In 1860 Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay called Fate in a collection called The Conduct of Life. This essay is written by a mature Emerson, a man who has worked and taught for nearly 3 decades and who has found some of his youthful – perhaps naïve – optimism dulled by time. In his earlier evolutionary philosophy Emerson described the process of nature’s inevitable climb up through the ladder of animal species to the ultimate perfect state of humankind. In those earlier works he described how human beings had lost their way, how they had become distracted in the pursuit of material comforts, but the implication was that all we needed to do was to remember and reclaim our original cosmic motive and restart our ascent up the evolutionary ladder.
In this essay he introduces a more somber force that counters the upward force of nature’s march to perfection. It is the force of fate which he calls the laws of the world. The forces of fate act to limit us. They are the counter force to the power of nature and the power of human will. Emerson describes his discovery of this counter balance to evolution by stating, “Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half.”
Fate is part and parcel of the circumstance that we find ourselves in. It includes personal circumstance and cultural circumstance, and it acts as a drag on our developmental forward movement. It is the existence of fate in nature that makes the process of the evolution of the world take so much time. He says:
“The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages, — leaf after leaf, — never returning one. One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium, fish; then, saurians, — rude forms, in which she has only blocked her future statue, concealing under these unwieldly monsters the fine type of her coming king. The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born.”
Emerson in his earlier works imagined the possibility of a perfected spiritual state of human beings. A state in which the individual will was finally and completely given over to the omnipotent will of the universal soul of humanity. Over the course of time he was discouraged because his own achievement of this perfect state eluded his best efforts. He began to realize that just a strong intention toward Self-Reliance was not enough to ensure the attainment of the goal. There was an active counter force at work that must also be accounted for and this force was the force of fate.
And yet Fate as Emerson writes about it is not wholly separate from our own will. “Every spirit makes its house; but afterwards the house confines the spirit.” he says. After all we are the universal source of evolution as well as its product. It was us as universal spirit who initiated the process of evolution, and it is us as individual spirit that must struggle though the very process that we created to find our way back to our perfected state. We made the rules and we must evolve by them.