Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
SHUN passion, fold the hands of thrift,
Sit still, and Truth is near;
Suddenly it will uplift
Your eyelids to the sphere:
Wait a little, you shall see
The portraiture of things to be.
FOR what need I of book or priest
Or Sibyl from the mummied East
When every star is Bethlehem Star,
I count as many as there are
Cinquefoils or violets in the grass,
So many saints and saviours,
So many high behaviours.
MORALS1 respects what men call goodness, that which all men agree to honor as justice, truth-speaking, good will and good works. Morals respects the source or motive of this action. It is the science of substances, not of shows. It is the what, and not the how. It is that which all men profess to regard, and by their real respect for which recommend themselves to each other.
There is this eternal advantage to morals, that, in the question between truth and goodness, the moral cause of the world lies behind all else in the mind. It was for good, it is to good, that all works. Surely it is not to prove or show the truth of things,that sounds a little cold and scholastic,no, it is for benefit, that all subsists. As we say in our modern politics, catching at last the language of morals, that the object of the State is the greatest good of the greatest number,so, the reason we must give for the existence of the world is, that it is for the benefit of all being.
Morals implies freedom and will. The will constitutes the man. He has his life in Nature, like a beast: but choice is born in him; here is he that chooses; here is the Declaration of Independence, the July Fourth of zoölogy and astronomy. He chooses,as the rest of the creation does not. But will, pure and perceiving, is not wilfulness. When a man, through stubbornness, insists to do this or that, something absurd or whimsical, only because he will, he is weak; he blows with his lips against the tempest, he dams the incoming ocean with his cane. It were an unspeakable calamity if any one should think he had the right to impose a private will on others. That is the part of a striker, an assassin. All violence, all that is dreary and repels, is not power but the absence of power.
Morals is the direction of the will on universal ends. He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral,we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant,whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings; and with Vauvenargues, the mercenary sacrifice of the public good to a private interest is the eternal stamp of vice.2
All the virtues are special directions of this motive; justice is the application of this good of the whole to the affairs of each one; courage is contempt of danger in the determination to see this good of the whole enacted; love is delight in the preference of that benefit redounding to another over the securing of our own share; humility is a sentiment of our insignificance when the benefit of the universe is considered.
If from these external statements we seek to come a little nearer to the fact, our first experiences in moral, as in intellectual nature, force us to discriminate a universal mind, identical in all men. Certain biases, talents, executive skills, are special to each individual; but the high, contemplative, all-commanding vision, the sense of Right and Wrong, is alike in all. Its attributes are self-existence, eternity, intuition and command. It is the mind of the mind. We belong to it, not it to us. It is in all men, and constitutes them men. In bad men it is dormant, as health is in men entranced or drunken; but, however inoperative, it exists underneath whatever vices and errors. The extreme simplicity of this intuition embarrasses every attempt at analysis. We can only mark, one by one, the perfections which it combines in every act. It admits of no appeal, looks to no superior essence. It is the reason of things.
The antagonist nature is the individual, formed into a finite body of exact dimensions, with appetites which take from everybody else what they appropriate to themselves, and would enlist the entire spiritual faculty of the individual, if it were possible, in catering for them. On the perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the wishes and interests of the individual, the moral discipline of life is built. The one craves a private benefit, which the other requires him to renounce out of respect to the absolute good. Every hour puts the individual in a position where his wishes aim at something which the sentiment of duty forbids him to seek. He that speaks the truth executes no private function of an individual will, but the world utters a sound by his lips. He who doth a just action seeth therein nothing of his own, but an inconceivable nobleness attaches to it, because it is a dictate of the general mind. We have no idea of power so simple and so entire as this. It is the basis of thought, it is the basis of being. Compare all that we call ourselves, all our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves:
The moral element invites man to great enlargements, to find his satisfaction, not in particulars or events, but in the purpose and tendency; not in bread, but in his right to his bread; not in much corn or wool, but in its communication.
Not by adding, then, does the moral sentiment help us; no, but in quite another manner. It puts us in place. It centres, it concentrates us. It puts us at the heart of Nature, where we belong, in the cabinet of science and of causes, there where all the wires terminate which hold the world in magnetic unity, and so converts us into universal beings.
This wonderful sentiment, which endears itself as it is obeyed, seems to be the fountain of intellect; for no talent gives the impression of sanity, if wanting this; nay, it absorbs everything into itself. Truth, Power, Goodness, Beauty, are its varied names,faces of one substance, the heart of all. Before it, what are persons, prophets, or seraphim but its passing agents, momentary rays of its light?4
The moral sentiment is alone omnipotent. There is no labor or sacrifice to which it will not bring a man, and which it will not make easy. Thus there is no man who will bargain to sell his life, say at the end of a year, for a million or ten millions of gold dollars in hand, or for any temporary pleasures, or for any rank, as of peer or prince; but many a man who does not hesitate to lay down his life for the sake of a truth, or in the cause of his country, or to save his son or his friend. And under the action of this sentiment of the Right, his heart and mind expand above himself, and above Nature.
Devout men, in the endeavor to express their convictions, have used different images to suggest this latent force; as, the light, the seed, the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, the Dæmon, the still, small voice, etc.,all indicating its power and its latency. It is serenely above all mediation. In all ages, to all men, it saith, I am; and he who hears it feels the impiety of wandering from this revelation to any record or to any rival. The poor Jews of the wilderness cried: Let not the Lord speak to us; let Moses speak to us. But the simple and sincere soul makes the contrary prayer: Let no intruder come between thee and me; deal THOU with me; let me know it is thy will, and I ask no more. The excellence of Jesus, and of every true teacher, is, that he affirms the Divinity in him and in us,not thrusts himself between it and us. It would instantly indispose us to any person claiming to speak for the Author of Nature, the setting forth any fact or law which we did not find in our consciousness. We should say with Heraclitus: Come into this smoky cabin; God is here also: approve yourself to him.6
We affirm that in all men is this majestic perception and command; that it is the presence of the Eternal in each perishing man; that it distances and degrades all statements of whatever saints, heroes, poets, as obscure and confused stammerings before its silent revelation. They report the truth. It is the truth. When I think of Reason, of Truth, of Virtue, I cannot conceive them as lodged in your soul and lodged in my soul, but that you and I and all souls are lodged in that; and I may easily speak of that adorable nature, there where only I behold it in my dim experiences, in such terms as shall seem to the frivolous, who dare not fathom their consciousness, as profane.7 How is a man a man? How can he exist to weave relations of joy and virtue with other souls, but because he is inviolable, anchored at the centre of Truth and Being? In the ever-returning hour of reflection, he says: I stand here glad at heart of all the sympathies I can awaken and share, clothing myself with them as with a garment of shelter and beauty, and yet knowing that it is not in the power of all who surround me to take from me the smallest thread I call mine. If all things are taken away, I have still all things in my relation to the Eternal.
We pretend not to define the way of its access to the private heart. It passes understanding. There was a time when Christianity existed in one child. But if the child had been killed by Herod, would the element have been lost? God sends his message, if not by one, then quite as well by another. When the Master of the Universe has ends to fulfil, he impresses his will on the structure of minds.
The Divine Mind imparts itself to the single person: his whole duty is to this rule and teaching. The aid which others give us is like that of the mother to the child,temporary, gestative, a short period of lactation, a nurses or a governesss care; but on his arrival at a certain maturity, it ceases, and would be hurtful and ridiculous if prolonged. Slowly the body comes to the use of its organs; slowly the soul unfolds itself in the new man. It is partial at first, and honors only some one or some few truths. In its companions it sees other truths honored, and successively finds their foundation also in itself. Then it cuts the cord, and no longer believes because of thy saying, but because it has recognized them in itself.8
The Divine Mind imparts itself to the single person: but it is also true that men act powerfully on us. There are men who astonish and delight, men who instruct and guide. Some mens words I remember so well that I must often use them to express my thought. Yes, because I perceive that we have heard the same truth, but they have heard it better. That is only to say, there is degree and gradation throughout Nature; and the Deity does not break his firm laws in respect to imparting truth, more than in imparting material heat and light. Men appear from time to time who receive with more purity and fulness these high communications. But it is only as fast as this hearing from another is authorized by its consent with his own, that it is pure and safe to each; and all receiving from abroad must be controlled by this immense reservation.9
It happens now and then, in the ages, that a soul is born which has no weakness of self, which offers no impediment to the Divine Spirit, which comes down into Nature as if only for the benefit of souls, and all its thoughts are perceptions of things as they are, without any infirmity of earth. Such souls are as the apparition of gods among men, and simply by their presence pass judgment on them. Men are forced by their own self-respect to give them a certain attention. Evil men shrink and pay involuntary homage by hiding or apologizing for their action.
When a man is born with a profound moral sentiment, preferring truth, justice and the serving of all men to any honors or any gain, men readily feel the superiority. They who deal with him are elevated with joy and hope; he lights up the house or the landscape in which he stands. His actions are poetic and miraculous in their eyes. In his presence, or within his influence, every one believes in the immortality of the soul. They feel that the invisible world sympathizes with him. The Arabians delight in expressing the sympathy of the unseen world with holy men.
A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us by its large scope. I am in the habit of thinkingnot, I hope, out of a partial experience, but confirmed by what I notice in many livesthat to every serious mind Providence sends from time to time five or six or seven teachers who are of the first importance to him in the lessons they have to impart. The highest of these not so much give particular knowledge, as they elevate by sentiment and by their habitual grandeur of view.11
Great men serve us as insurrections do in bad governments. The world would run into endless routine, and forms incrust forms, till the life was gone. But the perpetual supply of new genius shocks us with thrills of life, and recalls us to principles. Lucifers wager in the old drama was, There is no steadfast man on earth. He is very rare. A man is already of consequence in the world when it is known that we can implicitly rely on him. See how one noble person dwarfs a whole nation of underlings. This steadfastness we indicate when we praise character.
Character denotes habitual self-possession, habitual regard to interior and constitutional motives, a balance not to be overset or easily disturbed by outward events and opinion, and by implication points to the source of right motive.12 We sometimes employ the word to express the strong and consistent will of men of mixed motive, but, when used with emphasis, it points to what no events can change, that is, a will built on the reason of things. Such souls do not come in troops: oftenest appear solitary, like a general without his command, because those who can understand and uphold such appear rarely, not many, perhaps not one, in a generation. And the memory and tradition of such a leader is preserved in some strange way by those who only half understand him, until a true disciple comes, who apprehends and interprets every word.
The sentiment never stops in pure vision, but will be enacted. It affirms not only its truth, but its supremacy. It is not only insight, as science, as fancy, as imagination is; or an entertainment, as friendship and poetry are; but it is a sovereign rule: and the acts which it suggestsas when it impels a man to go forth and impart it to other men, or sets him on some asceticism or some practice of self-examination to hold him to obedience, or some zeal to unite men to abate some nuisance, or establish some reform or charity which it commandsare the homage we render to this sentiment, as compared with the lower regard we pay to other thoughts: and the private or social practices we establish in its honor we call religion.
The sentiment, of course, is the judge and measure of every expression of it,measures Judaism, Stoicism, Christianity, Buddhism, or whatever philanthropy, or politics, or saint, or seer pretends to speak in its name. The religions we call false were once true. They also were affirmations of the conscience correcting the evil customs of their times. The populace drag down the gods to their own level, and give them their egotism; whilst in Nature is none at all, God keeping out of sight, and known only as pure law, though resistless. Chateaubriand said, with some irreverence of phrase, If God made man in his image, man has paid him well back. Si Dieu a fait lhomme à son image, lhomme la bien rendu. Every nation is degraded by the goblins it worships instead of this Deity. The Dionysia and Saturnalia of Greece and Rome, the human sacrifice of the Druids, the Sradda of Hindoos, the Purgatory, the Indulgences, and the Inquisition of Popery, the vindictive mythology of Calvinism, are examples of this perversion.
Every particular instruction is speedily embodied in a ritual, is accommodated to humble and gross minds, and corrupted. The moral sentiment is the perpetual critic on these forms, thundering its protest, sometimes in earnest and lofty rebuke; but sometimes also it is the source, in natures less pure, of sneers and flippant jokes of common people, who feel that the forms and dogmas are not true for them, though they do not see where the error lies.13
The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next. We use in our idlest poetry and discourse the words Jove, Neptune, Mercury, as mere colors, and can hardly believe that they had to the lively Greek the anxious meaning which, in our towns, is given and received in churches when our religious names are used: and we read with surprise the horror of Athens when, one morning, the statues of Mercury in the temples were found broken, and the like consternation was in the city as if, in Boston, all the Orthodox churches should be burned in one night.
The greatest dominion will be to the deepest thought. The establishment of Christianity in the world does not rest on any miracle but the miracle of being the broadest and most humane doctrine. Christianity was once a schism and protest against the impieties of the time, which had originally been protests against earlier impieties, but had lost their truth. Varnhagen von Ense, writing in Prussia in 1848, says: The Gospels belong to the most aggressive writings. No leaf thereof could attain the liberty of being printed (in Berlin) to-day. What Mirabeaus, Rousseaus, Diderots, Fichtes, Heines, and many another heretic, one can detect therein!
But before it was yet a national religion it was alloyed, and, in the hands of hot Africans, of luxurious Byzantines, of fierce Gauls, its creeds were tainted with their barbarism. In Holland, in England, in Scotland, it felt the national narrowness. How unlike our habitual turn of thought was that of the last century in this country! Our ancestors spoke continually of angels and archangels with the same good faith as they would have spoken of their own parents or their late minister. Now the words pale, are rhetoric, and all credence is gone.14 Our horizon is not far, say one generation, or thirty years: we all see so much. The older see two generations, or sixty years. But what has been running on through three horizons, or ninety years, looks to all the world like a law of Nature, and t is an impiety to doubt. Thus, t is incredible to us, if we look into the religious books of our grandfathers, how they held themselves in such a pinfold. But why not? As far as they could see, through two or three horizons, nothing but ministers and ministers. Calvinism was one and the same thing in Geneva, in Scotland, in Old and New England. If there was a wedding, they had a sermon; if a funeral, then a sermon; if a war, or small-pox, or a comet, or canker-worms, or a deacon died,still a sermon: Nature was a pulpit;15 the church-warden or tithing-man was a petty persecutor; the presbytery, a tyrant; and in many a house in country places the poor children found seven sabbaths in a week. Fifty or a hundred years ago, prayers were said, morning and evening, in all families; grace was said at table; an exact observance of the Sunday was kept in the houses of laymen as of clergymen. And one sees with some pain the disuse of rites so charged with humanity and aspiration. But it by no means follows, because those offices are much disused, that the men and women are irreligious; certainly not that they have less integrity or sentiment, but only, let us hope, that they see that they can omit the form without loss of real ground; perhaps that they find some violence, some cramping of their freedom of thought, in the constant recurrence of the form.
So of the changed position and manners of the clergy. They have dropped, with the sacerdotal garb and manners of the last century, many doctrines and practices once esteemed indispensable to their order. But the distinctions of the true clergyman are not less decisive. Men ask now, Is he serious? Is he a sincere man, who lives as he teaches? Is he a benefactor? So far the religion is now where it should be. Persons are discriminated as honest, as veracious, as illuminated, as helpful, as having public and universal regards, or otherwise;are discriminated according to their aims, and not by these ritualities.
The changes are inevitable; the new age cannot see with the eyes of the last. But the change is in what is superficial; the principles are immortal, and the rally on the principle must arrive as people become intellectual. I consider theology to be the rhetoric of morals. The mind of this age has fallen away from theology to morals. I conceive it an advance. I suspect, that, when the theology was most florid and dogmatic, it was the barbarism of the people, and that, in that very time, the best men also fell away from theology, and rested in morals. I think that all the dogmas rest on morals, and that it is only a question of youth or maturity, of more or less fancy in the recipient; that the stern determination to do justly, to speak the truth, to be chaste and humble, was substantially the same, whether under a self-respect, or under a vow made on the knees at the shrine of Madonna.
When once Selden had said that the priests seemed to him to be baptizing their own fingers, the rite of baptism was getting late in the world. Or when once it is perceived that the English missionaries in India put obstacles in the way of schools (as is alleged),do not wish to enlighten but to Christianize the Hindoos,it is seen at once how wide of Christ is English Christianity.
Mankind at large always resemble frivolous children: they are impatient of thought, and wish to be amused. Truth is too simple for us; we do not like those who unmask our illusions. Fontenelle said: If the Deity should lay bare to the eyes of men the secret system of Nature, the causes by which all the astronomic results are affected, and they finding no magic, no mystic numbers, no fatalities, but the greatest simplicity, I am persuaded they would not be able to suppress a feeling of mortification, and would exclaim, with disappointment, Is that all? And so we paint over the bareness of ethics with the quaint grotesques of theology.
We boast the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, meaning the victory of the spirit over the senses; but Paganism hides itself in the uniform of the Church. Paganism has only taken the oath of allegiance, taken the cross, but is Paganism still, outvotes the true men by millions of majority, carries the bag, spends the treasure, writes the tracts, elects the minister, and persecutes the true believer.
There is a certain secular progress of opinion, which, in civil countries, reaches everybody. One service which this age has rendered is, to make the life and wisdom of every past man accessible and available to all. Socrates and Marcus Aurelius are allowed to be saints; Mahomet is no longer accursed; Voltaire is no longer a scarecrow; Spinoza has come to be revered.16 The time will come, says Varnhagen von Ense, when we shall treat the jokes and sallies against the myths and church-rituals of Christianitysay the sarcasms of Voltaire, Frederic the Great, and DAlembertgood-naturedly and without offence: since, at bottom, those men mean honestly, their polemics proceed out of a religious striving, and what Christ meant and willed is in essence more with them than with their opponents, who only wear and misrepresent the name of Christ . Voltaire was an apostle of Christian ideas; only the names were hostile to him, and he never knew it otherwise. He was like the son of the vine-dresser in the Gospel, who said No, and went; the other said Yea, and went not. These men preached the true God,Him whom men serve by justice and uprightness; but they called themselves atheists.17
When the highest conceptions, the lessons of religion, are imported, the nation is not culminating, has not genius, but is servile. A true nation loves its vernacular tongue. A completed nation will not import its religion. Duty grows everywhere, like children, like grass; and we need not go to Europe or to Asia to learn it.18 I am not sure that the English religion is not all quoted. Even the Jeremy Taylors, Fullers, George Herberts, steeped, all of them, in Church traditions, are only using their fine fancy to emblazon their memory. T is Judæa, not England, which is the ground. So with the mordant Calvinism of Scotland and America. But this quoting distances and disables them: since with every repeater something of creative force is lost, as we feel when we go back to each original moralist. Pythagoras, Socrates, the Stoics, the Hindoo, Behmen, George Fox,these speak originally; and how many sentences and books we owe to unknown authors,to writers who were not careful to set down name or date or titles or cities or postmarks in these illuminations!
We, in our turn, want power to drive the ponderous State. The constitution and law in America must be written on ethical principles, so that the entire power of the spiritual world can be enlisted to hold the loyalty of the citizen, and to repel every enemy as by force of Nature. The laws of old empires stood on the religious convictions. Now that their religions are outgrown, the empires lack strength. Romanism in Europe does not represent the real opinion of enlightened men. The Lutheran Church does not represent in Germany the opinions of the universities. In England, the gentlemen, the journals, and now, at last, churchmen and bishops, have fallen away from the Anglican Church. And in America, where are no legal ties to churches, the looseness appears dangerous.
Our religion has got on as far as Unitarianism. But all the forms grow pale. The walls of the temple are wasted and thin, and, at last, only a film of whitewash, because the mind of our culture has already left our liturgies behind. Every age, says Varnhagen, has another sieve for the religious tradition, and will sift it out again. Something is continually lost by this treatment, which posterity cannot recover.
But it is a capital truth that Nature, moral as well as material, is always equal to herself. Ideas always generate enthusiasm. The creed, the legend, forms of worship, swiftly decay. Morals is the incorruptible essence, very heedless in its richness of any past teacher or witness, heedless of their lives and fortunes. It does not ask whether you are wrong or right in your anecdotes of them; but it is all in all how you stand to your own tribunal.
The lines of the religious sects are very shifting; their platforms unstable; the whole science of theology of great uncertainty, and resting very much on the opinions of who may chance to be the leading doctors of Oxford or Edinburgh, of Princeton or Cambridge, to-day. No man can tell what religious revolutions await us in the next years; and the education in the divinity colleges may well hesitate and vary. But the science of ethics has no mutation;19and whoever feels any love or skill for ethical studies may safely lay out all his strength and genius in working in that mine. The pulpit may shake, but this platform will not. All the victories of religion belong to the moral sentiment. Some poor soul beheld the Law blazing through such impediments as he had, and yielded himself to humility and joy. What was gained by being told that it was justification by faith?
The Church, in its ardor for beloved persons, clings to the miraculous, in the vulgar sense, which has even an immoral tendency, as one sees in Greek, Indian and Catholic legends, which are used to gloze every crime. The soul, penetrated with the beatitude which pours into it on all sides, asks no interpositions, no new laws,the old are good enough for it,finds in every cart-path of labor ways to heaven, and the humblest lot exalted. Men will learn to put back the emphasis peremptorily on pure morals, always the same, not subject to doubtful interpretation, with no sale of indulgences, no massacre of heretics, no female slaves, no disfranchisement of women, no stigma on race; to make morals the absolute test, and so uncover and drive out the false religions. There is no vice that has not skulked behind them. It is only yesterday that our American churches, so long silent on Slavery, and notoriously hostile to the Abolitionist, wheeled into line for Emancipation.
I am far from accepting the opinion that the revelations of the moral sentiment are insufficient, as if it furnished a rule only, and not the spirit by which the rule is animated. For I include in these, of course, the history of Jesus, as well as those of every divine soul which in any place or time delivered any grand lesson to humanity; and I find in the eminent experiences in all times a substantial agreement. The sentiment itself teaches unity of source, and disowns every superiority other than of deeper truth. Jesus has immense claims on the gratitude of mankind, and knew how to guard the integrity of his brothers soul from himself also; but, in his disciples, admiration of him runs away with their reverence for the human soul, and they hamper us with limitations of person and text. Every exaggeration of these is a violation of the souls right, and inclines the manly reader to lay down the New Testament, to take up the Pagan philosophers.20 It is not that the Upanishads or the Maxims of Antoninus are better, but that they do not invade his freedom; because they are only suggestions, whilst the other adds the inadmissible claim of positive authority,of an external command, where command cannot be. This is the secret of the mischievous result that, in every period of intellectual expansion, the Church ceases to draw into its clergy those who best belong there, the largest and freest minds, and that in its most liberal forms, when such minds enter it, they are coldly received, and find themselves out of place. This charm in the Pagan moralists, of suggestion, the charm of poetry, of mere truth (easily disengaged from their historical accidents which nobody wishes to force on us), the New Testament loses by its connection with a church. Mankind cannot long suffer this loss, and the office of this age is to put all these writings on the eternal footing of equality of origin in the instincts of the human mind. It is certain that each inspired master will gain instantly by the separation from the idolatry of ages.
To their great honor, the simple and free minds among our clergy have not resisted the voice of Nature and the advanced perceptions of the mind; and every church divides itself into a liberal and expectant class, on one side, and an unwilling and conservative class on the other. As it stands with us now, a few clergymen, with a more theological cast of mind, retain the traditions, but they carry them quietly. In general discourse, they are never obtruded.21 If the clergyman should travel in France, in England, in Italy, he might leave them locked up in the same closet with his occasional sermons at home, and, if he did not return, would never think to send for them. The orthodox clergymen hold a little firmer to theirs, as Calvinism has a more tenacious vitality; but that is doomed also, and will only die last; for Calvinism rushes to be Unitarianism, as Unitarianism rushes to be pure Theism.
But the inspirations are never withdrawn. In the worst times, men of organic virtue are born,men and women of native integrity, and indifferently in high and low conditions. There will always be a class of imaginative youths, whom poetry, whom the love of beauty, lead to the adoration of the moral sentiment, and these will provide it with new historic forms and songs. Religion is as inexpugnable as the use of lamps, or of wells, or of chimneys. We must have days and temples and teachers. The Sunday is the core of our civilization, dedicated to thought and reverence. It invites to the noblest solitude and the noblest society, to whatever means and aids of spiritual refreshment. Men may well come together to kindle each other to virtuous living. Confucius said, If in the morning I hear of the right way, and in the evening die, I can be happy.22
The churches already indicate the new spirit in adding to the perennial office of teaching, beneficent activities,as in creating hospitals, ragged schools, offices of employment for the poor, appointing almoners to the helpless, guardians of foundlings and orphans. The power that in other times inspired crusades, or the colonization of New England, or the modern revivals, flies to the help of the deaf-mute and the blind, to the education of the sailor and the vagabond boy, to the reform of convicts and harlots,as the war created the Hilton Head and Charleston missions, the Sanitary Commission, the nurses and teachers at Washington.
In the present tendency of our society, in the new importance of the individual, when thrones are crumbling and presidents and governors are forced every moment to remember their constituencies; when counties and towns are resisting centralization, and the individual voter his party,society is threatened with actual granulation, religious as well as political. How many people are there in Boston? Some two hundred thousand. Well, then so many sects. Of course each poor soul loses all his old stays; no bishop watches him, no confessor reports that he has neglected the confessional, no class-leader admonishes him of absences, no fagot, no penance, no fine, no rebuke. Is not this wrong? is not this dangerous? T is not wrong, but the law of growth. It is not dangerous, any more than the mothers withdrawing her hands from the tottering babe, at his first walk across the nursery-floor: the child fears and cries, but achieves the feat, instantly tries it again, and never wishes to be assisted more. And this infant soul must learn to walk alone. At first he is forlorn, homeless; but this rude stripping him of all support drives him inward, and he finds himself unhurt; he finds himself face to face with the majestic Presence, reads the original of the Ten Commandments, the original of Gospels and Epistles; nay, his narrow chapel expands to the blue cathedral of the sky, where he
Looks in and sees each blissful deity,
Where he before the thunderous throne doth lie.23
To nations or to individuals the progress of opinion is not a loss of moral restraint, but simply a change from coarser to finer checks. No evil can come from reform which a deeper thought will not correct. If there is any tendency in national expansion to form character, religion will not be a loser. There is a fear that pure truth, pure morals, will not make a religion for the affections. Whenever the sublimities of character shall be incarnated in a man, we may rely that awe and love and insatiable curiosity will follow his steps. Character is the habit of action from the permanent vision of truth. It carries a superiority to all the accidents of life. It compels right relation to every other man,domesticates itself with strangers and enemies. But I, father, says the wise Prahlada, in the Vishnu Purana, know neither friends nor foes, for I behold Kesava in all beings as in my own soul. It confers perpetual insight. It sees that a mans friends and his foes are of his own household, of his own person. What would it avail me, if I could destroy my enemies? There would be as many to-morrow. That which I hate and fear is really in myself, and no knife is long enough to reach to its heart. Confucius said one day to Ke Kang: Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The grass must bend, when the wind blows across it. Ke Kang, distressed about the number of thieves in the state, inquired of Confucius how to do away with them. Confucius said, If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.
Its methods are subtle, it works without means. It indulges no enmity against any, knowing, with Prahlada that the suppression of malignant feeling is itself a reward. The more reason, the less government. In a sensible family, nobody ever hears the words shall and shant; nobody commands, and nobody obeys, but all conspire and joyfully coöperate. Take off the roofs of hundreds of happy houses, and you shall see this order without ruler, and the like in every intelligent and moral society. Command is exceptional, and marks some break in the link of reason; as the electricity goes round the world without a spark or a sound, until there is a break in the wire or the water chain. Swedenborg said, that, in the spiritual world, when one wishes to rule, or despises others, he is thrust out of doors. Goethe, in discussing the characters in Wilhelm Meister, maintained his belief that pure loveliness and right good will are the highest manly prerogatives, before which all energetic heroism, with its lustre and renown, must recede. In perfect accord with this, Henry James affirms, that to give the feminine element in life its hard-earned but eternal supremacy over the masculine has been the secret inspiration of all past history.
There is no end to the sufficiency of character. It can afford to wait; it can do without what is called success; it cannot but succeed. To a well-principled man existence is victory. He defends himself against failure in his main design by making every inch of the road to it pleasant. There is no trifle, and no obscurity to him: he feels the immensity of the chain whose last link he holds in his hand, and is led by it. Having nothing, this spirit hath all. It asks, with Marcus Aurelius, What matter by whom the good is done? It extols humility,by every self-abasement lifted higher in the scale of being. It makes no stipulations for earthly felicity,does not ask, in the absoluteness of its trust, even for the assurance of continued life.24
Note 1. This essay was the concluding lecture of a course given before the Parker Fraternity in Boston by Mr. Emerson, in the winter of 186465. It was printed in the North American Review in April, 1866. It might have been as fitly called The Sovereignty of Ethics as the essay which bears that name. The reader is referred to the chapter on the same subject, printed in the second series of Essays in 1844. [back]
Note 4. This convertibility of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, making a trinity on Moral Force, appears in the chapter on Spirit, in Nature, in the first pages of The Poet in the second series of Essays, and elsewhere in Mr. Emersons writings. [back]
Note 5. This is the quatrain Sacrifice, in the Poems. [back]
Note 6. In the Address to the Divinity Students (Nature, Addresses and Lectures, pp. 128, 129), Mr. Emerson set forth this thought more fully. [back]
Note 7. The charges of blasphemy against Empedocles and Socrates, and even against Jesus, were on the same ground. In a sermon note-book and journal, kept by Mr. Emerson in 1828, he wrote: I find a kindling excitement in the thought that the feeling which prompts a child to an act of generosity is the same which guides an archangel to his awful duties: that in the humblest transaction in which we can engage we can introduce these stupendous laws which make the sovereignty of the creation the character of God. It seems to me, in obeying them, in squaring my conduct by them, I part with the weakness of humanity. I exchange the rags of Nature for a portion of the majesty of my Maker. I am backed by the Universe. I lean on omnipotence. [back]
Note 8. In the journal for 1856 he wrote cheerfully: I have been writing or speaking what were once called novelties for twenty-five or thirty years, and I have not now one disciple. He only wished people to go to the fountain-head themselves: that practice was all he wished to convert others to. [back]
Note 9. Mr. Emerson liked to recognize what was best in his friends, the great and universal part, and ignore their weakness. The following is from a sheet marked Character: I see only two or three persons and allow them all their room: they spread themselves at large to the horizon. If I looked at many, as you do, or compared these habitually with others, these would look less. Yet are they not entitled to this munificence? Is it not their own? Is not munificence the only insight? Our exaggeration of all fine characters arises from this, that we identify each in turn with the Soul. Presently the individual warps and shrinks away, and we accuse him. Hard to find an ideal in history. By courtesy we call saints and heroes such, but they are very defective characters; I cannot easily find a man I would be. [back]
Note 10. It is difficult to say whether these lines are a free translation, or only inspired by Mr. Emersons Oriental readings. They appear in the verse-book, as if meant to show the joy that came from converse with God in Nature, as a concluding verse of an early form of My Garden, printed now in the Appendix to the Poems under the name of Walden. [back]
Note 11. This was his own method. He read in Plato, Proclus, Æschylus, Dante, Shakspeare, Swedenborg for lustres, or, as he put it to a young friend, Only read to start your own team. [back]
Note 13. Mr. Emerson used to laugh over Bérangers Le bon Dieu, and Swifts irreverent picturing of the last judgment, which he printed in Parnassus under the title Jove and the Souls. [back]
Note 14. His Aunt Mary Emersons journals were rich with the imagery of the old religion, drawn from the Old and New Testaments and from Milton. [back]
Note 15. In the diary of Rev. William Emerson of Concord, Mr. Emersons grandfather, it appears that during the excited month preceding the outbreak of the Revolution at the Old North Bridge, his first sermon, with the purpose of arousing the freemen to take up arms, met with only moderate success, but in the course of a week he joined forces with a neighboring minister and they had an all-day preaching; result, Minute men enlisted to the number of one hundred or more. [back]
Note 16. Compare the passage about mere morality, in Worship, Conduct of Life, p. 215. [back]
Note 17. This paragraph comes from the journal of 1845. At the time that it was written, with the apt quotation from Von Ense, Theodore Parker was one of the most active and earnest preachers of the Gospel in Massachusetts, though called an infidel. [back]
Note 18. In Representative Men Mr. Emerson expressed his impatience of Swedenborgs exclusive Hebraism in his writings. [back]
Note 20. In his Divinity School Address Mr. Emerson called Jesus the friend of man. When it was printed, Miss Elizabeth Peabody begged him to write Friend instead of friend. No, he answered; if I did, they would all go to sleep. [back]
Note 21. Dr. Charles T. Jackson, Mrs. Emersons brother, when a boy, was, with several others, the pupil of the excellent but eccentric Dr. Alleyne of Duxbury. One Sunday the boys, accompanying their reverend friend to afternoon service in a time of drouth, each carried a large umbrella under his arm. Boys! said the Doctor, what nonsense is this? Why, Doctor, you prayed for rain this morning. Pshaw! pshaw! boys; its customary! [back]
Note 22. Journal, 1839. The Sabbath is my best debt to the Past, and binds me to some gratitude still. It brings me that frankincense out of a sacred antiquity. [back]