Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Altars to the Beautiful Necessity the Significance of F. W. J. Schelling's "Philosophical Inquiries in the Nature of Human Freedom" in the Development of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concept of Fate

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

"Altars to the Beautiful Necessity the Significance of F. W. J. Schelling's "Philosophical Inquiries in the Nature of Human Freedom" in the Development of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concept of Fate

Article excerpt

In 1829 Ralph Waldo Emerson's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, wrote a letter to her nephew that began as follows: "Dear Waldo, Your knee-how does it? I would it were well. [. . .] How came it philosophically? Was it one of a series of events inevitable-or provided as a means of virtue? Either reposes the mind that excludes blind chance."1 It is immediately clear Emerson's aunt did not write "mere" letters. As a woman all but incapable of unnecessary levity her metaphysical joke swiftly turns didactic. Indeed it contains in miniature a history of New England philosophical theology: the Calvinist conception of predestination, the notion that everything may be construed as a moral symbol, and the rejection of contingency. It was thirty-one years later that "Waldo"-as the family called Ralph Waldo Emerson-finally published his own contribution to this deeply entrenched debate in his 1860 essay "Fate." Emerson began that essay, published in The Conduct of Life, by asking "how shall I live?" But he immediately stated that "we are incompetent to solve the times. Our geometry cannot span the huge orbits of the prevailing ideas, behold their return and reconcile their opposition."2 That the "prevailing ideas" we cannot "span" are freewill and fate is suggested by the title of the essay, but it may also be inferred from the same paragraph: "We can only obey our own polarity. 'Tis fine for us to speculate and elect our course, if we must accept an irresistible dictation."3 Now Emerson's playfulness is to the fore, and doled out just as seriously as it was by his aunt. There are, as any reader would know, two poles: so what does it mean to "obey your own polarity"? Also "election" most commonly denotes free choice and as such it is at the heart of American democracy; but it also connotes Calvinist "election"-that is, those chosen from the beginning of things to join God in heaven at the end of them. The one word contains both the poles that we must "obey." Language, then, as the words "pole" and "election" illustrate, dictates to us our existential condition through its own duplicity.4

Emerson almost immediately restated the terms of the paradox: "But if there must be irresistible dictation, this dictation understands itself. If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur or duty, the power of character. This is true and that other is true."5 What I shall show in this essay is that Emerson's contentment with these paradoxes was not mere whimsy or even rhetoric. It was a considered compatibilist perspective, long wrought, which actually came very late in his thinking.6 For, though he published "Fate" in 1860, when he was fifty-seven and a well-established literary and intellectual figure, he had been pondering its perceived complexities since at least 1822, when he was just eighteen and had barely begun to compose his epic lifelong journal. Always present in this extensive hinterland is the local influence of Calvinism, echoed in his aunt's letter. But more importantly Emerson was informed by the post-Kantian idea of freedom put forward by the European Romantic thought that had made its way across the Atlantic through such interpreters as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This was further augmented by James Elliot Cabot's serendipitous translation in 1844 of F. W. J. Schelling's Philosophischen Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (1809) as "Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom and Matters Connected Therewith." The original handwritten manuscript is in the holdings of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe,7 and what follows is the first attempt using that manuscript to explore the influence of Schelling's ideas, as Emerson read them, on his concept of fate. This should prove productive for an Emerson scholarship that has long noted the influence of Schelling upon Emerson but has taken it to be slight, second-hand, and focused on the Identity Philosophy and the Philosophy of Nature. …

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