Many of my favorite quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson seem to point to an important overarching idea:
We exist as an arbitrary point in a grand scheme of intelligence and development – and that if there be “sacredness” at all, it is more in our ascension than in our present form, ideas, or values.
Emerson’s conception of evolution supposes vastly higher realms of understanding and capability than humans today possess. While the ideas of brain-computer interface, artificial general intelligence, and transhumanism were far outside of his (or nearly anyone’s) conception in the early and mid 1800s, he rightly identifies man as existing as a point in a grand trajectory, not as some kind of threshold, sacred height of understanding or moral worth.
It should be noted that Nietzsche – famous among other things for his idea of the superman, and overcoming humanity in general – adored the ideas Emerson, and it seems safe to say that the superman draws at least some significant inspiration from the Concord Sage. Today Nietzsche stands as an important philosopher in transhuman literature (explored well by Sorgner, and others), while Emerson is not.
I won’t turn this article into an essay. Rather, I’ll try to succinctly frame some of Emerson’s ideas about ascending the human condition – along with some of the conclusions and intellectual jumping-off points we might draw from these ideas.
From Nature. Note that Emerson is far from framing humanity as sitting permanently atop said spires.
This notion of man as something to be ascended is hardly Emerson’s own. Lucretius screams it from the mountaintops from almost every page of On the Nature of Things – and Emerson most likely took this baton from Lucretius, and from his reading of the Vedas. Today this idea comes back to us through various future thinkers, from Toby Ord to Ben Goertzel and more. Emerson merely frames it well. I could list a dozen such “framings” of this point, but I’ll limit myself to the four below.
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
From The Uses of Great Men. Here he begs the question: What is beyond thinking? What will the “chemic lump” bumble or bubble up to next?
The gases gather to the solid firmament: the chemic lump arrives at the plant, and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives at the man, and thinks.
From Self Reliance. This quote typifies Emerson’s philosophy of the “infinitude of the private man,” but could just as well point to the infinitude of the enervating force behind man, of the evolutionary force shooting (physically, intellectually) beyond human powers and imagination.
Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design…
From Circles, an essay which represents the core of Emerson’s skepticism – his greatest channeling of Montaigne. He asks us to unsettle all of our foundations and consider everything we know or value as being inevitably overturned by an infinitude of increasingly higher perspectives.
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
The consequences of this idea are far-reaching, and many of them are being actively explored by contemporary thinkers. Bostrom asks us to take utility monsters seriously, and some permutations of Longtermism ask us to prioritize the wellbeing of computronium rather than that of humans, or advocate for various permutations of post-human experience as significantly more important than humanity-as-it-is.
Emerson prods us with the following:
- Humanity itself represents a greater impulse towards complexity and development. Freezing current human experience or current human form is not the goal – and in fact is not an option. Everything is attenuating and becoming something else – aiming to overcome itself in some direction. We might ask:
- What do we – as an individual, a nation, or a species – want to blossom into?
- What does it mean to be part of “steering” the future of intelligence and sentience?
- How might we coordinate to head towards these desirable next states?
- Is collaboration even possible?
- Our present ideas and values – no matter how secure or sacred they seem – are bound to be overcome. No current moral idea is “the” moral idea. No aspect of the human experience is “sacred” outside of our own fettered subjective experience. To quote Emerson again: “This fact the world hates: That the world becomes.” Just as species are giving way to new species, and technologies to new technologies, ideas are giving way to new ideas – and always will. We might ask:
- What new kinds of “good” are there to explore, beyond what we now pursue?
- What if our highest ideas today are just as “advanced” in the grand scheme as the ideas of an insect are to our ideas as humans?
- What would it mean if what we feel to be sacred actually wasn’t at all?
I enjoy Emerson as a platform to leap into future ideas, because (a) he opens the door to ideas and states beyond humanity very well, and (b) he does so with optimism, with a sense of wonder and delight in being part of a great and higher stream. I don’t ultimately share in his incessant optimism, but I appreciate it, and believe that we should ask bold and scary questions out of a frame of mind other than existential fear.
I like to think he’d marvel at the transhuman future that is starting to unfold before us now – and that if nothing else he’d ask us to consider what forms we’ll assume as the ascend the spires.
Header image credit: The Tower of Babel – Pieter Bruegel the Elder