Cosmos Café [2/12] - "The Circle" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Spirals and spheres have appeared in contemporary three- and four-dimensional reflections and other thought. Though Emerson in his essay “The Circle” draws upon two-dimensional shapes as his choice metaphor, do not be fooled into flat thinking…this is an essay that spirals amongst itself and “around every circle another can be drawn.” Emerson charts the course for complexity and uncertainty as we face the ever-changing nature-sphere. He places the individual eye, the “transparent eyeball” at the center of the ever-expansion of various circles. Where do we sit with this? Simplicity? Complexity? In what sense do we sail?

The essay hoists a certain philosophical tone. Our Cafe circle heaved and hoed various loops of experience, embodiment and enthusiasm, threading themes of deep innocence, complex exuberance, the inner and outer eye; Transcendentalists Nature language; the labyrinths of the body and mind; post-industrialist society and the relevance of Emerson’s spiritual prose and pose.

M.C. Escher -Concentric Rinds Colour

“Circles, like the soul, are neverending and turn round and round without a stop”

Reading / Watching / Listening

This site provides recorded voice:

Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages.”

Seed Questions

  • In what sense should we take the idea of the circle? @Eduardo_Rocha imagines 3 shapes for the circle with which he speaks in the essay.: theological-cosmological, another biological or some “theory of nature”, and another more like some kind of “theory of knowledge.”
  • How is Emerson relevant today?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

Agenda items

  • Announcements
  • Introduction to the essay
  • Opening statements/questions
  • Reading from “The Circle”

“I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker.”


This discussion is fine with me. I believe you @Douggins suggested February 12 as the date for that.


I’ll try to create a little script to remind myself of what to say. I really liked this essay. I see something more theological or even cosmological, but also someone who believes in science as a near-progress. A mixture of many things. The ending seemed a bit confusing.


You said this in reference to the Deep Observation Cafe Proposal. Sloterdijk is always lurking in the background here, for some of us. I am wondering too, if you posted “The Circle” as a reading suggestion based upon Sloterdijk’s reference to Emerson’s essay in “The Last Orb” in Spheres? Could you say more on this @Eduardo_Rocha?

We always appreciate your contributions to the conversation (most of which I feel unqualified to share a comment). The above initial post is an editable wiki if you would like to add in “seed questions” additional readings, etc. I will add in a few elements once I reread this challenging essay.


If I remember correctly Sloterdijk mentions Emerson pretty quickly, maybe in about 10 lines or something. It talks about the idea of globalization and horizons. I think it’s the expanding globe’s relationship. I put the nomination more because of Nietzsche. You mentioned that Nietzsche and Emerson seem to have some connection. So I decided to take this essay from Emerson.

About Emerson, I think one question that would be interesting is: in what sense should we take the idea of the circle? I was able to imagine 3 shapes for the circle with which he speaks in the essay. A theological-cosmological, another biological or some “theory of nature”, and another more like some kind of “theory of knowledge.” Hegel uses the spirit as a circle.

Word(s) of caution

I would like to begin this writing with a word of caution. I am no Emerson scholar. If I mentioned a connection between Emerson and Nietzsche, I am unaware of such a mention. I regret to say that my American education did not require and barely gave word to suggest that one read Emerson. I, before reading this essay “Circles,” had only an awareness of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller as “in tune with nature,” as part of the Transcendentalist movement, as pragmatic and “self-reliant” in the natural sense of the word. In short, I wish to convey a reluctant sigh towards my poor education, a minimalist’s version of expertise, and a hopeful sign that what I am about to write aligns with the intense passion to understand, to seek a deeper truth, to apply such knowledge to my everyday living. I believe this is at the core of what Emerson “preached” in his lectures/essays.

I believe this passion, however crude and lop-sided my presentation may be, is a core reason why I post here on this forum. There is a strong desire to learn. To learn, one must share thoughts. To share thoughts, we make ourselves ripe for mistakes. At our best, these subjects rile up a pure spirit. It will be read and appreciated by others with pure spirit, for what it is worth. What follows is my two cents, skirting the periphery, attempting to reach the heart of Emerson and “The Circle.”

I hope to have more written on this. For now, I wish to add that Nietzsche took Emerson everywhere. He discovered Emerson’s philosophy at the age of 17 and never went without a few of his works by his side. The Gay Science title was influenced by Emerson’s self-referential title as a “professor of the Joyous Science”…some of Nietzsche’s lines in his famous works are direct quotes from Emerson. His copies of Essays and other writings had notes inside and out, a few exclamations such as “Bravo!” and “Ja!”… often covering the cover with notes when he ran out of room. In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen states “Nietzsche read his way through Emerson to his own ideas about the intellectual free spirit who must break the chain of history, of tradition, and of convention. Over time, he came to identify himself as a soverign self who refused to exalt inherited ideals. But, as his reading of Emerson also shows, even soverign selves must, from time to time, draw their inspiration from others.” (p.9)

Emerson, Nietzsche, any “self-reliant" individual: all seek to chart new course outside of the limitations of dogma, societal rules, family, educational norms, etc.

From “Circles”:

“O blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for these, they are not thou! Every personal consideration that we allow costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and turbulent pleasure.

How often must we learn this lesson? Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprise? has he knowledge? It boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.

The sea and shore metaphor arises in many of Emerson’s essays. I think Emerson bathed in the thought of being “thrown” into this world and was constantly swimming with care towards the center of his becoming. He shared a deep connection to the Infinite…

From Emerson’s “Thoughts on Modern Literature” (1840):

This feeling of the Infinite has deeply colored the poetry of he period. This new love of the vast, always native in Germany, was imported into France by De Stael, appeared in England in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley… and finds a most genial climate in the American mind.

…In Byron, on the other hand, it predominates; but in Byron it is blind, it sees not its true end – an infinite good, alive and beautiful, a life nourished on absolute beatitudes, descending into Nature to behold itself reflected there. His will is perverted, he worships the accidents of society, and his praise of Nature is thieving and selfish.

Yes. Sloterdijk seems to be using Emerson to demonstrate the endless horizons of nature and the maritime mentality of expansion. There is the idea that “terrain idealism” is no longer suitable for intellectual processsing of globalism. He uses the quote from “The Circle” more for its reference to spacial metaphors of the infinite sea. This is one way to read the essay, but I think Sloterdijk was loosely connecting Emerson and Nietzsche to the deflation of the one divine orb.

Much how Nietzsche (or any generator of great, controversial ideas/new lines of thought) can be misinterpreted as praising humanism and lauding the man-on-top, a destructive nihilism, human-as-the-dominant-species type of thinking, Emerson (according to my interpretation) is misinterpreted as another individual promoting human existence as the peak of all things. He criticised Lord Byron for his “thieving” thoughts. Emerson, in my reading of his essay(s), aligns more with the human as enmeshed within the web of life rather than with a consistent, linear theory of how to go forth in this world. In “Self Reliance” Emerson touches on both the misunderstanding of “every pure and wise spirit” and that every person is woven in the web of life and Nature:

Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict 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. I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza;— read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are.

I have a bit more to say about Emerson before the Cafe. I believe, by circumnavigating around this chosen essay, we may be able to get at the heart of its radical contents. I like what you have said about the various interpretations of the circle:

A note on this Cafe choice:

We have mentioned elsewhere the momentum of the Cafe. Some of us like to chart our course into turbid waters, seeking clarity on the other side rather than a set destination. Idle ships at shore go nowhere, nor do ships that steer to shiny shores. We all tread various circling waters…what can our crew bring to this Cafe? How can we tie together our various circles? Emerson sets the course for complexity and uncertainty as we face the ever-changing nature-sphere. He places the individual eye, the “transparent eyeball” at the center of the ever-expansion of various circles. Where do we sit with this? Simplicity? Complexity? In what sense do we sail?


As I usually show up for the Cafés regardless of topic, I nevertheless would have liked to have been there for a bit of Emerson, as I’ve long thought highly of him. As fate would have it, however, I have another engagement on Tuesday and won’t be able to attend.

Have fun.


What an amazing essay. If we had the time (I’m not sure how long it would take); I would suggest we read it aloud and discuss it piece by piece. I counted at least 20 distinct sections or themes (which I know could be dissected in many different ways), which all touch upon present concerns from the relatively clear-minded and eloquent (oblivious of what was to come) vantage point of 19th-century New England (in the still-newly formed [pre-Civil War] US of A):

  1. The basic geometrical form of reality
  2. Impermanence & (the myth?) of progress
  3. Positive psychology (self-reliance & the beginning of self-help)
  4. The knowledge quest
  5. Personal identity & neuroplasticity (before brain science)
  6. Friendship and truth-devotion
  7. Thinkers and revolutionary thought
  8. Conversation (circular language games)
  9. Literature (and the presence of the past; language as the “house of being”)
  10. Cognitive liberty & religious freedom
  11. Eco-theology & natural systems
  12. Self-cultivation and the “Law of Attraction”
  13. Risk management and divine inspiration
  14. Economic & social justice / moral debt
  15. Beyond good & evil [postmetaphysical ethics?]
  16. Vitalism (& the shadow ageism—out with the old, in with the new! mentality)
  17. Spiritual experience and time-freedom
  18. Eros and (making) history
  19. Shadows of colonialism
  20. The involutionary origin and transcendental transparency of events

I have no idea how we would talk about all this—but it’s all there, and much more, in the essay. I’m looking forward to our dialogue. Thanks for the reading suggestion, @Eduardo_Rocha!


Just about to mention a direct reading from this essay. Thank you for your stellar list here Marco! Suggesting we set the framework as a direct reading, one or two or three paragraphs at a time, and allow the conversation to flow without a demand to complete the reading. The recording above from Bob Neufeld on LibreVox at a “professional reading pace” clocks in at 34 minutes.


I appreciate the enthusism for this essay. And I have a difference. Although the list is great this essay is not oriented to list making. It is like a whiling Sufi master on magic mushrooms. I like the idea of asking each of us which paragraph or sentence we are most attracted to. Let each person decide what to develop and then go let it flow. Just like you hold a little bird, not too loose and not too tight.

And I dont know if a close reading makes sense with such a Gnostic ghost writer. He speaks with several voices, some are daemonic.


To me, you state the most obvious reason why a close reading would make a whole lot of sense.

BTW, do you mean “gnostic-Ghost writer” or “gnostic Ghost-writer”? Just curious.


I prefer a close reading with short lyric pieces, but really doubt it works well with epic poetry or drama. A close reading works well in a private theater of the mind. I think a lot of literature is not about that. I like a Comparative reading. Zoom out rather than zoom in. Multiple frames held in tandem. What is in between, in the liminal spaces of a Gnostic writer, who is usually not about what is or what was but what could be is a different kettle of fish.

You cant read one novel and say you understand the novel. You can read a play by Shakespeare and not know Shakespeare at all. You also need to read Marlowe and Spenser and Donne. Then you can talk about Shakespeare perhaps. A close reading of a sonnet is possible and desirable but that is just a begining. The sonnets are like a song-cycle, each one echos the other ones. An actor, who plays Lear, ( which I have done) has a lot more going on than a close reading of a text.

And like Nabokov I read not with my head but with my spine. This is to read phenomenologically. I read Emerson, as a performance, for an audience, dramatizing different voices, some daemonic. He was a performing artist. His lectures were sell outs. I think he influenced Mark Twain in this regard.

I love close reading and want to get better at it. I also think we need to get to sense of the complex systems the artist is working with. It is not just about taking different perspectives, it is about creating those perspective from scratch. To do this we have to pay attention to the hungry ghosts.


Well, I couldn’t agree with you more, John. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that a close reading would be the only reading one should do. As you note, close readings are just a beginning.

However, I’m still not quite clear on what you mean by “Gnostic” … that term is used in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people in a lot of different contexts, and I’d like to be directing my attention in the most relevant direction.


That’s a great question and could perhaps be a topic for a future Cafe. I have a feeling for the Gnostic as heretic and outsider because I am one! I think the discoveries of Nag Hamadhi reveal how dynamic the early Christian Church was, with very strange characters, having intense experiences, that they had no frames for. That can be unsettling for Bishops and Popes!

I recall listening to famous scholar on Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism and when asked who would be a good Gnostic writer to study he said, " Emerson." That surprised me. But after reading a big chunk of him, in preparation for this Cafe, I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the connections with the Subtle realms, that come through the elegant and formal prose. Emerson is wrestling with the Daemonic. I think Harold Bloom, a favorite critic of mine, helps me read this dead, white guy in a different way.Too bad you missed the Cafe. I would have liked to hear your version!


Thanks, John, this is very helpful, especially how you like Emerson to the notion.

About 35 years ago, one part of my oral exam in literature for the degree I took here in Germany, we compared the American and German transcendentalists, Emerson belonging to the former, and it was clear to me – at least I remember trying to make the point to the critical-rationalist professor who was examining me – that the notion the Americans were representing was more spiritual (I had no real better word at the time) than the Germans who tended to get stuck in their heads (i.e., cognitive, rational, intellectual). It’s not a clean distinction, by any means, but once you allow for it, you allow for what you call “the Subtle realms” to inform the discussion.

Of course, another question is raised in all of this: would you mind delineating “the Daemonic” a bit more? Thanks.


I am reading Bloom, currently, and Jeffrey Kripal, who is a big influence. He has done a brilliant study of the para-normal. These forces, that I call Daemonic, are kissing cousins, with the Demonic. They are bigger than we are and they are dangerous and friendly, come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, usually at night, and they fuck us up. They do not provide a perspective we can take on, they demolish all perspective taking. They annihilate, with a bolt of light, in the third eye, or base of the spine, and they speak lost languages as well as English and slang. They are more song than they are speech. And they dont bother to translate into anything that we already know. They give commands, not arguments, and they love you sometimes in ways that your parents never did, no earthly lover, has or ever will. They can blow your fuses. They are electrical. No doctrine or church can contain them. They deconstruct us.

Music and art and literature carries us into and out of these liminal spaces. Literature is telepathic, syncronistic, as anyone who has met the library Angel knows. Hence, the reconstructive phase. We need to do both if we are to remain viable in any of the realms.

As Kripal says we lack a theory of the Imagination. We are not yet able in our deficient Mental structure to recognize the difference between fantasy and vision. The Imaginal is not the same as the imagination. You do not create the Daemon.

This would also be a great topic for a Cafe. There are some startling syncronistic discoveries that the Romantics and the Transcendentalists capture in their collaborative think tanks. I am currently reading, along wiht much else, Schelling’s novel Clara.

How can we update these powerful trends, that have had such vast influence, and stay grounded and relevant in a world that has gone insane?


Again, John, very helpful. (What of Bloom’s are you reading, BTW?) But, you raise another question:

Given my skepticism of all things “theoretical”, I’d say “so what?”, but given the reality of the liminal, if you will, and given the reality of the Daemonic, just what help or advantages does a theory bring here? (I am really trying to get my head around the notion of “theory”.) What is more, a few words on imaginal/imagination would be helpful, too.

I appreciate your patience.


Thank you for your patience. None of this is easy or we would not be in the predicament we are now in. Imagination comes and goes through out my day. Reverie, past, future, short term, long term plans, are the ordinary experience, making a shopping list, organizing simple routines, all ride on the interplay of memories and possibilities. Memories are a form of imagination. We edit and delete them and return to them and transform them.

The Imaginal is not like that. The Imaginal is more like a real person in the room than a figment of the imagination. I can imagine Scarlet O’Hara or Anna Karenina. She exists in a collective imagination. I am drawn to speakers or thinkers who know who these heroines are. We share something, the imagination.

The Imaginal is much more about a Future that is going to happen that you must change. You are given access to a Vision that is not about your private fantasy or what makes you feel good. Vision, actually, can make you feel bad. Inadequate and not up to the challenge. It will not make you rich or famous or help you get a job or pay the mortgage.

We dont always need Vision, if aint broken dont fix it. I consider our system broken. Some dont feel that way. So, who do we believe?

I believe my Daemon. I am in good company. I dont expect others to follow the beat of my drummer. Others will have a different relationship or none at all to the Daemonic. Most people take a Valium or go shopping. If they can escape from this, they certainly should. But it is not all relative.


Again, thank you very much for this, very helpful, especially the sketching out of the difference between imagination and the Imaginal.

It is often said, you should go with what you know, but as you are pointing out, that may be a too limited view of things.


Yes, I agree to that. A writer I admire said never write about what you know. Write about what obsesses you!

If we can open up to a Vision, we may be shattered and unable to cope if we hold it in a cramped posture. If we can drop down into the pelvis, we can ground our vision in a social world. We will get lost in the stars forever if we go up into our heads. I agree the theory can be deadly. We need theory for we can learn little without it but we can’t rely on theory, with rules of order and endless lists about everything. We must, as you have said, simplify without reducing. No easy thing to do. We must simplify without telling other people to shut up! That is sometimes really hard to do.

We can, however, rely upon principles of engagement, and try to enter the weave, as Bateson says, of complex living systems. Emerson does this in the magic of his prose poems. He casts a spell.

Thanks for the questions, Ed, I learned something,