Thursday, April 23, 2009

Deep Calls to Deep; Or, How Karl Jaspers Solved My Problems with Milton and Emerson

By Book IV of Paradise Lost, Satan has formulated and begun to enact his plan for revenge on the God who cast him from heaven, but he enters the Garden of Eden in a deep existential funk:
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. (IV.69-78)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing two centuries later and across the Atlantic, somehow manages to turn Satan on his head:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning;
that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (“Circles”)
Emerson is not always the sunny optimist popular thought holds him to be—he can moan and groan with the best of poets—but “Circles” is not a particularly pessimistic essay. Just a paragraph later, he refers to God, who sees the world as “a transparent law, not a mass of facts.” So why on earth would Emerson take what may be the deepest despair in a book full of despair and turn it into a paean to openness and freedom? I spent much of last spring trying to answer this question to my satisfaction.

I’ve had Karl Jasper’s seminal Philosophy of Existence sitting on my shelf for months, waiting until I had time enough to start reading for my comprehensive exams. If only I’d looked at it earlier; Jaspers, it seems, could have solved my dilemma.

Human beings, he says, operate from a perspective that is always already limited, inside what Jaspers calls “a horizon of our knowledge.” There’s always something over and beyond that horizon, and we are always already called to cross the horizon into what he calls the “encompassing.” The encompassing is not the horizon, and in fact once we cross one horizon a new one opens up. I was instantly reminded of Satan’s telescoping deeps and Emerson’s ever-widening circles.

The encompassing is a realm of pure possibility, similar to what Heidegger takes fifteen pages of Being and Time to call Dasein’s living ahead of itself. It is something that by its very nature cannot be grasped. To grasp pure possibility, after all, would immediately make it no longer pure possibility. Instead, we live our lives in immanence, forever drawn toward the transcendence that would take us beyond the horizon—to, of course, another horizon. It’s in this constant transcending that we receive our freedom.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question. Why is Satan dizzy over the gulfs while Emerson is exhilarated watching the circles to expand? Jaspers answers with one very unexpected word: authority:
At first, authority taken on faith is the only source of genuine education affecting man’s nature itself . . . As he grows up within authority, the arena in which he everywhere encounters being opens up to him. If he grows up without authority, he will indeed come to possess knowledge, he will master speaking and thinking, but he will remain at the mercy of the empty possibilities of the realm where Nothingness stares him in the face.
It’s a paradox, of course—in order to transcend the immanent and confining world, in order to receive freedom, one must first surrender one’s freedom to a higher authority. Satan’s sin, of course, is one of refusing to recognize his place in the universe; he rebels against God, attempts to throw off the chains of perceived oppression, and so he’s locked into his position in the universe. And yet he still transcends. He literally moves through spiritual realms, from heaven to hell to earth (and, if the Book of Job is to believed, back to heaven occasionally).

So his transcendence offers him freedom and possibilities. But the encompassing is a threat to Satan because all beneficent possibilities have been exhausted for him; all that’s left beyond that horizon is a new defeat, a new suffering, a new punishment. Existential possibility is horrific in his eyes. There’s been some hand-wringing in theological circles as to why human beings are offered forgiveness but Satan and the fallen angels are presumably not. Milton and Jaspers seem to offer an answer: Human beings have never truly thrown off God’s authority, or at least they haven’t rebelled in such a violent and obvious way. They’ve never literally tried to toss God off His throne.

It’s worth noting that this fact does not necessarily make our possible future any brighter. Emerson recognizes this when he says, in “Experience,” that
Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.”
We don’t get to know what’s over that horizon, and while the circle could expand and let us climb higher, the deep could also open up and suck us in Nothingness. Jaspers sounds almost like a Calvinist here: “I can force neither of these two.” Of course, to do so would be to fail to submit to authority.

One point worth noting here is that Jaspers does not use the term authority the way someone like Milton would. That is, authority and God are not coterminous. When the circles widen, the authority disappears, and “the destructive exception becomes source of new authority.” This puts Jaspers much more in Emerson’s camp than in Milton’s—but he’s nevertheless the best way I’ve found to bring the two together.

1 comment:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Some interesting thoughts. Predictably, it reminds me of Plato--in his aristocratic city, the young who are talented for intellectual things go through years of mathematical training before anyone teaches them dialectic--to learn what you point to here as horizon-expanding or exception-detecting arts before establishing a firm conviction that an intelligible realm lies beyond the horizon is to establish Meletus-style nihilism or worse.

Sorry it's taken me so long to get to this essay; these last few weeks have kicked my butt harder than normal.