolutely different in kind. (6)
The presence of evil in our world and in every possible world is thereby explained. Evil results from multiple finite freedom, and any world God could have created would have had multiple finite freedom. The possibility of evil is necessary. No particular evils are necessary, but the possibility that evil can occur is necessary. . . .God does not influence every event, but divine influence is always persuasion. It could not be unilateral determination. (18)
Besides explaining evil, this position makes clear that belief in God in no way denies human freedom and human responsibility for the course of human history. . . .
Besides not determining the future, God does not even know the future, beyond those abstract features of the future that are already determined by the present. God’s lack of knowledge of the details of the future betokens no divine imperfection. Because all events exercise some self-determining power, the future is simply not knowable, even by omniscience. The partial openness of the future, and our own partial freedom, which we all presuppose in practice, are hence not compromised by this naturalistic theism. (18-19)
Because there never was a first moment of finite existence, the creation of our world involved a creation not out of nothing but “out of an earlier world and its potentialities for transformation.” Divine creative causation, analogously to ours, always involves a transformation of a previous situation. No self-contradictory idea of a beginning of time is therefore implied. (19)
The idea that the actual world is comprised exhaustively of partially free experiences makes it clear that the order of the world can be made intelligible only through the idea of an all-inclusive soul, whose purposes order the world through becoming internalized by the creatures, somewhat as our purposes order our bodies through becoming internalized by our bodily members. (21)
[T]heism “implies that love is the supreme good, not pleasure or knowledge or power, and those who think otherwise will be disappointed.” . . .[E]xplicit belief in God provides an answer to the final question of human life: What is its ultimate meaning, what should be our central aim? . . .Belief in God, as the One in whom we all live and who cherishes all good things everlastingly, provides an infinite aim for life – to contribute to the divine life. And this infinite aim strengthens rather than weakens our commitment to finite aims. (25-26)
The term “process” signifies that the “really real” is not something devoid of becoming, be it eternal forms, an eternal deity, bits of matter, or a substance thought to underlie changing qualities. The really real things, the actual entities, are momentary events with an internal process of becoming. . . .Actual entities are thus said to be “occasions of experience.” The experience need not be conscious; consciousness is a very high level of experience, which arises only in high-grade occasions of experience. But, even though events at the level of electrons, molecules, and cells do not have consciousness, they have feelings and realize values, however trivial. (HUMN 6324, 383)
God is therefore pervasive of nature, present in every individual, from electrons to amoebae to birds to humans. Each species is worthy of reverence as a unique mode of divine presence. (HUMN 6324, 385)
With Griffin’s description of God as an “all-inclusive soul,” “the One in whom we all live,” as “present in every individual,” comprised of our momentary events and, in fact, comprised of the momentary events of all electrons, atoms, cells, and psyches, he virtually points to a connection with Emerson. Consider Emerson’s words now, first published in “The Over-Soul” in 1841.
The Supreme Critic . . . is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission . . . and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty. (237)
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. (237)
We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. (237)
All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs . . . an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. (238)
The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her. She has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor specialties, nor men. The soul knows only the soul; the web of events is the flowing robe in which she is clothed. (240)
Persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul. (241)
There is a certain wisdom of humanity which is common to the greatest men with the lowest, and which our ordinary education often labors to silence and obstruct. The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth. They accept it thankfully everywhere, and do not label or stamp it with any man’s name, for it is theirs long beforehand, and from eternity. . . .We owe many valuable observations to people who are not very acute or profound, and who say the thing without effort which we want and have long been hunting in vain. (241-242)
Emerson continues with similar thoughts in “Compensation,” also published in 1841.
[T]he universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff; as the naturalist sees one type under every metamorphosis, and regards a horse as a running man, a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a flying man, a tree as a rooted man. . . .Each one is an entire emblem of human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its enemies, its course and its end. And each one must somehow accommodate the whole man and recite all his destiny. (158)
The true doctrine of omnipresence is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of the universe contrives to throw itself into every point. If the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion; if the force, so the limitation.
Thus is the universe alive. All things are moral. That soul which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law. We feel its inspiration; but there in history we can see its fatal strength. (158-159)
There is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature. The soul is not a compensation, but a life. The soul is. . . .Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts and times within itself. Nature, truth, virtue, are the influx from thence. (168)
Emerson’s concept of God as universal, as the eternal ONE, as the Over-Soul, as Unity and the Supreme Critic in which we live, comes amazingly close to process theology’s notion of “God as the soul of the universe” (Griffin 1997, 141). Emerson even grants the existence of evil along with good and uses the terminology of process theology – parts, particles, events, etc. God swallows “up all relations, parts and times.” Profoundly, Emerson even addresses the twentieth-century criticism of elitism raised against process theologians when he talks about the wisdom of humanity common to the greatest men and the lowest. Emerson conceivably could hold the title of first modern process theologian, for he lives and writes earlier than Whitehead, yet no mention of Emerson exists in the process theology writings used for this discussion.
So now, presented with a number of Emerson-Tolstoy connections, including additional conceptual connections with other classic and modern poets, authors, and philosophers, does the analysis answer the question about how we should live? Does it at least point toward an answer? Thus far, Emerson and Tolstoy writings yield only hints and ideas about an answer. Perhaps some possible conclusions will surface after a very brief look at the actual lives of Emerson and Tolstoy.
While separated by roughly a quarter-century and one continent, Emerson and Tolstoy actually shared similar childhood experiences. Both lost their fathers at a very young age. (Tolstoy also lost his mother.) Raised with the help of their extended families, both men’s later thinking and searching sprung from intellectual and influential encounters with a nurturing aunt. From early childhood, religion played an important role in their lives. Emerson attended divinity school and became a Unitarian minister like his father. Tolstoy grew up devoutly in the Russian Orthodox Church, abandoned it for rational, scientific thinking in his youth, but returned to the Church again for a brief period in middle age. Both men became somewhat officially estranged from their respective religions. Emerson resigned his Unitarian ministry at the age of twenty-nine. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy when he was seventy-three, though more as a governmental act of political suppression than anything else.
Emerson and Tolstoy similarly viewed at least two aspects of life: orthodoxy and individualism. Orthodoxy, or church authority, received good words from neither writer. In “The Over-Soul” Emerson writes: “The faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul” (250). Tolstoy shares an equally disdainful attitude toward church doctrine.
It seems to me that in the majority of instances it happens like this: people live as everyone lives, but on the basis of principles that not only have nothing in common with religious doctrines but are, on the whole, contrary to them; religious doctrine plays no part in life, or in relations between people, neither are we confronted with it in our personal lives. Religious doctrine is professed in some other realm, as a distance from life and independent of it. If we encounter it, it is only as an external phenomenon, disconnected from life.
Now, just as then, it is impossible to judge from a person’s life, or behaviour, whether or not he is a believer. If there is a difference between those who openly profess Orthodoxy and those who deny it, then it is not to the advantage of the former. Nowadays, as before, the public declaration and confession of Orthodoxy is usually encountered among dull-witted, cruel and immoral people who tend to consider themselves very important. . . .
Thus today, just as in earlier times, religious teaching, which is accepted on trust and sustained by external pressure, gradually weakens under the influence of knowledge and experience of life that stands in opposition to the religious doctrines; a person can go on living for a long time imagining that the body of religious instruction imparted to him when he was a child is still there, whereas it has in fact disappeared without leaving a trace. (A Confession, 19-20)
Although neither writer condemns faith or the basic teachings of Jesus, both find issue with an unexamined belief and with following church doctrine purely on authority. Religion learned as a child must eventually encounter a questioning adult in order to infiltrate the whole of life.
This individualistic approach to religion and faith serves well, too, as an approach to all of life. Interestingly, both Emerson and Tolstoy instruct their readers toward a personal journey by essentially discrediting themselves. In “Circles” Emerson writes
. . . let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back. (260)
In answering the question, “What must we do?” Tolstoy imparts a similar notion about individualism:
How can the question be answered when all I do, my whole life, is based on a lie and I carefully give out this lie as truth to others and to myself? Not to lie, in that sense, means not to fear the truth, not to invent excuses to hide from myself the conclusions of reason and conscience, and not to accept such excuses when they are invented by others: not to fear to differ from all those around me or to be left alone with reason and conscience, and not to fear the position to which truth will lead me, believing firmly that what truth and conscience will lead me to, however strange it may be, cannot be worse than what is based on falsehood. (What Then, 305)
In similar fashion, then, both Emerson and Tolstoy admonish their readers to pursue individuality and seek the truth not as “invented by others.” They do this by warning readers against taking too seriously their writings and actions as a recipe for how to live – other than perhaps to see them as examples of how to question and seek.
The sometimes strikingly similar views of Emerson and Tolstoy raise the question of influence by one writer on the other and deserve a brief look before imparting a final bit of wisdom from each on how possibly to live one’s life. Although not ruling out familiarity by Emerson of Tolstoy’s writings, no such evidence turned up during this research. However, influence of Emerson on Tolstoy apparently existed. According to Cameron, “The acquaintance of Russian readers with Emerson’s essays, lectures, and poetry, it is presumed by some scholars, began not earlier than the 1850s” (118). Cameron continues:
It was the great Russian writer Lev Tolstoy who made a special contribution to the promulgation of Emersonism in [Russia]. Falling into a philosophical vein in the 1880s and being very much absorbed by ethical problems, Tolstoy found many aspects of Emerson’s moral stand that coincided with or were similar to his own ideas. In the “Posrednik” publishing house, working under Tolstoy’s personal patronage, several books of the American author were issued. Among them were such essays as “The Sublime Soul” (“The Over-Soul”) and “Self-Reliance,” printed in 1902 and 1900 respectively. Besides these editions, many aphorisms and citations of Emerson were included in Tolstoy’s books, compiled from quotations by famous thinkers, philosophers, and men of letters. As samples there could be mentioned “The Circle of Reading,” “For Every Day,” and “The Path of Life.” Until his death Tolstoy continued to praise highly Emerson’s contribution to human culture. In a letter of 1908 he called Emerson (along with Voltaire, Kant, and Schopenhauer) “the best soul and mind of mankind to solve the problems of life.” (118)
So, some evidence apparently exists for an Emerson influence on the thinking and writing of Tolstoy. Still, in the conduct of their lives, differences stand out. Emerson grew up in a family struggling to make ends meet but ultimately becomes self-sufficient enough to provide for siblings and other relatives. Emerson also tended to keep company with the transcendentalists of his day, including Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Bronson Alcott (Porte and Morris, 20). In later years, he provided commentary on social thought and politics with essays like “Farming,” “Emancipation in the British West Indies,” “The Fugitive Slave Law,” “John Brown,” “The Emancipation Proclamation,” and “Abraham Lincoln.” On the other hand, Tolstoy began life as a Count, inheriting the estate of his well-off landowner father as a youth, and he enjoyed early writing success. However, in his later years – though still open to receiving visitors and even corresponding with Mahatma Gandhi, no less, on the doctrine of nonviolence – Tolstoy distributed his estate to his wife and children and attempted to live life as a peasant, providing for himself, working the fields, and dedicating his life to a Christlike humility (A Confession, 7-15).
Perhaps the closest one can come to an Emerson or Tolstoy answer to the meaning of life and the question “How then should we live?” involves listening again to their words and deciding for oneself.
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. (Emerson, 132)
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. . . .It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (Emerson, 136)
We learn that God IS; that he is in me; and that all things are shadows of him. (Emerson, 256)
Our being is descending into us from we know not whence. . . .I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine. . . .As with events, so is it with thoughts. . . .[F]rom some alien energy the visions come. (Emerson, 237)
The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. . . .The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. (Emerson, 141)
Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question. . . .We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them. . . .Life itself is a mixture of power and form, and will not bear the least excess of either. To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. . . .Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, to-day. Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are. (Emerson, 314)
This meaning [of life], if it is possible to describe, is as follows. Every person comes into the world through the will of God. And God created man in such a way that each of us can either destroy his soul or save it. Man’s purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul he must live according to God.
In order to live according to God one must renounce all the comforts of life, work, be humble, suffer and be merciful. (Tolstoy, A Confession, 67)
What must we do? I replied to myself: I must not lie either to myself or to others, nor fear the truth wherever it may lead me. (Tolstoy, What Then, 304)
So it was with me, and therefore a second reply – which flows from the first – to the question: What to do? consisted for me in repenting, in the full significance of that word, that is, completely changing my estimate of my own position and activity. Instead of considering our position useful and important, we must acknowledge its harmfulness and triviality; instead of priding ourselves on our education we must admit our ignorance, in place of pride in our kindness and morality we must acknowledge our immorality and cruelty, and instead of our importance admit our insignificance. (Tolstoy, What Then, 307)
We need only accept the truth completely and repent fully, to understand that no one possesses any rights or privileges or can possess them, but has only endless and unlimited duties and obligations; and man’s first and most unquestionable duty is to participate in the struggle with nature to support his own life and that of others.
And this acknowledgement of a man’s duty forms the essence of the third answer to the question: What to do? (Tolstoy, What Then, 310)
Although Emerson’s transcendental concept of God and man at times seemingly counters Tolstoy’s pragmatic, traditional view, hints of a similar conclusion about relationships – like Emerson’s pronouncement to “treat men and women well” – highlight the closeness between Emerson and Tolstoy and others.
Emerson primarily preaches about the search for self-knowledge and the aspects of a universal soul, as Cameron suggests with regard to an earlier writing:
Emerson’s “Gnothi Seauton” was written during the early period of crisis, when a conflict of conscience required him to resign from the Unitarian ministry. . . .Emerson’s title is the Greek religious axiom, “Know Thyself,” which carries the meaning: “Become acquainted with the God-within-you, which is your TRUE SELF.” (121)
However, the result of all his searching in a transcendental realm may have led Emerson to the same ultimate conclusion as Tolstoy. In “Circles” Emerson writes, “Now for the first time seem I to know any thing rightly. The simplest words – we do not know what they mean except when we love and aspire” (261). Tolstoy, too, ultimately concluded that
The true life is that now present to us, common to all, and manifesting itself in love. . . .And therefore, he who lives by love now, in the present, becomes, through the common life of all men, at one with the Father, the source, the foundation of life. (Gospel, 17)
Even with pronouncements by Emerson and Tolstoy – and others in the Liberal Arts – that the answer to a question like “How then should we live?” revolves around searching for spirituality, striving towards anti-materialism (non-having) and being, and discovering universal truths about love, duty, and relationships with God and all men, the concreteness of the answer remains elusive. Perhaps Emerson once again helps to put into perspective the search for an answer: “To ask questions is what this life is for, – to answer them the next” (Barish, 210). Surely, a week with Emerson and Tolstoy and continued experiences with the Liberal Arts help raise and address such questions.
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Chogyam Trungpa: "We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshiping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher, it is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult."