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. 

This 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 finite: 

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. 

As 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).

In “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. 

The 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. 

The 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 community whatsoever. 

Personal 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).

I 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 more.  (42) 

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.

It 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. 

The 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: 

And 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 religion” (31).

            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 says:  

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 responsibility.





Cavell, Stanely.  The Senses of Walden. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, c1972.

 Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  Selected Writings of Emerson. Ed. Donald McQuade. New York: The Modern Library, 1981.

 Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1995

 Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and Repetition.  Trans. and eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1983.

 Lange, 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

            Press, 1998.

 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)