Ralph Waldo Emerson
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were
original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition
in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they
instill is of more value than any thought they may contain.
To believe our own thought, to believe that what
is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is
genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense;
for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,---- and our
first thought, is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.
Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe
to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and
traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should
learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his
mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards
and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because
it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great
works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They
teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility
then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else,
to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what
we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take
with shame our own opinion from another.
There is a time in every man's
education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that
imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse,
as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel
of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that
plot of ground which is given to him to till. The
power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what
that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression
on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without
preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall,
that it might testify of that particular ray. We
but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which
each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate
and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have
his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when
he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has
said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is adeliverance
which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse
befriends; no invention, no hope.
every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society
of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have
always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their
age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated
at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their
being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the
same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected
corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers,
and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and
What pretty oracles nature
yields us on this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes,
and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a
sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed
to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye
is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted.
Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly
makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.
So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy
and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be
put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no
force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next
room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows
how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will
know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.
The nonchalance of boys who
are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say
aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature.
A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent,
irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as
pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary
way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.
He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he
gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does
not court you. But the man is, as it were,
clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he
has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched
by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter
into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could
pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having
observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable,
unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter
opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but
necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in
These are the voices which
we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into
the world. Society
everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.Society
is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing
of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture
of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance
is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names
would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would
gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but
must explore if it be goodness. Nothing
is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.
I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to
a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines
of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of
traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, -- "But
these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do
not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live
then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to
me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names
very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after
my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to
carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were
titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we
capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.
Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than
is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth
in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy,
shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause
of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should
I not say to him, `Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured
and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable
ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles
off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would
be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.
Your goodness must have some edge to it, -- else it is none. The
doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine
of love when that pules and whines. I shun
father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, "Whim." I hope it
is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation
Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then,
again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put
all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell
thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime,
the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not
belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity
I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your
miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the
building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms
to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; -- though I confess with
shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked Dollar which
by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Virtues are, in the popular
estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and
his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece
of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily
non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation
of their living in the world, -- as invalids and the insane pay a high
board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate,
but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.
I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and
equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it
to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask
primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man
to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether
I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot
consent to pay for a privilege intrinsic right. Few and mean as
my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance
or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.
What I must do is
all that concerns me, not what the people think. This
rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for
the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the
harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is
your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live
after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect
sweetness the independence of solitude.
objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that
it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs
the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church,
contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for
the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,
-- under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man
you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper
life. But do your work, and I shall know you.
Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must
consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I
know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce
for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his
church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a
new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation
of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing?
Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,
-- the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He
is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation.
Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief,
and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion.
This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of
a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not
quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real
four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to
begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the
prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear
one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine
expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does
not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean "the foolish
face of praise," the forced smile which we put on in company where we
do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest
us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping
wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable
nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And
therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers
look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour.
If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his
own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces
of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are
put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is
the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate
and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the
world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is
decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves.
But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added,
when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute
force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it
needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle
of no concernment.
other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence
for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data
for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint
But why should you keep your
head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory,
lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?
Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be
a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in
acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed
present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have
denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul
come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with
shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand
of the harlot, and flee.
foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little
statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great
soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself
with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words,
and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though
it contradict every thing you said to-day. -- `Ah, so you shall
be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?
Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and
Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that
ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies
of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities
of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor
does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an
acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; -- read it forward, backward, or across,
it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life
which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without
prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical,
though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines
and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window
should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my
web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills.
Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions,
and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.
There will be an agreement
in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in
their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however
unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little
distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them
all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag
line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance,
and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine
action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.
Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have
already done singly will justify you now. Greatness appeals to the future.
If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have
done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will,
do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may.
The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue
work their health into this. What makes the majesty of the heroes
of the senate and the field, which so fills the imagination? The
consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind. They
shed an united light on the advancing actor. He is attended as by
a visible escort of angels. That is it which throws thunder into Chatham's
voice, and dignity into Washington's port, and America into Adams's eye.
Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always
ancient virtue. We worship it to-day because it is not of to-day.
We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and
homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate
pedigree, even if shown in a young person.
I hope in these
days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the
words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for
dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never
bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house.
I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.
I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would
make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity
and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom,
and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that
there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man
works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre
of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you,
and all men, and all events. Ordinarily, every body in society reminds
us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character, reality,
reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation.
The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent.
Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces
and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; -- and posterity
seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is
born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born,
and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded
with virtue and the possible of man. An
institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as,
the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition,
of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called "the height of Rome"; and all
history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout
and earnest persons.
a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet.
Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy,
a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him.
But the man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds
to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor
when he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a costly book
have an alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seem to
say like that, `Who are you, Sir?' Yet they all are his, suitors for his
notice, petitioners to his faculties that they will come out and take
possession. The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command
me, but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable
of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the
duke's house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke's bed, and, on his
waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured
that he had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes
so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and
then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince.
Our reading is mendicant and
sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom
and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private
John and Edward in a small house and common day's work; but the things
of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same.
Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus?
Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a
stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and
renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views,
the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.
The world has been instructed
by its kings, who have so magnetized the eyes of nations. It has
been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from
man to man. The joyful loyalty with which men have everywhere suffered
the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to walk among them by a law
of his own, make his own scale of men and things, and reverse theirs,
pay for benefits not with money but with honor, and represent the law
in his person, was the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified
their consciousness of their own right and comeliness, the right of every
magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire
the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal
Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded?
What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without
parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even
into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear?
The inquiry leads us to that source, at once
the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity
or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst
all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force,
the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common
origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know
not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light,
from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the
same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share
the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances
in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the
fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration
which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and
atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,
which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.
When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves,
but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes,
if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault.
Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates
between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions,
and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.
He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are
so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful actions and
acquisitions are but roving; -- the idlest reverie, the faintest native
emotion, command my curiosity and respect. Thoughtless people contradict
as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much
more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion.
They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception
is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will
see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, -- although it may
chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as
much a fact as the sun.
relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane
to seek to interpose helps. It must be thatwhen
God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things; should
fill the world with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time,
souls, from the centre of the present thought; and new date and new create
the whole. Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom,
old things pass away, -- means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives
now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things
are made sacred by relation to it, -- one as much as another. All
things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal
miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear. If, therefore,
a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the
phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another
world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is
its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child
into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship
of the past? The
centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.
Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes,
but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and
history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be any thing more than
a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.
is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say `I
think,' `I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed
before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under
my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are
for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time
to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment
of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts;
in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there
is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in
all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live
in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of
the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.
He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present,
This should be plain enough.
Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he
speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul.
We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives.
We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and
tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they
chance to see, -- painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke; afterwards,
when they come into the point of view which those had who uttered these
sayings, they understand them, and are willing to let the words go; for,
at any time, they can use words as good when occasion comes. If
we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong
man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception,
we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish.
When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of
the brook and the rustle of the corn.
And now at last the highest
truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for
all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition. That
thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this.
When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any
known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any
other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;----
the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.
It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man,
not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers.
Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in
hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called
gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion beholds
identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth
and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well.
Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea, --
long intervals of time, years, centuries, -- are of no account.
This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances,
as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called
Life only avails,
not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it
resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the
shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact
the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades
the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds
the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.
Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is
present, there will be power not confident but agent.
To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak
rather of that which relies, because it works and is.
Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his
finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits.
We fancy it rhetoric, when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not
yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic
and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride
all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.
This is the ultimate fact which
we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the
resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute
of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree
in which it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so
by so much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry,
hunting, whaling, war, eloquence, personal weight, are somewhat, and engage
my respect as examples of its presence and impure action. I see
the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. Power
is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing
to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis
and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering
itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable,
are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.
Thus all concentrates: let
us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us stun and
astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions, by a
simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid the invaders take the shoes
from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our simplicity
judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate the poverty of
nature and fortune beside our native riches.
But now we are a mob.
Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay
at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it
goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must
go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better
than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how chaste the persons
look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary! So let us always
sit. Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or
father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have
the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men's.
Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent
of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical,
but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world
seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles.
Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once
at thy closet door, and say, -- `Come out unto us.' But keep thy state;
come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me,
I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through
my act. "What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves
of the love."
If we cannot at once rise to
the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations;
let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and
constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth
times by speaking the truth. Check this lying hospitality and lying
affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and
deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O
mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances
hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that
henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have
no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents,
to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, -- but these
relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal
from your customs. I must be myself.
I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love
me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot,
I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my
tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy,
that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices
me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if
you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions.
If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions;
I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.
It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have
dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day?
You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine,
and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.
-- But so you may give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell
my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all
persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region
of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.
The populace think that your
rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere
antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy
to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides.
There are two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be shriven.
You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct,
or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations
to father, mother, cousin, neighbour, town, cat, and dog; whether any
of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard,
and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect
circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties.
But if I can discharge its debts, it enables me to dispense with the popular
code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its
commandment one day.
truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common
motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster.
High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in
good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose
may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!
If any man consider the present
aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need
of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out,
and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid
of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.
Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women
who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures
are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of
all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night
continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations,
our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen
for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle
of fate, where strength is born.
If our young men miscarry in
their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant
fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one
of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards
in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends
and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining
the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont,
who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles,
keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a
township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls
on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast
with his days, and feels no shame in not `studying a profession,' for
he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance,
but a hundred chances. Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and
tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves;
that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a
man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that
he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from
himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the
window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, -- and that teacher
shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all
It is easy to see that a greater
self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations
of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their
modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative
1. In what prayers do men allow
themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as
brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and
asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and
loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial
and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity,
-- any thing less than all good, -- is vicious. Prayer
is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.
It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit
of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect
a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism
and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is
at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all
action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it,
the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true
prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. Caratach, in Fletcher's
Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies,
Another sort of false prayers are our regrets.
Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.
Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend
your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy
is just as base. We come to them who weep foolishly, and sit down
and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough
electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own
reason. The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore
to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung
wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire.
Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it.
We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he
held on his way and scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him
because men hated him. "To the persevering mortal," said Zoroaster,
"the blessed Immortals are swift."
"His hidden meaning lies in our endeavours;
Our valors are our best gods."
As men's prayers are
a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.
They say with those foolish Israelites, `Let not God speak to us, lest we
die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey.' Everywhere
I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own
temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's
brother's God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it prove
a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a
Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo!
a new system. In proportion to the depth of the thought, and so to
the number of the objects it touches and brings within reach of the pupil,
is his complacency. But chiefly is this apparent in creeds and churches,
which are also classifications of some powerful mind acting on the elemental
thought of duty, and man's relation to the Highest. Such is Calvinism,
Quakerism, Swedenborgism. The pupil takes the same delight in subordinating
every thing to the new terminology, as a girl who has just learned botany
in seeing a new earth and new seasons thereby. It will happen for
a time, that the pupil will find his intellectual power has grown by the
study of his master's mind. But in all unbalanced minds, the classification
is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means,
so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon
with the walls of the universe; the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung
on the arch their master built. They cannot imagine how you aliens
have any right to see, -- how you can see; `It must be somehow that you
stole the light from us.' They do not yet perceive, that light, unsystematic,
indomitable, will break into any cabin, even into theirs. Let them
chirp awhile and call it their own. If they are honest and do well,
presently their neat new pinfold will be too strait and low, will crack,
will lean, will rot and vanish, and the immortal light, all young and joyful,
million-orbed, million-colored, will beam over the universe as on the first
2. It is for want of self-culture
that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England,
Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They
who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did
so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.
In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no
traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his
duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands,
he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of
his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and
visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or
no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes
of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated,
or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he
knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat
which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in
youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have
become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.
is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to
us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples,
at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness.
I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last
wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self,
unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican,
and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions,
but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
3. But the rage of travelling
is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action.
The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness.
Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.
We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?
Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished
with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and
follow the Past and the Distant. The soul
created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own
mind that the artist sought his model. It was an
application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions
to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?
Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near
to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love
the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil,
the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the
government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves
fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.
on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every
moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the
adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.
That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No
man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the
master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton?
Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely
that part he could not borrow. Shakspeare will never be made by the
study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot
hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an
utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or
trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from
all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with
thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what
these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of
voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide
in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt
reproduce the Foreworld again.
4. As our Religion, our Education,
our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume
themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the
other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized,
it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not
amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.
Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast
between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch,
a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander,
whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of
a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall
see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller
tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the
flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and
the same blow shall send the white to his grave.
The civilized man has built
a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on
crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva
watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.
A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information
when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the
sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as
little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial
in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload
his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and
it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we
have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched
in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue. For every
Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?
There is no more deviation
in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk.
No greater men are now than ever were. A singular equality may be observed
between the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can all
the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the nineteenth century
avail to educate greater men than Plutarch's heroes, three or four and
twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race progressive.
Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but they leave
no class. He who is really of their class will not be called by
their name, but will be his own man, and, in his turn, the founder of
a sect. The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume,
and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery
may compensate its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in
their fishing-boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment
exhausted the resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass,
discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena than any one
since. Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat.
It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and
machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or
centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man.
We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of
science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted
of falling back on naked valor, and disencumbering it of all aids.
The Emperor held it impossible to make a perfect army, says Las Casas,
"without abolishing our arms, magazines, commissaries, and carriages,
until, in imitation of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive
his supply of corn, grind it in his hand-mill, and bake his bread himself."
Society is a wave.
The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.
The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge.
Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation
to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.
so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which
protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have
looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to
esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property,
and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults
on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each
has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated
man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature.
Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, -- came
to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having;
it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because
no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is
does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property,
which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire,
or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man
breathes. "Thy lot or portion of life," said the Caliph Ali, "is seeking
after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it." Our dependence
on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.
The political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the concourse,
and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from Essex!
The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! the young patriot
feels himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes and arms.
In like manner the reformers summon conventions, and vote and resolve in
multitude. Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and inhabit
you, but by a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a man puts
off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and
to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is
not a man better than a town? Ask nothing of men, and in the endless
mutation, thou only firm column must presently appear the upholder of all
that surrounds thee. He who knows that power is inborn, that he is
weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving,
throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself,
stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles; just as
a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.
use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her,
and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave
as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors
of God . In the Will
work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit
hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political
victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your
absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you
think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing
can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.