Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims
WILT thou not ope thy heart to know
What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?
Verdict which accumulates
From lengthening scroll of human fates,
Voice of earth to earth returned,
Prayers of saints that inly burned,
Saying, What is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent;
Hearts are dust, hearts loves remain;
Hearts love will meet thee again.
MUTE orator! well skilled to plead,
And send conviction without phrase,
Thou dost succor and remede
The shortness of our days,
And promise, on thy Founders truth,
Long morrow to this mortal youth.
IN1 the year 626 of our era, when Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon king, was deliberating on receiving the Christian missionaries, one of his nobles said to him: The present life of man, O king, compared with that space of time beyond, of which we have no certainty, reminds me of one of your winter feasts, where you sit with your generals and ministers. The hearth blazes in the middle and a grateful heat is spread around, while storms of rain and snow are raging without. Driven by the chilling tempest, a little sparrow enters at one door, and flies delighted around us till it departs through the other. Whilst it stays in our mansion, it feels not the winter storm; but when this short moment of happiness has been enjoyed, it is forced again into the same dreary tempest from which it had escaped, and we behold it no more. Such is the life of man, and we are as ignorant of the state which preceded our present existence as of that which will follow it. Things being so, I feel that if this new faith can give us more certainty, it deserves to be received.2
In the first records of a nation in any degree thoughtful and cultivated, some belief in the life beyond life would of course be suggested. The Egyptian people furnish us the earliest details of an established civilization, and I read in the second book of Herodotus this memorable sentence: The Egyptians are the first of mankind who have affirmed the immortality of the soul. Nor do I read it with less interest that the historian connects it presently with the doctrine of metempsychosis; for I know well that where this belief once existed it would necessarily take a base form for the savage and a pure form for the wise;so that I only look on the counterfeit as a proof that the genuine faith had been there. The credence of men, more than race or climate, makes their manners and customs; and the history of religion may be read in the forms of sepulture. There never was a time when the doctrine of a future life was not held. Morals must be enjoined, but among rude men moral judgments were rudely figured under the forms of dogs and whips, or of an easier and more plentiful life after death. And as the savage could not detach in his mind the life of the soul from the body, he took great care for his body. Thus the whole life of man in the first ages was ponderously determined on death; and, as we know, the polity of the Egyptians, the by-laws of towns, of streets and houses, respected burial. It made every man an undertaker, and the priesthood a senate of sextons. Every palace was a door to a pyramid: a king or rich man was a pyramidaire. The labor of races was spent on the excavation of catacombs. The chief end of man being to be buried well, the arts most in request were masonry and embalming, to give imperishability to the corpse.
The Greek, with his perfect senses and perceptions, had quite another philosophy. He loved life and delighted in beauty. He set his wit and taste, like elastic gas, under these mountains of stone, and lifted them. He drove away the embalmers; he built no more of those doleful mountainous tombs. He adorned death, brought wreaths of parsley and laurel; made it bright with games of strength and skill, and chariot races. He looked at death only as the distributor of imperishable glory. Nothing can excel the beauty of his sarcophagus. He carried his arts to Rome, and built his beautiful tombs at Pompeii. The poet Shelley says of these delicately carved white marble cells, They seem not so much hiding places of that which must decay, as voluptuous chambers for immortal spirits. In the same spirit the modern Greeks, in their songs, ask that they may be buried where the sun can see them, and that a little window may be cut in the sepulchre, from which the swallow might be seen when it comes back in the spring.3
Christianity brought a new wisdom. But learning depends on the learner. No more truth can be conveyed than the popular mind can bear, and the barbarians who received the cross took the doctrine of the resurrection as the Egyptians took it. It was an affair of the body, and narrowed again by the fury of sect; so that grounds were sprinkled with holy water to receive only orthodox dust; and to keep the body still more sacredly safe for resurrection, it was put into the walls of the church; and the churches of Europe are really sepulchres. I read at Melrose Abbey the inscription on the ruined gate:
The Earth goes on the Earth glittering with gold;
The Earth goes to the Earth sooner than it wold;
The Earth builds on the Earth castles and towers;
The Earth says to the Earth, All this is ours.
Meantime the true disciples saw, through the letter, the doctrine of eternity, which dissolved the poor corpse and nature also, and gave grandeur to the passing hour. The most remarkable step in the religious history of recent ages is that made by the genius of Swedenborg, who described the moral faculties and affections of man, with the hard realism of an astronomer describing the suns and planets of our system, and explained his opinion of the history and destiny of souls in a narrative form, as of one who had gone in a trance into the society of other worlds. Swedenborg described an intelligible heaven, by continuing the like employments in the like circumstances as those we know; men in societies, in houses, towns, trades, entertainments; continuations of our earthly experience. We shall pass to the future existence as we enter into an agreeable dream.4 All nature will accompany us there. Milton anticipated the leading thought of Swedenborg, when he wrote, in Paradise Lost,
What if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to the other like more than on earth is thought?
Swedenborg had a vast genius and announced many things true and admirable, though always clothed in somewhat sad and Stygian colors. These truths, passing out of his system into general circulation, are now met with every day, qualifying the views and creeds of all churches and of men of no church. And I think we are all aware of a revolution in opinion. Sixty years ago, the books read, the sermons and prayers heard, the habits of thought of religious persons, were all directed on death. All were under the shadow of Calvinism and of the Roman Catholic purgatory, and death was dreadful. The emphasis of all the good books given to young people was on death. We were all taught that we were born to die; and over that, all the terrors that theology could gather from savage nations were added to increase the gloom.5 A great change has occurred. Death is seen as a natural event, and is met with firmness. A wise man in our time caused to be written on his tomb, Think on living.6 That inscription describes a progress in opinion. Cease from this antedating of your experience. Sufficient to to-day are the duties of to-day. Dont waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hours duties will be the best preparation for the hours or ages that follow it:
A man of thought is willing to die, willing to live; I suppose because he has seen the thread on which the beads are strung, and perceived that it reaches up and down, existing quite independently of the present illusions. A man of affairs is afraid to die, is pestered with terrors, because he has not this vision, and is the victim of those who have moulded the religious doctrines into some neat and plausible system, as Calvinism, Romanism or Swedenborgism, for household use. It is the fear of the young bird to trust its wings. The experiences of the soul will fast outgrow this alarm. The saying of Marcus Antoninus it were hard to mend: It is well to die if there be gods, and sad to live if there be none. I think all sound minds rest on a certain preliminary conviction, namely, that if it be best that conscious personal life shall continue, it will continue; if not best, then it will not: and we, if we saw the whole, should of course see that it was better so. Schiller said, What is so universal as death, must be benefit. A friend of Michel Angelo saying to him that his constant labor for art must make him think of death with regret,By no means, he said; for if life be a pleasure, yet since death also is sent by the hand of the same Master, neither should that displease us. Plutarch, in Greece, has a deep faith that the doctrine of the Divine Providence and that of the immortality of the soul rest on one and the same basis. Hear the opinion of Montesquieu: If the immortality of the soul were an error, I should be sorry not to believe it. I avow that I am not so humble as the atheist; I know not how they think, but for me, I do not wish to exchange the idea of immortality against that of the beatitude of one day. I delight in believing myself as immortal as God himself. Independently of revealed ideas, metaphysical ideas give me a vigorous hope of my eternal well-being, which I would never renounce.8
I was lately told of young children who feel a certain terror at the assurance of life without end. What! will it never stop? the child said; what! never die? never, never? It makes me feel so tired. And I have in mind the expression of an older believer, who once said to me, The thought that this frail being is never to end is so overwhelming that my only shelter is Gods presence. This disquietude only marks the transition. The healthy state of mind is the love of life. What is so good, let it endure.
I find that what is called great and powerful lifethe administration of large affairs, in commerce, in the courts, in the state,is prone to develop narrow and special talent; but, unless combined with a certain contemplative turn, a taste for abstract truth, for the moral laws, does not build up faith or lead to content. There is a profound melancholy at the base of men of active and powerful talent, seldom suspected. Many years ago, there were two men in the United States Senate, both of whom are now dead. I have seen them both; one of them I personally knew. Both were men of distinction and took an active part in the politics of their day and generation. They were men of intellect, and one of them, at a later period, gave to a friend this anecdote. He said that when he entered the Senate he became in a short time intimate with one of his colleagues, and, though attentive enough to the routine of public duty, they daily returned to each other, and spent much time in conversation on the immortality of the soul and other intellectual questions, and cared for little else. When my friend at last left Congress, they parted, his colleague remaining there; and, as their homes were widely distant from each other, it chanced that he never met him again until, twenty-five years afterwards, they saw each other through open doors at a distance in a crowded reception at the Presidents house in Washington. Slowly they advanced towards each other as they could, through the brilliant company, and at last met,said nothing, but shook hands long and cordially. At last his friend said, Any light, Albert? None, replied Albert. Any light, Lewis? None, replied he. They looked in each others eyes silently, gave one more shake each to the hand he held, and thus parted for the last time.9 Now I should say that the impulse which drew these minds to this inquiry through so many years was a better affirmative evidence than their failure to find a confirmation was negative. I ought to add that, though men of good minds, they were both pretty strong materialists in their daily aims and way of life. I admit that you shall find a good deal of skepticism in the streets and hotels and places of coarse amusement. But that is only to say that the practical faculties are faster developed than the spiritual. Where there is depravity there is a slaughter-house style of thinking. One argument of future life is the recoil of the mind in such company,our pain at every skeptical statement. The skeptic affirms that the universe is a nest of boxes with nothing in the last box. All laughter at man is bitter, and puts us out of good activity. When Bonaparte insisted that the heart is one of the entrails, that it is the pit of the stomach that moves the world,do we thank him for the gracious instruction? Our disgust is the protest of human nature against a lie.
The ground of hope is in the infinity of the world; which infinity reappears in every particle, the powers of all society in every individual, and of all mind in every mind. I know against all appearances that the universe can receive no detriment; that there is a remedy for every wrong and a satisfaction for every soul. Here is this wonderful thought. But whence came it? Who put it in the mind? It was not I, it was not you; it is elemental,belongs to thought and virtue, and whenever we have either we see the beams of this light. When the Master of the universe has points to carry in his government he impresses his will in the structure of minds.10
But proceeding to the enumeration of the few simple elements of the natural faith, the first fact that strikes us is our delight in permanence. All great natures are lovers of stability and permanence, as the type of the Eternal. After science begins, belief of permanence must follow in a healthy mind.11 Things so attractive, designs so wise, the secret workman so transcendently skilful that it tasks successive generations of observers only to find out, part with part, the delicate contrivance and adjustment of a weed, of a moss, to its wants, growth and perpetuation; all these adjustments becoming perfectly intelligible to our study,and the contriver of it all forever hidden! To breathe, to sleep, is wonderful. But never to know the Cause, the Giver, and infer his character and will! Of what import this vacant sky, these puffing elements, these insignificant lives full of selfish loves and quarrels and ennui? Everything is prospective, and man is to live hereafter. That the world is for his education is the only sane solution of the enigma. And I think that the naturalist works not for himself, but for the believing mind, which turns his discoveries to revelations, receives them as private tokens of the grand good will of the Creator.
The mind delights in immense time; delights in rocks, in metals, in mountain chains, and in the evidence of vast geologic periods which these give; in the age of trees, say of the sequoias, a few of which will span the whole history of mankind;12 in the noble toughness and imperishableness of the palm-tree, which thrives under abuse; delights in architecture, whose building lasts so long,A house, says Ruskin, is not in its prime until it is five hundred years old,and here are the Pyramids, which have as many thousands, and cromlechs and earth-mounds much older than these.
We delight in stability, and really are interested in nothing that ends. What lasts a century pleases us in comparison with what lasts an hour. But a century, when we have once made it familiar and compared it with a true antiquity, looks dwarfish and recent; and it does not help the matter adding numbers, if we see that it has an end, which it will reach just as surely as the shortest. A candle a mile long or a hundred miles long does not help the imagination; only a self-feeding fire, an inextinguishable lamp, like the sun and the star, that we have not yet found date and origin for. But the nebular theory threatens their duration also, bereaves them of this glory, and will make a shift to eke out a sort of eternity by succession, as plants and animals do.
And what are these delights in the vast and permanent and strong, but approximations and resemblances of what is entire and sufficing, creative and self-sustaining life? For the Creator keeps his word with us. These long-lived or long-enduring objects are to us, as we see them, only symbols of somewhat in us far longer-lived. Our passions, our endeavors, have something ridiculous and mocking, if we come to so hasty an end. If not to be, how like the bells of a fool is the trump of fame! Nature does not, like the Empress Anne of Russia, call together all the architectural genius of the Empire to build and finish and furnish a palace of snow, to melt again to water in the first thaw. Will you, with vast cost and pains, educate your children to be adepts in their several arts, and, as soon as they are ready to produce a masterpiece, call out a file of soldiers to shoot them down? We must infer our destiny from the preparation. We are driven by instinct to hive innumerable experiences which are of no visible value, and we may revolve through many lives before we shall assimilate or exhaust them. Now there is nothing in Nature capricious, or whimsical, or accidental, or unsupported. Nature never moves by jumps, but always in steady and supported advances. The implanting of a desire indicates that the gratification of that desire is in the constitution of the creature that feels it; the wish for food, the wish for motion, the wish for sleep, for society, for knowledge, are not random whims, but grounded in the structure of the creature, and meant to be satisfied by food, by motion, by sleep, by society, by knowledge. If there is the desire to live, and in larger sphere, with more knowledge and power, it is because life and knowledge and power are good for us, and we are the natural depositaries of these gifts. The love of life is out of all proportion to the value set on a single day, and seems to indicate, like all our other experiences, a conviction of immense resources and possibilities proper to us, on which we have never drawn.
All the comfort I have found teaches me to confide that I shall not have less in times and places that I do not yet know. I have known admirable persons, without feeling that they exhaust the possibilities of virtue and talent. I have seen what glories of climate, of summer mornings and evenings, of midnight sky; I have enjoyed the benefits of all this complex machinery of arts and civilization, and its results of comfort. The good Power can easily provide me millions more as good. Shall I hold on with both hands to every paltry possession? All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen. Whatever it be which the great Providence prepares for us, it must be something large and generous, and in the great style of his works. The future must be up to the style of our faculties,of memory, of hope, of imagination, of reason.13 I have a house, a closet which holds my books, a table, a garden, a field: are these, any or all, a reason for refusing the angel who beckons me away,as if there were no room or skill elsewhere that could reproduce for me as my like or my enlarging wants may require? We wish to live for what is great, not for what is mean. I do not wish to live for the sake of my warm house, my orchard, or my pictures. I do not wish to live to wear out my boots.
As a hint of endless being, we may rank that novelty which perpetually attends life. The soul does not age with the body. On the borders of the grave, the wise man looks forward with equal elasticity of mind, or hope; and why not, after millions of years, on the verge of still newer existence?for it is the nature of intelligent beings to be forever new to life. Most men are insolvent, or promise by their countenance and conversation and by their early endeavor much more than they ever perform,suggesting a design still to be carried out; the man must have new motives, new companions, new condition and another term. Franklin said, Life is rather a state of embryo, a preparation for life. A man is not completely born until he has passed through death. Every really able man, in whatever direction he work,a man of large affairs, an inventor, a statesman, an orator, a poet, a painter,if you talk sincerely with him, considers his work, however much admired, as far short of what it should be. What is this Better, this flying Ideal, but the perpetual promise of his Creator?14
The fable of the Wandering Jew is agreeable to men, because they want more time and land in which to execute their thoughts. But a higher poetic use must be made of the legend. Take us as we are, with our experience, and transfer us to a new planet, and let us digest for its inhabitants what we could of the wisdom of this. After we have found our depth there, and assimilated what we could of the new experience, transfer us to a new scene. In each transfer we shall have acquired, by seeing them at a distance, a new mastery of the old thoughts, in which we were too much immersed. In short, all our intellectual action, not promises but bestows a feeling of absolute existence. We are taken out of time and breathe a purer air. I know not whence we draw the assurance of prolonged life, of a life which shoots that gulf we call death and takes hold of what is real and abiding, by so many claims as from our intellectual history. Salt is a good preserver; cold is: but a truth cures the taint of mortality better, and preserves from harm until another period.15 A sort of absoluteness attends all perception of truth,no smell of age, no hint of corruption. It is self-sufficing, sound, entire.
Lord Bacon said: Some of the philosophers who were least divine denied generally the immortality of the soul, yet came to this point, that whatsoever motions the spirit of man could act and perform without the organs of the body, might remain after death; which were only those of the understanding, and not of the affections; so immortal and incorruptible a thing did knowledge seem to them to be. And Van Helmont, the philosopher of Holland, drew his sufficient proof purely from the action of the intellect. It is my greatest desire, he said, that it might be granted unto atheists to have tasted, at least but one only moment, what it is intellectually to understand; whereby they may feel the immortality of the mind, as it were by touching. A farmer, a laborer, a mechanic, is driven by his work all day, but it ends at night; it has an end. But, as far as the mechanic or farmer is also a scholar or thinker, his work has no end. That which he has learned is that there is much more to be learned. The wiser he is, he feels only the more his incompetence. What we know is a point to what we do not know. A thousand years,tenfold, a hundredfold his faculties, would not suffice. The demands of his task are such that it becomes omnipresent. He studies in his walking, at his meals, in his amusements, even in his sleep. Montesquieu said, The love of study is in us almost the only eternal passion. All the others quit us in proportion as this miserable machine which holds them approaches its ruin. Art is long, says the thinker, and life is short. He is but as a fly or a worm to this mountain, this continent, which his thoughts inhabit. It is a perception that comes by the activity of the intellect; never to the lazy or rusty mind. Courage comes naturally to those who have the habit of facing labor and danger, and who therefore know the power of their arms and bodies; and courage or confidence in the mind comes to those who know by use its wonderful forces and inspirations and returns. Belief in its future is a reward kept only for those who use it. To me, said Goethe, the eternal existence of my soul is proved from my idea of activity. If I work incessantly till my death, Nature is bound to give me another form of existence, when the present can no longer sustain my spirit.
It is a proverb of the world that good will makes intelligence, that goodness itself is an eye; and the one doctrine in which all religions agree is that new light is added to the mind in proportion as it uses that which it has. He that doeth the will of God abideth forever. Ignorant people confound reverence for the intuitions with egotism. There is no confusion in the things themselves. The health of the mind consists in the perception of law. Its dignity consists in being under the law. Its goodness is the most generous extension of our private interests to the dignity and generosity of ideas. Nothing seems to me so excellent as a belief in the laws. It communicates nobleness, and, as it were, an asylum in temples to the loyal soul.
I confess that everything connected with our personality fails. Nature never spares the individual; we are always balked of a complete success: no prosperity is promised to our self-esteem. We have our indemnity only in the moral and intellectual reality to which we aspire. That is immortal, and we only through that. The soul stipulates for no private good. That which is private I see not to be good. If truth live, I live; if justice live, I live, said one of the old saints; and these by any mans suffering are enlarged and enthroned.
The moral sentiment measures itself by sacrifice. It risks or ruins property, health, life itself, without hesitation, for its thought, and all men justify the man by their praise for this act.16 And Mahomet in the same mind declared, Not dead, but living, ye are to account all those who are slain in the way of God.
On these grounds I think that wherever man ripens, this audacious belief presently appears,in the savage, savagely; in the good, purely. As soon as thought is exercised, this belief is inevitable; as soon as virtue glows, this belief confirms itself. It is a kind of summary or completion of man. It cannot rest on a legend; it cannot be quoted from one to another; it must have the assurance of a mans faculties that they can fill a larger theatre and a longer term than Nature here allows him. Goethe said: It is to a thinking being quite impossible to think himself non-existent, ceasing to think and live; so far does every one carry in himself the proof of immortality, and quite spontaneously. But so soon as the man will be objective and go out of himself, so soon as he dogmatically will grasp a personal duration to bolster up in cockney fashion that inward assurance, he is lost in contradiction. The doctrine is not sentimental, but is grounded in the necessities and forces we possess. Nothing will hold but that which we must be and must do:
The revelation that is true is written on the palms of the hands, the thought of our mind, the desire of our heart, or nowhere. My idea of heaven is that there is no melodrama in it at all; that it is wholly real. Here is the emphasis of conscience and experience; this is no speculation, but the most practical of doctrines. Do you think that the eternal chain of cause and effect which pervades Nature, which threads the globes as beads on a string, leaves this out of its circuit,leaves out this desire of God and men as a waif and a caprice, altogether cheap and common, and falling without reason or merit?
We live by desire to live; we live by choice; by will, by thought, by virtue, by the vivacity of the laws which we obey, and obeying share their life,or we die by sloth, by disobedience, by losing hold of life, which ebbs out of us. But whilst I find the signatures, the hints and suggestions, noble and wholesome,whilst I find that all the ways of virtuous living lead upward and not downward,yet it is not my duty to prove to myself the immortality of the soul. That knowledge is hidden very cunningly. Perhaps the archangels cannot find the secret of their existence, as the eye cannot see itself;but, ending or endless, to live whilst I live.18
There is a drawback to the value of all statements of the doctrine, and I think that one abstains from writing or printing on the immortality of the soul, because, when he comes to the end of his statement, the hungry eyes that run through it will close disappointed; the listeners say, That is not here which we desire;and I shall be as much wronged by their hasty conclusions, as they feel themselves wronged by my omissions. I mean that I am a better believer, and all serious souls are better believers in the immortality, than we can give grounds for. The real evidence is too subtle, or is higher than we can write down in propositions, and therefore Wordsworths Ode is the best modern essay on the subject.
We cannot prove our faith by syllogisms. The argument refuses to form in the mind. A conclusion, an inference, a grand augury, is ever hovering, but attempt to ground it, and the reasons are all vanishing and inadequate.19 You cannot make a written theory or demonstration of this as you can an orrery of the Copernican astronomy. It must be sacredly treated. Speak of the mount in the mount. Not by literature or theology, but only by rare integrity, by a man permeated and perfumed with airs of heaven,with manliest or womanliest enduring love,can the vision be clear to a use the most sublime. And hence the fact that in the minds of men the testimony of a few inspired souls has had such weight and penetration. You shall not say, O my bishop, O my pastor, is there any resurrection? What do you think? Did Dr. Channing believe that we should know each other? did Wesley? did Butler? did Fénelon? What questions are these! Go read Milton, Shakspeare or any truly ideal poet. Read Plato, or any seer of the interior realities. Read St. Augustine, Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant. Let any master simply recite to you the substantial laws of the intellect, and in the presence of the laws themselves you will never ask such primary-school questions.
Is immortality only an intellectual quality, or, shall I say, only an energy, there being no passive? He has it, and he alone, who gives life to all names, persons, things, where he comes. No religion, not the wildest mythology dies for him; no art is lost. He vivifies what he touches. Future state is an illusion for the ever-present state. It is not length of life, but depth of life. It is not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time, as all high action of the mind does: when we are living in the sentiments we ask no questions about time. The spiritual world takes place;that which is always the same.20 But see how the sentiment is wise. Jesus explained nothing, but the influence of him took people out of time, and they felt eternal. A great integrity makes us immortal: an admiration, a deep love, a strong will, arms us above fear. It makes a day memorable. We say we lived years in that hour. It is strange that Jesus is esteemed by mankind the bringer of the doctrine of immortality. He is never once weak or sentimental; he is very abstemious of explanation, he never preaches the personal immortality; whilst Plato and Cicero had both allowed themselves to overstep the stern limits of the spirit, and gratify the people with that picture.
How ill agrees this majestical immortality of our religion with the frivolous population! Will you build magnificently for mice? Will you offer empires to such as cannot set a house or private affairs in order? Here are people who cannot dispose of a day; an hour hangs heavy on their hands; and will you offer them rolling ages without end? But this is the way we rise. Within every mans thought is a higher thought,within the character he exhibits to-day, a higher character. The youth puts off the illusions of the child, the man puts off the ignorance and tumultuous passions of youth; proceeding thence puts off the egotism of manhood, and becomes at last a public and universal soul. He is rising to greater heights, but also rising to realities; the outer relations and circumstances dying out, he entering deeper into God, God into him, until the last garment of egotism falls, and he is with God,shares the will and the immensity of the First Cause.21
It is curious to find the selfsame feeling, that it is not immortality, but eternity,not duration, but a state of abandonment to the Highest, and so the sharing of His perfection,appearing in the farthest east and west. The human mind takes no account of geography, language or legends, but in all utters the same instinct.
Yama, the lord of Death, promised Nachiketas, the son of Gautama, to grant him three boons at his own choice. Nachiketas, knowing that his father Gautama was offended with him, said, O Death! let Gautama be appeased in mind, and forget his anger against me: this I choose for the first boon. Yama said, Through my favor, Gautama will remember thee with love as before. For the second boon, Nachiketas asks that the fire by which heaven is gained be made known to him; which also Yama allows, and says, Choose the third boon, O Nachiketas! Nachiketas said, there is this inquiry. Some say the soul exists after the death of man; others say it does not exist. This I should like to know, instructed by thee. Such is the third of the boons. Yama said, For this question, it was inquired of old, even by the gods; for it is not easy to understand it. Subtle is its nature. Choose another boon, O Nachiketas! Do not compel me to this. Nachiketas said, Even by the gods was it inquired. And as to what thou sayest, O Death, that it is not easy to understand it, there is no other speaker to be found like thee. There is no other boon like this. Yama said, Choose sons and grandsons who may live a hundred years; choose herds of cattle; choose elephants and gold and horses; choose the wide expanded earth, and live thyself as many years as thou listeth. Or, if thou knowest a boon like this, choose it, together with wealth and far-extending life. Be a king, O Nachiketas! On the wide earth I will make thee the enjoyer of all desires. All those desires that are difficult to gain in the world of mortals, all those ask thou at thy pleasure;those fair nymphs of heaven with their chariots, with their musical instruments; for the like of them are not to be gained by men. I will give them to thee, but do not ask the question of the state of the soul after death. Nachiketas said, All those enjoyments are of yesterday. With thee remain thy horses and elephants, with thee the dance and song. If we should obtain wealth, we live only as long as thou pleasest. The boon which I choose I have said. Yama said, One thing is good, another is pleasant. Blessed is he who takes the good, but he who chooses the pleasant loses the object of man. But thou, considering the objects of desire, hast abandoned them. These two, ignorance (whose object is what is pleasant) and knowledge (whose object is what is good), are known to be far asunder, and to lead to different goals. Believing this world exists, and not the other, the careless youth is subject to my sway. That knowledge for which thou hast asked is not to be obtained by argument. I know worldly happiness is transient, for that firm one is not to be obtained by what is not firm. The wise, by means of the union of the intellect with the soul, thinking him whom it is hard to behold, leaves both grief and joy. Thee, O Nachiketas! I believe a house whose door is open to Brahma. Brahma the supreme, whoever knows him obtains whatever he wishes. The soul is not born; it does not die; it was not produced from any one. Nor was any produced from it. Unborn, eternal, it is not slain, though the body is slain; subtler than what is subtle, greater than what is great, sitting it goes far, sleeping it goes everywhere. Thinking the soul as unbodily among bodies, firm among fleeting things, the wise man casts off all grief. The soul cannot be gained by knowledge, not by understanding, not by manifold science. It can be obtained by the soul by which it is desired. It reveals its own truths.22
Note 1. The basis of this essay is a lecture given by Mr. Emerson before the Parker Fraternity in the Music Hall in Boston, December 29, 1861. Possibly it may have been read also in one of the University courses at Cambridge in 1870 or 1871. The manuscript he gave away, and no loose sheetsthe miscellany which usually accompany the lectureremain. In the Introductory Note to this volume Mr. Cabot, explaining the part which he took in helping. Mr. Emerson in the preparation of the book, says that Mr. Emerson looked through his journals for suitable material to add to the lectures before printing them, and In this way it happened sometimes that writing of very different dates was brought together: e. g., the essay on Immortality, which has been cited as showing what were his latest opinions on that subject, contains passages written fifty years apart from each other. But Mr. Emerson, although he felt at the time hardly equal to the ordering this material, approved its use, and the whole paper had his sanction when published. He had left traditional revelation to prove
That man in the bush with God may meet,
and found that the voice of the Holy Spirit
Still whispers in the morning wind.
In the stars, in the forest, in men and women, he had seen that everywhere, however hidden, the laws of Beauty, Wisdom, Goodness were working, and that the three were One. His belief in the Universal Mind, the Over-Soul, of which we were the vessels, or rather channels, if we but kept ourselves open, was satisfying. He did not care to ask questions of detail. Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois. To truth, justice, love, the attributes of the soul, the idea of immutableness is essentially associated. Jesus, living in these moral sentiments, heedless of sensual fortunes, heeding only the manifestations of these, never made the separation of the idea of duration from the essence of these attributes, nor uttered a syllable concerning the duration of the soul . In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question or condescends to these evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.The Over-Soul, Essays, First Series. The secret of heaven is kept from age to age. No imprudent, no sociable angel ever dropt an early syllable to answer the longings of saints, the fears of mortals. We should have listened on our knees to any favorite, who, by stricter obedience, had brought his thoughts into parallelism with the celestial currents and could hint to human ears the scenery and circumstance of the newly parted soul. But it is certain that it must tally with what is best in nature. It must not be inferior in tone to the already known works of the artist who sculptures the globes of the firmament and writes the moral law. It must be fresher than rainbows, stabler than mountains, agreeing with flowers, with tides and the rising and setting of autumnal stars. Melodious poets shall be hoarse as street ballads when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees.Representative Men, Swedenborg. And in the last pages of the essay on Worship, in Conduct of Life, he said: The whole revelation that is vouchsafed us is the gentle trust, which, in our experience, we find will cover also with flowers the slopes of this chasm. Of immortality, the soul when well employed is incurious. It is so well, that it is sure it will be well . Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he who would be a great soul in future, must be a great soul now. [back]
Note 2. This story is found in Bedes Ecclesiastical History, chapter xiii., Bohns Antiquarian Library. [back]
Note 3. In a Romaic song, The Grave of Dunos, a dying Klephtic chief says:
Now the death hour comes and this day will I die.
O make my grave and make it a broad and a high one,
In which I could stand up to fight and load my gun in the middle;
And on the right side leave for me a little window open,
At which the swallows may fly in to tell me when the Spring comes,
And where, in fair May moons, the nightingales may sing.
Note 4. In an early journal (1830) Mr. Emerson wrote of his first wife: Ellen Tucker wondered whether the spirits in Heaven look onward to their immortality, as we on Earth, or are absorbed in the present moment. In the same he wrote: Every man contemplates an angel in his future self. [back]
Note 5. Mr. Emerson one Monday morning in 1837 wrote, with a sad humor: The Pagan theology of our churches treats Heaven as an inevitable evil, which, as there is no help against, the best way is to put the best face on the matter we can. From whence, said the good preacher yesterday in his prayer, we shall not be able to return. Truth will out. [back]
Note 6. Mr. Emerson, in his journal, says that Goethe did so. [back]
Note 9. At this distance of time there seems no impropriety in giving the names of these friends, of whom the story is toldLewis Cass and Albert H. Tracy. [back]
Note 10. This passage on Divine Will comes from the sheets of the lecture on Courage: I know not whether there be, as is alleged, in the upper region of our atmosphere a permanent westerly current, which carries all with it which rises to that height, but I know that when souls reach a certain height of perception, they accept a knowledge and principle above all selfishness. Whether there be an upper westerly current I know not; but I know a breath of Will blows through the Universe of souls eternally, in the direction of the Right and Necessary. It is the air which all intellects inhale and exhale, and it is the wind which blows all the worlds into order and orbit. [back]
Note 11. The lines ending the poem Threnody are here suggested. [back]
Note 12. Perhaps this passage was written after Mr. Emerson had the pleasure of riding under the vast pines of the Sierra Nevada, and standing at the feet of the giant redwoods of Mariposa when his good friend John Murray Forbes carried him thither for rest, after the strain of his University lectures in 1871. [back]
Note 13. In my youth I received this answer from my father, indirect yet none the less satisfying, when I asked him what he thought about a future life: We may be certain that, whatever it may be, no one will be disappointed. [back]
Note 14. His poem the Forerunners tells of the happy guides whom he ever followed, but could not overtake. [back]
Note 15. This is a favorite quotation from Platos Phædrus, about the soul which has perceived a truth. Of ancient art Mr. Emerson said, I find no trace of age in it. Among Byrons poems Mr. Emerson valued especially that one beginning,
Note 17. The editor would gladly learn the source whence these lines are quoted, for which he and his friends have sought in vain. [back]
Note 18. That life is a series of Nows, and the day divine, was a favorite thought: The whole fact is here or nowhere. [back]
Note 19. Mr. Emerson in answer to his revered friend, Rev. Henry Ware, who, troubled at the Divinity School Address, wrote to him about his grounds of belief,I do not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of a thought. [back]
Note 20. Mr. Emerson said in conversation with a young friend, The soul feels that it is in communication with the soul of thingsand the soul knows. [back]
Note 21. Speaking of the soul, in his security that what was best must occur, Mr. Emerson is reported to have said to Margaret Fuller, Careful of health, careless of life, should be our motto. [back]
Note 22. I quote from Mr. John Albees Remembrances of Emerson this just remark: Emerson refused to dogmatize about what is necessarily obscure at present. So some thought the obscurity lay in him. In conclusion I quote this pleasant passage from A Western Journey with Emerson [Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1884.], written by his friend the late Professor James Bradley Thayer of the Harvard Law School: How can Mr. Emerson, said one of the younger members of the party to me that day, be so agreeable, all the time, without getting tired! It was the naive expression of what we all had felt. There was never a more agreeable travelling-companion; he was always accessible, cheerful, sympathetic, considerate, tolerant; and there was always that same respectful interest in those with whom he talked, even the humblest, which raised them in their own estimation. One thing particularly impressed me,the sense that he seemed to have of a certain great amplitude of time and leisure. It was the behaviour of one who really believed in an immortal life, and had adjusted his conduct accordingly; so that, beautiful and grand as the natural objects were among which our journey lay, they were matched by the sweet elevation of character and the spiritual charm of our gracious friend. Years afterwards, on that memorable day of his funeral at Concord, I found that a sentence from his own essay on Immortality haunted my mind and kept repeating itself all the day long; it seemed to point to the sources of his power: Meantime the true disciples saw, through the letter, the doctrine of eternity, which dissolved the poor corpse and Nature also, and gave grandeur to the passing hour. He was flooded and full to overflowing all through his life with a sense of the presence, the omnipresence and the instant operation of what he called the Over-Soul. His apprehension and acceptance of this was no merely intellectual matter; it was something that penetrated into the substance of his being, and moved him like a vital force; it was this with its related beliefs that gave such power to his speech and such charm to his character, as of one who had already entered upon the immortal life, so that those who knew him intimately seemed to perceive what it was that the phrase of Scripture meant, when it said of the Almighty that he inhabited eternity. The truth that he saw, the powerful impulse that he felt, the inflaming inspiration that moved him were not the sort of things that the man of letters ordinarily has to handle, and they induced methods very different from the common. These things were difficult to grasp; only to be reached in rare moments; not to be adequately shadowed forth, unless when the mood was on. These high and delicate matters were to be set down when he saw them and as he saw them; they must be communicated, if indeed he might hope to communicate them, by picture, by symbol, by some far-darting gleam of imaginative phrase. [back]