Emily Dickinson, “One and One – are One” (769)

One and One — are One, intones Dickinson.

You could say, as the kids do, that Dickinson is being “extra.” Two — be finished using is her very next line. She’s done with someone, there’s a breakup or heartbreak of some sort, and this leads her to discount mathematics? Logic? Not much later, she strongly implies Minor Choosing is about things like Life… Death… the Everlasting:

One and One - are One (769)
Emily Dickinson

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for Schools —
But for Minor Choosing —

Life — just — or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising — 

This is a poem with a lot of drama—those of us around volatile situations might think these words as likely to start drama—and it puts us into a peculiar situation as readers. How seriously do we take its rhetoric, its emotion? I vote for treating it with the utmost seriousness, despite its exaggerations. One and One — are One hints at a proposition with quite a story in the history of philosophy, one that touches on Life, Death, and the Everlasting. Further, Dickinson’s overblown statement about what is too vast / For the Soul’s Comprising can be turned into very necessary questions. What she terms “too vast” concerns knowledge relevant to love. How do we know love, how do we assess the value of love, how do we work within love? —If these questions sound irrelevant, think of those who rushed to be married and brought fresh hell upon each other.—


One and One — are One — / Two — be finished using directly invokes, intentionally or not, the problem of body and soul in Plato’s Phaedo. There, Socrates sits on his deathbed, about to drink the hemlock which will kill him, but first he has to deal with his own cult. One might be eager to know if Socrates acts so bravely because he knows the soul is immortal. You might put the rough idea this way: if body and soul are united, but two distinct things, then perhaps the soul preserves what it has learned through the body after the body dies. Two is comprised of one and one, but one of the ones holds two.

Socrates gives no less than an intellectual autobiography, i.e. answers the question of “How did Socrates come to be Socrates?”, while saying something similar to One and One — are One. Once, when he was young, he studied only natural philosophy. “I thought it was a glorious thing to know the causes of everything, why each thing comes into being and why it perishes and why it exists” (96a). But this led to a problem. While his knowledge certainly increased, was he receiving the knowledge of causality he sought? At first, he thought those who ate more would grow larger, as flesh added to flesh seemed simple enough, or that 10 was larger than 8 because 2 had been added to eight. However, “I am [now] far from thinking that I know the cause of any of these things, I who do not even dare to say, when one is added to one, whether the one to which the addition was made has become two, or the one which was added, or the one which was added and the one to which it was added became two by the addition of each to the other” (96e-97a).

This sounds idiotic. Of course one plus one equals two! What is Socrates babbling about? He speaks about how he has learned to understand cause. It would seem that a powerful, intuitive way of understanding causality is mathematics. When you add one to one, you get two, and if you divide two, you should get two ones. But nothing actually works like that when numbers cease to merely represent the actual things of this world. Socrates wonders which one, when another is added, becomes two, or whether one and one in some sense equally become two. An example, perhaps: when someone is very devoted to a relationship and another not so much, but both enter, only one of the ones has become two.

The beginning of truly understanding requires a “second sailing,” whereby mind does not assume itself all-powerful, able to divide a world which is otherwise undifferentiated unity, nor assume itself wholly passive, only impressed by objects. The “second sailing” begins with error, with an opinion that has gone far astray. Mind relates to the world and the world relates to mind, and as Seth Benardete notes, that entails a doubleness: how mind relates to the world is an entirely different proposition than how the world relates to one’s mind. 1 + 1 really does equal 1 in this sense: if you think you understand what you mean by two simply because two objects are present to you, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Dickinson plays with this philosophical rhetoric which is, like “Two,” well enough for Schools. It does touch on Life, Death, and the Everlasting in a profound way. I believe Socrates feels that the relation between body and soul is ever so delicate. Body does generate a soul, and a soul generates changes in body, but if anything happens to one or the other, both are injured or perish. One plus one is one, if assumed to be a Socratic sentiment, reinforces our fallibility and mortality.


You could say this is quite the assumption I’m making. Why can’t this just be a poem lamenting love and pain? Why can’t I leave good things alone?

Going back to the Phaedo, there’s another question at stake. Mind is, in one way, a dividing power. It analyzes, and in this sense, philosophy is like practicing dying (again, stealing this from Seth Benardete). Things are not treated in full respect of their being alive or part of this world when questioned or conceptualized. But this leads to a further problem—what puts things together?

That may be philosophy as eros, the erotic longing for knowledge which hopes to comprehend a whole. In which case, Life — just — or Death — / or the Everlasting really are the smaller issues, strangely enough. “How should we live?” isn’t the final truth about Life or Death as cosmic phenomena. It’s a practical question with theoretical overtones, but those overtones become, if used properly, the only true theorizing, theorizing which seeks to understand rather than proclaim.

I’ll give an example of something I’ve been thinking about recently, something I suspect lies within the vastness Dickinson says she will not deal with at the moment. It may speak to the situation she’s depicted. I’ve been trying to differentiate the fact that one shouldn’t need respect—I should have enough self-respect to carry myself a certain way, do the things I need to do—from the fact that respect is incredibly useful on an everyday level. It’s led me to two different notions of “respect:” first, a self-esteem which must persist, especially in the face of my making mistakes and needing to admit them. Second, strategizing how to get the respect I need from others to make my job easier, but not taking their lack of attention to the matter personally. I suspect something like this thought applies to issues of romantic love, which begin with matters of status and expectations, but ultimately require partners to demonstrate trust, presence, acceptance, and self-control. Two—be finished using, indeed.

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