Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
1803-1882

+++++It is nothing for any man sitting in his chair to be overcome with the sense of the immediacy of life, to feel the spur of courage, the victory of good over evil, the value, now and forever, of all great-hearted endeavor. Such moments come to us all. But for a man to sit in his chair and write what shall call up these forces in the bosoms of others – that is desert, that is greatness. To do this was the gift of Emerson. The whole earth is enriched by every moment of converse with him. The shows and shams of life become transparent, the lost kingdoms are brought back, the shutters of the spirit are opened, and provinces and realms of our own existence lie gleaming before us. – JJ Chapman

Ralph-Waldo-Emerson

Nature (1836) – read online

Essays: First Series (1841)

  • History
  • Self-Reliance
  • Compensation
  • Spiritual Laws
  • Love
  • Friendship
  • Prudence
  • Heroism
  • The Over-Soul
  • Circles
  • Intellect
  • Art

Essays: Second Series, 1844

  • The Poet
  • Experience
  • Character
  • Manners
  • Gifts
  • Nature
  • Politics
  • Nominalist and Realist
  • New England Reformers

(I’ve been lazy providing links for Essays, First and Second Series, only because I’ve read in them more often than any other book.)

Addresses and Lectures (1849) – read online

  • The American Scholar (1837) – read online
  • An Address (‘The Divinity School Address’) (1838) – read online
  • Literary Ethics
  • The Method of Nature
  • Man the Reformer
  • Lecture on the Times
  • The Conservative
  • The Transcendentalist
  • The Young American

Representative Men (1850) – read online

  1. Uses of Great Men
    • Plato; or, The Philosopher
    • Plato: New Readings
  2. Swedenborg; or, The Mystic
  3. Montaigne; or, The Skeptic
  4. Shakspeare; or, The Poet
  5. Napoleon; or, The Man of the World
  6. Goethe; or, The Writer

The Conduct of Life (1860) – read online

Society and Solitude (1870) – read online

Letters and Social Aims (1876) – read online

  • Poetry and Imagination
  • Social Aims
  • Eloquence
  • Resources
  • The Comic
  • Quotation and Originality
  • Progress of Culture
  • Persian Poetry
  • Inspiration
  • Greatness
  • Immortality

Journals

  1. 1820-4 – read online
  2. 18
  3. 18
  4. 18
  5. 1838-41 – read online
  6. 18
  7. 18
  8. 1849-55 – read online

Further Reading

Robert Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire
Margaret Fuller, review of Essays: Second Series
George Santayana, Emerson, from Interpretations of Poetry and Religionread online
Character and Opinion in the United States
John Jay Chapman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Emerson and Other Essays
John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1903, orig. Emerson – the Philosopher of Democracy) in Characters and Events, Vol. 1read online
William James, Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord (1903) – read online
Harriet Martineau, Autobiography
F.O. Mathiessen, American Renaissance
Barbara L. Packer, Emerson’s Fall
Stephen Whicher, Freedom and Fate
Harold Bloom, ??? ch. 9, Emerson and influence
Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable Imagination ch. 3, Emerson
Harold Bloom, Emerson chapter of Essayists and Prophets
various books and essays of Stanley Cavell, including:
Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden
Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism
The Self of Philosophy: An Interview with Stanley Cavell, 1993
Bloom’s How To Write About Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotes

I have been speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years, and have not now one disciple. Why? not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers; but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me. What could I do, if they came to me? they would interrupt and encumber me. This is my boast that I have no school and no followers. I should account it a measure of the impurity of insight, if it did not create independence. – Emerson, journal, 1859, aged 56

Emerson. – Never have I felt so much at home in a book, and in my home, as – I may not praise it, it is too close to me. – Nietzsche, notes

The author who has been richest in ideas in this century so far has been an American (unfortunately made obscure by German philosophy – frosted glass) – Nietzsche, notes

We have not in Emerson a great poet, a great writer, a great philosophy-maker. His relation to us is not that of one of those personages; yet it is a relation of, I think, even superior importance. His relation to us is more like that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius…he is the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit. Emerson is the same…
+++++One can scarcely overrate the importance of thus holding fast to happiness and hope. It gives Emerson’s work an invaluable virtue. As Wordsworth’s poetry is, in my judgement, the most important work done in verse, in our language, during the present century, so Emerson’s Essays are, I think, the most important work done in prose. – Matthew Arnold

He is the first man I have seen. – George Eliot

Emerson represents a protest against the tyranny of democracy. He is the most recent example of elemental hero-worship. His opinions are absolutely unqualified except by his temperament. He expresses a form of belief in the importance of the individual which is independent of any personal relations he has with the world. It is as if a man had been withdrawn from the earth and dedicated to condensing and embodying this eternal idea – the value of the individual soul – so vividly, so vitally, that his words could not die, yet in such illusive and abstract forms that by no chance and by no power could his creed be used for purposes of tyranny. Dogma cannot be extracted from it. Schools cannot be built on it. It either lives as the spirit lives, or else it evaporates and leaves nothing. Emerson was so afraid of the letter that killeth that he would hardly trust his words to print. He was assured there was no such thing as literal truth, but only literal falsehood. He therefore resorted to metaphors which could by no chance be taken literally. And he has probably succeeded in leaving a body of work which cannot be made to operate to any other end than that for which he designed it. If this be true, he has accomplished the inconceivable feat of eluding misconception. If it be true, he stands alone in the history of teachers; he has circumvented fate, he has left an unmixed blessing behind him. – JJ Chapman, Emerson And Other Essays

Emerson. – Much more enlightened, adventurous, multifarious, refined than Carlyle; above all, happier…Such a man as instinctively feeds on pure ambrosia and leaves alone the indigestible in things. …Carlyle, who had a great affection for him, nevertheless said of him: “He does not give us enough to bite on”: which may be truly said, but not to the detriment of Emerson. – Emerson possesses that good-natured and quick-witted cheerfulness that discourages all earnestness; he has absolutely no idea how old he is or how young he will be – he could say of himself, in the words of Lope de Vega: “I am my own successor”. His spirit is always finding reasons for being contented and even grateful… – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man, 13

It is said that Emerson is not a philosopher. I find this denegation false or true according as it is said in blame or praise – according to the reasons proffered. When the critic writes of lack of method, of the absence of continuity, of coherent logic, and, with the old story of the string of pearls loosely strung, puts Emerson away as a writer of maxims and proverbs, a recorder of brilliant insights and abrupt aphorisms, the critic, to my mind, but writes down his own incapacity to follow a logic that is finely wrought. “We want in every man a logic; we cannot pardon the absence of it, but it must not be spoken. Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions and have a separate value, it is worthless.” Emerson fulfills his own requisition. The critic needs the method separately propounded, and not finding his wonted leading-string is all lost. Again, says Emerson, “There is no compliment like the addressing to the human being thoughts out of certain heights and presupposing his intelligence” – a compliment which Emerson’s critics have mostly hastened to avert. But to make this short, I am not acquainted with any other writer, no matter how assured his position in treatises upon the history of philosophy, whose movement of thought is more compact and unified, nor one who combines more adequately diversity of intellectual attack with concentration of form and effect. – Dewey

[These next paragraphs are classic Santayana. He lays his finger on the 2 main flaws in Emerson’s system, describing them with wonderful style and precision, wielding the scalpel with his usual generosity and gentleness. He never mocks. That, I suppose, is wisdom. And where else have these flaws been described? People write acres on Emerson without so much as mentioning them. Here they’re mentioned and thoroughly dealt with, in the space of a couple of paragraphs.]

A certain mystical tendency is pervasive with him, but there are only one or two subjects on which he dwells with enough constancy and energy of attention to make his mystical treatment of them pronounced. One of these is the question of the unity of all minds in the single soul of the universe, which is the same in all creatures; another is the question of evil and of its evaporation in the universal harmony of things. Both these ideas suggest themselves at certain turns in every man’s experience, and might receive a rational formulation. But they are intricate subjects, obscured by many emotional prejudices, so that the labour, impartiality, and precision which would be needed to elucidate them are to be looked for in scholastic rather than in inspired thinkers, and in Emerson least of all. Before these problems he is alternately ingenuous and rhapsodical, and in both moods equally helpless. Individuals no doubt exist, he says to himself. But, ah! Napoleon is in every schoolboy. In every squatter in the western prairies we shall find an owner –
+++++“Of Caesar’s hand and Plato’s brain,
+++++Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.”
But how? we may ask. Potentially? Is it because any mind, were it given the right body and the right experience, were it made over, in a word, into another mind, would resemble that other mind to the point of identity? Or is it that our souls are already so largely similar that we are subject to many kindred promptings and share many ideals unrealizable in our particular circumstances? But then we should simply be saying that if what makes men different were removed, men would be indistinguishable, or that, in so far as they are now alike, they can understand one another by summoning up their respective experiences in the fancy. There would be no mysticism in that, but at the same time, alas, no eloquence, no paradox, and, if we must say the word, no nonsense.
+++++On the question of evil, Emerson’s position is of the same kind. There is evil, of course, he tells us. Experience is sad. There is a crack in everything that God has made. But, ah! the laws of the universe are sacred and beneficent. Without them nothing good could arise. All things, then, are in their right places and the universe is perfect above our querulous tears. Perfect? we may ask. But perfect from what point of view, in reference to what ideal? To its own? To that of a man who renouncing himself and all naturally dear to him, ignoring the injustice, suffering, and impotence in the world, allows his will and his conscience to be hypnotized by the spectacle of a necessary evolution, and lulled into cruelty by the pomp and music of a tragic show? In that case the evil is not explained, it is forgotten; it is not cured, but condoned. We have surrendered the category of the better and the worse, the deepest foundation of life and reason; we have become mystics on the one subject on which, above all others, we ought to be men. – Santayana, Emerson, in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

++++German philosophy has inherited from Protestantism its earnestness and pious intention; also a tendency to retain, for whatever changed views it may put forward, the names of former beliefs. God, freedom, and immortality, for instance, may eventually be transformed into their opposites, since the oracle of faith is internal; but their names may be kept, together with a feeling that what will now bear those names is much more satisfying than what they originally stood for. If it should seem that God came nearest to us, and dwelt within us, in the form of vital energy, if freedom should turn out really to mean personality, if immortality, in the end, should prove identical with the endlessness of human progress, and if these new thoughts should satisfy and encourage us as the evanescent ideas of God, freedom, and immortality satisfied and encouraged our fathers, why should we not use these consecrated names for our new conceptions, and thus indicate the continuity of religion amid the flux of science? This expedient is not always hypocritical. It was quite candid in men like Spinoza and Emerson, whose attachment to positive religion had insensibly given way to a half-mystical, half-intellectual satisfaction with the natural world, as their eloquent imagination conceived it. But whether candid or disingenuous, this habit has the advantage of oiling the wheels of progress with a sacred unction. In facilitating change it blurs the consciousness of change, and leads people to associate with their new opinions sentiments which are logically incompatible with them. The attachment of many tender-minded people to German philosophy is due to this circumstance, for German philosophy is not tender. – Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy, p23-4

Universally greeted, in his own day, as a revolutionary, he was, in point of fact, imitative and cautious – an importer of stale German elixirs, sometimes direct and sometimes through the Carlylean branch house, who took good care to dilute them with buttermilk before merchanting them to his countrymen. The theoretical spokesman, all his life long, of bold and forthright thinking, of the unafraid statement of ideas, he stated his own so warily and so muggily that they were ratified on the one hand by Nietzsche, and on the other hand by the messiahs of New Thought, that typically American bunkum.
+++++What one notices about him at home is chiefly his lack of influence upon the main stream of American thought, such as it is. He had admirers and even worshippers, but no apprentices. Nietzscheism and the New Thought are alike tremendous violations of orthodox American doctrine. The one makes a headlong attack upon egalitarianism, the corner-stone of American politics; the other substitutes mysticism, which is the notion that the true realities are all concealed, for the prevailing American notion that the only true realities lie upon the surface, and are easily discerned by Congressmen, newspaper leader-writers and Wesleyan clergymen. The Emerson cult, in America, has been an affectation from the start. Not many of the literary schoolmasters and other such bogus intelligentsia who devote themselves to it have any intelligible understanding of the Transcendentalism at the heart of it, and not one of them, so far as I can make out, has even executed Emerson’s command to ‘defer never to the popular cry’. On the contrary, it is precisely within the circle of Emersonian adulation that one finds the greatest tendency to test all ideas by their respectability, to combat free thought as something intrinsically vicious, and to yield placidly to ‘some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man.’ It is surely not unworthy of notice that the country of the prophet of Man Thinking is precisely the country in which every sort of dissent from the current hallucinations is combated most ferociously, and in which there is the most vigorous existing tendency to suppress free speech altogether.
+++++Thus Emerson, on the side of ideas, has left but faint tracks behind him in his native land. His quest was for ‘facts amid appearances’, and his whole metaphysic revolved around a doctrine of transcendental first causes, a conception of interior and immutable realities, distinct from and superior to mere transient phenomena. But the philosophy that actually prevails among his countrymen – a philosophy put into caressing terms by William James – teaches an almost exactly contrary doctrine: its central idea is that whatever satisfies the immediate need is substantially true, that appearance is the only form of fact worthy the consideration of a man with money in the bank, and the old flag floating over him, and hair on his chest. – Mencken, Selected Prejudices, Second Series (1920s)

From boyhood onward he kept journals and commonplace books, and in the course of his reading and meditation he collected innumerable notes and quotations which he indexed for ready use. In these mines he “quarried,” as Mr. Cabot says, for his lectures and essays. When he needed a lecture he went to the repository, threw together what seemed to have a bearing on some subject, and gave it a title. If any other man should adopt this method of composition, the result would be incomprehensible chaos; because most men have many interests, many moods, many and conflicting ideas. But with Emerson it was otherwise. There was only one thought which could set him aflame, and that was the thought of the unfathomed might of man. This thought was his religion, his politics, his ethics, his philosophy. One moment of inspiration was in him own brother to the next moment of inspiration, although they might be separated by six weeks. When he came to put together his star-born ideas, they fitted well, no matter in what order he placed them, because they were all part of the same idea.
+++++His works are all one single attack on the vice of the age, moral cowardice. He assails it not by railings and scorn, but by positive and stimulating suggestion. The imagination of the reader is touched by every device which can awake the admiration for heroism, the consciousness of moral courage. Wit, quotation, anecdote, eloquence, exhortation, rhetoric, sarcasm, and very rarely denunciation, are launched at the reader, till he feels little lambent flames beginning to kindle in him. He is perhaps unable to see the exact logical connection between two paragraphs of an essay, yet he feels they are germane. He takes up Emerson tired and apathetic, but presently he feels himself growing heady and truculent, strengthened in his most inward vitality, surprised to find himself again master in his own house.
+++++The difference between Emerson and the other moralists is that all these stimulating pictures and suggestions are not given by him in illustration of a general proposition. They have never been through the mill of generalization in his own mind. He himself could not have told you their logical bearing on one another. They have all the vividness of disconnected fragments of life, and yet they all throw light on one another, like the facets of a jewel. But whatever cause it was that led him to adopt his method of writing, it is certain that he succeeded in delivering himself of his thought with an initial velocity and carrying power such as few men ever attained. He has the force at his command of the thrower of the discus.
+++++His style is American, and beats with the pulse of the climate. He is the only writer we have had who writes as he speaks, who makes no literary parade, has no pretensions of any sort. He is the only writer we have had who has wholly subdued his vehicle to his temperament. It is impossible to name his style without naming his character: they are one thing. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

We miss in Emerson the underlying conception of growth, of development, so characteristic of the thought of our own day, and which, for instance, is found everywhere latent in Browning’s poetry. Browning regards character as the result of experience and as an ever changing growth. To Emerson, character is rather an entity complete and eternal from the beginning. He is probably the last great writer to look at life from a stationary standpoint. There is a certain lack of the historic sense in all he has written. The ethical assumption that all men are exactly alike permeates his work. In his mind, Socrates, Marco Polo, and General Jackson stand surrounded by the same atmosphere, or rather stand as mere naked characters surrounded by no atmosphere at all. He is probably the last great writer who will fling about classic anecdotes as if they were club gossip. In the discussion of morals, this assumption does little harm. The stories and proverbs which illustrate the thought of the moralist generally concern only those simple relations of life which are common to all ages. There is charm in this familiar dealing with antiquity. The classics are thus domesticated and made real to us. What matter if Æsop appear a little too much like an American citizen, so long as his points tell?
+++++It is in Emerson’s treatment of the fine arts that we begin to notice his want of historic sense. Art endeavors to express subtle and ever changing feelings by means of conventions which are as protean as the forms of a cloud; and the man who in speaking on the plastic arts makes the assumption that all men are alike will reveal before he has uttered three sentences that he does not know what art is, that he has never experienced any form of sensation from it. Emerson lived in a time and clime where there was no plastic art, and he was obliged to arrive at his ideas about art by means of a highly complex process of reasoning. He dwelt constantly in a spiritual place which was the very focus of high moral fervor. This was his enthusiasm, this was his revelation, and from it he reasoned out the probable meaning of the fine arts. “This,” thought Emerson, his eye rolling in a fine frenzy of moral feeling, “this must be what Apelles experienced, this fervor is the passion of Bramante. I understand the Parthenon.” And so he projected his feelings about morality into the field of the plastic arts. He deals very freely and rather indiscriminately with the names of artists, – Phidias, Raphael, Salvator Rosa, – and he speaks always in such a way that it is impossible to connect what he says with any impression we have ever received from the works of those masters.
In fact, Emerson has never in his life felt the normal appeal of any painting, or any sculpture, or any architecture, or any music. These things, of which he does not know the meaning in real life, he yet uses, and uses constantly, as symbols to convey ethical truths. The result is that his books are full of blind places, like the notes which will not strike on a sick piano. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

You cannot always see Emerson clearly; he is hidden by a high wall; but you always know exactly on what spot he is standing. You judge it by the flight of the objects he throws over the wall, – a bootjack, an apple, a crown, a razor, a volume of verse. With one or other of these missiles, all delivered with a very tolerable aim, he is pretty sure to hit you. These catchwords stick in the mind. People are not in general influenced by long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a man’s most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the Universe. His works are a treasury of such things. They sparkle in the mine, or you may carry them off in your pocket. They get driven into your mind like nails, and on them catch and hang your own experiences, till what was once his thought has become your character. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

Your attention is arrested by the reality of this gentleman in his garden, by the first-hand quality of his mind. It matters not on what subject he talks. While you are musing, still pleased and patronizing, he has picked up the bow of Ulysses, bent it with the ease of Ulysses, and sent a shaft clear through the twelve axes, nor missed one of them. But this, it seems, was mere byplay and marksmanship; for before you have done wondering, Ulysses rises to his feet in anger, and pours flight after flight, arrow after arrow, from the great bow. The shafts sing and strike, the suitors fall in heaps. The brow of Ulysses shines with unearthly splendor. The air is filled with lightning. After a little, without shock or transition, without apparent change of tone, Mr. Emerson is offering you a biscuit before you leave, and bidding you mind the last step at the garden end. If the man who can do these things be not an artist, then must we have a new vocabulary and rename the professions.
There is, in all this effectiveness of Emerson, no pose, no literary art; nothing that corresponds even remotely to the pretended modesty and ignorance with which Socrates lays pitfalls for our admiration in Plato’s dialogues.
+++++It was the platform which determined Emerson’s style. He was not a writer, but a speaker. On the platform his manner of speech was a living part of his words. The pauses and hesitation, the abstraction, the searching, the balancing, the turning forward and back of the leaves of his lecture, and then the discovery, the illumination, the gleam of lightning which you saw before your eyes descend into a man of genius, – all this was Emerson. He invented this style of speaking, and made it express the supersensuous, the incommunicable. Lowell wrote, while still under the spell of the magician: “Emerson’s oration was more disjointed than usual, even with him. It began nowhere, and ended everywhere, and yet, as always with that divine man, it left you feeling that something beautiful had passed that way, something more beautiful than anything else, like the rising and setting of stars. Every possible criticism might have been made on it but one, – that it was not noble. There was a tone in it that awakened all elevating associations. He boggled, he lost his place, he had to put on his glasses; but it was as if a creature from some fairer world had lost his way in our fogs, and it was our fault, not his. It was chaotic, but it was all such stuff as stars are made of, and you couldn’t help feeling that, if you waited awhile, all that was nebulous would be whirled into planets, and would assume the mathematical gravity of system. All through it I felt something in me that cried, ‘Ha! ha!’ to the sound of the trumpets.”
+++++It is nothing for any man sitting in his chair to be overcome with the sense of the immediacy of life, to feel the spur of courage, the victory of good over evil, the value, now and forever, of all great-hearted endeavor. Such moments come to us all. But for a man to sit in his chair and write what shall call up these forces in the bosoms of others – that is desert, that is greatness. To do this was the gift of Emerson. The whole earth is enriched by every moment of converse with him. The shows and shams of life become transparent, the lost kingdoms are brought back, the shutters of the spirit are opened, and provinces and realms of our own existence lie gleaming before us. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

It is solely as character that he is important. He discovered nothing; he bears no relation whatever to the history of philosophy. We must regard him and deal with him simply as a man.
+++++Strangely enough, the world has always insisted upon accepting him as a thinker: and hence a great coil of misunderstanding. As a thinker, Emerson is difficult to classify. Before you begin to assign him a place, you must clear the ground by a disquisition as to what is meant by “a thinker”, and how Emerson differs from other thinkers. As a man, Emerson is as plain as Ben Franklin.
+++++People have accused him of inconsistency; they say that he teaches one thing one day, and another the next day. But from the point of view of Emerson there is no such thing as inconsistency. Every man is each day a new man. Let him be to-day what he is to-day. It is immaterial and waste of time to consider what he once was or what he may be.
+++++His picturesque speech delights in fact and anecdote, and a public which is used to treatises and deduction cares always to be told the moral. It wants everything reduced to a generalization. All generalizations are partial truths, but we are used to them, and we ourselves mentally make the proper allowance. Emerson’s method is, not to give a generalization and trust to our making the allowance, but to give two conflicting statements and leave the balance of truth to be struck in our own minds on the facts. There is no inconsistency in this. It is a vivid and very legitimate method of procedure. But he is much more than a theorist: he is a practitioner. He does not merely state a theory of agitation: he proceeds to agitate. “Do not,” he says, “set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as false or true. 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.” He was not engaged in teaching many things, but one thing, – Courage. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

Essays is a book for a world in which history is arid, men are washed-out images of deferred or absent authority, virtue is held to be disadvantageous, laws are disbelieved and dishonoured, love is personal aggrandizement, friends are appurtenances, prudence is mere Yankee shrewdness, and nothing quite means enough to make life worth persisting in. – Cambridge Companion to Emerson, p113

The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one’s life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man’s significance had now shrunk into the phantom of an attitude, into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity – happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgment. – W James, Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord

What gave a flavor so matchless to Emerson’s individuality was, even more than his rich mental gifts, their combination. Rarely has a man so known the limits of his genius or so unfailingly kept within them. “Stand by your order,” he used to say to youthful students; and perhaps the paramount impression one gets of his life is of his loyalty to his own type and mission. The type was that of what he liked to call the scholar, the perceiver of pure truth, and the mission was that of the reporter in worthy form of each perception. The day is good, he said, in which we have the most perceptions. There are times when the cawing of a crow, a weed, a snow-flake, or a farmer planting in his field, become symbols to the intellect of truths equal to those which the most majestic phenomena can open. Let me mind my own charge, then, walk alone, consult the sky, the field and forest, sedulously waiting every morning for the news concerning the structure of the universe which the good Spirit will give me.
+++++This was the first half of Emerson, but only half; for his genius was insatiate for expression, and his truth had to be clad in the right verbal garment. The form of the garment was so vital with Emerson that it is impossible to separate it from the matter. They form a chemical combination, – thoughts which would be trivial expressed otherwise are important through the nouns and verbs to which he married them. The style is the man, it has been said; the man Emerson’s mission culminated in his style, and if we must define him in one word, we have to call him Artist. He was an artist whose medium was verbal and who wrought in spiritual material. – W James, Emerson

Through the individual fact there ever shone for him the effulgence of the Universal Reason. The great Cosmic Intellect terminates and houses itself in mortal men and passing hours. Each of us is an angle of its eternal vision, and the only way to be true to our Maker is to be loyal to ourselves. “O rich and various Man!” he cries, “thou palace of sight and sound, carrying in thy senses the morning and the night and the unfathomable galaxy; in thy brain, the geometry of the City of God; in thy heart, the bower of love and the realms of right and wrong.”
+++++If the individual open thus directly into the Absolute, it follows that there is something in each and all of us, even the lowliest, that ought not to consent to borrowing traditions and living at second hand. “If John was perfect, why are you and I alive?” writes Emerson. “As long as any man exists, there is some need of him; let him fight for his own.” This faith that in a life at first hand there is something sacred is perhaps the most characteristic note in Emerson’s writings. The hottest side of him is this non-conformist persuasion, and if his temper could ever verge on common irascibility, it would be by reason of the passionate character of his feelings on this point. The world is still new and untried. In seeing freshly, and not in hearing of what others saw, shall a man find what truth is. “Each one of us can bask in the great morning which rises out of the eastern sea, and be himself one of the children of the light.” …
+++++The matchless eloquence with which Emerson proclaimed the sovereignty of the living individual electrified and emancipated his generation, and this bugle-blast will doubtless be regarded by future critics as the soul of his message. The present man is the aboriginal reality, the Institution is derivative, and the past man is irrelevant and obliterate for present issues. If anyone would lay an axe to your tree with a text from 1 John, v. 7, or a sentence from Saint Paul, say to him, Emerson wrote, “‘My tree is Ygdrasil – the tree of life.’…Let him know by your security that your conviction is clear and sufficient, and if he were Paul himself, that you also are here, and with your Creator.” “Cleave ever to God,” he insisted, “against the name of God”; – and so, in spite of the intensely religious character of his total thought, when he began his career it seemed to many of his brethren in the clerical profession that he was little more than an iconoclast and desecrator.
+++++Emerson’s belief that the individual must in reason be adequate to the vocation for which the Spirit of the world has called him into being is the source of those sublime pages, hearteners and sustainers of our youth, in which he urges his hearers to be incorruptibly true to their own private conscience. Nothing can harm the man who rests in his appointed place and character. Such a man is invulnerable; he balances the universe, balances it as much by keeping small when he is small as by being great and spreading when he is great. “I love and honor Epaminondas,” said Emerson, “but I do not wish to be Epaminondas. I hold it more just to love the world of this hour, than the world of his hour. Nor can you, if I am true, excite me to the least uneasiness by saying, ‘He acted, and thou sittest still.’ I see action to be good, when the need is, and sitting still to be also good. Epaminondas, if he was the man I take him for, would have sat still with joy and peace, if his lot had been mine. Heaven is large, and affords space for all modes of love and fortitude.” “The fact that I am here certainly shows me that the soul had need of an organ here. Shall I not assume the post?”
+++++The vanity of all super-serviceableness and pretense was never more happily set forth than by Emerson in the many passages in which he develops this aspect of his philosophy. Character infallibly proclaims itself. “Hide your thoughts! Hide the sun and moon. They publish themselves to the universe. They will speak through you though you were dumb. They will flow out of your actions, your manners, and your face. …Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary. …What a man is engraves itself upon him in letters of light. Concealment avails him nothing; boasting nothing. There is confession in the glances of our eyes; in our smiles; in salutations; and the grasp of hands. His sin bedaubs him, mars all his good impression. Men know not why they do not trust him; but they do not trust him. His vice glasses his eye, cuts lines of mean expression in his cheek, pinches the nose, sets the mark of the beast on the back of the head, and writes O fool! fool! on the forehead of a king. If you would not be known to do any thing, never do it. A man may play the fool in the drifts of a desert, but every grain of sand shall seem to see… How can a man be concealed! How can a man be concealed!”
+++++On the other hand, never was a sincere word or a sincere thought utterly lost. “Never a magnanimity fell to the ground, but there is some heart to greet and accept it unexpectedly… The hero fears not, that, if he withhold the avowal of a just and brave act, it will go unwitnessed and unloved. One knows it, – himself, – and is pledged by it to sweetness of peace, and to nobleness of aim, which will prove in the end a better proclamation than the relating of the incident.”
+++++The same indefeasible right to be exactly what one is, provided one only be authentic, spreads itself, in Emerson’s way of thinking, from persons to things and to times and places. No date, no position is insignificant, if the life that fills it out be only genuine: –
+++++“In solitude, in a remote village, the ardent youth loiters and mourns. With inflamed eye, in this sleeping wilderness, he has read the story of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, until his fancy has brought home to the surrounding woods, the faint roar of cannonades in the Milanese, and marches in Germany. He is curious concerning that man’s day. What filled it? the crowded orders, the stern decisions, the foreign despatches, the Castilian etiquette? The soul answers – Behold his day here! In the sighing of these woods, in the quiet of these gray fields, in the cool breeze that sings out of these northern mountains; in the workmen, the boys, the maidens you meet, – in the hopes of the morning, the ennui of noon, and sauntering of the afternoon; in the disquieting comparisons; in the regrets at want of vigor; in the great idea, and the puny execution; – behold Charles the Fifth’s day; another, yet the same; behold Chatham’s, Hampden’s, Bayard’s, Alfred’s, Scipio’s, Pericles’s day, – day of all that are born of women. The difference of circumstance is merely costume. I am tasting the self-same life, – its sweetness, its greatness, its pain, which I so admire in other men. Do not foolishly ask of the inscrutable, obliterated past, what it cannot tell, – the details of that nature, of that day, called Byron, or Burke; – but ask it of the enveloping Now… Be lord of a day, and you can put up your history books.”
+++++Thus does “the deep today which all men scorn” receive from Emerson superb revindication. “Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.
+++++Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and as dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar. For Emerson, the individual fact and moment were indeed suffused with absolute radiance, but it was upon a condition that saved the situation – they must be worthy specimens, – sincere, authentic, archetypal; they must have made connection with what he calls the Moral Sentiment, they must in some way act as symbolic mouthpieces of the Universe’s meaning. To know just which thing does act in this way, and which thing fails to make the true connection, is the secret (somewhat incommunicable, it must be confessed) of seership, and doubtless we must not expect of the seer too rigorous a consistency. Emerson himself was a real seer. He could perceive the full squalor of the individual fact, but he could also see the transfiguration. He might easily have found himself saying of some present-day agitator against our Philippine conquest what he said of this or that reformer of his own time. He might have called him, as a private person, a tedious bore and canter. But he would infallibly have added what he then added: “It is strange and horrible to say this,… for I feel that under him and his partiality and exclusiveness is the earth and the sea and all that in them is, and the axis around which the universe revolves passes through his body where he stands.”
+++++Be it how it may, then, this is Emerson’s revelation: – The point of any pen can be an epitome of reality; the commonest person’s act, if genuinely actuated, can lay hold on eternity. This vision is the head-spring of all his outpourings; and it is for this truth, given to no previous literary artist to express in such penetratingly persuasive tones, that posterity will reckon him a prophet, and, perhaps neglecting other pages, piously turn to those that convey this message. His life was one long conversation with the invisible divine, expressing itself through individuals and particulars: – “So nigh is grandeur to our dust, so near is God to man!”
+++++I spoke of how shrunken the wraith, how thin the echo, of men is after they are departed. Emerson’s wraith comes to me now as if it were but the very voice of this victorious argument. His words to this effect are certain to be quoted and extracted more and more as time goes on, and to take their place among the Scriptures of humanity. “‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity shall you pace forth,” beloved Master. As long as our English language lasts, men’s hearts will be cheered and their souls strengthened and liberated by the noble and musical pages with which you have enriched it. – W James, Emerson

Emerson’s contempt for travel and for the “rococo toy,” Italy, is too well known to need citation. It proceeds from the same deficiency of sensation. His eyes saw nothing; his ears heard nothing. He believed that men travelled for distraction and to kill time. The most vulgar plutocrat could not be blinder to beauty nor bring home less from Athens than this cultivated saint. Everything in the world which must be felt with a glow in the breast, in order to be understood, was to him dead-letter. Art was a name to him; music was a name to him; love was a name to him. His essay on Love is a nice compilation of compliments and elegant phrases ending up with some icy morality. It seems very well fitted for a gift-book or an old-fashioned lady’s annual. …
+++++There is in Emerson’s theory of the relation between the sexes neither good sense, nor manly feeling, nor sound psychology. It is founded on none of these things. It is a pure piece of dogmatism, and reminds us that he was bred to the priesthood. We are not to imagine that there was in this doctrine anything peculiar to Emerson. But we are surprised to find the pessimism inherent in the doctrine overcome Emerson, to whom pessimism is foreign. Both doctrine and pessimism are a part of the Puritanism of the times. They show a society in which the intellect had long been used to analyze the affections, in which the head had become dislocated from the body. To this disintegration of the simple passion of love may be traced the lack of maternal tenderness characteristic of the New England nature. The relation between the blood and the brain was not quite normal in this civilization, nor in Emerson, who is its most remarkable representative.
+++++If we take two steps backward from the canvas of this mortal life and glance at it impartially, we shall see that these matters of love and marriage pass like a pivot through the lives of almost every individual, and are, sociologically speaking, the primum mobile of the world. The books of any philosopher who slurs them or distorts them will hold up a false mirror to life. If an inhabitant of another planet should visit the earth, he would receive, on the whole, a truer notion of human life by attending an Italian opera than he would by reading Emerson’s volumes. He would learn from the Italian opera that there were two sexes; and this, after all, is probably the fact with which the education of such a stranger ought to begin. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

There is an implication of a fundamental falsehood in every bit of Transcendentalism, including Emerson. That falsehood consists in the theory of the self-sufficiency of each individual, men and women alike. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

Emerson seems really to have believed that if any man would only resolutely be himself, he would turn out to be as great as Shakespeare. He will not have it that anything of value can be monopolized. His review of the world, whether under the title of Manners, Self-Reliance, Fate, Experience, or what-not, leads him to the same thought. His conclusion is always the finding of eloquence, courage, art, intellect, in the breast of the humblest reader. He knows that we are full of genius and surrounded by genius, and that we have only to throw something off, not to acquire any new thing, in order to be bards, prophets, Napoleons, and Goethes. This belief is the secret of his stimulating power. It is this which gives his writings a radiance like that which shone from his personality. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

Emerson himself was the only man of his times who consistently and utterly expressed himself, never measuring himself for a moment with the ideals of others, never troubling himself for a moment with what literature was or how literature should be created. The other men of his epoch, and among whom he lived, believed that literature was a very desirable article, a thing you could create if you were only smart enough. But Emerson had no literary ambition. He cared nothing for belles-lettres. The consequence is that he stands above his age like a colossus. While he lived his figure could be seen from Europe towering like Atlas over the culture of the United States.
+++++Great men are not always like wax which their age imprints. They are often the mere negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie. They become by revolt the very essence of all the age is not, and that part of the spirit which is suppressed in ten thousand breasts gets lodged, isolated, and breaks into utterance in one. Through Emerson spoke the fractional spirits of a multitude. He had not time, he had not energy left over to understand himself; he was a mouthpiece.
+++++If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson. The region of thought he lived in, the figures of speech he uses, are of an intellectual plane so high that the circumstances which produced them may be forgotten; they are indifferent. The Constitution, Slavery, the War itself, are seen as mere circumstances. They did not confuse him while he lived; they are not necessary to support his work now that it is finished. Hence comes it that Emerson is one of the world’s voices. He was heard afar off. His foreign influence might deserve a chapter by itself. Conservatism is not confined to this country. It is the very basis of all government. The bolts Emerson forged, his thought, his wit, his perception, are not provincial. They were found to carry inspiration to England and Germany. Many of the important men of the last half-century owe him a debt. It is not yet possible to give any account of his influence abroad, because the memoirs which will show it are only beginning to be published. We shall have them in due time; for Emerson was an outcome of the world’s progress. His appearance marks the turning-point in the history of that enthusiasm for pure democracy which has tinged the political thought of the world for the past one hundred and fifty years. The youths of England and Germany may have been surprised at hearing from America a piercing voice of protest against the very influences which were crushing them at home. They could not realize that the chief difference between Europe and America is a difference in the rate of speed with which revolutions in thought are worked out.
+++++While the radicals of Europe were revolting in 1848 against the abuses of a tyranny whose roots were in feudalism, Emerson, the great radical of America, the arch-radical of the world, was revolting against the evils whose roots were in universal suffrage. By showing the identity in essence of all tyranny, and by bringing back the attention of political thinkers to its starting-point, the value of human character, he has advanced the political thought of the world by one step. He has pointed out for us in this country to what end our efforts must be bent. – JJ Chapman, Emerson

We begin to live only when we have conceived life as tragedy, Yeats has said. The opposite was true of Emerson. Only as he refused to conceive life as tragedy could he find the courage to live the self-dependent life he required. – Whicher, Freedom and Fate, p46

Emerson’s idealism passed beyond Kant’s. He refused to rest content with the Kantian assertion that nature, as we perceive it, falls into patterns predetermined by consciousness… For Emerson, the mind does not create what it perceives; through intuition it knows the truth, the divine, directly. This immediate intuition into the divine mind became indistinguishable in Emerson from the imagination. – F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p42

If I could persuade men to listen to their interior convictions, if I could express, embody their interior convictions, that were indeed life. It were to cease being a figure, and to act the action of a man. – Emerson

[Emerson] himself said that though he did not have a musical ear, he had “musical eyes”. – F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p50

In spite of his fondness for Montaigne, [Emerson] had not a trace of skepticism in his being; and in spite of his profession of being a seeker, all his mature work proceeded from a priori deductive assertion. – F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p65

It was as true for [Emerson] as for the Vedantist, that the veil of Maya must be pierced, that man’s salvation was in his spiritual eye. – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p52

There…is [Emerson’s] deviation from the actual world, the tendency that caused him to say: “And what is Genius but a finer love, a love of the flower and perfection of things, and a desire to draw a new picture or copy of the same?” But as William James was to write in the margin of his copy: “There is no such flower, and love and genius both cleave to the particular objects which are precious because at the moment they seem unique.” – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p53

One weakness of [Emerson’s] poems that he deplored was that they did not contain sufficient evidence of the “polarity” of existence, of how its inevitable law is action and reaction, of how every statement contains the seed of its opposite. – FO Matthiessen, American Renaissance, p63

[DH Lawrence] like Emerson before him, accepted the task of reviving Adam in himself and renaming the beasts of creation. – H. Gregory

In a fortnight or three weeks my little raft will be afloat. Expect nothing more of my powers of construction, – no ship-building, no clipper, smack, nor skiff even, only boards and logs tied together. – Emerson, letter to Carlyle just before the appearance of Essays (1841)

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