“Experience” was first published in 1844 in Essays: Second Series.
Emerson opens his essay with a poem about the “lords of life,” those forces which affect our experience of life. Within this poem lies the problem Emerson seeks to address. We walk in confusion among these forces, including God (the “inventor of the game”), given the difficulty of gaining perspective on our life beyond our material existence and the everyday details that preoccupy us. Emerson hopes to shed light on how one might do so though, as nature comforts man by saying the lords will “wear another face” tomorrow, and man will rise above them.
Unable to seriously examine the value of our everyday actions and efforts in the long run, “the pith of each man's genius contracts itself to a very few hours.” Hence, Emerson claims, the scarcity of original ideas and tales in the history of literature, and of spontaneous actions and opinions in society except for “custom and gross sense.” In our darker moods, like grief, we hope to find the sharp edges of reality and truth. However, Emerson argues such moods only teach us how shallow they are. Grief could not bring back his son, Waldo, who died in 1842. “An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.” We are left neither better nor worse, untouched, even if we lost what we once thought of as a part of ourselves.
To compound the matter, “life is a train of moods like a string of beads.” Each mood offers a different lens upon the world, showing only what lies in its focus. “It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.” Of course, neither mood, nor fortune, nor genius would matter without the proper temperament, “the iron wire on which the beads are strung.” Our temperament shuts us in a prison from which we cannot escape, even by the flames of religion or the moral sentiment. (However, Emerson is keen to note that the limitations of temperament are not physically determined, as suggested by “so-called sciences” like phrenology, but spiritually.)
Elaborating on his analogy of the string of beads, Emerson argues the secret of the illusoriness of life derives from our need for variety and change, or “a succession of moods or objects.” We delight in a book or work of art, before moving on to the next, and do not ever return to the first with the same enthusiasm as we once had. In this way, we do not expand beyond ourselves to grasp new ideas or develop new talents.
Yet such consideration and criticism of our experience of life, Emerson writes, does not help us live a good life. “To fill the hour, — that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval. We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” We should live in the day, in the moment. We should accept our circumstances and companions, and make the best of what life offers us. If we expect everything of the universe, we will be disappointed. Better instead to expect nothing, and thus be thankful for anything we receive. Finally, Emerson advises to live in moderation between the poles of power (life force) and form. All is dangerous in excess.
Life would be easier if it only consisted of routine and known causes and effects. However, thankfully, life is full of surprises that shake our limited perception of reality, moments when God isolates us in the present and calls for spontaneity. We thrive in such moments. Indeed, genius always contains such spontaneity, the exertion of power incidentally, rather than directly. The same goes for the moral sentiment. Our power, our life force, derives from the Eternal, and so the results of life, our successes and failures, are “uncalculated and uncalculable.”
While Emerson has thus far described life as a “flux of moods” and spontaneity, he adds our consciousness’ capacity to connect with the divine First Cause remains constant and helps us to evaluate our sensations and states of mind. The key question raised is not what one does, but from what source one’s motivation derives from – the divine or the material? Our life is filled with prospective directions with which to use our “vast-flowing vigor,” but the spirit flows through us when we are receptive to the “universal impulse to believe.”
Our awareness of ourselves since the Fall of Man has robbed us of our ability to live in what we see – now, we project ourselves onto objects, including nature, art, other people, religions, and even God. “Every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast.” We perceive the world in ways that validate our importance and our divine connection. We believe in ourselves, but not in others. We permit our own sins, but not those of others. For example, Emerson points to crimes performed out of love (e.g., murder, stealing) – the perpetrator believes it right and fair, but others find it destructive. We perceive the world in relative, rather than absolute, terms. Our soul only attains its “due sphericity” (completeness) when we learn from the specialized knowledge imparted by the perspectives of great minds.
To navigate the storm of confusion created by the lords of life – “illusion, temperament, succession, surface, surprise, reality, subjectiveness” – Emerson advocates “self-trust,” or rather, self-reliance. We should focus on the cultivation of our own thoughts (rather than those of society) and our relationship with God. While such a virtue may not offer completeness, its effects are cumulative, and in time and with patience, will allow “the transformation of genius into practical power.”