In his lecture “Instinct and Inspiration,” Emerson attempts to define a certain progression from one to the other. It all begins with Instinct that
blind wisdom, a brain of the brain, a seminal brain, which has not yet put forth organs, which rests in oversight and presence, but which seems to sheathe a certain omniscience.
Emerson’s idea of Instinct is and isn’t what we think of as instinct, that animal part of our brain, the “brain of the brain” as Emerson calls it. He understands it as a kind of balancer–a corrector of excess and mistakes–a core sanity which even the insane don’t lose, and also a “source of truth.” Instinct is a sort of foundation of being that everyone possesses in equal measure.
He even calls Instinct oracular. He means prophetic certainly, but if we consider that the Oracle in Greece spoke messages from the gods, this captures more closely what Emerson intends. Our Instinct is like a direct connection to God (Emerson’s idea of God is not an individual but of a sort of creative Mind) and a sort of Divine Spark. As he moves on to speak of Inspiration, the oracular sense Emerson applies to Instinct takes on even greater meaning.
Instinct is passive, it is something that just is. Inspiration is Instinct made active. Inspiration is divine energy that “never rests or repeats itself” but continually recreates itself in new forms. Inspiration ahppens to an individual, but we are mistaken if we think of Inspiration as particular. Because its source is ultimately divine, Inspiration is “public and universal.” Therefore Emerson can suggest that since all who are inspired are using the same source, “one master could easily be conceived as writing all the books of the world.”
Emerson doesn’t know why Inspiration is “coy and capricious,” why it is impervious to our will. He wonders if it is because
we are such mountains of conceit that Heaven cannot enough mortify and snub us…but there seems a settled determination to break our spirit. We shall not think of ourselves too highly.
Poor Emerson. I can hear the echo of personal anguish in that thought. I can see him sitting at his desk in his study groping for words and ideas that aren’t coming, tossing down his pen in frustration and striding out of the house to go walk the woods and fields with his friend Throeau.
Wrapped up in Instinct and Inspiration is Genius. Genius in Emerson’s rendering of it signifies intellectual and creative power but also includes, due to it being fed by Inspiration and Instinct, a spiritual element. It in some ways reaches back to the Middle English meaning of an “attendant spirit present from one’s birth” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Genius is divine and here Emerson equates it with Intellect. Being divine, Genius/Intellect is also independent of our will and a universal.
Genius is something we all have, it is what calls us to do a certain work. But here, for the first time that I can remember, Emerson acknowledges “many men are very slow in finding their vocation. It does not at once appear what they were made for.” And for those who never find their vocation, he generously suggests that they “ripen too slowly” and through no real fault of their own, “the season is not quite long enough for them.”
Even if we do not find our vocation, we still have Genius and this Genius should be served and obeyed: “obedience to its genius is the particular of faith.” By serving Genius, we “command by obeying.” In our obedience we find strength and power and happiness. Emerson makes Instinct, Inspiration and Genius into a sort of holy triumvirate. The lecture is quite heretical in that respect but it is not immediately noticeable; it creeps upon the reader slowly. When the realization dawned on me it elicited a surprised “oh!” to be immediately followed by a delighted smile at the subversiveness of it all.
Next week’s Emerson: “Memory”