Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The Poet”



In the “Divinity School Address” [given at Harvard Divinity School in 1838, Ralph Waldo] Emerson at times made it sound as though his understanding of Christ had transformed that figure into a type of the artist, a man who … had seen “further” than others with more limited vision–An example is Emerson’s statement of how Christ recognized “that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.” … in his later essay “The Poet,” … [Emerson] lambasted contemporary theologians for thinking it “a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract.” Such men prefer, he noted sardonically, “to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence,” not realizing “the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact.” If his friends were to be faulted for any religious shortcomings, then, it was because they … did not perceive the literal presence of the miraculous in nature’s commonplace facts.

One of Emerson’s most revealing paragraphs in this essay deals specifically with his sense of the poet as a universal Christ-figure. … In “The Poet” Emerson thought it important to suggest how much his contemporaries needed another redeemer, one whose grasp of language and symbol, as well as of divine truth, was comparable to Christ’s, or at least to others among the world’s great prophets. …

Throughout the essay Emerson elaborates the intended equation between Christ and the poet. Like Christ, who stood as ransom before his Father for the entire human race, so, too, the poet is “representative” and “stands among partial men for the complete man.” Further, like the Christ who freed mankind again to the possibility of entering heaven, so the poet is a liberator who “unlocks our chains and admits us to a new thought.” When men are exposed to the truths the poet expresses, they recognize how “the use of his symbols has a certain power of emancipation for all men.” And like the Savior who called all unto him as children, when the poet speaks men “seem to be touched by a wand which makes [them] dance and run about happily, like children.” “Poets,” Emerson brazenly declares, “are thus liberating gods.”

Indeed, throughout the essay Emerson intends to make his readers aware that he means no deception when he equates the work of the Sayer with a process of salvation, for the poet provides a feeling akin to what those of an earlier generation (and, indeed, what some evangelicals of Emerson’s own day) would have called a conversion experience. As he continues in this vein, Emerson sounds as though he were making a narration of the influence of saving grace upon his soul. “With what joy,” he exclaims, “I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains are to be broken; I shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live . . . and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations.” The “new birth” is complete, for at such moments, Emerson announces confidently, he becomes “reconcile[d]” to live, while all nature becomes “renovate[d].” “Life will no more be a noise” to him who has experienced the effects of the poet’s vision; and, as self-righteously as any of his seventeenth-century New England ancestors, Emerson claims that then is he able to “see men and women and know the signs by which they may be discerned fools and satans.” The rebirth of his soul is complete, for “this day [when the poet’s message is heard] shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real.”

This remarkable reworking of the morphology of conversion into an aesthetic experience takes on more significance when the reader is aware of how closely the older forms of religious vocabulary have been melded with terms from the idealistic philosophy to which Emerson had been exposed: He details this dream-vision of transcendence with reference to an explicitly Coleridgean term. “This insight,” Emerson declares, “expresses itself by what is called Imagination” and is best understood not by reference to any religious terminology but as “a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees . . . by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms … ” In the presence of the poet wielding his liberating symbols, man stands, Emerson mystically suggests, “before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.”

But it is imperative that the poet also become the “Sayer or Namer” and openly declare what has been hidden from his contemporaries because of their imperfect nature and limited vision. “The world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it.” The secret of the universe, to paraphrase Robert Frost, literally sits in the middle of men, and the poet must do all in his power to make the secret apparent.

For through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that … within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the form which expresses that life, and so his speech flows with the flowings of nature.

For the poet the world becomes “a temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures and commandments of the Deity,” and it becomes his job to convey the meaning behind those emblems as evocatively as he can. … Emerson indeed believed that “Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in tum arise and walk before him [the poet] as an exponent of his meaning.” Thus, the lessons from men like [the American Swedenborgian Sampson] Reed and {Guillaume] Oegger were assimilated, but along with the important corollary that man must not, like the self-centered mystic, “nail a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false.” The poet is he who knows that “all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.” When man reads the true poet’s works, Emerson believes, he finds himself on a version of Jacob’s ladder, the rungs of which are assembled from the world’s natural facts and by which he is to climb to view the world of spirit.

— Philip F. Gura, The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance



I have been reading a fascinating and enlightening monograph: The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance by Philip F. Gura (Wesleyan University Press, 1981), from which the above passages are quoted.

Who is the poet whom Emerson foresaw and spoke of? Walt Whitman, as has often been noted.

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

On Friendships: Forming, Preserving, and (Sometimes) Knowing When to End Them



“For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”

— Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” Essays, Chapter XXVII



“May we not include under the title of conference and communication the quick and sharp repartees which mirth and familiarity introduce amongst friends, pleasantly and wittily jesting and rallying with one another?”

— Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Art of Conference,” Essays, Chapter VIII



“Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine,—a possession for all time. … My friends have come to me unsought. The great God gave them to me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“… let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“A friend therefore is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being, in all its height, variety, and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances. I much prefer the company of ploughboys and tin-peddlers to the silken and perfumed amity which celebrates its days of encounter by a frivolous display, by rides in a curricle and dinners at the best taverns. The end of friendship is a commerce the most strict and homely that can be joined; more strict than any of which we have experience. It is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days and graceful gifts and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution. It keeps company with the sallies of the wit and the trances of religion. We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays: First Series



“Why can’t we be friends? I want one sadly, and so do you, unless your looks deceive me. We both seem to be alone in the world, to have had trouble, and to like one another. I won’t annoy you by any impertinent curiosity, nor burden you with uninteresting confidences; I only want to feel that you like me a little and don’t mind my liking you a great deal. Will you be my friend, and let me be yours?”

— Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience



“It has by now been sufficiently demonstrated that the human being has, as part of his intrinsic construction, not only physiological needs, but also truly psychological ones. They may be considered as deficiencies which must be optimally fulfilled by the environment in order to avoid sickness and subjective ill-being.

“If both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge love and affection and belongingness needs. ….

“The fact is that people are good. Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and their behavior.”

— Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being


“To be able to have friends is one of the most wonderful things about human existence. Few experiences rival it. It has meant everything to me throughout my life and has made me the person I am. I never forget an old friend.

“I never really chose a friend except upon the criterion that we enjoyed knowing one another. The give and take among friends is wonderful; the sense of acceptance and of affirmation of one’s personhood, yours and theirs. The jokes, confidences, stories, friendly disputations. The things you learn from a friend that you would have otherwise never known. The miraculous meeting and befriending of people whom fate puts in one’s way.

“A friend is someone from whom one does not require approval, only the desire for companionship, the desire to share.”

— Roger W. Smith





This is a post about friendships: their importance in one’s life (touched upon very briefly here); and, mainly, the importance of trying to maintain them.

What I am thinking of is the importance of one’s being able to form and maintain ongoing friendships with people whom one would not have perhaps expected to form a friendship with or to be able to along with, and with friends whom one has acquired but about whom one has sometimes wondered: is it worth maintaining the friendship?

To frame the issue in a nutshell, I would say: You’ve got to give people a chance — to extend a friendly hand, so to speak; to show, all things being equal, a willingness to become acquainted with others (rather than acting as if you are too important or busy); to not be too hasty to judge or jump to conclusions with regard to what you might think of the other person.

You’ve got to be willing — once a friendship has been formed, and particularly in the case of longstanding relationships — to put up with the failings and annoying habits of others, if they desire a friendship. (Note that I said “they,” not “you.”)

That is the key, in my opinion, because if the other person desires a friendship, they probably have something to offer.

Don’t turn them away, reject them. You’ll be cutting off your nose to spite your face. You will never know what you may have missed.

Every friend is precious, just as every person is unique and precious. Our lifetimes are finite, and our experience is limited — we can’t get to know everyone. Our life histories — indeed, our personalities — are a “compost” of all the people we have been privileged to become acquainted with.

You’ll be surprised what people — including those you may sometimes find boring, tedious, or difficult — can offer.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule!

People to AVOID:

people who are always negative; and,

people whose only interest in associating with you is as a sounding board for them to talk about their problems. A relationship by definition involves two people. There must be back and forth. It can’t just be the other person talking about their problems.

To get back to my main point.

People will surprise you with the things they come out with. Just when you have grown tired of them or their company, they will say something interesting or funny; perhaps tell you something you didn’t know; provide information that you were not privy to and are glad to have; provide helpful advice or a useful suggestion or tip.

Sometimes people when you least expect it will reveal something good about themselves — it could be intelligence, insight, their humanity, or a positive or winning character trait that you had not hitherto appreciated.





Another thing I would like to point out about my experience with friendships — speaking solely from my own experience — is that it behooves one to be patient and to give them time. To hear one’s friends and acquaintances out. To clear the decks for them so to speak, when they want to communicate, talk.

Say, for example, that a friend calls me when I am very busy and I don’t answer the call. I make it a point to tell him that I am sorry I missed the call but that I will get back to him shortly. I tend to refrain from saying that I am “busy,” because that might convey an unstated message that I’m too darn busy to talk now and in the near future. Instead, I simply say that I am sorry I missed the call but will be getting back shortly.

I sometimes do the same thing with an email, if I’ve been sitting on it for, say, two or three days: send back a very brief message saying “pleased to hear from you, will reply at length within the next day or two.” It’s a common courtesy that costs nothing in terms of effort.

Regarding “putting up” with people, when one is very busy. What I have found is that, if I can somehow manage to tear myself away from whatever it is that is preoccupying me and lend an ear, give attention to my friend, it pays off in the long run. I preserve the friendship, and it is usually not a waste of time. Not only because one is sort of acting benevolent, but also because, what I have found is that, at bottom, I myself am not too important or never really that busy to pay attention to someone else. The loss in time that I would have otherwise had to myself — what economists call “opportunity cost” — is a gain in terms of populating my time and life with interesting people and valued friends.

Bottom line: I would say, make time for your friends; create space in the interstices of your life for them to fit into.





In writing this post, I thought of friends who can sometimes try one’s patience. Who perhaps have annoying habits or seem to be deficient in certain social and interpersonal skills. And, of some who seem to be — at times — lonely and needy. Perhaps because they sense that people are not eager to form friendships with them, or because they have lost a few friends. It has been my experience that if I can manage to persist, in cases were the other person is desirous of companionship and is well intentioned — which is to say does want to establish and maintain a friendship — over time the other person’s defenses seem to be attenuated and the less desirable traits seem to become less noticeable or problematic. What I think may be the case and may be happening is that as the other person senses that you are not inclined to reject them, they relax, become less insecure, and become more companionable and enjoyable to be with. I see this as a win win situation in which I have gained another friend who becomes increasingly enjoyable to be with. One should be grateful for friends, and sometimes those who don’t at first blush seem to have that much to offer can become good friends should you be willing to meet them half way.





A further thought or two.

Perhaps you like to think that you are broad minded. I know I do.

But most of us — practically everyone, it seems; indeed, it seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, unavoidable, in our bones — harbors dislikes toward or has reservations about certain groups: racial, ethnic, national, or religious. You may have a tendency to avoid such groups, perhaps fearing that not only will you not get along, but that they may not like you; or perhaps thinking you will have little in common.

A side benefit of openness and willingness in forming friendships is that you may find yourself befriending someone from one of those groups and find that all of a sudden, you’re hitting it off. Such unanticipated friendships can enable oneself to expand one’s horizons while experiencing a pleasurable, welcome, and congenial bonding and sharing.

I have experienced this myself on occasion: associating with someone from a group that I may myself have not been fully aware that I was prejudiced against or which I had tended to stereotype and have misconceptions about. Something good has occurred on a couple of occasions — both with persons I eventually got to know well and persons I have had a more casual relationship with — where I found myself saying to myself or my wife, “You know, I thought (some group) were usually (something pejorative), but (my new acquaintance) isn’t like that.”

It’s not just a matter of overcoming stereotypes (although it can be very helpful to do so). It is very valuable experience wise (I am perhaps stating the obvious) to able to get to know people from groups other than the ones one customarily finds oneself associating with; to get to know them on an individual level; and to find that you are both becoming comfortable in one another’s presence as time goes on — that you have become less aware than you ordinarily would be of the fact of, less preoccupied with, the other person’s race, ethnicity, or religion. Being absorbed in the relationship and the exchanges that are occurring, one tends to disregard externals.





A caveat.

I hope I don’t seem ingenuous in what I have been advocating in this post. At the risk of contradicting or undercutting practically everything I have said above, I must admit that there are some people who are just plain pernicious as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned (inimical, at a minimum, to one’s own self-interest, that is), persons who are detrimental to one’s wellbeing when it comes to associating with them. Which is to say that some people might find them to make wonderful friends, but one knows — which is to say that the individual, in this case you or I, knows, by instinct, usually right away, or nearly so — that you and that person will never get along. Not only that, but that you yourself and that person are so different in terms of personalities, core values, and behavior that association should be avoided or kept to a minimum.

From such people, one often gets a sense of derision or outright hostility. To the extent that they are aware of you, they do not esteem you.

Often, it seems — well not that often (if it were a common occurrence, it would not have been much more of a problem) — this has occurred to me with authority figures — a teacher, say; a boss; a coach — who takes an immediately negative view of oneself or deems you wanting in some respect and lets you know it. Not a potential “friendship situation,” but worth mentioning here as something sometimes experienced and instructive in a harsh way.

In other instances where I have experienced an immediate mutual dislike and/or lack of any rapport whatsoever between myself and another person, it was usually with a fellow student or a coworker. One has a sixth sense about such things. I call it the “tip of the iceberg” theory. Very early on, some unpleasantness manifests itself, and one knows that the person should be avoided.

But, I am not talking about friendships here, right? Such “relationships” rarely proceed to that point.



— Roger W. Smith

  April 2017; updated June 2018









I have been thinking recently about how do friendships start, using as examples for my thinking about this my own friendships, past and present.

I would aver, unhesitatingly, that friendships start entirely naturally, and without any fanfare.

You come across someone. You get to talking. You find you have mutual interests (these are a very important glue in friendships), click on some issue; find it pleasant to be talking; sense some mutual compatibility. You don’t think about it much at the time.

This happened to me in my school days and in my neighborhood, in college, and in work and other contexts in my adulthood. Many relationships, needless to say, did not lead to friendships, but, then, an idle conversation, a chance encounter would. You would get to talking and become fast friends almost instantaneously, though at the time it did not seem like anything notable was occurring.

One thing — or a couple — that I think is material is that: (1) neither of you has pretensions or reservations about the other person; (2) there are one or two or three “nodal factors” that connect one — for example: you both live nearby and ride your bikes on the same route to school every day; you both love classical music (it doesn’t matter if you agree entirely on preferences); (3) you have an interest — it could be language, literature, history, culture, local attractions, and the like — that the other person can relate to.

It amazes me how often this occurs. I don’t take it for granted, despite the fact that it is a common occurrence. And, it never ceases to gladden me. It helps to make life worth living. More bearable. Immensely satisfying. Because of what other people give you. And the joy of reciprocating.





A further thought. (A postscript to a postscript.)

Mutual interests can be very fructifying when it comes to relationships. For example, I made a friend through my wife not long ago. We would not seem to have that much in common, and he does not share my cultural interests (although he is a highly educated, retired professional). Yet, we are both lifelong baseball fans. It gives us something to talk about. Though, should the talk be limited to baseball, it would be stultifying. Sports has always been a “social glue” and a reliable conversation starter for American males, in the workplace and elsewhere. I am certain that there are many such areas of shared interest (in general) among women.

But, it should be noted that (the novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s hilarious, dead on concept of a granfalloon comes to mind), as concerns the initial impetus for a friendship — the prime mover, so to speak — in my experience, it is not shared interests that matter, it is some deeper chemistry. What happens is that you and your friend may discover, probably will, over time, that you have mutual interests, and this will be a sort of bonus factor. But …

Maybe an example will help. You meet someone. It is almost always by serendipity. It is never preplanned. Or at least there were no particular intentions. It may be the case — often is — that you meet because you work for the same company, go to the same school, live in the same town. But, the magic of friendship happens independently of these factors, since most people in one’s workplace, school, or town do not become one’s friends.

So, say someone introduces me to somebody at an event or gathering and assumes that since you both like to collect antiques or you are both golfers you will have something in common — ergo, you will probably want to become friends. It’s actually not likely, and such assumptions are faulty.

Friendship is much deeper and subtler than that and, like all of the exhilarating, wonderful things in life, it happens of its own accord.

a poem




In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool.
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.


— Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted by Louisa May Alcott in her novel Work: A Story of Experience



We call this flower rhododendron.

This poem speaks to me. I was not familiar with Emerson’s poetry. My loss (up till now). I can see why Emerson is admired as a poet; I have some prior knowledge of it from his essays and can see similar qualities.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018




when knowledge (and learning) can prove to be useful; the pleasures of pedantry



“We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)





I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay on walking.

From a recent exhibit at the Morgan Library, I learned that Thoreau, who some moderns may think of as a sort of proto hippie, was very studious and had a very good education in classical and modern languages.

In his walking essay, Thoreau uses the Latin phrase ambulator nascitur, non fit.

After a moment’s hesitation, the meaning came to me: the walker is born, not made.

A curious person as he goes through life acquires all sorts of knowledge. Someone once remarked to me that it is very pleasurable to be able every now and then to USE those scraps of learning.

It was pleasurable to me to think I have retained a little bit of my high school Latin from over 50 years ago, including present passive verb endings.

Back in my high school days I was in a bus station in Boston once, using the men’s room. Some French sailors wearing funny hats with tassels were there too. They were in high spirits. They were teasing one another, joking and laughing. They couldn’t stop laughing. One jest led to another.

They noticed me and seemed friendly. We exchanged glances. I thought, I’m taking French. I can come up with something to say to them. I said, “Vous êtes de la marine française?” They nodded with smiles and seemed to be pleasantly surprised that an American teenager was speaking French to them.

It was very edifying to actually be using the French I had been learning out of a textbook.


–Roger W. Smith

September 30, 2017








On Friday, March 2, riding on the subway, I saw the following advertisement:



Encontré a mi amiga desplomada en la cama. Se estaba poniendo azul y no podía respirar. Corrí a buscar mi naloxana y se la dí. Creí que estaba muerta. Cuando volvió en si, no sabía lo que había pasado ni por qué yo estaba llorando. Me alegro de haber tenido naloxona; le dio una segunda oportunidad.

La NALOXONA es un medicamento de emergencia que evita la muerte por sobredosis de analgésicos recetadas y heroína.





I was very pleased with myself in that I understood it completely, every word, in Spanish.

It seemed to me again that a little learning can be a good thing.





I have been reading the charming novel Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton. The following passage struck me:

A pleasant, placid life, at Mrs. Wickett’s. He had no worries; his pension was adequate, and there was a little money saved up besides. He could afford everything and anything he wanted. His room was furnished simply and with school­masterly taste: a few bookshelves and sporting trophies; a mantelpiece crowded with fixture cards and signed photographs of boys and men; a worn Turkey carpet; big easy-chairs; pictures on the wall of the Acropolis and the Forum. Nearly everything had come out of his old house­master’s room in School House. The books were chiefly classical, the classics having been his subject; there was, however, a seasoning of history and belles-lettres. There was also a bottom shelf piled up with cheap editions of detective novels. Chips enjoyed these. Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar; indeed, he thought of Latin and Greek far more as dead languages from which English gentlemen ought to know a few quotations than as living tongues that had ever been spoken by living people. He liked those short leading articles in the Times that introduced a few tags that he recognized. To be among the dwindling number of people who understood such things was to him a kind of secret and valued freemasonry [italics added]; it represented, he felt, one of the chief benefits to be derived from a classical education.

Reminded me of the pleasure I have always taken — when boning up on literature or classical music, doing research, traveling watching films, etc. — in the knowledge I have obtained of several foreign languages, without having mastered any of them.

Know what I mean?


— Roger W. Smith

   March 5, 2018

is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?




“I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth … I do not contradict.”

— Michel de Montaigne





“I suppose you have forgotten that many weeks ago I promised to send you an account of my companions at the Wells [a city in England]. ….

“One of the greatest men of the society was Sim Scruple, who lives in a continual equipoise of doubt, and is a constant enemy to confidence and dogmatism. Sim’s favourite topick of conversation is the narrowness of the human mind, the fallaciousness of our senses, the prevalence of early prejudice, and the uncertainty of appearances. Sim has many doubts about the nature of death, and is sometimes inclined to believe that sensation may survive motion, and that a dead man may feel though he cannot stir. He has sometimes hinted that man might, perhaps, have been naturally a quadruped; and thinks it would be very proper, that at the Foundling Hospital some children should be inclosed in an apartment in which the nurses should be obliged to walk half upon four and half upon two legs, that the younglings, being bred without the prejudice of example, might have no other guide than nature, and might at last come forth into the world as genius should direct, erect or prone, on two legs or on four.

“The next, in dignity of mien and fluency of talk, was Dick Wormwood, whose sole delight is to find every thing wrong. Dick never enters a room but he shows that the door and the chimney are ill-placed. He never walks into the fields but he finds ground ploughed which is fitter for pasture. He is always an enemy to the present fashion.

“He holds that all the beauty and virtue of women will soon be destroyed by the use of tea. He triumphs when he talks on the present system of education, and tells us, with great vehemence, that we are learning words when we should learn things. He is of opinion that we suck in errours at the nurse’s breast, and thinks it extremely ridiculous that children should be taught to use the right hand rather than the left.

“Bob Sturdy considers it as a point of honour to say again what he has once said, and wonders how any man, that has been known to alter his opinion, can look his neighbours in the face. Bob is the most formidable disputant of the whole company; for, without troubling himself to search for reasons, he tires his antagonist with repeated affirmations. When Bob has been attacked for an hour with all the powers of eloquence and reason, and his position appears to all but himself utterly untenable, he always closes the debate with his first declaration, introduced by a stout preface of contemptuous civility. “All this is very judicious; you may talk, Sir, as you please; but I will still say what I said at first.” Bob deals much in universals, which he has now obliged us to let pass without exceptions. He lives on an annuity, and holds that there are as many thieves as traders; he is of loyalty unshaken, and always maintains, that he who sees a Jacobite sees a rascal.

“Phil Gentle is an enemy to the rudeness of contradiction and the turbulence of debate. Phil has no notions of his own, and, therefore, willingly catches from the last speaker such as he shall drop. This flexibility of ignorance is easily accommodated to any tenet; his only difficulty is, when the disputants grow zealous, how to be of two contrary opinions at once [italics added]. If no appeal is made to his judgment, he has the art of distributing his attention and his smiles in such a manner, that each thinks him of his own party; but if he is obliged to speak, he then observes that the question is difficult; that he never received so much pleasure from a debate before; that neither of the controvertists could have found his match in any other company; that Mr. Wormwood’s assertion is very well supported, and yet there is great force in what Mr. Scruple advanced against it. By this indefinite declaration both are commonly satisfied; for he that has prevailed is in good humour; and he that has felt his own weakness is very glad to have escaped so well.”

— Samuel Johnson, “Scruple, Wormwood, Sturdy and Gentle” (The Idler No. 83), November 17, 1759




“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell




“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series (1841)




“Tomorrow we shall receive other hints; it may be an apparent contradiction to those of today, urged likewise as if they were the sole and central truth. … Thus, there is hardly a proposition in [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] poems, or his prose either for that matter, which you cannot find the opposite of in some other place.”

— anonymous reviewer, “New Poetry in New England,” The Democratic Review, vol. XX (May 1847), pg. 397; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 286




“His [Keats’s] mind had itself much of that ‘negative capability’ which he remarked on as a large part of Shakespeare’s greatness, and which he described as a power of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ ” This is the doubt of one “who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of delusion. Such is that uncertainty of a large mind, which a small mind cannot understand.”

— Aubrey De Vere, “Modern Poetry and Poets,” Edinburgh Review, October 1849; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 248-249





“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”







“Mother, one’s heart grows sick of war, after all, when you see what it really is—every once in a while I feel so horrified & disgusted—it seems to me like a great slaughter-house & the men mutually butchering each other—then I feel how impossible it appears, again, to retire from the contest, until we have carried our points—(it is so cruel to be tossed from pillar to post in one’s judgment).


— Walt Whitman, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, July 7, 1863 (The letter refers to the Battle of Gettysburg.)






“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (1945)




“Like any writer worth paying attention to, [Philip] Roth turns out to be the sum of his contradictions.”

— Adam Gopnik, review of Philip Roth: Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America), The New Yorker, November 13, 2017






is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?

by Roger W. Smith




A friend of mine with whom I have had many deep conversations has asked me once or twice, do I think it is possible to hold two contrary, divergent opinions at the same time? Have I experienced this?

In an email, my friend summarized the topic brilliantly and lucidly in the following words:

Our conversation had to do with staking out a position or taking a position — not necessarily ardently — but stating or indicating a position outwardly while one is in fact holding a position inwardly that is more closely in touch with one’s truer feelings. Such a stance might belie one’s inner feelings, might be subtly or not so subtly meant to provoke or suggest inner conflict about which side of an issue one feels or takes … or, possibly, another meaning.

You hit upon this idea this morning (which I have clumsily attempted to recapture), which immediately caught my interest and attention both as it relates to you and because it is an idea that has broader importance. When you thought there might be a word or phrase to capture it, I thought that would be interesting and helpful.






“A word or phrase to capture it.” Is there, to my knowledge, my friend asked, a word or expression to convey such a notion?

I told him I would look it up.

I got back to him as follows:

You asked me: is there is a word in English for having or holding two contradictory opinions in one’s mind at the same time? It seems that there is not, really.

The idea seems to be encompassed by the term cognitive dissonance. But, as I see it, cognitive dissonance is a concept, not a word.

However, there is a definition of cognitive dissonance online at


“cognitive dissonance; noun; psychology — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change”

There is a Wikipedia entry on cognitive dissonance at


In the article, cognitive dissonance is explained as follows:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.

Note that, in psychological parlance, cognitive dissonance has the connotation of a mental state associated with discomfort or anxiety. I don’t quite view it that way. Read, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ringing words above. To him a mental state somewhat like what the Wikipedia article describes is a cause for celebration and admiration, not alarm, though Emerson does acknowledge that thinkers of such a mental cast, so to speak, are bound to be misunderstood and, perhaps, criticized and/or persecuted.

An often seen term that expresses such an idea is George Orwell’s coinage doublethink. Doublethink has been adapted into our language, but it is not an autochthonous word. And, in Orwell it is used with a particular slant or twist, with a connotation somewhat like brainwashing.

Some words that kind of hit upon the idea of a person perhaps expressing or having contrary opinions simultaneously are ambiguity, ambivalence, dichotomy, duplicity, equivocality or equivocation, evasion, and two-faced (adjective).

And, then, of course, there is oxymoron, defined as a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

And, paradox and paradoxical. The definition of paradox is as follows:

a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true;

a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory; a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.





The Key Question


So much for definitions. But, what about the notion of holding contrary opinions simultaneously, as it pertains to thought in general? My thought patterns. Perhaps yours.

I would answer, YES. Undoubtedly. It is a common practice — but not one that violates common sense — for a thinking person to entertain contrary, opposing notions simultaneously.

Under what conditions does this happen, and is it propitious?





Hot Button Issues

One causal or underlying factor for ambiguity in thought seems to be entertaining or coming face to face with contentious issues. I am thinking of issues that are always (endlessly; and, one might say, ad nauseam) being debated in public forums and that never get resolved. It seems as if on some of the most contentious, emotionally charged issues which are debated publicly there will never be anything like agreement. For example:

capital punishment;


war and peace.

It appears that this may be, in part, because there are no good answers. Each side may have some right on their side, and neither side is totally wrong. The same arguments and counterarguments are made over and over again.

The real test — the hard part — is when one is dealing with actualities and specific cases. For example:

I am against capital punishment, but when I saw and read news items about beheadings of hostages by ISIS terrorists, I felt that I would like to see the executioner(s) publicly beheaded.

Despite being in sympathy with positions taken by the pro-choice side of the abortion debate, I have always felt unsure and uncomfortable thinking about the issue.

I have historically been a pacifist, or at least a dove, yet I feel that some wars are necessary. About a bloody conflict such as the Civil War, I have never known what to think.

When faced with such issues, I may find myself thinking first one way and then the next. I will tend to learn more one way than the other, but I am never certain about what I think.





Another Hot Button Issue

Another example of a contentious issue which, over the course of time, caused me to doubt my initial, unquestioned views was the controversy over the issue of school busing in Boston, which lasted for a couple of decades following reforms resulting from the civil rights movement.

I remember the controversy well, although for much of the time I was not living in Massachusetts and if did not affect me or members of my family. (My mother was, however, very pro civil rights and volunteered to tutor students from minority neighborhoods.)

Like most liberals, I was initially pro busing, which was natural since I was pro civil rights and supported integration. In the North, that meant integration of neighborhoods formerly all white.

There was a high profile spokeswomen for and champion of the “other side,” Boston School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks (1916 –2003). She was completely against busing and denied that segregation existed in city schools. She was pudgy, did not seem that articulate, and was belittled by liberals, who regarded her as an anathema, an embarrassment, and also (perhaps unfairly), an idiot. I myself thought she and her positions were retrograde, narrow minded (also bigoted), and ridiculous and volunteered (for a very short time) to work for a candidate opposed to her.

Over the years, I have reflected upon busing, which now seems to be in abeyance as a strategy. (I am not sure of this.) It occurred to me as an afterthought as an apt example for this essay because of a discussion I had this week with a liberal professor who said he fully supported busing at the outset, but changed his mind when it was about to occur in the case of his own daughter (now an adult), who was having some problems adjusting to school socially and did not want to have to attend a non-neighborhood school.

I think the busing issue illustrates something that often happen in cases where “social engineering” is involved and is being visited upon the public by policy wonks in the ranks of academia, NGO’s, and government. It illustrates a general point I was making above, that we may think a certain way in the abstract, and then, when it comes down to actual cases, may find ourselves wondering what we really think.





Gut (Emotional) Issues

Then there are gut issues — partly public and political, partly personal — that involve one’s core emotions, sometimes base or elemental ones:

My wife. I love and respect her. Yet, I thoroughly disagree with some of her views on essential matters. (I suspect that I am not alone in this regard and that this is the case with many intimate relationships.)

Two politicians. I am excited about and interested in the campaign. I want one to lose but I don’t want the other to win.

I harbor prejudices, some that I am only dimly aware of and some more overt. Yet, I have seen evidences in the behavior of persons I have known that contradict and undermine my biased views. There are parallels, too, in many of my cherished beliefs, which, like most people, I stubbornly adhere to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes, if not often, another person can puncture them with repartee, contrary evidence, and counterarguments.





Reflection and Research


On an intellectual level, I find that encountering and considering views that may cause confusion at first can be a very good thing, as seems to have been the case with great thinkers who were not afraid to do this.

When I had to come up with a topic for a term paper in college, what I found worked and resulted in a good paper was to try and identify something I myself found to be unclear to me and unresolved in my mind — that, additionally, did not seem to have been resolved by scholarship — and which was muddled or confusing as regards its presentation in lectures, readings, or discussions. Then, investigate and write about it. I have always liked to be challenged to investigate something and think it through for myself. As I explained in a letter to my sister (who was then in college), written when I was in my twenties: “When I had to research papers in school, I always found it best to pick a topic where I had some doubt or unresolved conflict in my mind and then write to resolve that conflict. I often found that that areas where I was in doubt or had some misunderstanding turned out to be a significant one to explore.”

I continue to find this kind of mental effort and “intellectual exercise” productive. It may result from reading something — say, in a newspaper — or from a discussion. It sometimes, if not often, happens that I find myself confused or dismayed, and not sure how to respond or of what I think. Such a situation, I have realized, can provide an opportunity. It often results in reflection and can lead to mental productivity, new insights, and perhaps a new piece of writing.

A similar phenomenon. Sometimes one entertains, is struck by a thought which runs counter to one’s previous thinking, what might be called a heuristic or “pregnant” thought. Heuristic or pregnant means for me: revelatory, inducing reflection and modification of thought and opinions I hadn’t questioned. An idea which makes me think anew about something — not always right away.

Heuristic (adjective): enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.





Crime and Punishment


Yesterday (April 22, 2017), I read with dismay that convicted felon and former Weather Underground member Judith Clark has been denied parole after thirty years in prison. An article in The New York Times resulted in comments being posted by readers; there were over 500 of them. The comments made me think earnestly about my own preoccupations about crime and punishment. I didn’t change my views, but I found myself thinking anew about, weighing, and wrestling with, if not changing, them.







Being able to see what the other side has to say is not a sign of weak thinking or of an inferior, easily swayed mind. It is to be desired, on the contrary. I have found that some sanctimonious readers of this blog, convinced of the rightness of their views, often cannot see or appreciate this, nor do they seem to be inclined to do it themselves.



— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017; updated January 2018







A reader of this post emailed me as follows.

I read your personal essay, and enjoyed it. The famous Emerson quotation is on the mark, as are all of them; but I wonder if the idea that a great mind has nothing to do with consistency defines what his critics accuse Trump of nowadays? That is, the inconsistencies of saying one thing one day and contradicting himself the next?

Couldn’t help thinking about this throughout your piece.

The reader has made an excellent and interesting point. In reply, I would be inclined to say that this is intended to be an essay about a mentality where a person has deeply held beliefs, and then finds himself or herself entertaining/considering contrary beliefs and perhaps questioning one’s initial beliefs. Despite this reader’s welcome and pungent comment, I do not believe that the type of thinking described above applies to someone such as Donald Trump, who does not seem to be a profound thinker (I guess I should say, IS not) and who changes his views, as one might change one’s shirt, from day to day, tweeting one thing one day and another the next.


— Roger W. Smith, May 1, 2017

Emerson and Whitman



In his [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] view the material creation is but an emblem of spiritual life. … To trace the operations of a subtle divine Presence in the mysteries of being—to ascend from the visible phenomena to universal laws—to embody the absolute, the unchanging, the perfect in the expressive forms of poetry—these are the problems which have challenged his warmest interest, and made him a retired and meditative sage, instead of a man of affairs. … Relying on certain mystic revelations to the soul of the individual, he shows scarcely any trace of logical faculty. … You look in vain for any consecutive order in the array of his thoughts. … Mr. Emerson’s predominant individualism leads him to ignore the past, and live in the present. … He believes in the perennial influence of inspiration. … The individual soul now conceals the elements of poetry, and prophecy, and the vision of God, as in the days of yore. … With this faith, Mr. Emerson attaches no importance to traditional opinion. … No school of philosophy or religion can hold this broad, untrammeled thinker within its walls. Even the great teachers of humanity do not win his fealty. Hints and monitions he may receive from their works, but authority never. … Mr. Emerson, although a rigid observer of the conventional proprieties of life, has little respect for a formal, imitative, stereotyped virtue. The stamp of nature and originality, in his view, would sanction almost any episode from the regular highway of ethics. He judges of character not by its accordance with any artificial code, but by the test of genuineness and native individuality. He rejects no coin that has the true ring, for want of the sign of some approved mint. An idealist in theory … he cherishes a most persistent and unrelenting attachment to reality. … He unites the dreamy mystical contemplation of an Oriental sage with the hard, robust, practical sense of a Yankee adventurer.


— anonymous, “Ralph Waldo Emerson. Phrenology, Physiology, Biography, and Portrait.,” Phrenological Journal, March 1854, quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 292-293





It is quite possible — indeed probable — that Walt Whitman read this article. What is said about Emerson seems to apply also to him.





I admire such thinkers. I would be pleased if such words were used to describe my outlook on life.



— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017