The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 13. His Failure to Perceive the Meaning of Evil; The Rarity and Beauty of his Accomplishment
The necessity of the dualism that underlies Emerson’s philosophy could scarcely be put more neatly, and the kind of synthesis, or reconciliation, in which Emerson floated is admirably expressed. But it is not so plain that this synthesis anticipates the solution of the troublesome problems of life. There will be those who will ask whether the power of religion for mature minds does not depend finally on its feeling for evil. How otherwise, in fact, shall religion meet those harder questions of experience when its aid is most needed? And in like manner they will say that the power of philosophy as the dux vitae depends on its acquaintance with the scope and difficulties of scepticism. Both religion and philosophy would seem, in such a view, to rest not only on a statement of the dualism of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, but on a relization of the full meaning and gravity, practical and intellectual, of this dualism. Now Emerson certainly recognizes the dualism of experience, but it is a fair question whether he realizes its full meaning and seriousness. He accepts it a trifle too jauntily, is reconciled to its existence with no apparent pang, is sometimes too ready to wave aside its consequences, as if a statement of the fact were an escape from its terrible perplexities. Carlyle meant something of the sort when he worried over Emerson’s inability to see the hand of the devil in human life. Hence it is that Emerson often loses value for his admirers in proportion to their maturity and experience. He is above all the poet of religion and philosophy for the young; whereas men, as they grow older, are inclined to turn from him, in their more serious moods, to those sages who have supplemented insight with a firm grasp of the darker facts of human nature. That is undoubtedly true; nevertheless, as time passes, the deficiencies of this brief period of New England, of which Emerson was the perfect spokesman, may well be more and more condoned for its rarity and beauty. One of the wings of the spirit is hope, and nowhere is there to be found a purer hope than in the books of our New England sage; rather, it might be said that he went beyond hope to the assurance of present happiness. The world had never before seen anything quite of this kind, and may not see its like again.