Goodness and Grief,
Emerson's Pain

American Literature Association Annual Conference, May 31, 2002 

Jennifer Gurley
Department of English
Lemoyne College


            Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his Divinity School Address that "Good is positive.  Evil is merely privative, not absolute."   By  mutually excluding good and evil, Emerson provides himself, or so I will argue, with a means to judge when the personal suffering born of the world's evils should be publicly shared or privately kept.  In short,  Emerson would say that particular grief expressed otherwise than for common good is better left to oneself.  In grief, as in other moods, Emerson finds that individual expression is responsible to the community.  Such that, even in considering suffering, Emerson forces us to ponder what he means by "individualism." 

            I first read Emerson several years ago, before I knew much about how others had read him, other than as I had gleaned some  views from the books jackets of collections of Emerson's works, whereupon he was deemed habitually, and apparently uncontroversially,  "America's Eternal Optimist."  Aside one cover's such claim lay a picture of a middle-aged Emerson, smiling gently, an image meant to call forth his ever-cheeriness.  But to me, Emerson's smile was, if kind, also weary.  As I read his words, I saw a writer who was, if hopeful, also world-worn.  I have wondered since why it is that Emerson has been regarded, by many though not by all, to have been unconvinced of evil and unmoved by grief.  Proof of his extraordinary commitment to and love for his friends and family particularly, and humanity generally, can be found on almost every page he ever wrote, as well as in the many pages written about him.  Lidian offers a few of these words when she describes Emerson's ability to experience pain as being "like none other she had ever seen."[1]  We know that he suffered in the course of losing ones loved to young deaths, that he carried his first wife's memory through his second marriage, that he composed Waldo's demise daily in letters to friends throughout the months following the child's passing.  Stanley Cavell, defending Emerson against more literary-aesthetic charges that he had no "sense of the tragic," contends that Emerson was fully aware that "we may be undone by the pain of the world we make, and may not make again,"[2] and follows that Emerson's aim, anyways, was not to overcome tragedy, but to escape nihilism.  That is, to replace a feeling of man's depravity with an idea of his potentiality.  According to Emerson, people are good ("God is within"), but still they might do, or happen upon, bad things.  This is quite more pleasant than saying that people are bad (God is elsewhere), and will usually do bad things. 

            Whence this Emerson who hears no evil, sees no pain?  Some of Emerson's published words, when read out of context, do lend to such a view.   For example, in his lecture on The Tragic, he holds that "Most suffering is only apparent.  We fancy it is torture; the patient has his own compensations."[3]  Later, in the same lecture, we read that "it is necessary to say that all sorrow dwells in a low region.  It is superficial; for the most part fantastic, or in the appearance and not in things."[4]  In the Divinity School Address, evil is "so much...nonentity,"[5] in Experience, suffering is "scene-painting and counterfeit," and grief is "shallow."[6]

            Or, if it is not the content of Emerson's claims that brands him "naive," perhaps it is the sparsity of his public words on suffering.  Emerson rarely spoke of troubles, and he advised others against so doing: "Do not tell the world your troubles," he says, "but speak to the good."[7]  When he does speak of his great losses, the words are terse.  He mentions, but doesn't discuss.  Take, for example, the paragraph on Waldo in Experience.  Emerson didn't run about emoting in public, and he didn't encourage random freedom of expression, of suffering or of any other manner of experience.  He was as confused as Hawthorne was amused by the Harvard boys who shunned learning (without likewise relinquishing the safety of their institutional status) in favor of their own unconsidered opinions, and who claimed that Emerson authorized their conduct.  

            But Emerson is not blind to the dark side.  He wrote at least two lectures explicitly on the topic—The Tragic, and Good of Evil.  The former opens: "He has seen but half the universe who never has been shown the house of Pain."[8]  Emerson acknowledges evil.  Only then he works to transform it into something, as I quoted him above, absolute: into knowledge upon which we might depend.  That is to say, Emerson is philosophically—if not colloquially—optimistic.  He insists that we make knowledge, not that we make happiness.  Further, the individual seeking to make such knowledge from his suffering, who wishes, simply put, to learn from his experience, must look outward, not inward:  he must regard his experience as part of something larger than himself.  From The Tragic: "[This is the] doctrine of Philosophical Necessity...[which] is an Optimism, and therefore the suffering individual finds his good consulted in the good of all, of which he is a part."[9]  The mourner would do best to leave the "privative," and seek the "positive."

            What is this positively common good into which one's private grief might appropriately spill, and what is its relation to the individual experience of suffering?   Emerson's rendering of the good versus evil opposition seems to me the direct result of Emerson's viewing of Plato's forms, right down to the precision of his statement that "Good is positive.  Evil is merely privative, not absolute."  Let us turn for a moment to Plato's discussion of the forms and of the exclusion of opposites in the Phaedo, lines 102a-105b, and the Republic, Book 4, lines 432a-439e.  Because these lines do not admit readily to summary, I shall pull from them a few key points that will lead us back to Emerson.

            Plato discusses in these two passages the notion of privation, or lack of goodness, versus positive existence, or "goodness itself."  Succinctly put, good, being good, is a form—something that exists in itself and will never change.  That is to say, good, or a form, is an idea of something that we want that, being an idea, is safe from threat of harm—the harm, that is, of changing and becoming something that we do not want.  For example, thirst wants drink, or hunger wants food (437-8).  Because the thirsty person wishes for drink, he is therefore in a state of lack from it.  He yearns for what he does not have: drink.  He has in mind an idea of what he wants, and this idea Plato calls the "form" of drink.  That is, he yearns for drink itself—in this sense, he has an idea of it—and not for an actual drink set before him.  Further, he does not wish for bad or good drink, because, as we have just said, he simply needs any drink, any liquid that can quench the state of lack from which he suffers: the state of not having drink.  Hence drink itself is what he wants, and the facts that describe the beverage that he perhaps finally receives do not matter.  All that does matter is that his his thirst is quenched, and he is freed from his state of privation from drink specifically; that is to say, from his thirst.  Plato thus contends that all forms are necessarily good, and not bad (437-8), because, by definition, they release us from lack—from suffering. 

            They free us, that is, if we "partake" of them.  Plato uses here, and throughout his various discussions of persons seeking the forms, variations on the word metekho: to reach out and take hold of.  Connected to the good, indeed to all goods, is the human desire for them: a vital desire, enabling as it does no less than our subsistence as it compels us to go after what we need.  The prisoner in Plato's cave, in fact, goes "by necessity"—he is "forced"—after the forms.  We subsist, then, via a connection with something outside of ourselves, or, put another way, by being more than what we are on our own.  In connecting ourselves with the forms we leave our states of privation; states which, since Adam's fall, we have sought to escape.  States which, though they cause us pain, define us as beings human.  This is the pith (Emerson might say the "genius") of Plato's message. 

            Evil, the general term for our privation from goodness,  undoes any such connectedness: it is "privative," not "absolute."  It is not one of Plato's forms, because the forms are, by definition, good (438a).  Evil is our own missing out on what we have desired, on some good with which we needed to connect.  We therefore are logically unable to wish for evil.  Were evil-wishing possible, we would be stuck paradoxically wishing to be away from what we wish for.  This is different from saying that we can go without certain things that we have chosen to go without.   A minimalist—Thoreau, for example—is not in lack when he goes without an overabundance of things that other people consider "good," because he wants to be without such things, in the same way that a thirsty man wants drink.  In other words, the minimalist does not endure privation.  To speak generally, then, we do not desire evil and suffering, but wish to flee from these states (Ph.) towards what we want.  Evil as such is not good—it does not, as Plato would say "have a share in" goodness, but keeps to itself.

            But Plato is as much interested in the immanent as the transcendental modes of the forms, that is to say, in both the thirsty man's yearning for drink, and in the drink that he finally sips.  He is concerned, that is, to capture the Good Itself as he saw it in the good on earth.  In the Phaedo, Plato in fact uses the same word—eidos, a form or an idea of something— to describe both.  In translation, however, the idea above usually becomes "form," while the idea on earth assumes the term "character."  I am not disputing these translations.  To say that something in this world is not ideal, but may have the character of an ideal, seems right to me.  The pretty tree that we plant deliberately outside our window is akin to the idea of the perfect tree that we have in mind of.  The tree that we have chosen to plant is the one that we wished to plant, not the one we did not.   I point out that Plato iterates identically The Form above and a form below because I think that Emerson would approve.  In The Oversoul we read: "one mode of the divine teaching is the incarnation of the spirit in the form—in forms, like my own.  I live in society; with persons who answer to thoughts in my own mind, or express a certain obedience to the great instincts to which I live.  I see its presence in them.  I am certified of a common nature; and these other souls, these separated selves, draw me as nothing else can.....In youth we are mad for persons....But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all....Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal."[10]  This is a heartening statement.  For one, it suggests that the forms are present, in pieces, around and within us, and that we are therefore part of The Good Itself.   Further, since good particulars, these separated selves, or other people around us, can "acquaint" us with The Good, we can engage with others and expect that such intercourse might yield something literally good in this world.  As Hackforth puts in the commentary that attends his translation of  Plato's Phaedo: "We do not seek the good itself every time we seek to establish a contested point." [11]  We need not have seen, for instance, the most beautiful blue ever as we agree on a shade that suits our house.  Earthly goodness is contingent upon what we humans do with notions of goodness as we try to live together.   Plato's freed prisoner returns to the cave (Socrates in fact insists that "down again he must go"), Emerson's wanderer in Nature returns to town.  For Plato as for Emerson, achieving local understanding has its place, it is an important place at that.  Perhaps this is why Plato uses "to partake" and "to have a share in" variously to describe participation in the forms as well as, later on in the Republic and elsewhere,[12] participation in the polis.  Or, as Emerson puts it: "The ... individual finds his good consulted in the good of all, of which he is a part."[13]  Making good, for Emerson, is a public, and not a private, undertaking.  One is never truly alone.  Emerson converses either with the Good Above, as when he is in nature (recall his claim that "in Nature, [he is] not alone"), or with the good among us, as when he talks with a friend.  Emersonian individualism is defined by two.

            Evil, on the other hand, stands alone.  It shares no correspondence elsewhere, let alone with the above.  As Emerson would say, it is not present in the Oversoul.  Evil is mere "whim"[14]: from the tragic.  Moving of its own accord, uninterested in being apprehended and unconcerned with its relation to and effects upon others, evil offers no insight into itself.  We simply cannot turn it into sense.  Emerson grieves in Experience, therefore, that "Grief can teach [him] nothing."

            But in fact grief does teach him.  Emerson urges, in the same essay that has until now provided critical fodder for the claim that Emerson could not feel pain be vulnerable.            Grief that merely expresses itself, without regard for the community to which it appeals, remains with evil.  It is self-absorbed, and merely personal.  His personal laments on the way to this knowledge, as regards Ellen's death, for example, Emerson saves for the more private genre of the letter.  Grief considered, and then communicated, is positive.  Emerson otherwise generalizes his personal pain, for example, anonymously.  Threnody does not name young Waldo, but discloses the suffering of any parent who has lost a child.  Grief considered partakes of and is good for the whole.  We might call its communicator "Self-Reliant," or one who "believes [his] own thought, [and] believe[s] that what is true for [himself] in [his] private heart, is true for all men."  This sort of individual would be, Emerson might say, concentric with, and not eccentric from, his society.   

            We often relate, or over-share, trivial grief.  We consider somewhat tragic the regular disturbances, or "querulous habits," (T, 220), as Emerson terms them, of everyday life passing through: the the overdue rent, the late bus, the crying child.  To give word to such things is to chatter or "bemoan," whereas "Real tragedy," to quote Emerson again, "is mute," and real grief "dumb" (T, 218).    Grief itself is personal, privative, absorbed and existing for, as it were, for itself, like the "evil in the universe" that produced it.  Emerson wished to move away from this evil towards its opposite: some "positive" good, a bit of knowledge.  Only evil made rational would he express in public.  Perhaps he more often could not make it so, and so he kept silent.

            How do we share in / partake of the same ideal, want the same things—the same goods on earth?  What is the immanent form of the ideal community?  What does it literally look like?  It does not seem to me that Emerson wanted everyone to speak in whatever way they felt inclined.  His idea of the ideal community conceived, in part, of an explosion of discussion, yes, but of a highly regulated sort of talk—a method of give and take that recalls Socrates, and which, in the end, leads Socrates to truth and others to laughter (Callicles in the Georgias), foot-stomping (Thrasymachus in the Republic), or tears (his wife, Xanthippa, in the Phaedo), and other emotional displays.  Not the sort of thing that Emerson, according to my argument here, wants to see in his public sphere.  Perhaps he more so longed for an Ideal Republic wherein everyone conversed as they did in his Saturday Club, for which he composed a list of rules for conversation, the punishment being, if they were not followed, exclusion from the Club (Conversation, Salvage from Clubs).  We are faced again with the very old problem of how to translate transcendental ideals into worldly ones. 

            Though I had set out to set him squarely in this world, I see in Emerson, after all‚ a smiling Idealist.  So be it—the richness of Emerson's texts themselves enable the rich variety of readings that they have borne, readings which in the end comment more so on ourselves than on Emerson.  In one way, Emerson could appear Ideal in the traditional sense, in that he does, in fact, overlook evil in the world in search of good above; he abstracts from suffering, but leaves it, as such, alone.   But in another way, Emerson impels us to reconsider Idealism altogether.  In this paper of mine, we have seen Emerson-the-Idealist begin in the world, leave, and come back again.  He does not merely ponder abstractions, but formalizes experience, and then gives it back to his audience.  He musters the energy, for instance, to speak against slavery only once he feels and has a share in it.  In his lecture on The Fugitive Slave Law he says: "[I] have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American Slavery.  I never saw it; never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action; until the other day when Mr. Webster by his personal influence brought the Fugitive Slave law on the country" (FSL, p. 74). Emerson is not a mere Idealist: he cannot speak on slavery until he feels its effects personally.  And he only publicizes these feelings once he has formalized them, that is, made them into useful knowledge for his community.  In so doing, he wrests suffering from pure biography and enables it to serve, first, philosophy, and then, politics.  He makes individual experience share in, and not separate from, the greater whole: on the one hand, in the unifying aim of thinking, and on the other, the toward concensus with the civic community.   

             As Plato sought to do for Socrates, Emerson wishes to carve a place for the Idealist within society, as he is.  Emerson's Transcendentalist (recall the lecture by that name) does not seek to reconcile himself with a materialist, pragmatic, or otherwise-named  worldview.  But Emerson's Idealism is embedded in, rather than adrift from, the community.  You might say that, for Emerson, the transcendental act is one of overcoming by "partaking," after Plato, rather than withdrawing.


[1] Richardson's biography, and Ellen Emerson's Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson.

[2]  Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 133.

[3] p. 223.

[4] p. 219.

[5] (1.124)

[6] p. 298.

[7] The Tragic

[8] p. 216

[9] p. 218.

[10] Spiller, 285--cite CW

[11] (Hackforth 141)

[12] (432b5, 455d, 434b3)

[13] (T, 218)

[14] cite full sentences/ usages here from self-rel and the tragic

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