Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. VII. Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters
 
II. Civilization
 
  WE flee away from cities, but we bring
The best of cities with us, these learned classifiers,
Men knowing what they seek, armed eyes of experts.
We praise the guide, we praise the forest life:
But will we sacrifice our dear-bought lore
Of books and arts and trained experiment,
Or count the Sioux a match for Agassiz?
O no, not we!…
          … Witness the mute all hail
The joyful traveller gives, when on the verge
Of craggy Indian wilderness he hears
From a log cabin stream Beethoven’s notes
On the piano, played with master’s hand.
‘Well done!’ he cries; ‘the bear is kept at bay,
The lynx, the rattlesnake, the flood, the fire:
All the fierce enemies, ague, hunger, cold,
This thin spruce roof, this clayed log wall,
This wild plantation will suffice to chase.
Now speed the gay celerities of art,
What in the desert was impossible
Within four walls is possible again,—
Culture and libraries, mysteries of skill,
Traditioned fame of masters, eager strife
Of keen competing youths, joined or alone,
To outdo each other and extort applause.
Mind wakes a new-born giant from her sleep.
Twirl the old wheels! Time takes fresh start again,
On for a thousand years of genius more’

A CERTAIN 1 degree of progress from the rudest state in which man is found,—a dweller in caves, or on trees, like an ape,—a cannibal, and eater of pounded snails, worms and offal,—a certain degree of progress from this extreme is called Civilization. It is a vague, complex name, of many degrees. Nobody has attempted a definition. Mr. Guizot, writing a book on the subject, does not. It implies the evolution of a highly organized man, brought to supreme delicacy of sentiment, as in practical power, religion, liberty, sense of honor and taste. 2 In the hesitation to define what it is, we usually suggest it by negations. A nation that has no clothing, no iron, no alphabet, no marriage, no arts of peace, no abstract thought, we call barbarous. And after many arts are invented or imported, as among the Turks and Moorish nations, it is often a little complaisant to call them civilized.
  1
  Each nation grows after its own genius, and has a civilization of its own. The Chinese and Japanese, though each complete in his way, is different from the man of Madrid or the man of New York. The term imports a mysterious progress. In the brutes is none; and in mankind to-day the savage tribes are gradually extinguished rather than civilized. The Indians of this country have not learned the white man’s work; and in Africa the negro of to-day is the negro of Herodotus. In other races the growth is not arrested, but the like progress that is made by a boy “when he cuts his eye-teeth,” as we say,—childish illusions passing daily away and he seeing things really and comprehensively,—is made by tribes. It is the learning the secret of cumulative power, of advancing on one’s self. It implies a facility of association, power to compare, the ceasing from fixed ideas. The Indian is gloomy and distressed when urged to depart from his habits and traditions. He is overpowered by the gaze of the white, and his eye sinks. The occasion of one of these starts of growth is always some novelty that astounds the mind and provokes it to dare to change. Thus there is a Cadmus, a Pytheas, a Manco Capac at the beginning of each improvement,—some superior foreigner importing new and wonderful arts, and teaching them. 3 Of course he must not know too much, but must have the sympathy, language and gods of those he would inform. But chiefly the seashore has been the point of departure, to knowledge, as to commerce. The most advanced nations are always those who navigate the most. The power which the sea requires in the sailor makes a man of him very fast, and the change of shores and population clears his head of much nonsense of his wigwam. 4  2
  Where shall we begin or end the list of those feats of liberty and wit, each of which feats made an epoch of history? Thus the effect of a framed or stone house is immense on the tranquillity, power and refinement of the builder. A man in a cave or in a camp, a nomad, will die with no more estate than the wolf or the horse leaves. But so simple a labor as a house being achieved, his chief enemies are kept at bay. He is safe from the teeth of wild animals, from frost, sunstroke and weather; and fine faculties begin to yield their fine harvest. Invention and art are born, manners and social beauty and delight. ’T is wonderful how soon a piano gets into a log hut on the frontier. You would think they found it under a pine stump. With it comes a Latin grammar,—and one of those tow-head boys has written a hymn on Sunday. Now let colleges, now let senates take heed! for here is one who opening these fine tastes on the basis of the pioneer’s iron constitution, will gather all their laurels in his strong hands. 5  3
  When the Indian trail gets widened, graded and bridged to a good road, there is a benefactor, there is a missionary, a pacificator, a wealth-bringer, a maker of markets, a vent for industry. Another step in civility is the change from war, hunting and pasturage, to agriculture. Our Scandinavian forefathers have left us a significant legend to convey their sense of the importance of this step. “There was once a giantess who had a daughter, and the child saw a husbandman ploughing in the field. Then she ran and picked him up with her finger and thumb, and put him and his plough and his oxen into her apron, and carried them to her mother, and said, ‘Mother, what sort of a beetle is this that I found wriggling in the sand?’ But the mother said, ‘Put it away, my child; we must be-gone out of this land, for these people will dwell in it.’” Another success is the post-office, with its educating energy augmented by cheapness and guarded by a certain religious sentiment in mankind; so that the power of a wafer or a drop of wax or gluten to guard a letter, as it flies over sea over land and comes to its address as if a battalion of artillery brought it, I look upon as a fine meter of civilization. 6  4
  The division of labor, the multiplication of the arts of peace, which is nothing but a large allowance to each man to choose his work according to his faculty,—to live by his better hand,—fills the State with useful and happy laborers; and they, creating demand by the very temptation of their productions, are rapidly and surely rewarded by good sale: and what a police and ten commandments their work thus becomes. So true is Dr. Johnson’s remark that “men are seldom more innocently employed than when they are making money.”  5
  The skilful combinations of civil government, though they usually follow natural leadings, as the lines of race, language, religion and territory, yet require wisdom and conduct in the rulers, and in their result delight the imagination. “We see insurmountable multitudes obeying, in opposition to their strongest passions, the restraints of a power which they scarcely perceive, and the crimes of a single individual marked and punished at the distance of half the earth.” 7  6
  Right position of woman in the State is another index. Poverty and industry with a healthy mind read very easily the laws of humanity, and love them: place the sexes in right relations of mutual respect, and a severe morality gives that essential charm to woman which educates all that is delicate, poetic and self-sacrificing; breeds courtesy and learning, conversation and wit, in her rough mate; so that I have thought a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women.  7
  Another measure of culture is the diffusion of knowledge, overrunning all the old barriers of caste, and, by the cheap press, bringing the university to every poor man’s door in the newsboy’s basket. Scraps of science, of thought, of poetry are in the coarsest sheet, so that in every house we hesitate to burn a newspaper until we have looked it through.  8
  The ship, in its latest complete equipment, is an abridgment and compend of a nation’s arts: the ship steered by compass and chart, longitude reckoned by lunar observation and by chronometer, driven by steam; and in wildest sea-mountains, at vast distances from home,—
  “The pulses of her iron heart
Go beating through the storm.” 8
No use can lessen the wonder of this control by so weak a creature of forces so prodigious. I remember I watched, in crossing the sea, the beautiful skill whereby the engine in its constant working was made to produce two hundred gallons of fresh water out of salt water, every hour,—thereby supplying all the ship’s want.
  9
  The skill that pervades complex details; the man that maintains himself; the chimney taught to burn its own smoke; the farm made to produce all that is consumed on it; the very prison compelled to maintain itself and yield a revenue, and, better still, made a reform school and a manufactory of honest men out of rogues, as the steamer made fresh water out of salt,—all these are examples of that tendency to combine antagonisms and utilize evil which is the index of high civilization.  10
  Civilization is the result of highly complex organization. In the snake, all the organs are sheathed; no hands, no feet, no fins, no wings. In bird and beast the organs are released and begin to play. In man they are all unbound and full of joyful action. With this unswaddling he receives the absolute illumination we call Reason, and thereby true liberty.  11
  Climate has much to do with this melioration. The highest civility has never loved the hot zones. Wherever snow falls there is usually civil freedom. 9 Where the banana grows the animal system is indolent and pampered at the cost of higher qualities: the man is sensual and cruel. But this scale is not invariable. High degrees of moral sentiment control the unfavorable influences of climate; and some of our grandest examples of men and of races come from the equatorial regions,—as the genius of Egypt, of India and of Arabia.  12
  These feats are measures or traits of civility; and temperate climate is an important influence, though not quite indispensable, for there have been learning, philosophy and art in Iceland, and in the tropics. But one condition is essential to the social education of man, namely, morality. There can be no high civility without a deep morality, though it may not always call itself by that name, but sometimes the point of honor, as in the institution of chivalry; or patriotism, as in the Spartan and Roman republics; or the enthusiasm of some religious sect which imputes its virtue to its dogma; or the cabalism or esprit de corps of a masonic or other association of friends.  13
  The evolution of a highly destined society must be moral; it must run in the grooves of the celestial wheels. It must be catholic in aims. What is moral? It is the respecting in action catholic or universal ends. Hear the definition which Kant gives of moral conduct: “Act always so that the immediate motive of thy will may become a universal rule for all intelligent beings.”  14
  Civilization depends on morality. Everything good in man leans on what is higher. This rule holds in small as in great. Thus all our strength and success in the work of our hands depend on our borrowing the aid of the elements. You have seen a carpenter on a ladder with a broad-axe chopping upward chips from a beam. How awkward! at what disadvantage he works! But see him on the ground, dressing his timber under him. Now, not his feeble muscles but the force of gravity brings down the axe; that is to say, the planet itself splits his stick. The farmer had much ill temper, laziness and shirking to endure from his hand-sawyers, until one day he bethought him to put his saw-mill on the edge of a waterfall; and the river never tires of turning his wheel; the river is good-natured, and never hints an objection.  15
  We had letters to send: couriers could not go fast enough nor far enough; broke their wagons, foundered their horses; bad roads in spring, snowdrifts in winter, heats in summer; could not get the horses out of a walk. But we found out that the air and earth were full of Electricity, and always going our way,—just the way we wanted to send. Would he take a message? Just as lief as not; had nothing else to do; would carry it in no time. Only one doubt occurred, one staggering objection,—he had no carpet-bag, no visible pockets, no hands, not so much as a mouth, to carry a letter. But after much thought and many experiments we managed to meet the conditions, and to fold up the letter in such invisible compact form as he could carry in those invisible pockets of his, never wrought by needle and thread,—and it went like a charm.  16
  I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron. 10  17
  Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, 11 and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing.  18
  Our astronomy is full of examples of calling in the aid of these magnificent helpers. Thus, on a planet so small as ours, the want of an adequate base for astronomical measurements is early felt, as, for example, in detecting the parallax of a star. But the astronomer, having by an observation fixed the place of a star,—by so simple an expedient as waiting six months and then repeating his observation, contrived to put the diameter of the earth’s orbit, say two hundred millions of miles, between his first observation and his second, and this line afforded him a respectable base for his triangle.  19
  All our arts aim to win this vantage. We cannot bring the heavenly powers to us, but if we will only choose our jobs in directions in which they travel, they will undertake them with the greatest pleasure. It is a peremptory rule with them that they never go out of their road. We are dapper little busybodies and run this way and that way superserviceably; but they swerve never from their foreordained paths,—neither the sun, nor the moon, nor a bubble of air, nor a mote of dust.  20
  And as our handiworks borrow the elements, so all our social and political action leans on principles. To accomplish anything excellent the will must work for catholic and universal ends. A puny creature, walled in on every side, as Daniel wrote,—
        “Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!” 12
but when his will leans on a principle, when he is the vehicle of ideas, he borrows their omnipotence. Gibraltar may be strong, but ideas are impregnable, and bestow on the hero their invincibility. “It was a great instruction,” said a saint in Cromwell’s war, “that the best courages are but beams of the Almighty.” 13 Hitch your wagon to a star. Let us not fag in paltry works which serve our pot and bag alone. Let us not lie and steal. No god will help. We shall find all their teams going the other way,—Charles’s Wain, Great Bear, Orion, Leo, Hercules: every god will leave us. Work rather for those interests which the divinities honor and promote,—justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility.
  21
  If we can thus ride in Olympian chariots by putting our works in the path of the celestial circuits, we can harness also evil agents, the powers of darkness, and force them to serve against their will the ends of wisdom and virtue. Thus a wise government puts fines and penalties on pleasant vices. What a benefit would the American government, not yet relieved of its extreme need, render to itself and to every city, village and hamlet in the states, if it would tax whiskey and rum almost to the point of prohibition! Was it Bonaparte who said that he found vices very good patriots?—“he got five millions from the love of brandy, and he should be glad to know which of the virtues would pay him as much.” Tobacco and opium have broad backs, and will cheerfully carry the load of armies, if you choose to make them pay high for such joy as they give and such harm as they do.  22
  These are traits and measures and modes; and the true test of civilization is, not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops,—no, but the kind of man the country turns out. 14 I see the vast advantages of this country, spanning the breadth of the temperate zone. I see the immense material prosperity,—towns on towns, states on states, and wealth piled in the massive architecture of cities: California quartz-mountains dumped down in New York to be repiled architecturally alongshore from Canada to Cuba, and thence westward to California again. But it is not New York streets, built by the confluence of workmen and wealth of all nations, though stretching out towards Philadelphia until they touch it, and northward until they touch New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester and Boston,—not these that make the real estimation. But when I look over this constellation of cities which animate and illustrate the land, and see how little the government has to do with their daily life, how self-helped and self-directed all families are,—knots of men in purely natural societies, societies of trade, of kindred blood, of habitual hospitality, house and house, man acting on man by weight of opinion, of longer or better-directed industry; the refining influence of women, the invitation which experience and permanent causes open to youth and labor:—when I see how much each virtuous and gifted person, whom all men consider, lives affectionately with scores of excellent people who are not known far from home, and perhaps with great reason reckons these people his superiors in virtue and in the symmetry and force of their qualities,—I see what cubic values America has, and in these a better certificate of civilization than great cities or enormous wealth.  23
  In strictness, the vital refinements are the moral and intellectual steps. The appearance of the Hebrew Moses, of the Indian Buddh; in Greece, of the Seven Wise Masters, of the acute and upright Socrates, and of the stoic Zeno; in Judæa, the advent of Jesus, and, in modern Christendom, of the realists Huss, Savonarola and Luther,—are casual facts which carry forward races to new convictions and elevate the rule of life. In the presence of these agencies it is frivolous to insist on the invention of printing or gunpowder, of steam-power or gas-light, percussion-caps and rubber-shoes, which are toys thrown off from that security, freedom and exhilaration which a healthy morality creates in society. These arts add a comfort and smoothness to house and street life; 15 but a purer morality, which kindles genius, civilizes civilization, casts backward all that we held sacred into the profane, as the flame of oil throws a shadow when shined upon by the flame of the Bude-light. 16 Not the less the popular measures of progress will ever be the arts and the laws.  24
  But if there be a country which cannot stand any one of these tests,—a country where knowledge cannot be diffused without perils of mob law and statute law; where speech is not free; where the post-office is violated, mail-bags opened and letters tampered with; where public debts and private debts outside of the State are repudiated; where liberty is attacked in the primary institution of social life; where the position of the white woman is injuriously affected by the outlawry of the black woman; where the arts, such as they have, are all imported, having no indigenous life; where the laborer is not secured in the earnings of his own hands; where suffrage is not free or equal;—that country is, in all these respects, not civil, but barbarous; and no advantages of soil, climate or coast can resist these suicidal mischiefs. 17  25
  Morality and all the incidents of morality are essential; as, justice to the citizen, and personal liberty. Montesquieu says: “Countries are well cultivated, not as they are fertile, but as they are free;” and the remark holds not less but more true of the culture of men than of the tillage of land. And the highest proof of civility is that the whole public action of the State is directed on securing the greatest good of the greatest number. 18  26
 
Note 1. In April, 1861, Mr. Emerson began a course of lectures on Life and Literature at the Meionaon in Boston. He had probably prepared the lecture on Civilization in much the same form that it is printed here. But the outbreak of the Rebellion turned all thought on the crisis in the life of the Nation. Four days before this lecture was delivered he had seen the young men of Concord mustered in arms on the village green and, with the prayers of their townsfolk, march to the defence of constitutional liberty.
  It seemed a fated day for Concord, the Nineteenth of April, for this was the third time in her history that her sons had been summoned for that duty on that day. The news of the attack of the Baltimore mob on the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment on that same day had also come, and again, as at Concord Bridge, a soldier from Acton was the first victim of the war. With a lapse towards barbarism threatening the country, and yet a new hope springing up with the awakening of the North, the lecture written in less stirring days had to be remodelled for the hour. Mr. Emerson named it “Civilization at a Pinch.” This was, without doubt, the basis for the lecture which, with the addition of an earnest appeal to the Administration for emancipation of the slaves, was read by him before the Smithsonian Institution at Washington in January, 1862. Under the title there used, “American Civilization,” it was printed in the Atlantic Monthly for April, 1862. It was afterwards separated into the essay here printed, treating of the general theme, only referring to the times in the last paragraph, and the appeal for the political exigency of the hour, “American Civilization,” included in the Miscellanies. [back]
Note 2. The civilized man in the best sense is described in the poem which serves also as motto for “Culture” and bears that name, beginning,—
  Can rules or tutors educate
The semigod whom we await?
 [back]
Note 3. Less well known than that of Cadmus in the mythology, the inventor of the alphabet, is the name of Pytheas, the Massilian Greek who, in the fourth century B.C., first explored the shores of Northern Europe and described them and the midnight sun. He discovered the inclination of the ecliptic, the circuit of the Pole-star and the relation of the tides to the moon. Manco Capac, according to tradition, was the first of the Incas, the son of the sun, and gave to the savage Peruvians the arts of life. [back]
Note 4.
  Rich are the sea-gods:—who gives gifts but they?
They grope the sea for pearls, but more than pearls;
They pluck Force thence and give it to the wise.
For every wave is wealth to Dædalus,
Wealth to the cunning artist who can work
This matchless strength.
“Sea-Shore,” Poems.    
 [back]
Note 5. By comparing this paragraph with the ending of “The Adirondacs” in the Poems, when, after the celebration of the wild forest life, and the men it breeds, Civilization yet receives its dues, the date of the composition can be fixed. For in the summer of 1858 Mr. Emerson enjoyed with his friends, yet, as ever, much alone, two weeks in the primæval woods around Follansbee Pond. William J. Stillman, the all-accomplished captain of the party, has told its story in his Autobiography. [The Autobiography of a Journalist. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1901.] His excellent painting of the forest camp and the company is in the Concord Public Library. [back]
Note 6. Journal, 1854. “Roads, the wafer on letters, and the position of woman are good tests of civilization.” Until the second half of the century envelopes were little used, and the letter-sheet was folded and sealed with one wafer. [back]
Note 7. Dr. Thomas Brown, physician and philosopher, wrote An Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect, supporting Hume’s Theory of Causation. [back]
Note 8. Dr. Holmes in his book on Emerson thus refers to this evident quotation from memory by his friend from his poem “The Steamboat”: “My attention was called to one paragraph for a reason which my reader will readily understand and, I trust, look upon good-naturedly.” He quotes the passage, including the lines of verse, and goes on, “I cannot be wrong, it seems to me, in supposing these two lines to be an incorrect version of these two from a poem of my own called ‘The Steamboat’:—
  “‘The beating of her restless heart
Still sounding through the storm.’
  “It is never safe to quote poetry from memory, at least while the writer lives, for he is ready to ‘cavil on the ninth part of a hair,’ where his verses are concerned. But extreme accuracy was not one of Emerson’s special gifts, and vanity whispers to the misrepresented versifier that
  “‘ ’T is better to be quoted wrong
Than to be quoted not at all.’”
 [back]
Note 9. In the poem “Voluntaries,” the second stanza, the greater favor of Freedom for the Northman is told. [back]
Note 10.
  He planted where the Deluge ploughed,
His hired hands were wind and cloud.
“Fragments on the Poet,” Poems, Appendix.    
 [back]
Note 11. Again Dr. Holmes’s charming book must be quoted with regard to this passage: “This Essay of Emerson’s is irradiated by a single precept that is worthy to stand by the side of that which Juvenal says came from heaven. How could the man in whose thought such a meteoric expression suddenly announced itself fail to recognize it as divine? It is not strange that he repeats it on the page next the one where we first see it. Not having any golden letters to print it in, I will underscore it for italics, and doubly underscore it in the second extract for small capitals.” And he did so. [back]
Note 12. From the poem of Samuel Daniel “To the Countess of Cumberland.” There is a passage to this purpose on page 307 of “Circles,” in the first series of Essays. [back]
Note 13. The wife of Colonel John Hutchinson. [back]
Note 14.
  But he, the man-child glorious,—
Where tarries he the while?
“Song of Nature,” Poems.    
 [back]
Note 15. Journal, 1847. “Civilization is symbolized (how wittily) by a cake, in the hierological cipher of the Egyptians.” [back]
Note 16. A proper perspective of the important and the unimportant in life was early taught to her sons by Madam Emerson. To her oldest son William, who wrote to her at the age of thirteen about his college room, his mother answered:—
MY DEAR SON,
  You did right to give me so early a proof of your affection as to write to me the first week of your college life. Everything respecting you is doubtless interesting to me, but your domestic arrangements the least of anything, as these make no part of the man or the character any further than he learns humility from his dependence on such trifles as convenient accommodations for his happiness. You, I trust, will rise superior to these little things, for, though small indeed, they consume much time that might be appropriated to better purpose and far nobler pursuits. What most excites my solicitude is your moral improvement and your progress in virtue…. Let your whole life reflect honor on the name you bear…. Should Paul plant and Apollos water, it is God alone who can give the increase. [back]
Note 17. This concluding passage alone in the essay retains the impress of the feeling, due to the long reign of bad politics, of a doubtful issue to the great struggle just begun. Hence Emerson’s word of warning to his countrymen was plain and strong. [back]
Note 18. The journal for 1864 has the following memorandum:—
  “In my paper on Civilization I omitted an important trait, namely, the increased respect for human life. The difference between the oriental nations, on one side, and Europe and America, on the other, lies mainly herein. The Japanese in France are astonished, ’t is said, at the vast apparatus and extent of a capital trial:… Remember General Scott’s maxim, too, about the sacrifice of one life more than necessity requires.”
  And in the first months of the war, relieved by the clearing of the moral atmosphere of the country, Mr. Emerson gladly noted:—
  “War civilizes; for it forces individuals and tribes to combine, and act with larger views, and under the best heads, and keeps the population together, producing the effect of cities; for camps are wandering cities.” [back]
 
 
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