• Paul D. Wilke

Emerson's "Circles" as a Metaphor for Human Experience

Spirals by Terry Frost - 1991

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Circles," published in 1841, is one of my favorite metaphors for describing the potential of human experience.

Emerson wrote, "The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul."

When we are born, we inherit the worldviews of our parents. That's our first circle, and it's a freebie. As we go through life and gain experience, maturity, and education, we generate new circles that encompass an ever-deeper understanding of reality. Emerson believed this to be an ongoing and potentially never-ending process.

We are continually pushing our boundaries as we develop awareness. What seems like common sense today becomes obsolete tomorrow. According to Emerson, as you come to understand the world better, you're able to use the insight gained to expand your circle further.

Like an empire in its vibrant early days, the boundaries of the circle aggressively expand. All of us can relate to some degree. As children and even as young adults, curiosity and a willingness to try new things governed our lives. Our growth during this period is by leaps and bounds. Is it any wonder we view childhood with such warm nostalgia?

As adults, we no longer see the world as children or even as teenagers. The circumference of our circle has widened to reflect our enhanced perspectives. However, like an empire, this expansion is not infinite; it usually stops at some point and hardens into a kind of personal status quo. Change then becomes more difficult as we age and get set in our ways. That effervescence of youth seeps away until nothing remains but dull habit and custom.

Still, Emerson was an optimist. He believed this was not everyone's fate. We each potentially have it in us to keep pushing the boundaries of the circle outward. He wrote,

"But if the soul is quick and strong it bursts over that boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses it already tends outward with a vast force and immense and innumerable expansions."

Yet, this is not the case for most people. As youth transitions into middle-age, novel ideas threaten comfortable older ones. Emerson wrote, "The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, come like an abyss of skepticism." Instead of embracing the new, as they did in their youth, people tend to settle into stable orbits.

Call it the state of Good Enough, where the energy needed to expand one's perspective becomes greater than the will to do so. The routines of life, career, and family gradually exert a counter-gravity that negates the spirit's early expansive tendencies. People stop growing and learn to simply react to the conditions of their environment. Eventually, they settle into stable orbits, and that's how it remains for the rest of their lives.

An equilibrium is established. Or, is it stagnation? Either way, growth halts, and the expanding circle hardens into the walls of a fortress that must be defended at all costs. Those who settle have neither the time nor the energy to expand further but come to see change as threatening and disrupting. They end up guarding the walls against the threats that new ideas may bring.

There is nothing wrong with this, I suppose. This is not so much a value judgment as an observation about human nature. Sadly, this is the eventual fate for most of us. Change can be energizing, but also disorienting and destabilizing. As time goes on, we tend to recoil at the psychological disruption that novelty brings. We want to draw comfort from the familiar. So we choose to exist within the closed limits of our circles.

Circle Limit with Butterflies by M.C. Escher - 1950

It's safe there, cozy, warm, and with no surprises. Expansion (growth) is thus traded for stability (safety); the idea that everything is contingent is replaced by an unreflected sense of certainty. We pay a price for this stability, however. When the circle hardens and we no longer have the potential to expand it any further, our spirit begins to wither and die. Sadly, spiritual death often precedes the body by many years.

Yet, there are a few people who never stop expanding their circles. They never settle down and turn their circles into forts. No, they endlessly blossom anew, always quivering like coiled bits of energy. They continuously breathe new life into old forms and find fresh perspectives that resolve old dilemmas. These luminescent beings understand that every new truth they uncover has an expiration date, and by doing so, they anticipate the next leap of the circle's boundary. Forever primed to grow, they are ready to spring forward whenever old ideas no longer provide satisfying answers. And so it goes, the surging spirit extending the circle until the body breaks down and dies. 

Finally, Emerson wrote, "Everything looks permanent until its secret is known."

Indeed! And once that secret is known, it begins to cramp our being. Then that safe and comfortable fort becomes a prison. Ideas that seemed fresh and new now reek of decay. Our circle feels too small, it suffocates and must expand again. For a select few, this circle becomes a dancing spiral, twirling and spinning in new directions, now expanding, now contracting, but forever revealing fresh ways upon which to experience reality.

These people instinctively feel the transience of everything. Other than death, there is no one-and-only final Truth, but as many truths as individuals seeking them out. The spiral dancers understand that the living truths we embrace today as facts are tomorrow's dead platitudes.

Still, I realize that my mental horizon is forever limited by the boundaries of my circle. No matter how far out I push, there will always be a hidden horizon of unknowable mystery beyond which I cannot see. The fact that there is never an end, nor any final Truth to behold, is what gives vitality to life.

Emerson believed that each truth we think ultimate is really only a temporary one we have yet to fully explore. Riders of spirals are the ones who push the limits of the humanly possible. However, they do so guided by some fundamental principles.

Here are a few final quotes from Emerson that best encapsulate those principles:

"There is no virtue which is final; all are initial. The virtues of society are vices of the saint."

And, "I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back."

Finally, "No truth so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

Emerson's on to something here. However, those words will smack of relativism for the person living comfortably within a closed circle of hardened truths. Surely some things must be finally true? Yes, but true for whom? And for how long? Forever? No, sorry, that's not going to work for Emerson. Choose again.

Emerson realized that truths are really all about perspective. Our job is to use our limited moments on this earth to explore as many of those truths as possible, to keep stretching our circles, and to ride those spirals until we no longer can. Emerson's insights here are so beautiful, so eloquent, and so wise that they are the truths I choose to live by.

For now, anyway.

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Bayeux, France

August 2020

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