Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essays: First Series 
Hypertext by Kai Sommer
Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003
Nature centres into ,
And her proud ephemerals,
Fast to surface and outside,
Scan the profile of the sphere;
Knew they what that signified,
A new genesis were here.
The is the first circle; the horizon
which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure
is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the
world. described the nature of We are all our lifetime
reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have
already deduced, in considering the or compensatory character
of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace; that every
action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the
truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is
no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always
another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
This fact, as far as it symbolizes the
moral fact of the Unattainable, , around which the
hands of man can never meet, at once the inspirer and the condemner
of every success, may conveniently serve us to connect many illustrations
of human power in every department.
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe
is fluid and volatile. Our
seen by God is a transparent law, not a The law dissolves
the fact and holds it fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea
which draws after it this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise
into another idea: they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted
away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a solitary figure
or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold
dells and mountain clefts, in June and July. For the genius that created
it creates now somewhat else. The Greek letters last a little longer,
but are already passing under the same sentence, and tumbling into the
inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that
is old. The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet;
the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing. New arts
destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless
by hydraulics; fortifications, by gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways;
sails, by steam; steam by electricity.
You admire this tower of granite, weathering
the hurts of so many ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge
wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built. The
hand that built can topple it down much faster. Better than the hand,
and nimbler, was the invisible thought which wrought through it; and
thus ever, behind the coarse effect, is a fine cause, which, being narrowly
seen, is itself the effect of a finer cause. . A rich estate appears to women a firm and
lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created out of any materials,
and easily lost. An orchard, good tillage, good grounds, seem a fixture,
like a gold mine, or a river, to a citizen; but to a large farmer, not
much more fixed than the state of the crop. Nature looks provokingly
stable and secular, but it has a cause like all the rest; and when once
I comprehend that, will these fields stretch so immovably wide, these
leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees.
Every thing is medial. Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than
The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy
and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the
idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed
by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is
a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes
on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.
The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel,
will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it
is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular
wave of , -- as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art,
a local usage, a religious rite, -- to heap itself on that ridge, and
to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong,
it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit
on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt
again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in
its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast
force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.
Every ultimate fact is only the first
of a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more
general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing
wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story, -- how good!
how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo!
on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle
we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our
first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is
forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist. And so men do
by themselves. The result of to-day, which haunts the mind and cannot
be escaped, will presently be abridged into a word, and the principle
that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example
of a bolder generalization. In the thought of to-morrow there is a power
to upheave all thy creed, all the creeds, all the literatures, of the
nations, and marshal thee to a heaven which no epic dream has yet depicted.
Every man is not so much a workman in the world, as he is a suggestion
of that he should be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age.
Step by step we scale this mysterious
ladder: the steps are actions; the new prospect is power. Every several
result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems
to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new
statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the
old, comes like an abyss of skepticism. But soon gets wonted
to it, for the eye and it are effects of one cause; then its innocency
and benefit appear, and presently, all its energy spent, it pales and
dwindles before the
Fear not the new generalization. , threatening to degrade thy theory
of spirit? Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of
matter just as much.
There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal
to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood;
and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine
soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last
closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown,
unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.
Our moods do not believe in each other.
To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no
reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression,
to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing
in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction
in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall
wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this
infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow!
I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
The continual effort to raise himself
above himself, to work a pitch above his last height, betrays itself
in a man's relations. We thirst for approbation, yet cannot forgive
the approver. The sweet of nature is love; yet, if I have a friend,
I am tormented by my imperfections. The love of me accuses the other
party. If he were high enough to slight me, then could I love him, and
rise by my affection to new heights. A man's growth is seen in the successive
choirs of his friends. For every friend whom he loses for truth, he
gains a better. I thought, as I walked in the woods and mused on my
friends, why should I play with them this game of idolatry? I know and
see too well, when not voluntarily blind, the speedy limits of persons
called high and worthy. Rich, noble, and great they are by the liberality
of our speech, but truth is sad. O blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for
these, they are not thou! Every personal consideration that we allow
costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and
How often must we learn this lesson? Men
cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is
limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man's limitations, it
is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprise? has he knowledge?
it boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday,
a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found
it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.
Each new step we take in thought reconciles
twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law. Aristotle
and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. A wise man
will see that Aristotle Platonizes. By going one step farther back in
thought, discordant opinions are reconciled, by being seen to be two
extremes of one principle, and we can never go so far back as to preclude
a still higher vision.
Beware when the great God lets loose a
thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a
conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what
is safe, or where it will end. There is not a piece of science, but
its flank may be turned to-morrow; there is not any literary reputation,
not the so-called eternal names of fame, that may not be revised and
condemned. The very hopes of man, the thoughts of his heart, the religion
of nations, the manners and morals of mankind, are all at the mercy
of a new generalization. Generalization is always a new influx of the
divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery,
so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled,
but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring
truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of
it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his
relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be
superseded and decease.
There are degrees in idealism. We learn
first to play with it academically, as the magnet was once a toy. Then
we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it
is true in gleams and fragments. Then, its countenance waxes stern and
grand, and we see that it must be true. It now shows itself ethical
and practical. We learn that God IS that he is in me; and that all things
are shadows of him. The is only a crude statement
of the idealism of Jesus, and that again is a crude statement of the
fact, that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and
organizing itself. Much more obviously is history and the state of the
world at any one time directly dependent on the intellectual classification
then existing in the minds of men. The things which are dear to men
at this hour are so on account of the ideas which have emerged on their
mental horizon, and which cause the present order of things as a tree
bears its apples. A new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize
the entire system of human pursuits.
Conversation is a game of circles. In
conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of
on every side. The parties are not to be judged by the spirit they partake
and even express under this Pentecost. To-morrow they will have receded
from this high-water mark. To-morrow you shall find them stooping under
the old pack-saddles. Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst it glows
on our walls. When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates
us from the oppression of the last speaker, to oppress us with the greatness
and exclusiveness of his own thought, then yields us to another redeemer,
we seem to recover our rights, to become men. O, what truths profound
and executable only in ages and orbs are supposed in the announcement
of every truth! In common hours, society sits cold and statuesque. We
all stand waiting, empty, -- knowing, possibly, that we can be full,
surrounded by mighty symbols which are not symbols to us, but prose
and trivial toys. Then cometh the god, and converts the statues into
fiery men, and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil which shrouded
all things, and the meaning of the very furniture, of cup and saucer,
of chair and clock and tester, is manifest. The facts which loomed so
large in the fogs of yesterday, -- property, climate, breeding, personal
beauty, and the like, have strangely changed their proportions. All
that we reckoned settled shakes and rattles; and literatures, cities,
climates, religions, leave their foundations, and dance before our eyes.
And yet here again see the swift circumspection! Good as is discourse,
silence is better, and shames it. The length of the discourse indicates
the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they
were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary
thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered.
Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal
circle, through which a new one may be described. The use of literature
is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present
life, a purchase by which we may move it. We fill ourselves with ancient
learning, install ourselves the best we can in Greek, in Punic, in Roman
houses, only that we may wiselier see French, English, and American
houses and modes of living. In like manner, we see literature best from
the midst of wild nature, or from the din of affairs, or from a high
religion. The field cannot be well seen from within the field. The astronomer
must have his diameter of the earth's orbit as a base to find the parallax
of any star.
Therefore we value the poet. All the argument
and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics,
or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily
work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial
force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Ariosto,
filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk
romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me
with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open
my eye on my own possibilities. He claps wings to the sides of all the
solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing
a straight path in theory and practice.
We have the same need to command a view
of the religion of the world. We can never see Christianity from the
catechism: -- from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst
the songs of wood-birds, we possibly may. Cleansed by the elemental
light and wind, steeped in the sea of beautiful forms which the field
offers us, we may chance to cast a right glance back upon biography.
Christianity is rightly dear to the best of mankind; yet was there never
a young philosopher whose breeding had fallen into the Christian church,
by whom that brave text of Paul's was not specially prized: -- Let the claims and virtues of persons be
never so great and welcome, the instinct of man presses eagerly onward
to the impersonal and illimitable, and gladly arms itself against the
dogmatism of bigots with this generous word out of the book itself.
The natural world may be conceived of
as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature
slight dislocations, which apprize us that this surface on which we
now stand is not fixed, but sliding. These manifold tenacious qualities,
, which seem
to stand there for their own sake, are means and methods only, -- are
words of God, and as fugitive as other words. Has the naturalist or
chemist learned his craft, who has explored the , who has not yet discerned the deeper law whereof
this is only a partial or approximate statement, namely, that like draws
to like; and that the goods which belong to you gravitate to you, and
need not be pursued with pains and cost? Yet is that statement approximate
also, and not final. Omnipresence is a higher fact. Not through subtle,
subterranean channels need friend and fact be drawn to their counterpart,
but, rightly considered, these things proceed from the eternal generation
of the soul. Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.
The same law of eternal procession ranges
all that we call the virtues, and extinguishes each in the light of
a better. The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all
his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur. But it behooves
each to see, when he sacrifices prudence, to what god he devotes it;
if to ease and pleasure, he had better be prudent still; if to a great
trust, he can well spare his mule and panniers who has a winged chariot
instead. Geoffrey draws on his boots to go through the woods, that his
feet may be safer from the bite of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such
a peril. In many years neither is harmed by such an accident. Yet it
seems to me, that, I suppose that the highest
prudence is the lowest prudence. Is this too sudden a rushing from the
centre to the verge of our orbit? Think how many times we shall fall
back into pitiful calculations before we take up our rest in the great
sentiment, or make the verge of to-day the new centre. Besides, your
bravest sentiment is familiar to the humblest men. The poor and the
low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy as well
as you. and are proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.
One man's justice is another's injustice;
one man's beauty, another's ugliness; one man's wisdom, another's folly;
as one beholds the same objects from a higher point. One man thinks
justice consists in paying debts, and has no measure in his abhorrence
of another who is very remiss in this duty, and makes the creditor wait
tediously. But that second man has his own way of looking at things;
asks himself which debt must I pay first, the debt to the rich, or the
debt to the poor? the debt of money, or the debt of thought to mankind,
of genius to nature? For you, O broker! there is no other principle
but arithmetic. For me, commerce is of trivial import; love, faith,
truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can
I detach one duty, like you, from all other duties, and concentrate
my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys. Let me live onward;
you shall find that, though slower, the progress of my character will
liquidate all these debts without injustice to higher claims. If a man
should dedicate himself to the payment of notes, would not this be injustice?
Does he owe no debt but money? And are all claims on him to be postponed
to a landlord's or a banker's?
There is no virtue which is final; all
are initial. The virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror
of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what
we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our
"Forgive his crimes, forgive his virtues too,
Those smaller faults, half converts to the right."
It is the highest power of divine moments
that they abolish our contritions also. I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness
day by day; but when these waves of God flow into me, I no longer reckon
lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievement by what
remains to me of the month or the year; for these moments confer a sort
of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of duration, but sees
that the energy of the mind is commensurate with the work to be done,
And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear
some reader exclaim, you have arrived at a fine Pyrrhonism, at an equivalence
and indifferency of all actions, and would fain teach us that, if
we are true, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which
we shall construct the temple of the true God!
I am not careful to justify myself. I
own I am gladdened by seeing the predominance of the saccharine principle
throughout vegetable nature, and not less by beholding in morals that
unrestrained inundation of the principle of good into every chink and
hole that selfishness has left open, yea, into selfishness and sin itself;
so that no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme satisfactions.
But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims,
let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set
the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not,
as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. 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.
Yet this incessant movement and progression
which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast
to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal
generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central
life is somewhat superior to creation, superior to knowledge and thought,
and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to create a life and
thought as large and excellent as itself; but in vain; for that which
is made instructs how to make a better.
Thus there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation,
but all things renew, germinate, and spring. Why should we import rags
and relics into the new hour? Nature abhors the old, and old age seems
the only disease; all others run into this one. We call it by many names,
-- fever, intemperance, insanity, stupidity, and crime; they are all
forms of old age; they are rest, conservatism, appropriation, inertia,
not newness, not the way onward. We grizzle every day. I see no need
of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old,
but grow young. Infancy, youth, receptive, aspiring, with religious
eye looking upward, counts itself nothing, and abandons itself to the
instruction flowing from all sides. But the man and woman of seventy
assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration,
accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young. Let
them, then, become organs of the Holy Ghost; let them be lovers; let
them behold truth; and their eyes are uplifted, their wrinkles smoothed,
they are perfumed again with hope and power. This old age ought not
to creep on a human mind. In nature every moment is new; the past is
always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is
secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound
by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so
sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts.
People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there
any hope for them.
Life is a series of surprises. We do not
guess to-day the mood, the pleasure, the power of to-morrow, when we
are building up our being. Of lower states, -- of acts of routine and
sense, -- we can tell somewhat; but the masterpieces of God, the total
growths and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.
I can know that truth is divine and helpful; but how it shall help me
I can have no guess, for so to be is the sole inlet of so
to know. The new position of the advancing man has all the powers
of the old, yet has them all new. It carries in its bosom all the energies
of the past, yet is itself an exhalation of the morning. I cast away
in this new moment all my once hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain.
Now, for the first time, seem I to know any thing rightly. The simplest
words, -- we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire.
The difference between talents and character
is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage
to make a new road to new and better goals. Character makes an overpowering
present; a cheerful, determined hour, which fortifies all the company,
by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not
thought of. Character dulls the impression of particular events. When
we see the conqueror, we do not think much of any one battle or success.
We see that we had exaggerated the difficulty. It was easy to him. The
great man is not convulsible or tormentable; events pass over him without
much impression. People say sometimes, `See what I have overcome; see
how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black
events.' Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest
is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear, as an early cloud
of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.
The one thing which we seek with insatiable
desire is , to be surprised out of our propriety,
to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing
how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved
without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.
The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through
the strength of ideas, as the works of genius and religion. "A man,"
said Oliver Cromwell, "never rises so high as when he knows not whither
he is going." Dreams and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are
the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their
dangerous attraction for men. For the like reason, they ask the aid
of wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these
flames and generosities of the heart.
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Other criticism on the essay