“Circles” was originally published in 1841 as part of Emerson’s Essays: First Series. The essay elaborates on his romantic perspective (likewise held by the new scientists of his age like Goethe and Darwin) of life as process and flux, rather than stasis or perfection. “The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees.” He believed there was no final conclusion in any aspect of life – every end is only a new beginning – and we should embrace and embody such fluidity. (Read together with “The Over-Soul,” one begins to understand how Emerson did not believe in ultimate transcendence, nor overestimate the human potential to achieve such a state.)
Emerson uses the symbol of the circle as both a metaphor of life and as an organizing principle to articulate his perspective. This “primary figure” and “highest emblem in the cipher of the world” repeats without end through nature, the individual, and society, and ultimately connects all to God. (Indeed, Emerson notes St. Augustine described “the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere.”) The following sections elaborate on how exactly the circle ripples through all four realms of life.
Circle and Nature
True to his constant theme of nature, Emerson begins his essay with, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end.” We spend all our lives standing in the midst of and trying to understand the circles which ripple throughout nature – “there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”
Circles and the Individual
In line with his belief in idealism, Emerson argues all individuals (and the world) are defined by their thoughts, the ideas that classify facts. Individuals only reform when a new idea prompts a reclassification. In this way, each individual life is a self-evolving circle ever expanding outward into new and larger forms, though the extent to which this occurs depends on “the force or truth of the individual soul.” When individuals generate a circle by telling their stories, such a circle shades the world with the lines and meanings of such stories, only to be redrawn when a new circle encompasses and reconfigures the former.
In this way, what is authoritative and defining today may be eclipsed tomorrow. A great thinker acknowledges that science, literature, religion, and morals are all at risk for revision and upheaval. All individuals contain the capacity for such revolutionary power. “Every man is not so much a workman in the world as he is a suggestion of that he should be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age.” Emerson argues one avenue through which individuals form new circles is literature, which provides them with a perspective on their present life through comparison with ancient or foreign ways of life, and thus how they may change or reform. Poetry in particular, he argues, serves this end well because it is filled with the daring imagination of others.
The inherent capacity for revolutionary thought is also why we cannot fully understand anyone. All individuals contain an unknown potential for greater possibility endowed by his divine soul. Furthermore, such potential waxes and wanes by the day, as when Emerson writes full of thought one day, but cannot do so in the slightest the next. “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall."
Circles and Society
In regard to circles and society, Emerson observes we are left with countless historical examples of the transitory nature of society.
The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts in June and July… New arts destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts, made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity.
The rise of new thought and creation inevitably signals the decline of old.
The same holds for the intangible aspects of society, including virtue, as does with solid matter. Perhaps his most controversial stance, Emerson argues like all of life, there is no virtue that is final; all virtue is initial. The virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.
Does this mean he believes all actions are equal and valid, such that even crimes could be considered sacred? Emerson avoids a justification, although he admits his enjoy in the idea that “no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme satisfactions.” However, he ultimately admits that he, like all other individuals, are evolving and experimenting in life, rather than attempting to depict what is true or false. His aim is to “unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.”
Circles and God
Nevertheless, while the revolutionary circles of life eternally ripple through nature, individuals, and society, they all emanate from the soul, or rather, God.
Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat superior to creation, superior to knowledge and thought, and contains all its circles. Forever it labors to create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself, but in vain, for that which is made instructs how to make a better.
In other words, the soul forever labors to achieve a life and thought marked by godliness, and thus eternally generates circles, but always in vain, for each subsequent circle only moves ever more toward godliness. In this way, life is defined by a constant desire to draw a new circle, to connect with God. The great works of genius and religion illustrate such moments of enthusiastic desire, as do “dreams and drunkenness, [for] the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men.”