Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. IV. Representative Men: Seven Lectures
IV. Montaigne; or, the Skeptic
EVERY1 fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals. The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these two sides, to find the other: given the upper, to find the under side. Nothing so thin but has these two faces, and when the observer has seen the obverse, he turns it over to see the reverse.2 Life is a pitching of this penny,heads or tails. We never tire of this game, because there is still a slight shudder of astonishment at the exhibition of the other face, at the contrast of the two faces. A man is flushed with success, and bethinks himself what this good luck signifies. He drives his bargain in the street; but it occurs that he also is bought and sold. He sees the beauty of a human face, and searches the cause of that beauty, which must be more beautiful. He builds his fortunes, maintains the laws, cherishes his children; but he asks himself, Why? and whereto? This head and this tail are called, in the language of philosophy, Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real; and many fine names beside.
Each man is born with a predisposition to one or the other of these sides of nature; and it will easily happen that men will be found devoted to one or the other. One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces, cities and persons, and the bringing certain things to pass;the men of talent and action. Another class have the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius.3
Each of these riders drives too fast. Plotinus believes only in philosophers; Fenelon, in saints; Pindar and Byron, in poets. Read the haughty language in which Plato and the Platonists speak of all men who are not devoted to their own shining abstractions: other men are rats and mice. The literary class is usually proud and exclusive. The correspondence of Pope and Swift describes mankind around them as monsters; and that of Goethe and Schiller, in our own time, is scarcely more kind.4
It is easy to see how this arrogance comes. The genius is a genius by the first look he casts on any object. Is his eye creative? Does he not rest in angles and colors, but beholds the design?he will presently undervalue the actual object. In powerful moments, his thought has dissolved the works of art and nature into their causes, so that the works appear heavy and faulty. He has a conception of beauty which the sculptor cannot embody. Picture, statue, temple, railroad, steam-engine, existed first in an artists mind, without flaw, mistake, or friction, which impair the executed models.5 So did the Church, the State, college, court, social circle, and all the institutions. It is not strange that these men, remembering what they have seen and hoped of ideas, should affirm disdainfully the superiority of ideas. Having at some time seen that the happy soul will carry all the arts in power, they say, Why cumber ourselves with superfluous realizations? and like dreaming beggars they assume to speak and act as if these values were already substantiated.
On the other part, the men of toil and trade and luxury,the animal world, including the animal in the philosopher and poet also, and the practical world, including the painful drudgeries which are never excused to philosopher or poet any more than to the rest,weigh heavily on the other side. The trade in our streets believes in no metaphysical causes, thinks nothing of the force which necessitated traders and a trading planet to exist: no, but sticks to cotton, sugar, wool and salt. The ward meetings, on election days, are not softened by any misgiving of the value of these ballotings.6 Hot life is streaming in a single direction. To the men of this world, to the animal strength and spirits, to the men of practical power, whilst immersed in it, the man of ideas appears out of his reason. They alone have reason.
Things always bring their own philosophy with them, that is, prudence. No man acquires property without acquiring with it a little arithmetic also. In England, the richest country that ever existed, property stands for more, compared with personal ability, than in any other. After dinner, a man believes less, denies more: verities have lost some charm. After dinner, arithmetic is the only science: ideas are disturbing, incendiary, follies of young men, repudiated by the solid portion of society: and a man comes to be valued by his athletic and animal qualities. Spence relates that Mr. Pope was with Sir Godfrey Kneller one day, when his nephew, a Guinea trader, came in. Nephew, said Sir Godfrey, you have the honor of seeing the two greatest men in the world. I dont know how great men you may be, said the Guinea man, but I dont like your looks. I have often bought a man much better than both of you, all muscles and bones, for ten guineas. Thus the men of the senses revenge themselves on the professors and repay scorn for scorn. The first had leaped to conclusions not yet ripe, and say more than is true; the others make themselves merry with the philosopher, and weigh man by the pound. They believe that mustard bites the tongue, that pepper is hot, friction-matches incendiary, revolvers are to be avoided, and suspenders hold up pantaloons; that there is much sentiment in a chest of tea; and a man will be eloquent, if you give him good wine. Are you tender and scrupulous,you must eat more mince-pie. They hold that Luther had milk in him when he said,
Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weiber, Gesang,
Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang;
and when he advised a young scholar, perplexed with fore-ordination and free-will, to get well drunk. The nerves, says Cabanis, they are the man. My neighbor, a jolly farmer, in the tavern bar-room, thinks that the use of money is sure and speedy spending. For his part, he says, he puts his down his neck and gets the good of it.
The inconvenience of this way of thinking is that it runs into indifferentism and then into disgust. Life is eating us up. We shall be fables presently. Keep cool: it will be all one a hundred years hence. Lifes well enough, but we shall be glad to get out of it, and they will all be glad to have us. Why should we fret and drudge? Our meat will taste to-morrow as it did yesterday, and we may at last have had enough of it. Ah, said my languid gentleman at Oxford, theres nothing new or true,and no matter.
With a little more bitterness, the cynic moans; our life is like an ass led to market by a bundle of hay being carried before him; he sees nothing but the bundle of hay. There is so much trouble in coming into the world, said Lord Bolingbroke, and so much more, as well as meanness, in going out of it, that t is hardly worth while to be here at all. I knew a philosopher of this kidney who was accustomed briefly to sum up his experience of human nature in saying, Mankind is a damned rascal:7 and the natural corollary is pretty sure to follow,The world lives by humbug, and so will I.
The abstractionist and the materialist thus mutually exasperating each other, and the scoffer expressing the worst of materialism, there arises a third party to occupy the middle ground between these two, the skeptic, namely. He finds both wrong by being in extremes. He labors to plant his feet, to be the beam of the balance. He will not go beyond his card. He sees the one-sidedness of these men of the street; he will not be a Gibeonite; he stands for the intellectual faculties, a cool head and whatever serves to keep it cool; no unadvised industry, no unrewarded self-devotion, no loss of the brains in toil. Am I an ox, or a dray?You are both in extremes, he says. You that will have all solid, and a world of pig-lead, deceive yourselves grossly. You believe yourselves rooted and grounded on adamant; and yet, if we uncover the last facts of our knowledge, you are spinning like bubbles in a river, you know not whither or whence, and you are bottomed and capped and wrapped in delusions.8 Neither will he be betrayed to a book and wrapped in a gown.9 The studious class are their own victims; they are thin and pale; their feet are cold, their heads are hot, the night is without sleep, the day a fear of interruption,pallor, squalor, hunger and egotism. If you come near them and see what conceits they entertain,they are abstractionists, and spend their days and nights in dreaming some dream; in expecting the homage of society to some precious scheme, built on a truth, but destitute of proportion in its presentment, of justness in its application, and of all energy of will in the schemer to embody and vitalize it.10
But I see plainly, he says, that I cannot see. I know that human strength is not in extremes, but in avoiding extremes. I, at least, will shun the weakness of philosophizing beyond my depth. What is the use of pretending to powers we have not? What is the use of pretending to assurances we have not, respecting the other life? Why exaggerate the power of virtue? Why be an angel before your time? These strings, wound up too high, will snap. If there is a wish for immortality, and no evidence, why not say just that? If there are conflicting evidences, why not state them? If there is not ground for a candid thinker to make up his mind, yea or nay,why not suspend the judgment? I weary of these dogmatizers. I tire of these hacks of routine, who deny the dogmas. I neither affirm nor deny. I stand here to try the case. I am here to consider, [Greek], to consider how it is. I will try to keep the balance true. Of what use to take the chair and glibly rattle off theories of society, religion and nature, when I know that practical objections lie in the way, insurmountable by me and by my mates? Why so talkative in public, when each of my neighbors can pin me to my seat by arguments I cannot refute? Why pretend that life is so simple a game, when we know how subtle and elusive the Proteus is?11 Why think to shut up all things in your narrow coop, when we know there are not one or two only, but ten, twenty, a thousand things, and unlike? Why fancy that you have all the truth in your keeping? There is much to say on all sides.
Who shall forbid a wise skepticism, seeing that there is no practical question on which any thing more than an approximate solution can be had? Is not marriage an open question, when it is alleged, from the beginning of the world, that such as are in the institution wish to get out, and such as are out wish to get in? And the reply of Socrates, to him who asked whether he should choose a wife, still remains reasonable, that whether he should choose one or not, he would repent it. Is not the State a question? All society is divided in opinion on the subject of the State. Nobody loves it; great numbers dislike it and suffer conscientious scruples to allegiance; and the only defence set up, is the fear of doing worse in disorganizing. Is it otherwise with the Church? Or, to put any of the questions which touch mankind nearest,shall the young man aim at a leading part in law, in politics, in trade? It will not be pretended that a success in either of these kinds is quite coincident with what is best and inmost in his mind. Shall he then, cutting the stays that hold him fast to the social state, put out to sea with no guidance but his genius? There is much to say on both sides. Remember the open question between the present order of competition and the friends of attractive and associated labor. The generous minds embrace the proposition of labor shared by all; it is the only honesty; nothing else is safe.12 It is from the poor mans hut alone that strength and virtue come: and yet, on the other side, it is alleged that labor impairs the form and breaks the spirit of man, and the laborers cry unanimously, We have no thoughts. Culture, how indispensable! I cannot forgive you the want of accomplishments; and yet culture will instantly impair that chiefest beauty of spontaneousness. Excellent is culture for a savage; but once let him read in the book, and he is no longer able not to think of Plutarchs heroes. In short, since true fortitude of understanding consists in not letting what we know be embarrassed by what we do not know, we ought to secure those advantages which we can command, and not risk them by clutching after the airy and unattainable. Come, no chimeras! Let us go abroad; let us mix in affairs; let us learn and get and have and climb. Men are a sort of moving plants, and, like trees, receive a great part of their nourishment from the air. If they keep too much at home, they pine. Let us have a robust, manly life; let us know what we know, for certain; what we have, let it be solid and seasonable and our own. A world in the hand is worth two in the bush. Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.
This then is the right ground of the skeptic,this of consideration, of self-containing; not at all of unbelief; not at all of universal denying, nor of universal doubting,doubting even that he doubts; least of all of scoffing and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good. These are no more his moods than are those of religion and philosophy. He is the considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that a man has too many enemies than that he can afford to be his own foe; that we cannot give ourselves too many advantages in this unequal conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other. It is a position taken up for better defence, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained; and it is one of more opportunity and range: as, when we build a house, the rule is to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.
The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility. The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion. A theory of Saint John, and of non-resistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial. We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first and limber as the second. We want a ship in these billows we inhabit. An angular, dogmatic house would be rent to chips and splinters in this storm of many elements. No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea. The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwelling-house is built. Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature. We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errors, houses founded on the sea. The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players; what is best in the planet; art and nature, places and events; but mainly men. Every thing that is excellent in mankind,a form of grace, an arm of iron, lips of persuasion, a brain of resources, every one skilful to play and win,he will see and judge.
The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own; some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success; that he has evinced the temper, stoutness and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust. For the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness. Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers. Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having, itself, a positive quality; some stark and sufficient man, who is not salt or sugar, but sufficiently related to the world to do justice to Paris or London, and, at the same time, a vigorous and original thinker, whom cities can not overawe, but who uses them,is the fit person to occupy this ground of speculation.
These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne. And yet, since the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne may be unduly great, I will, under the shield of this prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a word or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip.13
A single odd volume of Cottons translation of the Essays remained to me from my fathers library, when a boy. It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience. It happened, when in Paris, in 1833, that, in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, I came to a tomb of Auguste Collignon, who died in 1830, aged sixty-eight years, and who, said the monument, lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne. Some years later, I became acquainted with an accomplished English poet, John Sterling;14 and, in prosecuting my correspondence, I found that, from a love of Montaigne, he had made a pilgrimage to his chateau, still standing near Castellan, in Périgord, and, after two hundred and fifty years, had copied from the walls of his library the inscriptions which Montaigne had written there. That Journal of Mr. Sterlings, published in the Westminster Review, Mr. Hazlitt has reprinted in the Prolegomena to his edition of the Essays. I heard with pleasure that one of the newly-discovered autographs of William Shakspeare was in a copy of Florios translation of Montaigne. It is the only book which we certainly know to have been in the poets library. And, oddly enough, the duplicate copy of Florio, which the British Museum purchased with a view of protecting the Shakspeare autograph (as I was informed in the Museum), turned out to have the autograph of Ben Jonson in the fly-leaf. Leigh Hunt relates of Lord Byron, that Montaigne was the only great writer of past times whom he read with avowed satisfaction. Other coincidences, not needful to be mentioned here, concurred to make this old Gascon still new and immortal for me.
In 1571, on the death of his father, Montaigne, then thirty-eight years old, retired from the practice of law at Bordeaux, and settled himself on his estate. Though he had been a man of pleasure and sometimes a courtier, his studious habits now grew on him, and he loved the compass, staidness and independence of the country gentlemans life. He took up his economy in good earnest, and made his farms yield the most. Downright and plain-dealing, and abhorring to be deceived or to deceive, he was esteemed in the country for his sense and probity. In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, Montaigne kept his gates open and his house without defence. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed. The neighboring lords and gentry brought jewels and papers to him for safe-keeping. Gibbon reckons, in these bigoted times, but two men of liberality in France,Henry IV. and Montaigne.
Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness; but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions. In his times, books were written to one sex only, and almost all were written in Latin; so that in a humorist a certain nakedness of statement was permitted, which our manners, of a literature addressed equally to both sexes, do not allow. But though a biblical plainness coupled with a most uncanonical levity may shut his pages to many sensitive readers, yet the offence is superficial. He parades it: he makes the most of it: nobody can think or say worse of him than he does.15 He pretends to most of the vices; and, if there be any virtue in him, he says, it got in by stealth. There is no man, in his opinion, who has not deserved hanging five or six times; and he pretends no exception in his own behalf. Five or six as ridiculous stories, too, he says, can be told of me, as of any man living. But, with all this really superfluous frankness, the opinion of an invincible probity grows into every readers mind. When I the most strictly and religiously confess myself, I find that the best virtue I have has in it some tincture of vice; and I, who am as sincere and perfect a lover of virtue of that stamp as any other whatever, am afraid that Plato, in his purest virtue, if he had listened and laid his ear close to himself, would have heard some jarring sound of human mixture; but faint and remote and only to be perceived by himself.
Here is an impatience and fastidiousness at color or pretence of any kind. He has been in courts so long as to have conceived a furious disgust at appearances; he will indulge himself with a little cursing and swearing; he will talk with sailors and gipsies, use flash and street ballads; he has stayed in-doors till he is deadly sick; he will to the open air, though it rain bullets. He has seen to much of gentlemen of the long robe, until he wishes for cannibals; and is so nervous, by factitious life, that he thinks the more barbarous man is, the better he is. He likes his saddle. You may read theology, and grammar, and metaphysics elsewhere. Whatever you get here shall smack of the earth and of real life, sweet, or smart, or stinging. He makes no hesitation to entertain you with the records of his disease, and his journey to Italy is quite full of that matter.16 He took and kept this position of equilibrium. Over his name he drew an emblematic pair of scales, and wrote Que sçais je? under it. As I look at his effigy opposite the title-page, I seem to hear him say, You may play old Poz, if you will;17 you may rail and exaggerate,I stand here for truth, and will not, for all the states and churches and revenues and personal reputations of Europe, overstate the dry fact, as I see it; I will rather mumble and prose about what I certainly know,my house and barns; my father, my wife and my tenants; my old lean bald pate; my knives and forks; what meats I eat and what drinks I prefer, and a hundred straws just as ridiculous,than I will write, with a fine crow-quill, a fine romance. I like gray days, and autumn and winter weather. I am gray and autumnal myself, and think an undress and old shoes that do not pinch my feet, and old friends who do not constrain me, and plain topics where I do not need to strain myself and pump my brains, the most suitable. Our condition as men is risky and ticklish enough. One cannot be sure of himself and his fortune an hour, but he may be whisked off into some pitiable or ridiculous plight. Why should I vapor and play the philosopher, instead of ballasting, the best I can, this dancing balloon? So, at least, I live within compass, keep myself ready for action, and can shoot the gulf at last with decency. If there be anything farcical in such a life, the blame is not mine: let it lie at fates and natures door.
The Essays, therefore, are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that comes into his head; treating every thing without ceremony, yet with masculine sense. There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.
The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression.18 Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion.
Montaigne died of a quinsy, at the age of sixty, in 1592. When he came to die he caused the mass to be celebrated in his chamber. At the age of thirty-three, he had been married. But, he says, might I have had my own will, I would not have married Wisdom herself, if she would have had me: but t is to much purpose to evade it, the common custom and use of life will have it so. Most of my actions are guided by example, not choice. In the hour of death, he gave the same weight to custom. Que sçais je? What do I know?
This book of Montaigne the world has endorsed by translating it into all tongues and printing seventy-five editions of it in Europe; and that, too, a circulation somewhat chosen, namely among courtiers, soldiers, princes, men of the world and men of wit and generosity.
We are natural believers. Truth, or the connection between cause and effect, alone interests us. We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things: all worlds are strung on it, as beads; and men, and events, and life, come to us only because of that thread: they pass and repass only that we may know the direction and continuity of that line. A book or statement which goes to show that there is no line, but random and chaos, a calamity out of nothing, a prosperity and no account of it, a hero born from a fool, a fool from a hero,dispirits us. Seen or unseen, we believe the tie exists. Talent makes counterfeit ties; genius finds the real ones. We hearken to the man of science, because we anticipate the sequence in natural phenomena which he uncovers. We love whatever affirms, connects, preserves; and dislike what scatters or pulls down. One man appears whose nature is to all mens eyes conserving and constructive; his presence supposes a well-ordered society, agriculture, trade, large institutions and empire. If these did not exist, they would begin to exist through his endeavors. Therefore he cheers and comforts men, who feel all this in him very readily. The nonconformist and the rebel say all manner of unanswerable things against the existing republic, but discover to our sense no plan of house or state of their own. Therefore, though the town and state and way of living, which our counsellor contemplated, might be a very modest or musty prosperity, yet men rightly go for him, and reject the reformer so long as he comes only with axe and crowbar.
But though we are natural conservers and causationists, and reject a sour, dumpish unbelief, the skeptical class, which Montaigne represents, have reason, and every man, at some time, belongs to it. Every superior mind will pass through this domain of equilibration,I should rather say, will know how to avail himself of the checks and balances in nature, as a natural weapon against the exaggeration and formalism of bigots and blockheads.
Skepticism is the attitude assumed by the student in relation to the particulars which society adores, but which he sees to be reverend only in their tendency and spirit. The ground occupied by the skeptic is the vestibule of the temple. Society does not like to have any breath of question blown on the existing order. But the interrogation of custom at all points is an inevitable stage in the growth of every superior mind, and is the evidence of its perception of the flowing power which remains itself in all changes.19
The superior mind will find itself equally at odds with the evils of society and with the projects that are offered to relieve them. The wise skeptic is a bad citizen; no conservative, he sees the selfishness of property and the drowsiness of institutions. But neither is he fit to work with any democratic party that ever was constituted; for parties wish every one committed, and he penetrates the popular patriotism. His politics are those of the Souls Errand of Sir Walter Raleigh; or of Krishna, in the Bhagavat, There is none who is worthy of my love or hatred; whilst he sentences law, physic, divinity, commerce and custom. He is a reformer; yet he is no better member of the philanthropic association. It turns out that he is not the champion of the operative, the pauper, the prisoner, the slave. It stands in his mind that our life in this world is not of quite so easy interpretation as churches and schoolbooks say. He does not wish to take ground against these benevolences, to play the part of devils attorney, and blazon every doubt and sneer that darkens the sun for him. But he says, There are doubts.
I mean to use the occasion, and celebrate the calendar-day of our Saint Michel de Montaigne, by counting and describing these doubts or negations. I wish to ferret them out of their holes and sun them a little. We must do with them as the police do with old rogues, who are shown up to the public at the marshals office. They will never be so formidable when once they have been identified and registered. But I mean honestly by them,that justice shall be done to their terrors. I shall not take Sunday objections, made up on purpose to be put down. I shall take the worst I can find, whether I can dispose of them or they of me.
I do not press the skepticism of the materialist. I know the quadruped opinion will not prevail. T is of no importance what bats and oxen think. The first dangerous symptom I report is, the levity of intellect; as if it were fatal to earnestness to know much. Knowledge is the knowing that we can not know. The dull pray; the geniuses are light mockers. How respectable is earnestness on every platform! but intellect kills it. Nay, San Carlo, my subtle and admirable friend, one of the most penetrating of men, finds that all direct ascension, even of lofty piety, leads to this ghastly insight and sends back the votary orphaned.20 My astonishing San Carlo thought the lawgivers and saints infected. They found the ark empty; saw, and would not tell; and tried to choke off their approaching followers, by saying, Action, action, my dear fellows, is for you! Bad as was to me this detection by San Carlo, this frost in July, this blow from a bride, there was still a worse, namely the cloy or satiety of the saints. In the mount of vision, ere they have yet risen from their knees, they say, We discover that this our homage and beatitude is partial and deformed: we must fly for relief to the suspected and reviled Intellect, to the Understanding, the Mephistopheles, to the gymnastics of talent.21
This is hobgoblin the first; and though it has been the subject of much elegy in our nineteenth century, from Byron, Goethe and other poets of less fame, not to mention many distinguished private observers,I confess it is not very affecting to my imagination; for it seems to concern the shattering of baby-houses and crockery-shops. What flutters the Church of Rome, or of England, or of Geneva, or of Boston, may yet be very far from touching any principle of faith. I think that the intellect and moral sentiment are unanimous; and that though philosophy extirpates bugbears, yet it supplies the natural checks of vice, and polarity to the soul. I think that the wiser a man is, the more stupendous he finds the natural and moral economy, and lifts himself to a more absolute reliance.22
There is the power of moods, each setting at nought all but its own tissue of facts and beliefs. There is the power of complexions, obviously modifying the dispositions and sentiments. The beliefs and unbeliefs appear to be structural; and as soon as each man attains the poise and vivacity which allow the whole machinery to play, he will not need extreme examples, but will rapidly alternate all opinions in his own life. Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour. We go forth austere, dedicated, believing in the iron links of Destiny, and will not turn on our heel to save our life: but a book, or a bust, or only the sound of a name, shoots a spark through the nerves, and we suddenly believe in will: my finger-ring shall be the seal of Solomon; fate is for imbeciles; all is possible to the resolved mind. Presently a new experience gives a new turn to our thoughts: common sense resumes its tyranny; we say, Well, the army, after all, is the gate to fame, manners and poetry: and, look you,on the whole, selfishness plants best, prunes best, makes the best commerce and the best citizen. Are the opinions of a man on right and wrong, on fate and causation, at the mercy of a broken sleep or an indigestion? Is his belief in God and Duty no deeper than a stomach evidence? And what guaranty for the permanence of his opinions? I like not the French celerity,a new Church and State once a week. This is the second negation; and I shall let it pass for what it will. As far as it asserts rotation of states of mind, I suppose it suggests its own remedy, namely in the record of larger periods. What is the mean of many states; of all the states? Does the general voice of ages affirm any principle, or is no community of sentiment discoverable in distant times and places? And when it shows the power of self-interest, I accept that as part of the divine law and must reconcile it with aspiration the best I can.
The word Fate, or Destiny, expresses the sense of mankind, in all ages, that the laws of the world do not always befriend, but often hurt and crush us. Fate, in the shape of Kinde or nature, grows over us like grass.23 We paint Time with a scythe; Love and Fortune, blind; and Destiny, deaf. We have too little power of resistance against this ferocity which champs us up. What front can we make against these unavoidable, victorious, maleficent forces? What can I do against the influence of Race, in my history? What can I do against hereditary and constitutional habits; against scrofula, lymph, impotence? against climate, against barbarism, in my country? I can reason down or deny every thing, except this perpetual Belly: feed he must and will, and I cannot make him respectable.24
But the main resistance which the affirmative impulse finds, and one including all others, is in the doctrine of the Illusionists. There is a painful rumor in circulation that we have been practised upon in all the principal performances of life, and free agency is the emptiest name. We have been sopped and drugged with the air, with food, with woman, with children, with sciences, with events, which leave us exactly where they found us. The mathematics, t is complained, leave the mind where they find it: so do all sciences; and so do all events and actions. I find a man who has passed through all the sciences, the churl he was; and, through all the offices, learned, civil and social, can detect the child. We are not the less necessitated to dedicate life to them. In fact we may come to accept it as the fixed rule and theory of our state of education, that God is a substance, and his method is illusion. The Eastern sages owned the goddess Yoganidra, the great illusory energy of Vishnu, by whom, as utter ignorance, the whole world is beguiled.
Or shall I state it thus?The astonishment of life is the absence of any appearance of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life. Reason, the prized reality, the Law, is apprehended, now and then, for a serene and profound moment amidst the hubbub of cares and works which have no direct bearing on it;is then lost for months or years, and again found for an interval, to be lost again. If we compute it in time, we may, in fifty years, have half a dozen reasonable hours. But what are these cares and works the better? A method in the world we do not see, but this parallelism of great and little, which never react on each other, nor discover the smallest tendency to converge. Experiences, fortunes, governings, readings, writings, are nothing to the purpose; as when a man comes into the room it does not appear whether he has been fed on yams or buffalo,he has contrived to get so much bone and fibre as he wants, out of rice or out of snow. So vast is the disproportion between the sky of law and the pismire of performance under it, that whether he is a man of worth or a sot is not so great a matter as we say. Shall I add, as one juggle of this enchantment, the stunning non-intercourse law which makes co-operation impossible? The young spirit pants to enter society. But all the ways of culture and greatness lead to solitary imprisonment. He has been often baulked. He did not expect a sympathy with his thought from the village, but he went with it to the chosen and intelligent, and found no entertainment for it, but mere misapprehension, distaste and scoffing. Men are strangely mistimed and misapplied; and the excellence of each is an inflamed individualism which separates him more.
There are these, and more than these diseases of thought, which our ordinary teachers do not attempt to remove. Now shall we, because a good nature inclines us to virtues side, say, There are no doubts,and lie for the right? Is life to be led in a brave or in a cowardly manner? and is not the satisfaction of the doubts essential to all manliness? Is the name of virtue to be a barrier to that which is virtue? Can you not believe that a man of earnest and burly habit may find small good in tea, essays and catechism, and want a rougher instruction, want men, labor, trade, farming, war, hunger, plenty, love, hatred, doubt and terror to make things plain to him; and has he not a right to insist on being convinced, in his own way? When he is convinced, he will be worth the pains.25
Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them. Some minds are incapable of skepticism. The doubts they profess to entertain are rather a civility or accommodation to the common discourse of their company. They may well give themselves leave to speculate, for they are secure of a return. Once admitted to the heaven of thought, they see no relapse into night, but infinite invitation on the other side. Heaven is within heaven, and sky over sky, and they are encompassed with divinities. Others there are to whom the heaven is brass, and it shuts down to the surface of the earth. It is a question of temperament, or of more or less immersion in nature. The last class must needs have a reflex or parasite faith; not a sight of realities, but an instinctive reliance on the seers and believers of realities. The manners and thoughts of believers astonish them and convince them that these have seen something which is hid from themselves. But their sensual habit would fix the believer to his last position, whilst he as inevitably advances; and presently the unbeliever, for love of belief, burns the believer.
Great believers are always reckoned infidels, impracticable, fantastic, atheistic, and really men of no account. The spiritualist finds himself driven to express his faith by a series of skepticisms. Charitable souls come with their projects and ask his co-operation. How can he hesitate? It is the rule of mere comity and courtesy to agree where you can, and to turn your sentence with something auspicious, and not freezing and sinister. But he is forced to say, O, these things will be as they must be: what can you do? These particular griefs and crimes are the foliage and fruit of such trees as we see growing. It is vain to complain of the leaf or the berry; cut it off, it will bear another just as bad. You must begin your cure lower down. The generosities of the day prove an intractable element for him. The peoples questions are not his; their methods are not his; and against all the dictates of good nature he is driven to say he has no pleasure in them.26
Even the doctrines dear to the hope of man, of the divine Providence and of the immortality of the soul, his neighbors can not put the statement so that he shall affirm it. But he denies out of more faith, and not less. He denies out of honesty. He had rather stand charged with the imbecility of skepticism, than with untruth. I believe, he says, in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them? Will any say, This is cold and infidel? The wise and magnanimous will not say so. They will exult in his far-sighted good-will that can abandon to the adversary all the ground of tradition and common belief, without losing a jot of strength. It sees to the end of all transgression. George Fox saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but withal an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over that of darkness.27
The final solution in which skepticism is lost, is in the moral sentiment, which never forfeits its supremacy. All moods may be safely tried, and their weight allowed to all objections: the moral sentiment as easily outweighs them all, as any one. This is the drop which balances the sea. I play with the miscellany of facts, and take those superficial views which we call skepticism; but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes skepticism impossible. A man of thought must feel the thought that is parent of the universe; that the masses of nature do undulate and flow.
This faith avails to the whole emergency of life and objects. The world is saturated with deity and with law. He is content with just and unjust, with sots and fools, with the triumph of folly and fraud.28 He can behold with serenity the yawning gulf between the ambition of man and his power of performance, between the demand and supply of power, which makes the tragedy of all souls.
Charles Fourier announced that the attractions of man are proportioned to his destinies; in other words, that every desire predicts its own satisfaction. Yet all experience exhibits the reverse of this; the incompetency of power is the universal grief of young and ardent minds. They accuse the divine Providence of a certain parsimony. It has shown the heaven and earth to every child and filled him with a desire for the whole; a desire raging, infinite; a hunger, as of space to be filled with planets; a cry of famine, as of devils for souls. Then for the satisfaction,to each man is administered a single drop, a bead of dew of vital power, per day,a cup as large as space, and one drop of the water of life in it.29 Each man woke in the morning with an appetite that could eat the solar system like a cake; a spirit for action and passion without bounds; he could lay his hand on the morning star; he could try conclusions with gravitation or chemistry; but, on the first motion to prove his strength,hands, feet, senses, gave way and would not serve him. He was an emperor deserted by his states, and left to whistle by himself, or thrust into a mob of emperors, all whistling: and still the sirens sang, The attractions are proportioned to the destinies. In every house, in the heart of each maiden and of each boy, in the soul of the soaring saint, this chasm is found,between the largest promise of ideal power, and the shabby experience.
The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing, and say the reverse. The appearance is immoral; the result is moral. Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies,yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.30
Let a man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here, not to work but to be worked upon; and that, though abyss open under abyss, and opinion displace opinion, all are at last contained in the Eternal Cause:
Note 1. As he tells in the Essays, Mr. Emerson made a friend of Montaigne in his youth,felt that Montaigne, three centuries earlier, had, with wit and frank courage, written of things as he himself would have liked to, in boyish protest at timid observance and decorum. There was obvious contrast between their conditions. The French lord, baptized into the communion of the Church of Rome, bred to the usual military accomplishments, with something of a courtiers experience, and a student of law, heir of a castle and full feudal rights, and living in troublous times, stirred the imagination of a delicate and studious youth, growing up well-bred but poor in the very heart of Puritan simplicity and democracy in New England. Yet there were bonds stronger than their differences,a greater Catholicism, a brave love of truth, and disgust at cant, and desire to make their protest freely; a human way of looking at men and things and the teaching of each day, a love of wild nature and the independence and retirement of a country householder,these, and their common love of Plato and of Plutarch. As to writing, Emersons word in his journal about Montaigne was true of himself: Montaigne or Socrates would quote Paul of Tarsus and Goody Two-shoes with equal willingness. During the time of his Boston ministry, on Christmas day, 1831, he wrote to his Aunt Mary, who eagerly followed her nephews reading and discussed it with them: No effeminate parlor workman is he on an idea got at an evening lecture or a young mens debate, but roundly tells what he saw or what he thought of when he was riding on horseback or entertaining a troop at his château. A gross, semi-savage indecency debases his book, and ought doubtless to turn it out of doors, but the robustness of his sentiments, the generosity of his judgment, the downright truth without fear or favor, I do embrace with both arms. It is wild and savory as sweet-fern. Henry the Eighth loved to see a man; and it is exhilarating once in a while to come across a genuine Saxon stump, a wild, virtuous man, who knows books, but gives them their right place, lower than his reason. Books are apt to turn reason out of doors. You find men talking everywhere from their memories instead of from their understanding. If I stole this thought from Montaigne, as is very likely, I dont care. I should have said the same myself. Later, in his journal, appreciating the brave, out-of-door, half-military aspect of the man, he notes, We cant afford to take the horse out of Montaignes Essays. Again, valuing Montaignes solid basis, he writes: Montaigne has the de quoi which the French cherubs had not when the courteous archbishop implored them to sit down. In the story the kind prelate said, Asseyez vous, mes enfans, and the fluttering cherubs answered, Monseigneur, nous n avons pas de quoi. In his first summer in Concord after he made it his home, at the age of thirty-two, Mr. Emerson made this entry in his journal:
8th AUGUST .
Yesterday I delighted myself with Michel de Montaigne. With all my heart I embrace the grand old sloven. He pricks and stings the sense of virtue in me, the wild gentile stock, I mean, for he has no Grace. But his panegyric of Cato and of Socrates in his essay On Cruelty (vol. ii.) do wind up again for us the spent springs, and make virtue possible without the discipline of Christianity; or rather do shame her of her eye-service and put her upon her honor. I read the Essays in Defence of Seneca and Plutarch; On Books; On Drunkenness; and On Cruelty. And at some fortunate line, which I cannot now recall, the spirit of some Plutarch hero or sage touched mine with such thrill as the war-trump makes in Talbots ear and blood. Eight years later he writes: I once took so much delight in Montaigne, that I thought I should not need any other book; then in Plotinus, in Synesius, in Goethe,even in Bettini; but to-day I turn the pages of either of them languidly enough, whilst I still cherish their genius . It is too strong for us, this onward trick of Nature. Pero si muove. Two months after the above entry, Mr. Emerson said in a letter written to his young friend Henry Thoreau, then teaching in his brother William Emersons family in Staten Island: We have had the new Hazlitts Montaigne which contained the Journey to Italy, new to me, and the narrative of the death of the renowned friend Étienne de la Boéce. [back]
Note 2. This image of the two-facedness of things is used to a different purpose in Emersons poem The Chartists Complaint, originally entitled Janus. But in almost every essay, though sometimes in separate essays, his own habit is to contemplate one facet of a truth at a time, and then, often abruptly, go to another point of view. [back]
Note 3. Aristotle, founding on the qualities of matter, is the European skeptic, Plato the believer. (Journal, 1845.) [back]
Note 4. Strangely in contrast with this attitude of the timid or intolerant man of the gown was Mr. Emersons own interested, respectful, and often admiring attitude towards the man of deeds, whether laborer, mechanic, merchant, or statesman. [back]
Note 5. This recalls the first lines of Michael Angelos sonnet to Vittoria Colonna translated by Emerson:
Note 6. Mr. Emerson, on his way to town meeting, saw his honest neighbor George Minot, a farmer and pot-hunter, at work, and asked him if he were not going to cast his vote for Freedom, in the sad days of the Fugitive Slave Law. No, said Minot, I aint a-goin. Its no use a-ballotin, for it wont stay so. What you do with a gun ll stay. [back]
Note 7. This was the remark of his next neighbor on the other side, a laborer. [back]
Note 8. Here come in favorite images: that the planet is bearing its solidest materialists, helpless, whither they know not, at frightful speed through stellar space, drugged and cheated by the illusions of the senses which they cannot interpret, the Maia of the Oriental philosophers. [back]
Note 9. These lines are borrowed from George Herberts poem entitled Affliction. When a youth he longed to leave Cambridge University, but his mother would not permit him to do so.
Note 10. Here is a momentary indulgence at the expense of Mr. Emersons long-sitting reformer visitors, from the journal of 1842, yet showing a magnanimity to the borers which he was fighting on his peach-trees in those days. The borer on our peach-trees bores that she may deposit an egg; but the borer into theories and institutions and books, bores that he may bore. [back]
Note 11. Mr. Emerson recognized Natures secret of Identity through all fugitive forms in the fable of the sea-god Proteus, who, when caught sleeping by a mortal, took shapes of beasts, of serpents, of fire, to disconcert his captor, yet, if held fast in spite of all, must answer his questions. [back]
Note 12. It will be remembered that this book was written at the end of a decade which had witnessed an extraordinary awakening in the minds and consciences of New England people and their neighbors. Mr. Emersons papers on The Times, The Transcendentalist, New England Reformers in Nature, Addresses and Lectures, and his Historical Notes of Life and Letters in New England in Lectures and Biographical Sketches bear witness to the ferments that were at work on the questions of Emancipation, Temperance, Non-Resistance, Communities, Labor, as well as in Religion, Education, and Literature. [back]
Note 13. The following passage is copied from some stray leaves of the lecture on Montaigne: Talent without character is friskiness. The charm of Montaignes egotism, and of his anecdotes, is, that there is a stout cavalier, a seigneur of France, at home in his château, responsible for all this chatting. Now suppose it should be shown and proved that the famous Essays were a jeu desprit of Scaliger, or other scribacious person, written for the booksellers, and not resting on a real status picturesque in the eyes of all men. Would not the book instantly lose almost all its value? [back]
Note 14. The brilliant John Sterling, with whom Emerson formed a strong friendship through correspondence due at first to their common affection for Carlyle. They never met, for Sterling died in 1844. In his journal for 1843 Mr. Emerson records, almost in the same words as here, his pleasure, when a boy, in Cottons Montaigne and his visit to Père Lachaise and of reading Sterlings loving criticism on Montaigne in the Westminster Review, adding, and soon after, Carlyle writes me word that this same lover of Montaigne is a lover of me. Now I have been introducing to his genius two of my friends, James and Tappan, who warm to him as to a brother. So true is S. G. W.s saying that all whom he knew met. Sterlings biography was written both by Archdeacon Hare, who edited his works, and by Carlyle. His Correspondence with Emerson was published in 1897. [back]
Note 15. Mr. Emerson drew this contrast between Montaigne and Plutarch in his essay on the latter, printed in Lectures and Biographical Sketches: Plutarch had a religion, which Montaigne wanted, and which defends him from wantonness; and, though Plutarch is as plain-spoken, his moral sentiment is always pure. [back]
Note 16. Had Montaigne been a living, instead of a dead friend, Mr. Emersons tolerance would have been sorely strained by this habit, and he would have wished to counsel him that there is one topic peremptorily forbidden to all well-bred, to all rational mortals, namely, their distempers, as he tells at large as a final word of advice in the essay on Behavior in Conduct of Life. [back]
Note 17. Miss Edgeworths stories for children are so little read in this generation that it may be well to say that Old Poz was a character who bore this nickname because he was positive of his knowledge on all topics. [back]
Note 18. In the journal for 1840 are the following sentences continuous with the foregoing passage: I know nobody among my contemporaries except Carlyle who writes with any sinew and vivacity comparable to Plutarch and Montaigne. Yet always the profane swearing and bar-room wit has salt and fire in it. I cannot now read Websters speeches. Fuller and Browne and Milton are quick, but the list is soon ended. Goethe seems to be well alive, no pedant: Luther too. [back]
Note 19. In the journal he tells of a walk to the river with [a friend] and saw the moon interrogating, interrogating. The skeptic considered as a man in the vestibule of the temple, suggests what has been said by Professor Weber of Strasburg on the doubts of Descartes as a provisional skepticism, a means which he hastens to abandon as soon as he has discovered a certain primary truth. Dubito ut intelligam. [back]
Note 20. The valued friend here alluded to, Mr. Charles K. Newcomb, was of a sensitive and beautiful character, a mystic, but with the Hamlet temperament to such an extent that he was paralyzed for all action by the tenderness of his conscience and the power with which all sides of a question presented themselves to him in turn. He was a member of the Brook Farm Community, a welcome but rare visitor at Mr. Emersons house, and when he came he brought his writings, which interested his host greatly. I think they never came to publication, except a few papers in the Dial. His sense of duty sent him to the war for the Union in the ranks. He remained a bachelor all his life and in his last years lived much abroad. [back]
Note 21. The last passage appears in the journal for 1845 thus: Skepticism and gulfs of skepticism; strongest of all, that of the Saints. They come to the mount, and in the largest and most blissful communication to them, somewhat is left unsaid, which begets in them doubt and horrible doubt. So then, say they, before they have yet risen from their knees, Even this does not justify: we must still feel that this our homage and beatitude is partial and deformed. We must fly for relief and sanity to that other suspected and reviled part of nature, the kingdom of the understanding, the gymnastics of talent, the play of fancy. [back]
Note 22. Here appears the cause which all his life he stood for,The Church against the churches. [back]
Note 24. His method of dealing with these formidable doubts in the following pages is characteristic of the man; no attempt at dogmatically solving the question for all, but throwing of side-lights here and there, suggestive perhaps to other minds both of the magnitude of the problem, and how to approach it in their own way. Among many of his sayings on the subject of Indirection these may serve as specimens: In good societysay among the angels in Heavenis not everything spoken by indirection. If we could speak the direct solving speech it would solve us too. [back]
Note 25. Journal, 1845. There are many skepticisms. The universe is like an infinite series of planes, each of which is a false bottom, and when we think our feet are planted now at last on the adamant, the slide is drawn out from under us. Value of the skeptic is the resistance to premature conclusions. If he prematurely conclude, his conclusion will be shattered, and he will become malignant. But he must limit himself with the anticipation of law in the mutations,flowing law. [back]
Note 26. This paragraph is exactly a case of Mr. Emersons holding the mirror to his characters at just such an angle that you see something of his own face too, as Dr. Holmes said. His ecclesiastical sin had been, in Dr. Bartols words, his excess of spirituality, and all sorts of well-meaning men were wishing him to spend himself on details and partial reforms while he was trying to hear and transmit the universal laws. He has honestly endeavored in this essay to state the difficult problems fully and clearly, not Sunday objections made up on purpose to be put down. But, after all, he belongs to the minds that are made incapable of skepticism, a man of thought who must feel the thought which is parent to the Universe. [back]
Note 27. About the time when Mr. Emerson was parting from his church he was reading with great pleasure the life of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, and making many extracts from it in his journal. The simple worship of the Quakers and their obedience to the moving Spirit always recommended them to him. [back]
Note 28. In an early journal is this entry: Fools and clowns and sots make the fringe of every ones tapestry of life and give a certain reality to the picture. What could we do in Concord without Bigelows and Wessons bar-rooms and their dependencies? What without such fixtures as Uncle Sol and old Moore, who sleeps in Dr. Hurds barn, and the red Charity-house over the brook? Tragedy and Comedy go ever hand in hand. And again in The Poet:
Note 31. A line that he valued most of those of the poet Channing, his friend, from A Poets Hope. There is a summary, not appearing in the essay in the journal of 1845, perhaps obscure in its ending, but interesting. The cowage of the first sentence was an herb which used to be prescribed for intestinal worms, and acted, not as a poison, but by piercing them with its sharp fibres. Montaigne good against bigots as cowage against worms, acts mechanically. But there is a higher Muse there, sitting where he durst not soar, a muse that follows the flowing power, a Dialectic that respects results: and it requires a muse, as Hafiz expresses himself only in musical phrases, the hyphens are small unities, not parts. [back]