THERE1 is a prize which we are all aiming at, and the more power and goodness we have, so much more the energy of that aim. Every human being has a right to it, and in the pursuit we do not stand in each others way. For it has a long scale of degrees, a wide variety of views, and every aspirant, by his success in the pursuit, does not hinder but helps his competitors. I might call it completeness, but that is later,perhaps adjourned for ages. I prefer to call it Greatness. It is the fulfilment of a natural tendency in each man. It is a fruitful study. It is the best tonic to the young soul. And no man is unrelated; therefore we admire eminent men, not for themselves, but as representatives.2 It is very certain that we ought not to be and shall not be contented with any goal we have reached. Our aim is no less than greatness; that which invites all, belongs to us all,to which we are all sometimes untrue, cowardly, faithless, but of which we never quite despair, and which, in every sane moment, we resolve to make our own. It is also the only platform on which all men can meet. What anecdotes of any man do we wish to hear or read? Only the best. Certainly not those in which he was degraded to the level of dulness or vice, but those in which he rose above all competition by obeying a light that shone to him alone. This is the worthiest history of the world.
Greatness,what is it? Is there not some injury to us, some insult in the word? What we commonly call greatness is only such in our barbarous or infant experience. T is not the soldier, not Alexander or Bonaparte or Count Moltke surely, who represent the highest force of mankind; not the strong hand, but wisdom and civility, the creation of laws, institutions, letters and art. These we call by distinction the humanities; these, and not the strong arm and brave heart, which are also indispensable to their defence.3 For the scholars represent the intellect, by which man is man; the intellect and the moral sentiment,which in the last analysis can never be separated. Who can doubt the potency of an individual mind, who sees the shock given to torpid racestorpid for agesby Mahomet; a vibration propagated over Asia and Africa? What of Menu? what of Buddha? of Shakspeare? of Newton? of Franklin?
There are certain points of identity in which these masters agree. Self-respect is the early form in which greatness appears. The man in the tavern maintains his opinion, though the whole crowd takes the other side; we are at once drawn to him. The porter or truckman refuses a reward for finding your purse, or for pulling you drowning out of the river. Thereby, with the service, you have got a moral lift. You say of some new person, That man will go far,for you see in his manners that the recognition of him by others is not necessary to him.4 And what a bitter-sweet sensation when we have gone to pour out our acknowledgment of a mans nobleness, and found him quite indifferent to our good opinion! They may well fear Fate who have any infirmity of habit or aim; but he who rests on what he is, has a destiny above destiny, and can make mouths at Fortune. If a mans centrality is incomprehensible to us, we may as well snub the sun. There is something in Archimedes or in Luther or Samuel Johnson that needs no protection. There is somewhat in the true scholar which he cannot be laughed out of, nor be terrified or bought off from. Stick to your own; dont inculpate yourself in the local, social or national crime, but follow the path your genius traces like the galaxy of heaven for you to walk in.
A sensible person will soon see the folly and wickedness of thinking to please. Sensible men are very rare. A sensible man does not brag, avoids introducing the names of his creditable companions, omits himself as habitually as another man obtrudes himself in the discourse, and is content with putting his fact or theme simply on its ground. You shall not tell me that your commercial house, your partners or yourself are of importance; you shall not tell me that you have learned to know men; you shall make me feel that; your saying so unsays it. You shall not enumerate your brilliant acquaintances, nor tell me by their titles what books you have read. I am to infer that you keep good company by your better information and manners, and to infer your reading from the wealth and accuracy of your conversation.5
Young men think that the manly character requires that they should go to California, or to India, or into the army. When they have learned that the parlor and the college and the counting-room demand as much courage as the sea or the camp, they will be willing to consult their own strength and education in their choice of place.
There are to each function and department of Nature supplementary men: to geology, sinewy, out-of-doors men, with a taste for mountains and rocks, a quick eye for differences and for chemical changes. Give such, first a course in chemistry, and then a geological survey. Others find a charm and a profession in the natural history of man and the mammalia or related animals; others in ornithology, or fishes, or insects; others in plants; others in the elements of which the whole world is made. These lately have stimulus to their study through the extraordinary revelations of the spectroscope that the sun and the planets are made in part or in whole of the same elements as the earth is. Then there is the boy who is born with a taste for the sea, and must go thither if he has to run away from his fathers house to the forecastle; another, longs for travel in foreign lands; another will be a lawyer; another, an astronomer; another, a painter, sculptor, architect or engineer. Thus there is not a piece of Nature in any kind but a man is born, who, as his genius opens, aims slower or faster to dedicate himself to that. Then there is the poet, the philosopher, the politician, the orator, the clergyman, the physician. T is gratifying to see this adaptation of man to the world, and to every part and particle of it.
Many readers remember that Sir Humphry Davy said, when he was praised for his important discoveries, My best discovery was Michael Faraday. In 1848 I had the privilege of hearing Professor Faraday deliver, in the Royal Institution in London, a lecture on what he called Diamagnetism,by which he meant cross-magnetism; and he showed us various experiments on certain gases, to prove that whilst ordinarily magnetism of steel is from north to south, in other substances, gases, it acts from east to west. And further experiments led him to the theory that every chemical substance would be found to have its own, and a different, polarity. I do not know how far his experiments and others have been pushed in this matter, but one fact is clear to me, that diamagnetism is a law of the mind, to the full extent of Faradays idea; namely, that every mind has a new compass, a new north, a new direction of its own, differencing its genius and aim from every other mind;as every man, with whatever family resemblances, has a new countenance, new manner, new voice, new thoughts and new character. Whilst he shares with all mankind the gift of reason and the moral sentiment, there is a teaching for him from within which is leading him in a new path, and, the more it is trusted, separates and signalizes him, while it makes him more important and necessary to society. We call this specialty the bias of each individual. And none of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone. Swedenborg called it the proprium,not a thought shared with others, but constitutional to the man. A point of education that I can never too much insist upon is this tenet that every individual man has a bias which he must obey, and that it is only as he feels and obeys this that he rightly develops and attains his legitimate power in the world. It is his magnetic needle, which points always in one direction to his proper path, with more or less variation from any other mans. He is never happy nor strong until he finds it, keeps it; learns to be at home with himself; learns to watch the delicate hints and insights that come to him, and to have the entire assurance of his own mind. And in this self-respect or hearkening to the privatest oracle, he consults his ease I may say, or need never be at a loss. In morals this is conscience; in intellect, genius; in practice talent;not to imitate or surpass a particular man in his way, but to bring out your own new way; to each his own method, style, wit, eloquence. It is easy for a commander to command. Clinging to Nature, or to that province of Nature which he knows, he makes no mistakes, but works after her laws and at her own pace, so that his doing, which is perfectly natural, appears miraculous to dull people. Montluc, the great marshal of France, says of the Genoese admiral, Andrew Doria, It seemed as if the sea stood in awe of this man. And a kindred genius, Nelson, said, I feel that I am fitter to do the action than to describe it. Therefore I will say that another trait of greatness is facility.
This necessity of resting on the real, of speaking your private thought and experience, few young men apprehend. Set ten men to write their journal for one day, and nine of them will leave out their thought, or proper result,that is, their net experience,and lose themselves in misreporting the supposed experience of other people.6 Indeed I think it an essential caution to young writers, that they shall not in their discourse leave out the one thing which the discourse was written to say. Let that belief which you hold alone, have free course. I have observed that in all public speaking, the rule of the orator begins, not in the array of his facts, but when his deep conviction, and the right and necessity he feels to convey that conviction to his audience,when these shine and burn in his address; when the thought which he stands for gives its own authority to him, adds to him a grander personality, gives him valor, breadth and new intellectual power, so that not he, but mankind, seems to speak through his lips. There is a certain transfiguration; all great orators have it, and men who wish to be orators simulate it.
If we should ask ourselves what is this self-respect, it would carry us to the highest problems. It is our practical perception of the Deity in man. It has its deep foundations in religion. If you have ever known a good mind among the Quakers, you will have found that is the element of their faith. As they express it, it might be thus: I do not pretend to any commandment or large revelation, but if at any time I form some plan, propose a journey or a course of conduct, I perhaps find a silent obstacle in my mind that I cannot account for. Very well,I let it lie, thinking it may pass away, but if it do not pass away I yield to it, obey it. You ask me to describe it. I cannot describe it. It is not an oracle, nor an angel, nor a dream, nor a law; it is too simple to be described, it is but a grain of mustard-seed, but such as it is, it is something which the contradiction of all mankind could not shake, and which the consent of all mankind could not confirm.7
You are rightly fond of certain books or men that you have found to excite your reverence and emulation. But none of these can compare with the greatness of that counsel which is open to you in happy solitude. I mean that there is for you the following of an inward leader,a slow discrimination that there is for each a Best Counsel which enjoins the fit word and the fit act for every moment. And the path of each, pursued, leads to greatness. How grateful to find in man or woman a new emphasis of their own.
But if the first rule is to obey your native bias, to accept that work for which you were inwardly formed,the second rule is concentration, which doubles its force. Thus if you are a scholar, be that. The same laws hold for you as for the laborer. The shoemaker makes a good shoe because he makes nothing else. Let the student mind his own charge; sedulously wait every morning for the news concerning the structure of the world which the spirit will give him.8
No way has been found for making heroism easy, even for the scholar. Labor, iron labor, is for him. The world was created as an audience for him; the atoms of which it is made are opportunities. Read the performance of Bentley, of Gibbon, of Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Laplace. He can toil terribly, said Cecil of Sir Walter Raleigh. These few words sting and bite and lash us when we are frivolous. Let us get out of the way of their blows by making them true of ourselves. There is so much to be done that we ought to begin quickly to bestir ourselves. This day-labor of ours, we confess, has hitherto a certain emblematic air, like the annual ploughing and sowing of the Emperor of China. Let us make it an honest sweat. Let the scholar measure his valor by his power to cope with intellectual giants. Leave others to count votes and calculate stocks. His courage is to weigh Plato, judge Laplace, know Newton, Faraday, judge of Darwin, criticise Kant and Swedenborg, and on all these arouse the central courage of insight. The scholars courage should be as terrible as the Cids, though it grow out of spiritual nature, not out of brawn. Nature, when she adds difficulty, adds brain.9
With this respect to the bias of the individual mind add, what is consistent with it, the most catholic receptivity for the genius of others. The day will come when no badge, uniform or medal will be worn; when the eye, which carries in it planetary influences from all the stars, will indicate rank fast enough by exerting power. For it is true that the stratification of crusts in geology is not more precise than the degrees of rank in minds. A man will say: I am born to this position; I must take it, and neither you nor I can help or hinder me. Surely, then, I need not fret myself to guard my own dignity.10 The great man loves the conversation or the book that convicts him, not that which soothes or flatters him. He makes himself of no reputation; he conceals his learning, conceals his charity. For the highest wisdom does not concern itself with particular men, but with man enamoured with the law and the Eternal Source. Say with Antoninus, If the picture is good, who cares who made it? What matters it by whom the good is done, by yourself or another? If it is the truth, what matters who said it? If it was right, what signifies who did it? All greatness is in degree, and there is more above than below. Where were your own intellect, if greater had not lived? And do you know what the right meaning of Fame is? It is that sympathy, rather that fine element by which the good become partners of the greatness of their superiors.11
Extremes meet, and there is no better example than the haughtiness of humility. No aristocrat, no prince born to the purple, can begin to compare with the self-respect of the saint. Why is he so lowly, but that he knows that he can well afford it, resting on the largeness of God in him?12 I have read in an old book that Barcena the Jesuit confessed to another of his order that when the Devil appeared to him in his cell one night, out of his profound humility he rose up to meet him, and prayed him to sit down in his chair, for he was more worthy to sit there than himself.
Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar? It is this: Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. The populace will say, with Horne Tooke, If you would be powerful, pretend to be powerful. I prefer to say, with the old Hebrew prophet, Seekest thou great things?seek them not; or, what was said of the Spanish prince, The more you took from him, the greater he appeared, Plus on lui ôte, plus il est grand.
Scintillations of greatness appear here and there in men of unequal character, and are by no means confined to the cultivated and so-called moral class.13 It is easy to draw traits from Napoleon, who was not generous nor just, but was intellectual and knew the law of things. Napoleon commands our respect by his enormous self-trust, the habit of seeing with his own eyes, never the surface, but to the heart of the matter, whether it was a road, a cannon, a character, an officer, or a king,and by the speed and security of his action in the premises, always new. He has left a library of manuscripts, a multitude of sayings, every one of widest application. He was a man who always fell on his feet. When one of his favorite schemes missed, he had the faculty of taking up his genius, as he said, and of carrying it somewhere else. Whatever they may tell you, believe that one fights with cannon as with fists; when once the fire is begun, the least want of ammunition renders what you have done already useless. I find it easy to translate all his technics into all of mine, and his official advices are to me more literary and philosophical than the memoirs of the Academy. His advice to his brother, King Joseph of Spain, was: I have only one counsel for you,Be Master. Depth of intellect relieves even the ink of crime with a fringe of light. We perhaps look on its crimes as experiments of a universal student; as he may read any book who reads all books, and as the English judge in old times, when learning was rare, forgave a culprit who could read and write. It is difficult to find greatness pure. Well, I please myself with its diffusion; to find a spark of true fire amid much corruption. It is some guaranty, I hope, for the health of the soul which has this generous blood. How many men, detested in contemporary hostile history, of whom, now that the mists have rolled away, we have learned to correct our old estimates, and to see them as, on the whole, instruments of great benefit. Diderot was no model, but unclean as the society in which he lived; yet was he the best-natured man in France, and would help any wretch at a pinch. His humanity knew no bounds. A poor scribbler who had written a lampoon against him and wished to dedicate it to a pious Duc dOrléans, came with it in his poverty to Diderot, and Diderot, pitying the creature, wrote the dedication for him, and so raised five-and-twenty louis to save his famishing lampooner alive.
Meantime we hate snivelling. I do not wish you to surpass others in any narrow or professional or monkish way. We like the natural greatness of health and wild power. I confess that I am as much taken by it in boys, and sometimes in people not normal, nor educated, nor presentable, nor church-members,even in persons open to the suspicion of irregular and immoral living, in Bohemians,as in more orderly examples. For we must remember that in the lives of soldiers, sailors and men of large adventure, many of the stays and guards of our household life are wanting, and yet the opportunities and incentives to sublime daring and performance are often close at hand. We must have some charity for the sense of the people, which admires natural power, and will elect it over virtuous men who have less. It has this excuse, that natural is really allied to moral power, and may always be expected to approach it by its own instincts. Intellect at least is not stupid, and will see the force of morals over men, if it does not itself obey. Henry VII. of England was a wise king. When Gerald, Earl of Kildare, who was in rebellion against him, was brought to London, and examined before the Privy Council, one said, All Ireland cannot govern this Earl. Then let this Earl govern all Ireland, replied the King.
It is noted of some scholars, like Swift and Gibbon and Donne, that they pretended to vices which they had not, so much did they hate hypocrisy. William Blake the artist frankly says, I never knew a bad man in whom there was not something very good. Bret Harte has pleased himself with noting and recording the sudden virtue blazing in the wild reprobates of the ranches and mines of California.
Men are ennobled by morals and by intellect; but those two elements know each other and always beckon to each other, until at last they meet in the man, if he is to be truly great. The man who sells you a lamp shows you that the flame of oil, which contented you before, casts a strong shade in the path of the petroleum which he lights behind it; and this again casts a shadow in the path of the electric light. So does intellect when brought into the presence of character; character puts out that light. Goethe, in his correspondence with his Grand Duke of Weimar, does not shine. We can see that the Prince had the advantage of the Olympian genius.14 It is more plainly seen in the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick of Prussia. Voltaire is brilliant, nimble and various, but Frederick has the superior tone. But it is curious that Byron writes down to Scott; Scott writes up to him. The Greeks surpass all men till they face the Romans, when Roman character prevails over Greek genius. Whilst degrees of intellect interest only classes of men who pursue the same studies, as chemists or astronomers, mathematicians or linguists, and have no attraction for the crowd, there are always men who have a more catholic genius, are really great as men, and inspire universal enthusiasm. A great style of hero draws equally all classes, all the extremes of society, till we say the very dogs believe in him. We have had such examples in this country, in Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and the seamens preacher, Father Taylor; in England, Charles James Fox; in Scotland, Robert Burns; and in France, though it is less intelligible to us, Voltaire. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most remarkable example of this class that we have seen,a man who was at home and welcome with the humblest, and with a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded the admiration of the wisest. His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.
These may serve as local examples to indicate a magnetism which is probably known better and finer to each scholar in the little Olympus of his own favorites, and which makes him require geniality and humanity in his heroes. What are these but the promise and the preparation of a day when the air of the world shall be purified by nobler society, when the measure of greatness shall be usefulness in the highest sense, greatness consisting in truth, reverence and good will?
Life is made of illusions, and a very common one is the opinion you hear expressed in every village: O yes, if I lived in New York or Philadelphia, Cambridge or New Haven or Boston or Andover, there might be fit society; but it happens that there are no fine young men, no superior women in my town. You may hear this every day; but it is a shallow remark. Ah! have you yet to learn that the eye altering alters all; that the world is an echo which returns to each of us what we say? It is not examples of greatness, but sensibility to see them, that is wanting. The good botanist will find flowers between the street pavements, and any man filled with an idea or a purpose will find examples and illustrations and coadjutors wherever he goes. Wit is a magnet to find wit, and character to find character. Do you not know that people are as those with whom they converse? And if all or any are heavy to me, that fact accuses me.15 Why complain, as if a mans debt to his inferiors were not at least equal to his debt to his superiors? If men were equals, the waters would not move; but the difference of level which makes Niagara a cataract, makes eloquence, indignation, poetry, in him who finds there is much to communicate. With self-respect then there must be in the aspirant the strong fellow feeling, the humanity, which makes men of all classes warm to him as their leader and representative.16
We are thus forced to express our instinct of the truth by exposing the failures of experience. The man whom we have not seen, in whom no regard of self degraded the adorer of the laws,who by governing himself governed others; sportive in manner, but inexorable in act; who sees longevity in his cause; whose aim is always distinct to him; who is suffered to be himself in society; who carries fate in his eye;he it is whom we seek, encouraged in every good hour that here or hereafter he shall be found.
Note 1. This essay is drawn largely from the concluding lecture of a course given at the Meionaon in Boston in the autumn of 1868. Greatness is a heading which occurs thoughts on the journals from 1840 onward, but of course the thoughts on this subject were drawn upon for many lectures that had not the name. In July, 1872, Mr. Emerson spoke at Amherst College on the Greatness of the Scholar, and probably somewhat earlier at Middlebury College, Vermont, on the same theme. The essays on The Scholar, The Man of Letters, Aristocracy and Manners very probably have matter drawn from the lectures on Greatness, and that here given is only a portion of the lecture as delivered. [back]
Note 2. Journal: The moment a great man fails us as a cause, it is only to become more valuable and suggestive as an effect. [back]
Note 3. Journal, 1857: Every great man does in all his nature point at and imply the well-being of all the institutions and orders of the state. He is by inclination (though it may be far remote in position) the defender of the grammar-schools, the almshouse, the Sabbath, the priest, the judge, the legislator and the executive arm. Throughout his being he is loyal. [back]
Note 4. The following passage in the lecture is here omitted: The main question of any person whatever is, Does he respect himself? Then I have no option. The universe will respect him. Greatness requires self-respect and it must be constitutional, indicating natural courage. The sentence which follows in the text suggests the stoic attitude of his friend Thoreau. [back]
Note 5. In the lecture this sentence and quotation followed: Thus self-respect is ever refining, ever retreating to an inward and higher self.
Note 6. Mr. Emersons journals were mainly records of the oracles which came to his listening ear in his wood walks, and thoughts which the events and conversation of the day had suggested, but the outward circumstances usually have to be inferred. [back]
Note 7. These were the words of Miss Mary Rotch of New Bedford, and they made deep impression on Mr. Emerson, when in 1834 he was invited to preach for a time in that city. His cousin, the Rev. David Greene Haskins, relates in his little book, before referred to, that when Mr. Emerson praised Swedenborgs writings to him he asked whether he was a Swedenborgian. This Mr. Emerson would not fully allow. On my asking him how, then, he would define his position, he answered, and with greater deliberateness and longer pauses between his words than usual, I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice and that voice is Christ within us. This was probably in the year 1839. [back]
Note 8. In the last pages of the essay on New England Reformers, in the second volume of Essays, Mr. Emerson wrote of the Law alive and beautiful which works over our heads and under our feet . Work, it saith to man, in every hour, paid or unpaid, see only that thou work, and thou canst not escape the reward: whether thy work be fine or coarse, planting corn or writing epics, so only it be honest work, done to thine own approbation, it shall earn a reward to the senses as well as to the thought: no matter how often defeated, you are born to victory. The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it. [back]
Note 9. Journal: Do you, as wise man, while some play at chess, some at cards, and some at the stock exchangedo you play at Cause and Effect. [back]
Note 10. This sentence followed in the lecture: The man whom we have not seen is the rapt lover in whom no regards of self degraded the adorer of the laws. The paragraph in the text is treated more fully in Aristocracy, in Lectures and Biographical Sketches. The following is from the lecture sheets: The persons generally most praised and esteemed are not those whom I most value; for the world is not receptive or intelligent of Being, but of Intellect. But heroes are they who value being. Being cannot be told, but is left alone, not only because little appreciated, but that its influence is silent and quiet. The world is awed before the great and is subdued without knowing why. [back]
Note 11. Whenever Heaven sends a great man into the world, it whispers the secret to one or two confidants.Lecture sheets. [back]
Note 12. When it is remembered that the Self-Reliance which Mr. Emerson taught is on the sublimated self, the individual giving passage to the universal Soul, it is seen that both positions, the haughty courage of the hero and the renunciation of all choice by the saint, are one. Each loses himself to save himself. [back]
Note 13. This sentence followed in the lecture: Does any one say, Who cares for these conceited minorities?the study of greatness! of the masters! the great are exceptional. Yes, but every man is exceptional. [back]
Note 14. This passage appears somewhat differently in the journal of 1864: The Spectator says of the three obituary notices of Thackeray by Dickens, Trollope and Kingsley, only Dickenss is equal to the subject; the others strain to write up, and fail. It was said lately of Goethes correspondence with the Duke of Weimar that the Dukes letters are the best. The experience is familiar day by day, that of two persons, one of character and one of intellect, character will rule and intellect must bow. It is interesting in Goethes case because of his patronizing tone to all the world. [back]
Note 15. Here, perhaps, belongs a sheet from the lecture: The first fact is the long hidden one, that the world is as we are. If we bring to it a sound body and mind, it is full of joy and power, and is plastic like wax in our hands; if we come to it morbid and vicious, it torments and tyrannizes over us. [back]
Note 16. The human and hopeful feeling towards mankind appears here: I wish such statements only as are friendly and respectful to every man. Every law, custom, revolution is agreeable to me which treats him kindly and considerately. I wish him magnified. Let ages and nations look to their own. Every age has its object and symbol. So has every man. Why not then every epoch of our life its own; and a man should journey thro his own Zodiac of signs. I wish the days to be great. The following sheets, which once did duty in the lecture Success, may be added here: For events are, not as the brute circumstance that falls, but as the life which they fall upon. The atoms of matter are plastic enough, for they are of us and we of them, and carbon and azote, mountain and planet, play one tune with man and mind. Why we can reach so far to the planets and sun with our short arms, is because we have a pocket edition of the whole. Your brain is timed with the sea-tide, has agreements with the sun. Understanding and love are the powers of a reasonable creature; and the last exists to be communicated; and is the only thing that is really in our power to bestow; and is moreover the noblest good that can be given; and deserves the greatest retribution that can be made. And our principal care must be to confer it wisely or well,to confer it only on that which deserves it all, and can repay it. We thought we were equals of Jove, when we learned to be Stoics; but here is a new greatness. The passages of affection in life are an enlargement once for all. Nobility lies under it. It is an exchange of nobleness. We are easily great with our friend. In unlocking to us another heart and mind, it unlocks our own heart and mind in a wonderful manner. [back]