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  • Writer's picturePaul 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 ways of 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 expand our circles to encompass an ever-deeper understanding of reality. Emerson believed this to be an ongoing and potentially never-ending process.

We continually push 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 use the insight gained to expand your circle further. Like an empire in its vibrant early days, the boundaries of our circles energetically 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. Growth during this period is by leaps and bounds. Is it any wonder that we look back on childhood with such fond memories?

As adults, we no longer see the world as children or even as teenagers. The circumference of our circle has widened enormously to reflect our enhanced perspectives. However, like an empire, this expansion is not endless; it usually stops at some point and stabilizes into a comfortable equilibrium. Change then becomes more difficult as we age and get set in our ways. The effervescence of youth slips away until nothing remains but unreflected routine. Here is where most people end up.

They go no further.

Their circles are set.

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 these new ideas, and expanding their circles once more, they shun them in favor of the comfortably numb status quo.

Call it the state of Good Enough, where the energy needed to expand one's consciousness 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. Eventually, most settle into stable orbits, and that's how it blandly remains for the rest of their lives, year after year, always the same, life reduced to a dull series of copy and paste days all the way to the cemetery.

An equilibrium is established. Or, is it stagnation? Either way, growth halts; the expanding circle now becomes the walls of a fortress that must be defended at all costs. Such people no longer have the time or the energy to expand any further. They see change as threatening and disrupting, and so end up guarding the walls against the threat of novelty.

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. Change can be energizing, but also disorienting and destabilizing. As time goes on, many people recoil at the psychological disruption that novelty brings. They want to draw comfort from the familiar: familiar places, people, food, and experiences. And so voluntarily they retreat into the cozy confines of their circles.

And there they stay.

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

It's safe there, snug, 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. However, they pay a price for this stability. When the circle hardens and they no longer have the potential to expand it any further, their spirit begins to wither and die. 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 transform 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 fort becomes a prison. Ideas that once seemed fresh and new now reek of decay. Our circle feels small and suffocating. Expansion must begin anew! For a lucky few, this circle finally becomes a dancing spiral, twirling and spinning in new directions, and basking in the glory of new experiences.

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.

So it has always been and so it must always be.

Even so, I realize that my personal horizon is forever constrained by the boundaries of my circle. No matter how far out I push, no matter how wide my circle, there will always be a hidden horizon of unknowable mystery beyond which I'll never 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 by fearlessly embracing change, but they do so guided by some fundamental principles.

Here are a few final quotes from Emerson that 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?


No, sorry, that's not going to work for Emerson. Choose again.

Emerson realized that truths are really all about perspective. Our task is to use our meager moments in this life to explore as many of those truths as possible, to keep stretching our circles, and if we're lucky, to ride those spirals into eternity. 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.


Supplementary Material



Bayeux, France

August 2020


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