“The eye is the first circle; The horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end”- R. W. Emerson.
Emerson took the circle to be a veritable metaphor for nature. It described human thought and navigation of life, and the laws of nature. His essay was highly influential in its day, and still provides solid food for thought now. He provides insight into the nature of consciousness, as well as describing how ideas evolve best between friends, and also gives us great advice to improve ourselves.
Nature can be divided into two things-
- Objective nature as law. This can be either nature in the mind of God, or nature as the abstract eternal facts of the world. These laws are things which are true, whether there are ever actual instances of them or not. Triangles would have three sides, even if there were no triangles in the world.
- Nature as in the world as we live it. Us. Rather than things being eternally true, the things in our world are ‘relative truths’. They are true to us at the time, but are only transient truths since everything in this world must have a beginning and an end. Some things last longer than others, but even history passes.
These two things can be divided up into the objective and subjective realities, roughly. But note that the objective reality isn’t objective relative to now, it is the sempiternal objectivity. This objective circle is a never-ending circle within which everything exists, in which every circle exists.
Circles are then described as the nature of humanity. We are the core of our own circles. I am the centre of my circle, you are the centre of your circle. We each make efforts to grow our circles throughout life. We do this by learning emotionally, spiritually, through education and wisdom, and through thinking. We draw bigger and bigger circles around our old circles. As we draw bigger circles, we expand our consciousness, our horizons, and develop our minds. Knowledge fills circles, and makes them more stable, wisdom and experience are what draw bigger circles. Stronger, more powerful souls expand their circles more rapidly as our volition gives direction to our growth. (note that Emerson’s idea of the soul changed throughout his life. Sometimes it corresponded to the Greek concept of hylomorphism, sometimes to the Christian concept, and more often, it was a poetic device, a description of an ‘essence’).
Next, he discusses how our circles exist in the world. We can see, or experience, each other’s circles. They exist in space for us to interact with. Or to put it better, the size and content of people’s circles is what we interact with. A person’s thoughts are how you define a person, and their circles contain their thoughts. Through conversation and other interaction, we learn people’s circles. In the world, we draw rings around each other’s circles. Remember, circles are drawn around older circles as ideas grow with knowledge and wisdom. As we draw rings round each other’s circles, we expand our own circles.
At the core of each circle is a ‘helm’. This is an aggregate of all the governing ideas of our life, and this directs us and our growth. It forms the content and intentionality of our volition. As we expand our circle, the ideas at the helm may change. This helm could be thought of as a soul, but a work in progress sort, which changes as we think and experience, and by what we chose to think and experience. As such, our bigger circles can also change our smaller circles, meaning there is an up/down effect.
Emerson hails friendship as sacred. In friendships, we have our heart and soul, our very best emotions and intentions steering the helm of our games of circles. A good friendship is one where the game of expanding each other’s circles goes on for longer than it would with an acquaintance, and a perfect friendship is one in which a game of circles can continue forever. He pedestalises Plato and Aristotle as having this perfect friendship- intelligence, wisdom, warmth, open hearts.
Who we decide to be can decide how our circles grow. A good heart and a well-directed helm will clearly expand better circles, ones which will be better for others to interact with, and for us to grow better too. He hails literature and poetry as perfected platforms with which we can expand our circles. In composing literature and poetry, we create projected ‘worlds’ through which we can most suitably grow our wisdom and knowledge. As in spiritual contemplation, the literary arts are perfected for our circles to grow best. Through literature we experience simulated social situations, we love and hate and learn and opine through these situations, and so literature is sacred.
He warns us about growing old. Age effects the body, but it doesn’t have to affect the spirit. He warns us against seeing them as one thing. Our circles can expand through our entire life, right up to our death, if only we nurture them. If we believe that we age spiritually with our bodies, our circles will stop growing. We must keep expanding our circles from other circles. Circle growing is at the heart of everything, and since everything is circles- nature, objects in the world, friendships, our minds, other minds… expansion and correct growth of circles is a sacred and spiritually necessary act, for both us and the rest of the world.
Ethical actions are virtuous when we are in lower circles, but if we grow our circle large enough, we will have grown spiritually so that we are always good. Emerson believed that goodness was at the heart of every circle from the beginning. Nurturing that goodness will create a circle so large that deciding to be good will be below us since we always are anyway. To a smaller circle, deliberate virtuous acts help us grow, but they are vice to the saint. This new idea illustrates a new paradigm in America at the time. Christianity was going through a rapid change, and writers were newly discovering the scriptures of the Buddhists and Hindus.
“I cast away in this new moment all my one hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain. Now, for the first time, I seem to know anything rightly. The simplest words, we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire”.