Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first American to pioneer the serious exploration of Indian philosophy, and as his own thinking grew over time, Indian philosophy profoundly influenced the course of that growth. Emerson and the light of India thoroughly investigate the ways in which the scriptures of India shaped the maturing Transcendentalism of this great American thinker. In addition, by analyzing in concrete detail the crucial ways in which the scriptures of India influenced Emerson's metaphysical development, Light of India repudiates the arguments of those who maintain that Emerson abandoned the optimistic faith of his youth. It makes plain than those who ascribe to Emerson a "Fall" from his early beliefs are demonstrably in error, primarily because of their serious misunderstanding of the influence, on Emerson, of Hindu and Buddhist teachings.
Robert C. Gordon received his B.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, his M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and his Ph. D. from Princeton University in the History of Religion. During his career, he has been a faculty member at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of New Mexico at Taos. He has also served as Research Associate with the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico. He currently teaches Psychology of Religion at the University of Oregon.
In an era of decreasing cross-cultural sympathy, Ralph Waldo Emerson is an inspiring counter example - a man who devoted much of his life to studying the highest thoughts of other eras and cultures. He did his best to learn from, in his words, "the Bibles of the world, or the sacred books of each nation, which express for each the supreme result of their experience." Emerson was deeply influenced by this expansive reading, mode profoundly by the wisdom of India. Since he was the first American to pioneer the serious exploration of Indian philosophy, a rather extensive literature on this subject has developed, and appropriately so. While these earlier studies are valuable and informative, they have contented themselves with chronicling the Indian sources that Emerson read, and drawing parallels between his Transcendentalism and the wisdom of India. None, however, has shown the crucial way in which the scriptures of India influenced Emerson's metaphysical development. That is, none has analyzed how Emerson's philosophy grew over time, and the vital ways in which Indian philosophy grew over time, and the vital ways in which Indian philosophy influenced the course of that growth. The purpose of Emerson and the Light of India is just that - to investigate the ways in which the scriptures of India shaped Emerson's maturing Transcendentalism. In doing so, Light of India will make plain that all of those who ascribe to Emerson a "Fall" from his early beliefs are demonstrably in error. It will also establish that a fundamental source of this error is a serious misunderstanding of the influence, on Emerson, of Hindu and Buddhist teachings.
The notion of an Emersonian "Fall" has persisted since the publication of Stephen Whicher's highly influential study Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Following Whicher, and in agreement with his basic premises, there then developed what might be called the Polarity school of interpretation. Descended directly from Whicher's Freedom and Fate, the Polarity school came to include other like-minded works such as Philip Nicoloff's Emerson on Race and History, Catherine Albanese's Corresponding Motions, Emerson's Fall by Barbara Packer, and most recently David Jacobson's Emerson's Pragmatic Vision. As a result, for more than fifty years now, Emerson has languished in the Procrustean bed to which he was strapped by Whicher's arguments. We should note that the Polarity school has not gone uncriticized. Leonard Neufeldt's The House of Emerson, Emerson's Demanding Optimism by Gertrude Hughes, and David Robinson's Emerson and the Conduct of Life have all taken issue with the Polarity school in one way or another. However, no the grounds where the school is most in error - Indian philosophy, and its influence on Emerson's maturing Transcendentalism.
The Polarity school argues that Emerson abandoned his foundational beliefs at maturity, and sank at last to a threadbare skepticism. Disillusioned by the vicissitude of experience, he lost faith in life's rationality, and accepted the absurdity of the human plight. His early Transcendental hopes thoroughly eroded by cruel reality, the older and grimly wiser Emerson then found in the literature of the Orient a theology consonant with his empirically chastened point of view. Asian thought confirmed what he had learned from harsh experience: that the human lot is subjection to a heedless iron fate. For the individual, nature became an external antagonist, in Whicher's words, "a ruthless energy little concerned with the fortunes of one individual more or less. According to the Polarists, Oriental literature reinforced Emerson's emerging conception of the Causal power as what Whicher calls a "searing flame" unknowable and careless of human action.
While the Polarity school concedes that Emerson added to this "skeptical empiricism" the concept of a scale of experience to be ascended by the individual through self-culture, they deny that this ascension was for transcendental purposes. At maturity, according to Whicher and his descendents, self-culture became for Emerson "essentially a humanistic conception". Its purpose was no longer spiritual Awakening. It was now merely a humanistic self-cultivation whose task was but "to refine and release the primary vigor of man". "To such agnostic optimism," says Stephen Whicher of Emerson 'The Old Scholar,' "finally simmered down the glorious hopes of his transcendental decade."
According to the Polarity school, the theory of evolution preserved the only ray of light remaining from Emerson's early Transcendental faith. While he lost his hope for personal spiritual transformation and his faith in Cosmic Benevolence, evolution enabled him to hold on to the belief that all events in the universe conduced somehow to the general good. Though individuals were sure to be pained or even crushed by pitiless and inexplicable experience, their hope and faith lay in believing that their personal ruin contributed directly to the general advance of evolution. Having lost his belief in the possibility of individual spiritual transformation guided by Cosmic Benevolence, Emerson could at least cling to a faith in the melioristic tendency of the whole.
Light of India will explain in detail why the interpretation held by the members of the Polarity school is fraught with misunderstandings and misconception. Most importantly, it will undercut their denial that Emerson's philosophy has an internal and coherent consistency. They insist that his work represents no more than a curious swing back and forth between positive and negative assertions- between positive and negative philosophical elements in polar tension. As Emerson matured, so their argument goes, his emphasis on the negative or skeptical element recurred ever more frequently, while the positive or Transcendental element faded to a mere sort of self-help agnostic humanism. The central instance of this interpretive strategy is their argument that early in life Emerson hovered almost exclusively at the polarity of freedom, but at maturity oscillated to the negative polarity, as his early Transcendental faith gave way to humble acquiescence before a deaf and unimplorable fate.
Unfortunately for Whicher and his disciples, interpreting Emerson's philosophy as a static polar field is misleading and distorts the essential meaning embodied in his work. The Polarity approach is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does that Emerson's philosophical essence can be grasped only in term of organic Process and succession, concepts central throughout his creative life. "Everything is organic," Emerson affirmed in his later years, "freedom also, not to add, but to grow & unfold." Followers of the Polarity school hold that Emerson's mental life merely swings between negative and positive ideas, expressing without any consistency the truth of his thought at any given moment. They fail to understand that elements they consider in polar tension are in fact ever involved in an organic process by which the lower truth of fate becomes the higher truth of true Freedom.
As Light of India will make clear, when Emerson described the realities of life from the perspective of ignorance and fate that was not his final word on the subject. He was simply being a Pragmatist and recognizing the realist of the situation. The Transcendental resolution invariably followed when he considered the case in the light of Process, becoming, and then final Freedom. Thus the apparent swings in Emerson's thought resulted from his consideration of affairs from the point of view of ignorance or Awakening, as dictated by the requirements of composition.
In deploying this philosophical strategy, Emerson makes much the same distinction as Sankara, who read Indian scripture as embodying two types of wisdom, each relevant to a different level of reality and understanding. For both Emerson and Sankara, life was a developmental process which culminated in a higher level of reality/understanding sublating a level that was lower. And, in agreement with Sankara, Emerson never forsook the faith that ignorance, through the process of life itself, would one day be transcended through true Awakening. He never departed from his founding ideal that the purpose of human life was to advance from the grip of fate into the freedom of Enlightenment.
Despite their myriad errors, the Polarity school does have one generally valid point, one they were not, by the way, the first to make. Emerson's New World Metaphysics did go through major revisions as he matured, and science and Indian philosophy did play central roles in that process. But neither reduced his faith in Cosmic Benevolence, indeed they reinforced it. And they played vastly different parts in the story of Emerson's philosophical growth than those ascribed to them by the Polarists. Taken together, they enabled him to explain in a new and fuller way the founding faith of Transcendentalism: at the heart of creation is a vast Spiritual Benevolence that would one day be the direct experience of each and every individual.
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