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Fate Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A great change occurred in Emerson’s thought in his later life, as can be demonstrated in the essay “Fate.” Whereas freedom and optimism were emphasized in his early life, fate and limitation eventually became his great concern. Having, in his later life, read much oriental literature, which greatly emphasizes the power of fate, Emerson felt it necessary to reckon with this subject and include it in his thought.

Unlike his earlier essays, which nearly always begin with an optimistic trust in the potentiality of the self, “Fate” begins with an emphasis on obstacles, which are described as immovable and which individuals would inevitably experience in their attempts to achieve goals. To avoid the misunderstanding that he has radically changed his view regarding the grand nature of humankind, which had been effectively advocated during most of his life, Emerson affirms the importance of liberty immediately after his opening statement on the significance of fate.

The ideal principle, according to him, is to strike a balance between liberty and fate, rather than overemphasize either of them. After setting forth this principle, Emerson turns his attention back to fate, citing Hinduism, Calvinism, and Greek tragedy as examples for their emphatic treatment of this grim aspect of life. Contrary to his earlier idea, Nature—equated with fate in this essay—is now perceived as potentially rough and dangerous. He describes various kinds of limitations—environment, race, physique, character, and sometimes thought.

In order to illustrate the importance of fate, Emerson even makes an overstatement that one is predetermined the moment one is born. A criticism is further made on the narrow focus of his own previous thought (the optimism emphasizing the power of the self) with the recognition that circumstance, the negative side which one cannot fully control, ought to be considered. According to Emerson, fate manifests itself in both matter and mind, the latter being affected in a much more subtle way.

Having elaborated the significance of fate, he begins to assert liberty again: “Intellect annuls Fate.” To counteract fate, one is advised first to transform it intrinsically by regarding it as a positive force working for one’s ultimate good rather than a negative force. Furthermore, one should draw upon the ever-resourceful universal force, the moral sentiment within oneself, to take oneself out of bondage into freedom. Only by so doing, Emerson maintains, can one expect to reconcile fate and freedom: “Person makes event, and event person.”

After analyzing the way to reconcile the opposite forces of fate and freedom, he moves a step further in holding that one can subjugate fate to one’s will because event is only the exteriorization of the soul—an idea that is in agreement with his early thought. In doing so, he applies the law of cause and effect to human life, regarding the soul as the cause and event as its effect. Nature, in his view, best serves those who concentrate on refining their moral sentiment. The essay concludes with an assertion of the balanced interplay of fate and freedom, giving the...

(The entire section is 741 words.)