Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his “A Lecture on Ethics,” argues the
following: “I can describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could
write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with
an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world” (40). He ends the lecture with the following assertion:
For all I wanted to do […] was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute value, can be no science. What is says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. (44)
It may be, as Wittgenstein seems to argue, that the
ethical is not only not given (and therefor non-universal) but so personal and
particular as to be almost
un-say-able, even un-knowable. As
such, what would it mean for a person to be ‘ethical’? I want to argue that to be ethical means taking
responsibility for one’s personal beliefs, even while acknowledging that such
beliefs may be, because of their personal nature, absolutely (or almost
absolutely) particular, that is, almost un-name-able.
To be ethical in this way, however, may not necessarily mean that one
cannot articulate one’s beliefs but that such articulation must take place at
the very limit of language. To be
ethical may also mean to be responsible for one’s faith, that is, to act
according to what one believes, while acknowledging that one’s beliefs cannot
be proved or made legitimate by what we call knowledge, scientific or otherwise.
means, however, that we believe in an ethical way, not out of fear of punishment
or because we have been promised reward, but because we choose, of our own
wills, to believe and in this way take responsibility for doing so.
The temptation, given this responsibility, would be act according to what
has already been prescribed by others, by the universal (including what we call
‘knowledge’). Ethics and faith,
in this light, present us with a paradox: our beliefs—in God, meaning,
language, the knowable universe—must be ours,
which is to say, when we act (ethically) according to such beliefs, we cannot
pin our actions on those things in
which we believe--God, knowledge, the universe, language, etc.
Driven by our beliefs in something higher than or beyond ourselves, we
nonetheless must choose those beliefs, particularly, for ourselves, make them our
own, and then act accordingly. I
want to look closely at Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear
and Trembling, in which he explains Genesis 22, the story of the binding of
Isaac by Abraham, and then at parts of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,”
“Self- Reliance” and “Experience,” and at Henry David’s Thoreau’s Walden, in order to illuminate this paradox.
The goal is to explore how these 19th-Century writers
reiterate, in important ways, the issues of faith, ethics, responsibility and
language as they arise in the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac.
“The binding” of Isaac, or the Akedah,
is only nineteen verses long. Between God’s calling on Abraham and Abraham’s
raising of the knife to kill his son, Abraham says only the following: “Here I
am” ; “ You stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad wish to go yonder,
we wish to bow down and then return to you” ;“Here I am, my son”; “God
will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering up, my son”; and “Here I
am” (Fox 93 - 95). I want to keep
in mind a few things before getting deeper into the verses between God’s
calling and Abraham’s raising of the knife: first, when God first calls upon
Abraham in Genesis 22, God does not offer a reward, nor does He (I will
occasionally refer to God as He, only because this gender specificity is used in
the Old and New Testament and to avoid unnecessary repetition) threaten
punishment when asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Second, after God announces the intention to destroy Sedom and Amora for
the sins committed by its people, Abraham actually bargains with Him over how
many virtuous people it will take for God to spare the city. In Genesis 18: 25,
Abraham says (to God!) “Heaven forbid you to do a thing like this, to deal
death to the innocent along with the guilty, that it should come about: like the
innocent, like the guilty, Heaven forbid for you! The judge of all the earth—will he not do what is just?”
(Fox 79). In this staggering
passage, Abraham places his beliefs, his sense of ethics, above even the
Almighty. This scene, in an
important way, demonstrates the enormous responsibility, not to mention courage,
Abraham assumes for his beliefs.
Now, I understand Soren Kierkegaard, in his Fear
and Trembling, to make the following assertions about Abraham as he acts and
speaks in Genesis 22--that Abraham, who is according to Kierkegaard the knight
of faith, makes two movements as he prepares to sacrifice his son: 1) a movement
of infinite resignation (a movement toward the eternal, signified especially in
giving up his beloved son, in whom resides the God-chosen nations to come), an
infinite renouncing of the finite, and 2) with faith, a re-embracing of the
This is the peak on which Abraham stands.
The last stage to pass from his view is the stage of infinite
resignation. He actually goes
further and comes to faith. […F]or the movement of faith must continually be
made by the virtue of the absurd, but yet in such a way, please note, that one
does not lose the finite but gains it whole and intact. […F]aith makes the
opposite movements; after having made the movement of infinity, it makes the
movements of finitude. ( 37 - 38).
According to Kierkegaard, then, Abraham’s gestures,
his actions and his faith, also represent a “teleological suspension of the
ethical” (66) for several reasons: first of all since faith is not given, is
not universal, Abraham’s faith is personal, and in all ways particular, but
since ethics (according to Hegel and then, here, kierkegaard) are universal,
Abraham’s faith is non-universal and therefore non (un?) ethical, that is,
beyond ethics. His faith and
gestures take place outside of the realm of the ethical. His filial duty to his son, as an ethical, universal demand,
is of course also violated. At
least it is Abraham’s intention to violate this demand.
Abraham’s non-universal, non-ethical, personal faith
is also, therefore, un-say-able(or, as I will argue, almost
un-say-able), incapable of being spoken, so particular, so personal is it.
Against Kierkegaard’s reading, however, I argue that Abraham’s
gestures or movements, his speech and actions, never imply or signify a movement
toward infinite resignation, never move toward the eternal.
While I concede that Abraham is intent on sacrificing his son and as such
is intending to give up or resign this finite, most beloved of his
‘possessions,’ I think Kierkegaard’s comment here (if I understand it) is
misleading: “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that
anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite
resignation do I becomes conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one
speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith” (46).
Against this, I argue that what makes Abraham’s faith, speech, and
actions so remarkable is that they never leave the finite.
That is, Abraham seems, at all times, fully aware of and responsible for
what he is doing, here and now: “Here I am.”
Eternity, and even God are beside the point.
God exists because Abraham
answers the command. God’s
command (when it is first given to Abraham) contains neither threat nor promise
of reward, and Abraham has, at least on one occasion, argued against God’s
intentions, specifically in Genesis 18 ( Fox 79).
I argue, therefore, that Abraham’s “Here I am” is to be read
throughout Genesis 22 as: ‘my identity rests on what I am doing and what I
intend to do, based on my beliefs. I
am responsible for my actions and beliefs and I cannot, therefore, pin them on
God.’ Notice also, that the
ethical in this case is not outside of language, but within it, or rather, up
against it, as Wittgenstein would argue. “Here I am” may only indicate ‘I
exist, here and now,’ but given Abraham’s belief and actions, this may be
the limit of the articulation of his ethics. To say anymore might risk shirking
his responsibility onto language.
That Abraham is never alien to the finite, that he never leaves it, is
also apparent in his response to Isaac’s question. Isaac asks, “Where is the
lamb for the offering-up?” (Fox
94) (in other versions “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering? The Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition; “where is the lamb for a
burnt offering?” The New Oxford
Annotated Bible), to which Abraham responds “God will see-for-himself to
the lamb for the offering-up, my son” ( Fox 94) (; or “My son, God himself
will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” in The
Jerusalem Bible, or “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt
offfering, my son” in The New Oxford
Annotated Bible, or “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt
offering, “ in The King James Bible).
These are only a few translations, I know, but in each case, Abraham’s answer
avoids the issue of what Abraham himself will do. Kierkegaard argues that Abraham’s answer does not involve
an un-truth because, according to Abraham’s faith, it is possible that God
will step in with something other
than Isaac to be sacrificed. In
each case here, Abraham’s answer refers to what God will do, but notice that
in no case does Abraham say “God will provide for us.”
In each case, God will provide for himself. Abraham’s ethics may be particular and personal, but I see
Abraham’s faith as precisely what ethics require: namely, that one claim
responsibility for one’s beliefs and actions.
While Abraham cannot speak his faith or actions to his son—beyond
“Here I am” (he cannot speak them at all to Sarah, nor to his servants, nor
therefore to anyone else),--his mention of God providing for himself is also a
way of saying, I argue, that God, at this point in time, is beside the point:
‘God will do what he will do, which is not my business. And I am committed to
what I will do, which is emphatically my business.’
Kierkegaard argues that the ethical, here, is the temptation : “Abraham
cannot speak, because he cannot say
that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable); that it
is an ordeal such that, please note, the ethical is the temptation.
Anyone placed in such a position is an emigrant from the sphere of the
universal” (115). The temptation, it seems to me, is to pin this on God, for
Abraham to say “I am doing this because God told me to” instead of “Here I
am.” Abraham never leaves
the finite, never makes the gesture of infinite resignation, which gesture would
in fact violate the responsibility required by the ethical.
But I do think that Abraham cannot speak what his faith, his intentions,
actions and beliefs are except to say “Here I am.” Is it that ethics, as I believe the story of Abraham
constructs them, are at the very limit of language? Is faith below or beyond
language? It may be that, as I have
already mentioned, language has the potential to remove our responsibility for
us, which might mean that since Abraham cannot pin this on God, he also cannot
pin this on language. This may also
mean that the personal cannot remain so for long within language.
Genesis 22 is, after all, extremely short, full of gaps and lacunae (as
Auerbach and Kierkegaard each point out), and perhaps this is precisely because
such a construction of the ethical places itself at the very limit of language.
Jill Robbins also reminds us, in her essay “Sacrifice,” the sacrifice of
Isaac, as this passage is often called, never happens: “This is to say that
sacrifice is impossible” (296). Robbins’s
last sentence from this essay is a question: “In the impossibility of
sacrifice, cannot the beginning of the thinking of responsibility toward the
other be found?”(296) If
sacrifice is the giving up of the finite, and if we see Abraham’s “Here I
am” as a strict, vigorous maintenance of, and adherence to, the finite, in
such a way as to claim full responsibility for one’s beliefs and actions—as
in, ‘Here I am, in time, doing what I choose to do’, etc.—then I would say
that this taking of responsibility for one’s actions and beliefs is precisely
the beginning of the thinking of the responsibility toward the other, at least
since it implies: 1) our differences, to be respected on the most basic level
(Abraham cannot say, translate his responsibility to his son, wife or servants.
His ethics are particularly his; if
there were no respect for difference, Abraham’s ethics would indeed be
say-able. Isaac’s trial, as
Kierkegaard suggests, is not solved by Abraham (10 - 11).
Ours (individually) is not either. One
must have faith in one’s ethics, but since ethics are not general, they cannot
be given from one person to another; and 2) to be responsible for what we do,
say, believe goes against an economics of exploitation, an economics of
reward/punishment. Finally, in
light of what I will say of Emerson, we might see Abraham’s final decision to
spare his son as proceeding from his realization (granted that this realization
comes after the angel commands him not to murder his son) that such an act would
not be “somewhat better than whim at last” (133).
“Self- Reliance,” Emerson puts forward the following metaphysics:
“I shun the father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls
me. I would write on the lintels of
the door-post, Whim.
I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the
day in explanation” (133). The
image of whim on the lintel alludes to the Judaic, religious ritual of putting
the name of God, enclosed within a box called a Mezzuzah, on the door-post’s
lintel, and this is, in turn, an allusion to the original Passover on which
Moses is told to smear sheep’s blood on his door frame, that God may see and
pass-over as He is punishing the Egyptians (Dr. Dauber, is this correct? I’m
not positive on this). Not only,
then, does Emerson’s passage here relate to the Old Testament in
general, it relates to, and re-iterates, many of the particular issues contained
in the Akedah.
To live (and therefor, to act) according to one’s whim is to claim
responsibility for what one does. But
“whim,” the word itself, also signifies the almost un-name-able,
un-say-able, particularity of one’s personal beliefs and ethics.
What, specifically, is ‘whim’? It
is a signifier that lacks a recognizable (universal?) signified.
And notice, too, that the speaker here adds, “I hope it is somewhat
better than whim at last…,” which means that the responsibility lies not
only in acting according to one’s personal beliefs but in making sure that
such actions based on such beliefs are worthwhile, “good,” more, in short,
than whim at last. This may also
mean that one is free to change one’s actions and beliefs if they remain
merely ‘whim at last.’ Note
also: “but we cannot spend the day in explanation.”
It is precisely because we cannot ever be sure that our beliefs and
actions are objectively, universally, or scientifically “true” that we are responsible for them. God
does not promise Abraham a reward for killing his son, nor does he threaten
punishment if Abraham does not comply. To write Whim on the lintel of one’s door-post is both to
“destroy all the other books in the world” and to acknowledge the limit of
language which one’s faith and ethics must come up against.
metaphysical stakes here seem as high as they are in Abraham’s binding of
Isaac, and Emerson himself, just a few pages after the description of whim,
alludes to the difficulty involved in abandoning universal, pre-prescribed
ethics in favor of one’s own:
Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to
father, mother, cousin, neighbor, cat and dog—whether any of these can upbraid
you. But I may also neglect this
reflex standard and absolve me to myself. I
have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called
duties. But if I can discharge its
debts it enables me to dispense with the popular code.
If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment
one day. (145)
Consider the risks to Abraham when he commits
himself, personally, to his beliefs and subsequent actions: he is horrifyingly
alone, and except for his claim “Here I am” (though it is something to be an
“I”), he cannot speak at all. Without
a map, with no certainty but his own faith, he acts in the face of the
possibility that his whim may, in fact, only be whim at last.
His faith, moreover, is not that his beliefs and actions will only
ultimately benefit himself, despite the fact that his faith—which drives his
beliefs and actions--is ethical only and precisely
because it is personal. Emerson’s
argument, his metaphysics, is fir personal freedom, and like Abraham himself,
the speaker in “Self- Reliance” believes and acts freely, with all of
freedom’s attendant terrors, though for Emerson, the emphasis is placed on the
optimistic characteristics of such freedom.
paradox, again, is that faith and ethics, with a view toward what lies beyond
the self, whether it be a society, or, as in the case of Abraham, a lineage and
then a nation, must be based on this kind of personal freedom.
Lou Ann Lange elaborates on this paradoxical element of freedom, as it
applies to Emerson:
Liberty, in short, was not license.
It was instead the freedom to obey.
It was a call to men to put themselves under moral law—an obedience to
which would be tantamount to obeying their own desires.
In essence, Emerson […] understood obedience to be the precondition of
liberty as well as the condition of liberty itself. (101)
We might ask, ‘Obedience to what?’ Or, ‘How
would we define moral law?’ We
could answer that one must decide for one’s self what “somewhat better than
whim” is. The paradox, however, remains: one must have the liberty (and
responsibility) to decide what is best—for one’s self, and for the
community—without following (unless one chooses
to do so!) what has been prescribed by/for others. The danger, then, is that
people, in a community, say a nation or a country, may have differing ideas
concerning what constitutes “better than whim at last.”
But, I think Emerson would argue that without each person having the
right to, and responsibility of, being a free, speaking subject, there can be no
ethics, however, would not necessarily mean that one choose ethics that have
never been held by anyone else; that is, personal need not necessarily mean
exclusive. Emerson writes, in
“Self- Reliance”: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who
would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but
must explore if it be goodness” (132). How
would one respond to this if one understood “non-conformist” in the absolute
sense? If one were to try to be a non-conformist, after reading this, wouldn’t
one then be conforming to the model which this first sentence sets up? I think
Emerson has in the mind the personal and not necessarily the exclusive, which is
to say, perhaps, that one may choose the ethics others have lived by, so long as
one chooses for one’s self to live
by them. More than one person,
moreover, may be hindered by the same “goodness” after having found that it
was, indeed, goodness. The labor,
then, is in choosing your personal ethics, weighing them, living by them. And
for Emerson, the hope and faith is that your personal ethics, if they are more
than “whim at last,” will be similar to, if not the same as, the ethics of
all people who follow their whim truly. Choosing,
and then, most importantly living by your ethics is what matters, and there may
be, (as Emerson hopes and as Abraham hoped) universality (truth?) in this: “A
man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his
best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. […]
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (130).
do not claim to resolve the paradox in Emerson’s command “Trust thyself”
and subsequent assertion, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
This seems to me precisely the paradox involved in faith, that to live by
one’s whim, to live ethically according to one’s beliefs, is also to belief
that one is living according to the true beliefs of all people.
One must belief this, else whim is only whim at last.
Not only does Abraham have faith that his beliefs and actions will affect
him; he believes that what he does will affect his children, his grandchildren,
the nations to come. And yet,
again, Abraham personally must answer God’s call.
Notice that God calls Abraham before commanding him, and Abraham must
answer, in effect, for there to be a
God. The price is higher that this,
even: in order to build his world, a world in which and over which God (order,
meaning, universality) exists, Abraham must kill his son in whom rests the
future nations. As I have already
mentioned, Emerson, especially in his earlier writing, up through “Self-
Reliance,” emphasizes the more optimistic possibilities of such a metaphysics
of personal ethics. But, in light
of the paradox I am now speaking of, his approach closely resembles Abraham’s.
At the end of “Nature,” Emerson’s speaker (his poet, as he writes)
argues the following:
Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its
house a world, and beyond its world a heaven. […] Build therefore your own
world. As fast as you conform your
life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.
[…] So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests,
mad-houses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be seen no
On one hand, if we take this writing seriously, we
may ask ‘how are we to believe that one could, by simple faith, get rid of
this catalogue of “disagreeable appearances?’
On the other, the kind of faith Emerson has in mind works only when one
holds it against (or in the face of, or even to the exclusion of) what we call
scientific, objective, prescribed, even rational knowledge.
And this means that while Emerson knows
that one cannot get rid of such “disagreeable appearances,” he nonetheless
asserts that the only way to get out of bed each day is to believe
that one can rid the world of these things.
Doesn’t Abraham’s belief go against logic in this way? More,
doesn’t his belief go against what most of us would call universal, ethical,
filial duty, against sanity itself? And yet, in this very way, Abraham builds
his house, his world, his heaven and God.
may also be that Emerson, here, is as skeptical as Wittgenstein, if not more so,
in terms of language and its universality in the face of personal faith and
ethics. For we can read Emerson’s
claim above (or his poet’s, as the speaker says) as self-consciously absurd.
And as such, we may understand the speaker to be alerting us to the
impotence, if not the irresponsibility, of language in the face of personal
faith and ethics. In language, we may only be able to say, with Abraham, “Here
I am.” Earlier, in the same
essay, the speaker makes the following point: “The central Unity is still more
conspicuous in actions. Words are
finite organs of the infinite mind. They cannot cover the dimensions of what is in truth.
They break, chop, and impoverish it” (25).
We may read “the central Unity” as God, truth, universality, all of
which and any of which can only be reached through personal beliefs and ethics.
In fact, contrary to Kierkegaard’s and Wittgenstein’s claims about
the universality of language, the speaker here seems to indicate the reverse:
that language is too limited to express the infinite, which in this case is
linked to the personal. But in any
case--Kierkegaard’s, Wittgenstein’s, Abraham’s or Emerson’s--the
important point is that language necessarily diminishes the full responsibility
one must assume in his/her ethical beliefs and actions.
Emerson essays I’ve looked at so far were written when he was younger. Later in his life, Emerson’s writing seems to lose much of
its earlier optimism. In
“Experience,” for example, the speaker says he has already experienced the
death of his son (strange for my purposes, considering Abraham got to keep
his!), and much of the essay seems to struggle against a powerful sense that
life has becomes meaningless, that the speaker may no longer possess the ability
to build his house and world and heaven, that whim has sadly become just whim,
at last. By the essay’s end,
there is hope and faith, but these come only in solitude and utterly against the
world as the speaker perceives it, against all
odds, as it were:
We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the
household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten
next week; but, in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a
sanity and revelations which in his passage into new world he will carry with
him. Never mind the ridicule, never
mind the defeat; up again, old heart?--it seems to say—there is victory yet
for all justice; and the true justice which the world exists to realize will be
the transformation of genius into practical power. (Emerson 348)
Here, however, perhaps more than in other essays, we
see the enormous, daunting task of holding on to one’s beliefs, holding on to
the unnerving particularity of one’s faith in the face of what seems to be an
all-pervasive meaninglessness. As
Lange notes, Emerson declared, “’the weight of the universe is pressed on
the shoulders of each moral agent to hold him to his task.
The only escape,’ he admonished, ‘was performance’”(115).
Lange also points out that most people, according to Emerson, “would
back away, afraid that self-trust was an act of abject surrender or a species of
self-annihilation. Fear alone,
Emerson sensed, would prevent most men from seeing that self-trust was nothing
more or less than a decision to follow the ‘thread of divine heading,’ and
in doing so, to obey only themselves” (114).
In this terrifying but necessary place, in the paradox of maintaining a
personal ethics in order to make and keep a universe, we see again the limit of
language we must run up against. And
although “Self- Reliance” was written three years before “Experience,”
and before, more importantly, Emerson had lost his son, there is nonetheless the
same sense of the staggering weight of responsibility and lonely particularity
in living ethically by one’s own faith in the former essay as there is in the
latter. Notice in the following
passage, taken from “Self- Reliance,” the way in which language itself
almost cannot enter into the region of personal ethics:
now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be
said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the institution. That thought by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is
this. When good is near you, when
you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall
not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you
shall not hear any name; the way, the thought, the good , shall be wholly
strange and new. It shall exclude
example and experience. (142)
It may be that one cannot say more than “whim,”
or “Here I am,” to articulate in a responsible way one’s faith and ethics.
There certainly had not been a previous example or experience which
Abraham could refer to by name, before he heeded God’s command, before he
personally took the command as his belief and prepared himself to act.
If, then, language makes know-able our world, and personal ethics
requires acting on faith alone, we may not be able to rely on universal,
universalizing language to name our beliefs for us.
We are then free to act alone, on a personal, almost un-say-able faith. And if our particular faith and ethics are, in fact, say-able
and name-able, we must make sure that the words we choose are particularly ours,
which may mean that when we do speak in such a way, our words would be
revolutionary. I will address this
last point later.
Let’s look at Thoreau. How
wonderful it is to consider Henry David Thoreau, living and writing near Walden
pond—Emerson’s great disciple, living on the very edge of his literary
master’s domain, on the edge of the knowable.
I want first of all to stress the ways in which Thoreau is Emerson’s
disciple, before examining the ways in which Thoreau’s location might show how
his metaphysics differs from his master’s.
In the section titled “Reading,” the speaker in Walden commands us, the readers, in the following way: “Let us
settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush
of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition […]through church and state, through
poetry and philosophy and religion, til we come to a hard bottom […]which we
can call reality” (66, Thoreau’s
italics). Like so many passages in Walden,
this one, as Stanley Cavell points out, is “the writer’s interpretation of
the injunction to know thyself. His
descriptions emphasize that this is a continuous activity,
not something we may think of as an intellectual preoccupation.
It is placing ourselves in the
world” (53, Cavell’s italics). As the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac demonstrates,
and as Emerson advocates, this ‘placing’ of one’s self requires an active
responsibility, beyond the realm of the intellect and at the very limit of
language. The problem for Thoreau
(as for Abraham and Emerson) with not getting below “opinion […],tradition
[…] poetry and philosophy and religion” is that we may be tempted to relieve
ourselves of our freedom and responsibility by shirking both onto such
pre-prescribed forms of knowledge. The
labor, once again, is in choosing your faith, making it your own, and then
ethically acting on it.
Where would we find ourselves once we had thus “settled ourselves”?
And how would we know one another? At
the very beginning of Walden, the
speaker gives us a kind of answer:
Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer,
first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not what he had
heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred
from a distant land; for if he had lived sincerely, it must have been in a
distant land to me. ( 1)
By “writer,” I take Thoreau to mean, conscious,
conscientious person. But this also
sheds some light on the importance of writing, and on language itself, regarding
faith and ethics as I have been describing them.
In important ways, we can read Thoreau’s idea of writing (and language)
as related to the paradox in Emerson’s freedom: on one hand, we must settle
ourselves beneath language, and on the other, we must re-claim, individually,
the words we wish to use. To live
“sincerely,” then, would be to re-invest language with personal meaning,
after claiming the words for one’s self, and for this reason, the account the
speaker refers to above would seem to be sent from one living in a “distant
land.” Throughout Walden,
in fact, the language seems aware of itself, not as some transparent vehicle for
ideas, but as a material, something one could claim and make one’s own.
Consider the following passage taken from the “Spring” section:
“The overhanging leaf here sees its prototype. Internally, whether in the
globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to
the liver and lungs and leaves of fat […] externally
a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and
dried b” ( 204).
It is not that one must abandon language entirely in order to live
ethically according to one’s personal beliefs; rather, one must be sure to
take responsibility for the words one uses, even as one claims responsibility
for one’s faith. The danger or
risk, of course, is that one may not be able to communicate one’s words to
anyone else, especially given the particularity of meaning with which one may
invest such words. To run up
against language in this way, then, means to invest it with such particular,
personal meaning, that it comes asymptotically close to losing its communication
function. But such personalizing of
language is also what Cavell has in mind, regarding Thoreau, when he says,
“the task of literature is to rescue the word from both politics and
Reclaiming words and personalizing them, in this way, keeps them alive;
so, for Thoreau, with ethics. Language
makes our experience know-able, and as such allows us to measure our actions and
beliefs, to see that they are, in fact, more than “whim at last.”
It may be that while we cannot rely on language to ‘speak’ our
beliefs for us, we can nonetheless use it to measure our experience.
We may even change our beliefs after language has painted our world in a
new way. And I think Thoreau would argue that unless we do change our beliefs
(and then act on them) after we make words our own and re-paint the world, our
ethics will stagnate, wear out as language does when it becomes cliché.
In the section called “The Pond in Winter,” the speaker in Walden
What I have observed of the pond is no less true in
ethics[…] It is true, we are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the
most part, stand off and on upon a harborless coast, are conversant only with
the bights of the bays of poesy, or steer for the public ports of entry, and go
into the dry docks of science, where they merely refit for this world, and no
natural currents concur to individualize
them. (195, italics mine)
And yet, in this very section, Thoreau’s speaker shows the way in which
his metaphysics differs from Emerson’s and Abraham’s. For while the speaker admits, “While men believe in the
infinite, some ponds will be thought to be bottomless,” he nonetheless takes
time to sound how deep, exactly, the pond is.
And this, I argue, is in keeping with Thoreau’s need to know that our
faith can really be based on truth, that our whim can be more than whim, not
only at last, but at first. Earlier,
in the section called, “Reading,” the speaker argues:
There are probably words addressed to our condition
exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary
than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on
the face of things for us. […] The book exists for us perchance which will
explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The
at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. […] The solitary
hired man on a farm in the outskirts if Concord, who has had his second birth
and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into silent
gravity, and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster,
thousands of years ago, traveled the same road and had the same experience. (73)
The speaker in Emerson’s “Self- Reliance” says,
“I hope it [my whim] is somewhat better than whim at last” (in McQuade 133).
Notice, the speaker does not say, “I know or will know it is somewhat
better than whim at last.” Whereas Emerson’s speaker acknowledges that what we begin
on whim, we can only hope becomes truth, the speaker in Thoreau’s text seems
uncomfortably bound to make sure that
what he begins on whim can ultimately be proven as truth.
The solitary hired man’s vision is whim, nothing more. He hopes it is
more, I grant, but I maintain that Emerson’s speaker would ask, “what does
it matter whether or not Zoroaster shares this hired man’s vision?”
The solitary hired man is less responsible for his particular vision if
we validate it by saying that Zoroaster, himself, thousands of years ago, had
the same vision. This discomfort
with the fact that we can only hope
that our whim is truth lies behind much of the counting that goes on in Walden:
the speaker counting ice bubbles, counting house-building costs, counting the
depth (in feet) of the pond, etc., all of which, I think, betrays a nervous will
to know, for certain, that we can
trust our personal wills.
I am aware that the kind of freedom and ethical responsibility I have
been discussing is not exactly popular in contemporary literary theory, and I
have waited until now to make what I think is the necessary concession: it would
be foolish to attempt to discount what Foucault and Derrida, to name only two,
have argued, in terms of language and the way in which, to a certain degree, it
speaks us. There are obvious limits
to our autonomy, and even perhaps to our agency.
But it would be equally foolish, I think, to argue either that language
is both unified and stable, or that we have absolutely no free-will whatsoever.
It may be, and I think Emerson , Abraham (at least as he appears to
believe and act in his story) and even Thoreau would argue, that it is precisely
this instability, the lack of certainty in language and in our perceptions, that
allows for, and requires us to acknowledge, both our freedom and our ethical
Stanely. The Senses of Walden. Chicago and London: The University of
Ralph Waldo. Selected Writings of Emerson. Ed. Donald McQuade. New
York: The Modern Library, 1981.
Everett. The Five Books of Moses. New
York: Schocken Books, 1995
Soren. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Trans. and eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.
University Press, 1983.
Lou Ann. The Riddle of Liberty: Emerson on Alienation, Freedom
and Obedience. Atlanta:
Scholars Press, 1986.
Robbins, Jill. “Sacrifice.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Gen. Ed. Mark C. Taylor. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Ed. William Rossi. New York and London: W.W. Norton and
Company, 1992, c1966.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “A Lecture on Ethics.” (I don’t know where exactly this comes from, I’m sorry to say. Charles Bernstein handed it out
in class. I’m sorry)