We All Have a Great Deal of Guano in Our Destiny

“The German and Irish millions, like the Negro, have a great deal of guano in their destiny.  They are ferried over the Atlantic, and carted over America , to ditch and drudge, to make corn cheap, and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of green grass on the prairie.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life (1860)*

Emerson wrote this line as part of his proto-ubermensch philosophy of the talented tenth.  Mankind, he tells us, is divided into two classes: the few who are destined for greatness and the many who are destined for guano.  The few will be remembered by the mighty deeds and deathless words with which they shook the earth.  The many will be remembered by the spots of green grass their corpses fertilize on the prairie.  Gods, we might say, and sods.

The answer to Emerson is not a fatuous democratic fanfare for the common man, since what he says is in one sense entirely true.  Men are not equal in history.  When men seek the meaning their existence in history, the few find they are destined for greatness and the many that they are destined for guano.  The answer to Emerson is that history is not the place men should seek the meaning of their existence because, in history, even world-historic ubermenschen come to guano in the end.

If we seek the meaning of the existence of Ralph Waldo Emerson in history, for instance, we find that there is in his destiny nothing but guano.  At the end of the day even gods like Emerson do nothing but enrich the soil and add some greenness to perishable grass.

If your existence has a meaning other than guano, you must seek that meaning beyond history.  I say beyond and not outside because history and guano are part of the seeking.  As I wrote here once before, we are destined to be beings that have been burnt.  Thus all who look for light must go first through the dark.

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark.”**

*) Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life, second edition (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1860), p. 10.

**) T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” (1940)

4 thoughts on “We All Have a Great Deal of Guano in Our Destiny

  1. Scripture has an answer for Emerson’s quote. Mark 8:36.

    The greatest Saints lay hidden in history. See St. Joseph, for example.

  2. At Oxford in the 1960s, philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (wife of philosopher Peter Geach) was expecting her seventh child; she entered the lecture theatre to find that someone had written, “Anscombe breeds” on the blackboard. This passed for wit at that ancient seat of learning.

    Miss Anscombe picked up the chalk, wrote on the blackboard, turned and began her lecture, as if nothing had happened; the blackboard now read, “Anscombe breeds immortal beings.”

    She was the best tutor I ever had.


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