Selected Essays

Introduction by Larzer Ziff
Edited by Larzer Ziff
Ebook
On sale Apr 29, 1982 | 416 Pages | 978-1-101-22180-8
Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that an appreciation of its vast natural resources would become the foundation of American culture. His assertion that human thought and actions proceed from nature, was a radical departure from the traditional European emphasis on domesticating nature to suit human needs. His philosophy is rich in common natural scenes of daily life, and expresses the inherent harmony between man and nature. This collection brings together 15 of Emerson's most significant essays, including "Nature", "The American Scholar", "Self-reliance" and "The Transcendentalist", as well as his assessments of Montaigne, Napoleon and Thoreau.


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Introduction by Larzer Ziff

Suggestions for Further Reading

A Note on the Text

ESSAYS

Nature 1836

The American Scholar 1837

An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge 1838

Man the Reformer 1841

History (Essays, First Series) 1841

Self-Reliance (Essays, First Series) 1841

The Over-Soul (Essays, First Series) 1841

Circles (Essays, First Series) 1841

The Transcendentalist 1842

The Poet (Essays, Second Series) 1844

Experience (Essays, Second Series) 1844

Montaigne; Or, the Skeptic

(Representative Men) 1850

Fate (The Conduct of Life) 1860

Thoreau 1862

PENGUIN CLASSICS

RALPH WALDO EMERSON
SELECTED ESSAYS

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the son of a Unitarian minister and a chaplain during the American Revolution, was born in 1803 in Boston. He attended the Boston Latin School, and in 1817 entered Harvard, graduating in 1820. Emerson supported himself as a schoolteacher from 1821-26. In 1826 he was “approbated to preach,” and in 1829 became pastor of the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston. That same year he married Ellen Louise Tucker, who was to die of tuberculosis only seventeen months later. In 1832 Emerson resigned his pastorate and traveled to Europe, where he met Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. He settled in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1834, where he began a new career as a public lecturer, and married Lydia Jackson a year later. A group that gathered around Emerson in Concord came to be known as “the Concord school,” and included Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Every year Emerson made a lecture tour; and these lectures were the source of most of his essays. Nature (1836), his first published work, contained the essence of his transcendental philosophy, which views the world of phenomena as a sort of symbol of the inner life and emphasizes individual freedom and self-reliance. Emerson’s address to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard (1837) and another address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School (1838) applied his doctrine to the scholar and the clergyman, provoking sharp controversy. An ardent abolitionist, Emerson lectured and wrote widely against slavery from the 1840s through the Civil War. His principal publications include two volumes of Essays (1841,1844), Poems (1847), Representative Men (1850), The Conduct of Life (1860), and Society and Solitude (1870). He died of pneumonia in 1882 and was buried in Concord.

Larzer Ziff is the author of Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America; Puritanism in America: New Culture in a New World; The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation; and numerous articles in the field of American literature. He is currently Caroline Donovan Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University.

RALPH WALDO

EMERSON


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Selected Essays


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Edited with an Introduction by

LARZER ZIFF


PENGUIN BOOKS

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First published in The Penguin American Library 1982

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882.
Selected essays.
(Penguin Classics)

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Introduction


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Ralph Waldo Emerson occupies the very center of the American intellectual tradition. Reading his works we recognize we are at a great junction point. Puritanism and revolutionary republicanism, their force all but spent, arrive at this junction to be transformed and flow out again, with vigor, as idealism and individualism. The world of nature, battered by the assaults of a burgeoning population, arrives at it to flow out again as spirit rather than matter. The giants of political history, such as Napoleon, who seem to have dominated the lives of thousands, arrive at it to flow out again, not as causes of our destiny, but as effects of the same force that can elevate us all.

From our perspective in the twentieth century, we note this, and yet in order to appreciate the texture of Emerson’s achievement we may find it valuable to begin by approaching it from the perspective of the culture in which he lived in his formative years. In the following pages, then, we shall start with the world Emerson found and move from that environment to the world he has left us.

With the publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), Washington Irving won international fame for himself and some international respect for American culture. The rude American republic of unfinished manners, commercial instincts, and awful art was not, after all, the hopelessly permanent home of aggressively practical mediocrity. Cultivation, Irving demonstrated, was possible. Its previous invisibility had been a matter only of immaturity, not, as English critics would have had it, of the intrinsic nature of American society. Given time for further cultivation, America could be expected to produce more Geoffrey Crayons.

The obstacles to literature around which Irving made his way can be summed up under two headings, history and nature. With regard to history, the United States was of so recent an origin that no significant series of identity-giving events had yet taken place to impart tone to the people or their surroundings. They lacked character because they lacked a common past and therefore lacked common allegiances and a common pattern of reaction to the problems of living the daily life. American conditions were so mutable that uprooting seemed to occur swiftly after each planting: political history was a history of repeated elections and changes of office; family history was marked by the rise and fall of fortunes within two or three generations; intellectual history was punctuated by the ceaseless succession of one religious movement after another — orthodox formalism, moral reform, resurgent pietism.

Nature also seemed opposed to the acculturation of the citizenry despite its promise of abundant prosperity. The brooding weight of the vast, primitive continent stretching beyond the western horizon made the seaboard effort at civilization appear trivial. The task of taming, it seemed, would have to go on for a century at least before a culture, in the traditional sense, would emerge.

The nature that was the staple subject of the romantic artists of Europe bore copious signs of an interchange with everlasting human aspirations. Ruins gave wild-flowers their meaning. But American nature was a splendid, empty theater, offering economic promise but suggesting no previous human experience.

At the start of The Sketch Book, Geoffrey Crayon tells his reader, “I visited various parts of my own country, and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification.” But, he complains, all that mighty spectacle — oceanic lakes, lofty mountains, boundless plains — had reference only to itself, while the landscapes of Europe “held forth the charms of storied and poetical associations.” Longing for the traces of renowned achievement rather than the exclusive dominance of commonplace reality, longing, that is, for a nurturing marriage of history and nature rather than the exclusive dominance of either the humdrum or unmediated wildness, he went to Europe. When the cry of “Land!” sounded from the watchman on the ship, he sped to the rail to look across the water at a dim form that could be called Europe. With it in his eyes, he experienced the rush of a throng of sensations and exclaimed that he, at last, was gazing on “the land of promise.” The needy European, emerging from tradition with an empty stomach, regarded America as the land of promise, but the native son, his stomach full and his imagination starved, reversed the application of the biblical phrase.

Just as European naturalists had hunted down and captured American flora, sketching them and preserving them in notebooks, so Washington Irving conducted a relentless search for those items of the European scene that spoke of the power of the past to dominate the present. As each was located, he described it to bind it in his portfolio. He was avid for everything that resisted mutability and testified, as nothing in America did, to the existence of permanent values.

The enormous popularity of The Sketch Book in America indicates how widespread among his compatriots was Irving’s longing for stability beyond the shifts of time. They were grateful for the opportunity he provided them to exercise their sense that they shared the sentiments of older peoples despite the shallowness of their history. They were anxious to feel themselves a folk. In the failure of their surroundings to provide the customs that would satisfy this want, they were thankful to be fed with legends they could domesticate and foreign scenes that told them that they were, after all, as tender and as conservative as the people of older cultures.

This yearning for a landscape that spoke of human permanence was in only apparent opposition to everyday American reality. Its fulfillment, as indicated by the popularity of the work of Irving and those who followed in his path — among them Longfellow and also, in some part, Hawthorne — was more a matter of Americans continuing to do what they were doing than otherwise. To be sure, they needed to take greater pains to stabilize their economy and to assure political continuity in order to promote development rather than change. But as settlements continued their steady encroachment on the wildness of the west, and as the older communities of the east proceeded to formalize behavior into customs, so conservative values would control the changing face of American society. The history of the culture would be the history of European man in the new world, bringing to it institutions best fitted to subdue it. American civilization might differ from that of European countries in that it blended people of different stocks and was distinguished by a high degree of mobility, both social and geographical. But classes, or at least distinct social groupings, would stabilize, and the necessarily different American institutions would nevertheless exist to protect the very same elements of human continuity that were protected by the institutions of European civilization.

When Irving spoke of the “storied associations” of the European landscape, he thus attributed the rich suggestiveness he found there to the scene before his eyes rather than to the imagination behind them. In common with many another artist, he affirmed that the “poetic” was a quality that inhered in objective reality and stimulated a responsive feeling commensurate with it in the sensitive observer. With meaning so located, little wonder that American nature could not supply the imagination. If the object had to carry “storied” associations in order to resonate, it had to be connected to a remembered past of human events. The superficiality of the American past meant that it must be assisted by the artist’s visiting legends upon the scene until the passage of time provided a memorable body of events. The imagination, that is, was dependent upon, even determined by, history.

Such a view of culture held by thinkers paralleled and reinforced the view of American progress held by their practical countrymen, which assumed that the material advance on natural resources would result in a historical accumulation of cultural resources. American history was the history of the westward movement of European peoples; American culture was the result of their actions upon nature. From the American Revolution to the 1830s these views dominated.

Yet seen from the perspective of the twentieth century, American culture appears to have been shaped far more profoundly by another, much more radical, outlook, one that elevated nature over history, affirmed that the American language was that which nature taught men rather than one that men inflicted upon nature (thereby giving it storied associations), and insisted that facts, which is to say history, were merely apparent and were so far from determining the imagination that they could actually be made to conform to it. Such an outlook inevitably collided with the materialism of the practical view of American progress, as the earlier outlook, represented by Irving, did not. It asserted that the permanence beyond mutability so yearned for was to be located in the ideas which preceded action rather than in the sentiments which were action’s leavings. This outlook, one that said that American history must be the history of nature speaking through men, not of men shaping nature, became the single most powerful force in American intellectual life in the nineteenth century and shaped some of America’s greatest works of literature, such as Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Walden, as well as generating an American school of philosophy, to be furthered by William James and John Dewey. The turnaround from the earlier view to the discovery of a culture rooted in nature, rather than based on the domestication of nature to European manners, was the result of the life and work of one man, Ralph Waldo Emerson. To read his essays is to see a nation discovering its intellectual identity.

When Geoffrey Crayon’s Sketch Book appeared, Ralph Waldo Emerson was pursuing his decidedly undistinguished undergraduate career at Harvard College. His father, minister of the First Church of Boston, had died when he was eight, and his widowed mother, assisted by friends, struggled successfully to see that, at the least, her boys were educated. Sandwiched between his brilliant older brother, William, and his brilliant younger brothers, Edward and Charles, Ralph dutifully attended college and managed to graduate thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. His native capacities seemed to fit him for nothing so well as a career as yet another high-minded, if lackluster, New England preacher. By the end of 1829, he was established as minister of the Second Church of Boston, had married, and was beginning to compile a collection of sermons on which he could hope to draw over a long and sedentary career.

The break between the life of this Ralph Waldo Emerson and the life of Americans greatest thinker was not sharply dramatic, but it was no less painful for being gradual. Ellen Tucker Emerson died of tuberculosis in February 1831, and in his isolation, her widower increasingly questioned the relation of his convictions to his profession. He concluded that he could not conscientiously administer the Lord’s Supper because he did not feel it to have the sacramental meaning given it by his church. His parishioners were patient with the minister in mourning, but after friendly discussions he decided to resign his post. At the time, it was unclear even to him that this was the first public sign of his discontent with the notion of an anthropomorphic god. The concept of the deity that would take its place underlay the first full announcement of his philosophy some five years later. In Nature (1836), he would write, “Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the nature of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men.”

With the assistance of gifts and loans from family and friends, Emerson traveled in Europe from December 1832 to October 1833, visiting, among others, Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose fame was well established, and the then unknown Carlyle, with whom he commenced a lifelong friendship. Soon after his return to America, his wife’s estate was settled, and he received a legacy that yielded some $1200 per annum. Far from affluent, he had, nonetheless, thereby become in some part independent, able to choose his opportunities rather than be swayed by them, and he used his independence to purchase time to think what he wished and to experiment with its written expression.

His ministerial background had developed in Emerson the habit of employing oral delivery as an intermediate stage between notebooks and manuscripts, on one hand, and print on the other. Despite resigning his pulpit, therefore, he continued to accept invitations to give guest sermons for some time after his return to America and his move to a home in Concord. A new marketplace for his spoken words, however, was rapidly growing in the American 1830s and soon replaced the pulpit. The lyceum movement which sprang up in communities throughout the Northeast and Middle West (known in those days as the New North) brought secular lectures on literary, philosophical, and scientific topics as well as lighter entertainments to men and women who had grown up habituated to receiving some good part of their learning from the spoken word. The line between instruction and amusement was not a strong one, and as Emerson became active as a lyceum speaker he willingly accepted the need to hold his audience by attracting as well as edifying its members. When they became restive, he blamed his presentation rather than their intelligence, as his journals show, and labored to improve the former as the surest means of affecting the latter. Almost all of his published essays throughout his career received this rigorous form of pretesting.

In September 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson and soon thereafter settled into the domestic pattern that was to characterize the remainder of his long life. They were to have four children, the first of whom, Waldo, died at the age of five in 1842, an event that keys the remarkable baritone of “Experience”: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree.” But Emerson’s Concord life was, in the main, punctuated by the excitement of ideas rather than events. There he was in the midst of friends — Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne were, at various times, his neighbors — and there, as his reputation spread, he received an increasing number of visitors, ranging from pilgrims who wished simply to see him as one wishes to see a monument, to thinkers who wished to sharpen their ideas in conversation with him, to enthusiasts of one or another cause who sought to enlist him in their movements.

When young Henry Adams of Boston, with his flawless social and financial background, pondered his America, he recognized that there was a third force in it apart from the forces of politics and money represented by the two branches of his family. That force he called Concord: it was the influence upon the nation of Emerson’s example that man need not be the creature of his circumstances but could rise above his fate and work his way upon the world. “Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time,” Emerson wrote in “History,” “serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine, the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race; remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him.”

Fame came to Emerson at a moderate but firm pace. His first major publication, Nature, sold five hundred copies within a month, but, more importantly, it reached a consequential readership of American intellectuals conscious that the national mind was mired in a boggy backwater of stale theology. It was reviewed intensely. An audience was thus prepared for his address on The American Scholar at Harvard in the following year, and those who crowded the aisles and perched at the windows to hear him were enthusiastic about his stunning demonstration that the much-lamented shallow past of America was, in fact, a strong enabler, and that nature could teach the American lessons of power unavailable to the European. In 1776, Americans had declared their political independence from Great Britain, but it was not until 1837 that they received from Emerson what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “their intellectual declaration of independence.” In the following year, invited to address the graduating class of divinity at Cambridge, Emerson preached pure subversion — a doctrine of perpetual revelation. The storm broke quickly afterward, but none was calmer in the center of its ragings than Emerson. He stood firmly on what he had said, refused to respond to vehement attacks, and coolly administered to himself and all who would listen the reminder that contradiction was not persecution.

Each succeeding book of Emerson’s reached a wider audience than the preceding. Although his major essays are commonly considered to be those composed through 1844 — a judgment in need of reexamination — his reputation continued to grow beyond that year, and his essays continued to kindle new lights and shape new shadows. After the Civil War, he admitted to himself that his creative powers had indeed waned, but to his death in 1882, some days short of his seventy-ninth birthday, the demand for his public appearance — even if it were but to sit on a platform and be seen — was constant. When Society and Solitude was published in 1870, it sold faster than its predecessors, and its shrewd author wrote in his journal: “This is not for its merit, but only shows that old age is a good advertisement. Your name has been seen so often that your book must be worth buying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson turned around Americans’ sense of their spatial and temporal location and released the flow of the mainstream of their thought. Surely, patriotic ranters had kept shouting, a land that held such vast natural resources was a land that would breed people to match them. But this was simplistic analogizing, and the more reflective, as has been seen, resigned themselves to the need to domesticate that vast nature because meaning came from human history. Emerson taught a new relation to nature. Once upon a time, man was instinct with nature, as the birds and the beasts are instinct with it, and was an inseparable part of it. But with the growth of his understanding — known mythically as the fall of man — he separated from it and looked on matter as a reality foreign to his soul. He attempts a partial reunion with nature when he searches for its laws so that he can manipulate it, but his thoughts he now regards as one thing and nature’s mindless processes as another.

Soul and matter were not so separated, Emerson affirmed. The very language of man, his most human attribute and that which therefore seemed to distinguish him from nature, was a vocabulary that was taught by nature. Man in his fullest state thinks poetically, taking the tropes that furnish his mind from the natural world around him. The spirit that is present behind nature does not act upon us from without but acts within us. “The world proceeds,” Emerson says in Nature, “from the same spirit as the body of man.”

What men commonly call the real, then, is only the apparent. The real, rather, is what they term the ideal — the Idea or Soul of which appearance is but a visible, imperfect termination — and it unites the elements in the natural world to one another and to ourselves. For real, meaning matter, versus ideal, meaning thought, substitute the truer distinction between the real as the idea behind all appearances and the apparent as the mere show of a world apart from us. “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions,” Emerson maintains in Nature. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of spirit, “because nature is, as we are, fluid, and moulded by the spirit which we find within ourselves for the looking.”

No philosophy is so drenched in the common natural scenes of daily life as is Emerson’s, and none has so powerful a sense of these as constant revelations rather than ordinary events. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune,” he says in Nature, “I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.” This is a dramatization of what elsewhere he calls the perpetual revelation available to us if we remain alert and open. Such nature does not need “storied associations” to affect us, because we are its and it is ours, speakers of the same language. “In this refulgent summer,” Emerson begins his message to the divinity students, “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.” He is not providing a pretty pictorial introduction to soften the impact of his revolutionary message. Rather he is validating that message of the divinity of the human soul by describing the effects of the selfsame divinity in the apparent world.

Emerson’s theme is flow rather than form, power rather than circumstance. The idealist, he says, sees mind as the only reality and nature, literature, and history as subjective phenomena. We are all natural-born idealists and our disagreements with that philosophy are a measure of our decline into the materialism of appearances. The procession of facts that the materialist calls the world really flows from “an invisible unsounded centre” (“The Transcendentalist”) in the self. The exercise of reason relaxes the despotism of the senses and shows us “nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat” (Nature), rather than as substantial and resistant to the will.

Experience, one may protest to Emerson, proves otherwise. Things do resist us: ice freezes and fire burns. This, he responds, is only because our higher moments — those in which our reason rather than our sense impression governs — come too infrequently: “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brier moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences” (“The Over-Soul”).

Emerson’s ideas of the relation of nature to the self delivered Americans into the custody of America. Instead of regarding their identity as a historically determined consciousness that must impose itself upon the mindless matter of the wild, they were encouraged to see that their land was another expression of the soul centered in themselves, that it beckoned to them to realize their true relation with it. American history could be the history of nature’s reassuming alienated man to itself rather than the history of man’s warfare with it.

History as conventionally conceived was but an “old chronology of selfishness and pride.” Once facts are apprehended as symbols rather than causes, man realizes himself as the maker rather than the effect of his circumstances. “All history,” Emerson says in “History,” “becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.” As a result, his ideas move in an atmosphere in which Plato and Napoleon, Montaigne and Thoreau, Plotinus and Shakespeare share the same immediacy. They appear to be our contemporaries because their writings are not forms but fluxes, are not thoughts but men thinking. Whenever that flow fails to reach us and we feel that we are confronted with words rather than the power of men speaking, we must reject the words regardless of the eminence of their source. Emerson saw this idea to its controversial end: Jesus too must be so regarded.

“But why should you keep your head over your shoulder?” Emerson asks in “Self-Reliance.” “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?” Just as the individual must become rather than be, so history is a lived present rather than a shaping past. It is not a chronology but an instantly available cosmos.

Unlike the views illustrated by Washington Irving, Emerson’s ideas set American thought on a course of opposition to American materialism. And although they were opposed to prevailing political and economic beliefs, they were assisted in their career by American events. In 1837, between the opening manifesto, Nature, and the address on The American Scholar, the United States underwent the greatest crisis in its history, a devastating financial panic. Banks failed, real-estate values plunged, staple foods became scarce, and angry mobs rioted. The material world that seemed so weighty an answer to the idealist collapsed of a sudden and demonstrated the falseness of its seeming solidity. An audience was ripe for the message that we need not submit to facts but can master them.

Another contemporary correlative to Emerson’s philosophy was the rise of the American West as a political force. Although he deplored the avarice of the land-hungry speculators and the crass demagoguery of the western politicians, Emerson saw that the West was not just another region adding its voice to those of the North and the South but was an imperfectly articulated idea. It was the spirit of the continent answering back to the Europeanization of the seaboard. Even as he opposed western greed and western rant, Emerson harnessed to his philosophy the power of the brooding plains and silent mountains that put the might of nature in the balance against stock market and legislature.

The political actuality that stimulated Emerson’s repeated insistence on self-reliant individualism was the American faith in majority rule. As many a European observer noted, in practice this resulted in a tyranny of public opinion. While it was true that the older hierarchical structures of authority severely limited individual freedom and individual economic opportunity, they did provide some compensation. A man born into a certain class, a certain trade, a certain church, and a certain allegiance to a hereditary ruler knows who he is. What from one side appear as restrictions are, from the other, the sure providers of identity. Once a man has given to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he is free to think as he pleases and behave as he wishes. He need not fear what others think of him.

This European condition was well epitomized by Goethe when he said: “For myself . . . I have always been a royalist. I have let others babble, and have done as I saw fit.” Contrary to the folklore of democracy, such a man experiences a continuity between his acceptance of the autocratic state and his ability to do what pleases him. And surely his iconoclastic theorizing and his free social behavior would have been persecuted in a democratic society in which majority opinion was translated into civil law and, more importantly, where majority morals were translated into the rigorous unwritten laws of acceptable conduct.

In his constant emphasis on the self Emerson was reacting to the social tyranny of the American crowd. He did not for a moment believe that the counter to majority rule should be a return to some form of autocracy. Rather, he pursued the ideal of destroying the mob through bringing to each of its members a sense of himself as a separate person. When he called each man “an infinitely repellent orb,” he was expressing a hope: ideally, each of us can develop a sense of self that resists grouping if we follow our reason rather than our understanding. Where others gazed upon a church congregation or a political gathering and saw a mass unified by a purpose or a prejudice, Emerson saw individuals, each with his own integrity, an integrity that was being destroyed by the preacher or party boss who encouraged them to think of themselves as a collectivity.

In May 1839, Emerson returned from attending church to vent in his journal his displeasure with the minister he had heard: “Cease, O thou unauthorized talker, to prate of consolation, and resignation, and spiritual joys, in neat and balanced sentences. For I know these men who sit below, and on the hearing of these words look up. Hush, quickly: for care and calamity are things to them. There is Mr. Tolman, the shoemaker, whose daughter is gone mad, and he is looking up through his spectacles to hear what you can offer for his case. Here is my friend, whose scholars are all leaving him, and he knows not what to turn his hand to next. Here is my wife, who has come to church in hope of being soothed and strengthened after being wounded by the sharp tongue of a slut in her house. Here is the stage-driver who has the jaundice, and cannot get well. Here is B. who failed last week, and he is looking up. O speak things, then, or hold thy tongue.” These comments are an example of Emerson’s seeing one plus one plus one plus one when he saw a group. For him it was not a trick of perception, it was a moral necessity.

Similarly, in October 1838 Emerson addressed his journal after having observed the local boss of the Democratic party haranguing a group of villagers in a shop: “Here, thought I, is one who loves what I hate.” He went on to explain: “I hate numbers. He cares for nothing but numbers and persons. All the qualities of man, all his accomplishments, affections, enterprises, except solely the ticket he votes for, are nothing to this philosopher. Numbers of majorities are all he sees in the newspapers.”

European republicans of the day, chafing under the tyranny of one or another monarch and enraged by the cruel division of their native land into parcels, each to be delivered to some petty nobleman in need of a job, opposed such despotism by attempting to rally their countrymen into a sense of their collective self. But in a land in which the tyrant was a collectivity and ruled far more in the mind than in the laws, Emerson reversed the process and attempted to disperse the mob. He writes in his journal in April 1841: “Let there be one man, let there be truth & virtue in one man, in two men, in ten men, then can there be concert: then is concert for the first time possible; now nothing is gained by adding zeroes, but when there is love & truth, these do naturally & necessarily cohabit, cooperate, & bless.”

The revolution to which Emerson incites is moral. Each individual must realize that when he exercises his reason he is a majority of one already and insofar as he yields to a merely numerical majority he simply adds zeroes to himself and participates in his own diminishment and in the degradation of democracy.

Although it is not political in its first intent, so severely individualistic a philosophy does have political implications. One who follows it may easily discover that there is no clear line between the disregard of public opinion in favor of reason and the disregard of law in favor of conscience. Emerson’s friend and disciple, Thoreau, provided a celebrated illustration when his conscience did not permit him to pay taxes to an unjust state and he spent a night in jail. As a consequence he gave the world his great essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” a document soundly Emersonian in its principles. But Emerson did not need to witness Thoreau’s disobedience to realize that although ideally the exercise of reason never poses a threat to society, in practice conflicts will occur to the degree that society still proceeds from property rather than character. In such exigencies, he occupied Jefferson’s position: when there is no option but to choose between the anarchy of private excess and the tyranny of public suppression, the former is the lesser evil because natural sanity will quickly temper anarchy whereas suppression once in place cannot readily be removed.

The literary implications of Emerson’s teachings were also to be writ large by a disciple. Walt Whitman found in Emerson the central reasons for his poetry. Specifically, Emerson’s assertion in “The Poet” that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem” encouraged Whitman to break with traditional verse forms and seek the form his thought demanded, however far such might be from anything previously regarded as poetry. More broadly, Whitman took from Emerson the idea of the soul as the maker of its world. Just as Adam when he named the beasts completed the creation because until the animals had names they did not exist in the field of thought and thus were unrealized, so Whitman named the objects in his America in completion of the merely political creation of the United States. He did not seek Irving’s storied associations but recognized that the meaning resided in the poet rather than in the fact. The act of poetry was the act of naming the parts of his unrealized America. When he dealt, as he often did, with the American crowd, with en-masse as he was fond of calling it, Whitman focused on the faces in the crowd, calling them out of their anonymity. Like Emerson, when he saw a gathering he saw individuals. To trace the enormous influence of Whitman on the poets who followed is to recognize what a mighty line is anchored in Emerson.

Orthodox Protestantism was officially outraged by Emerson’s ideas, but these ideas drew considerable strength from the protest tradition within Protestantism. His idealism was derived from Plato and Plotinus and was modified by Kant and his German and British transcendental followers. It also took hints from Oriental mysticism and the doctrine of the inner light taught by George Fox and his Quaker followers. The assertion that the spirit is above law and is its judge rather than its subject had brought harsh punishment upon those who affirmed it in opposition to the Puritan establishment of seventeenth-century New England, and it scandalized the formalist nineteenth-century descendants of this orthodoxy who held that the days of revelation had ended. But the Puritan migration to America and the Puritan revolution in England had been fueled by a belief in the vital presence of the spirit and a contempt for the forms of a ritualized church that seemed to have lost the spirit in the canonization of its laws. Such antinomianism lurked in a good number of nineteenth-century Americans, uneasy with both the legalism in conservative churches and the substitution of morality for piety in liberal ones. Emerson struck a note in “Self-Reliance” that they echoed: “There are two confessionals, in one or another of which we must be shriven. You may fulfill your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat and dog — whether any of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.”

When Emerson visited in England in 1833, he had done so as a humble searcher hoping to find himself, grateful for those moments spared him by the illustrious. He returned in 1848 as one of the celebrated, invited there to lecture throughout the island. The British wanted not only to hear his specific ideas but to hear an American, and Emerson, they knew, was the foremost embodiment of the best and most characteristic thought of his nation. Emerson’s mission was strikingly different from that of the Geoffrey Crayon whom his younger self had partly resembled when he crossed the ocean fifteen years earlier. Still, it was not unfitting that he should undertake this second voyage on a ship called the Washington Irving.

The reputation that gained Emerson his English invitation is even wider today. His influence has been great: both directly, in that major writers have had their ideas and their expression shaped by what they learned from him, and indirectly, in that he stands as the representative in thought of American identity and so provides the cornerstone for the words and deeds of many who may not know his work but who when they believe themselves to be influenced by America are actually responding to what Emerson said America meant. Among the former are Thoreau, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Borges. Among the latter are the radical dissenters of the abolition movement and of the movement against the Vietnam War, and writers who insisted on a voice of the American wild more powerful than the murmurs of civilization, writers such as D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway.

Emerson insisted on our reading books only to experience those moments in which we hear a voice that we recognize as proceeding from the same center as our own voices. We approach him today as a writer of enormous historical importance, perhaps the single most influential member of the American literary community. The reasons we have for reading him are not, then, the reasons that he gave for reading the classics. And yet were we today to try him by the test he offers, neither he nor we would suffer from the experiment. This is because after all consideration is given, as it should be, to Emerson’s philosophy in terms of its consequences for culture, letters, politics, and conduct, the kernel of his appeal is still not reached. This is not public but private. It is not an assertion of victory over the agonies of life but a refusal to knuckle under to them. “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat,” Emerson writes in “Experience,” “up again, old heart! . . . there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” He says that what he writes here is what our inner voice tells us in our sane moments. The kernel of Emerson is that voice.

— Larzer Ziff

Suggestions for
Further Reading


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The three major biographies are:

Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York, 1981).

Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, 1995).

Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1949).

An excellent introduction to the riches in Emerson’s journals is:

Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

Among the leading studies of Emerson’s thought are:

Jonathan Bishop, Emerson on the Soul (Cambridge, Mass., 1964).

John Jay Chapman, Emerson, and Other Essays (New York, 1898).

Barbara Packer, Emerson’sFall (New York, 1982).

Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia, 1953).

Studies that place Emerson in his literary context are:

F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941).

Barbara Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” in Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Two (New York, 1995).

Larzer Ziff, Literary Democracy (New York, 1981).

A NOTE ON THE TEXT

All essays in this book are reprinted in their entirety from the standard edition prepared by Emerson’s son, Edward Waldo Emerson: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, 1903-4), 12 vols.

Selected Essays of
Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Nature


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A subtle chain of countless rings

The next unto the farthest brings;

The eye reads omens where it goes,

And speaks all languages the rose;

And, striving to be man, the worm

Mounts through all the spires of form.

INTRODUCTION

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely yet a remote approach to an idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena. Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex.

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore if that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME,that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. In enumerating the values of nature and casting up their sum, I shall use the word in both senses; — in its common and in its philosophical import. In inquiries so general as our present one, the inaccuracy is not material; no confusion of thought will occur. Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.

NATURE

I

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

COMMODITY

II

Whoever considers the final cause of the world will discern a multitude of uses that enter as parts into that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes: Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.

Under the general name of commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind, and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.

“More servants wait on man

Than he’ll take notice of.”1

Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.

The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Æolus’s bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air. By the aggregate of these aids, how is the face of the world changed, from the era of Noah to that of Napoleon! The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the book-shop, and the human race read and write of all that happens, for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs. He sets his house upon the road, and the human race go forth every morning, and shovel out the snow, and cut a path for him.

But there is no need of specifying particulars in this class of uses. The catalogue is endless, and the examples so obvious, that I shall leave them to the reader’s reflection, with the general remark, that this mercenary benefit is one which has respect to a farther good. A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.

A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty.

The ancient Greeks called the world ,2 beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of artists. By the mutual action of its structure and of the laws of light, perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose is round and symmetrical. And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse has its own beauty. But besides this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of some of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat-ear, the egg, the wings and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, flames, clouds, buds, leaves, and the forms of many trees, as the palm.

For better consideration, we may distribute the aspects of Beauty in a threefold manner.

1. First, the simple perception of natural forms is a delight. The influence of the forms and actions in nature is so needful to man, that, in its lowest functions, it seems to lie on the confines of commodity and beauty. To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself. The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

But in other hours, Nature satisfies by its loveliness, and without any mixture of corporeal benefit. I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind. How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.

Not less excellent, except for our less susceptibility in the afternoon, was the charm, last evening, of a January sunset. The western clouds divided and subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable softness, and the air had so much life and sweetness that it was a pain to come within doors. What was it that nature would say? Was there no meaning in the live repose of the valley behind the mill, and which Homer or Shakspeare could not re-form for me in words? The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background, and the stars of the dead calices of flowers, and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost, contribute something to the mute music.

The inhabitants of cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year. I please myself with the graces of the winter scenery, and believe that we are as much touched by it as by the genial influences of summer. To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath. The state of the crop in the surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week. The succession of native plants in the pastures and roadsides, which makes the silent clock by which time tells the summer hours, will make even the divisions of the day sensible to a keen observer. The tribes of birds and insects, like the plants punctual to their time, follow each other, and the year has room for all. By water-courses, the variety is greater. In July, the blue pontederia or pickerel-weed blooms in large beds in the shallow parts of our pleasant river, and swarms with yellow butterflies in continual motion. Art cannot rival this pomp of purple and gold. Indeed the river is a perpetual gala, and boasts each month a new ornament.

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part. The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and ’t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone; ’t is only a mirage as you look from the windows of diligence.

2. The presence of a higher, namely, of the spiritual element is essential to its perfection. The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will. Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue. Every natural action is graceful. Every heroic act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine. We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself. “All those things for which men plough, build, or sail, obey virtue;” said Sallust “The winds and waves,” said Gibbon, “are always on the side of the ablest navigators.” So are the sun and noon and all the stars of heaven. When a noble act is done, — perchance in a scene of great natural beauty; when Leonidas and his three hundred martyrs consume one day in dying, and the sun and moon come each and look at them once in the steep defile of Thermopylae; when Arnold Winkelried, in the high Alps, under the shadow of the avalanche, gathers in his side a sheaf of Austrian spears to break the line for his comrades; are not these heroes entitled to add the beauty of the scene to the beauty of the deed? When the bark of Columbus nears the shore of America; — before it the beach lined with savages, fleeing out of all their huts of cane; the sea behind; and the purple mountains of the Indian Archipelago around, can we separate the man from the living picture? Does not the New World clothe his form with her palm-groves and savannahs as fit drapery? Ever does natural beauty steal in like air, and envelope great actions. When Sir Harry Vane was dragged up the Tower-hill, sitting on a sled, to suffer death as the champion of the English laws, one of the multitude cried out to him, “You never sate on so glorious a seat!” Charles II., to intimidate the citizens of London, caused the patriot Lord Russell to be drawn in an open coach through the principal streets of the city on his way to the scaffold. “But,” his biographer says, “the multitude imagined they saw liberty and virtue sitting by his side.” In private places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretches out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet, and bend her lines of grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture. A virtuous man is in unison with her works, and makes the central figure of the visible sphere. Homer, Pindar, Socrates, Phocion, associate themselves fitly in our memory with the geography and climate of Greece. The visible heavens and earth sympathize with Jesus. And in common life whosoever has seen a person of powerful character and happy genius, will have remarked how easily he took all things along with him, — the persons, the opinions, and the day, and nature became ancillary to a man.

3. There is still another aspect under which the beauty of the world may be viewed, namely, as it becomes an object of the intellect. Beside the relation of things to virtue, they have a relation to thought. The intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affection. The intellectual and the active powers seem to succeed each other, and the exclusive activity of the one generates the exclusive activity of the other. There is something unfriendly in each to the other, but they are like the alternate periods of feeding and working in animals; each prepares and will be followed by the other. Therefore does beauty, which, in relation to actions, as we have seen, comes unsought, and comes because it is unsought, remain for the apprehension and pursuit of the intellect; and then again, in its turn, of the active power. Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature re-forms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation.

All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even to delight. This love of beauty is Taste. Others have the same love in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms. The creation of beauty is Art.

The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature. For although the works of nature are innumerable and all different, the result or the expression of them all is similar and single. Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A leaf, a sunbeam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, — that perfectness and harmony, is beauty. The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, — the totality of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty “il più nell’ uno.”3 Nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce. Thus is Art a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art does Nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803­–1882) was a renowned lecturer and writer whose ideas on philosophy, religion, and literature influenced many writers, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. After an undergraduate career at Harvard, he studied at Harvard Divinity School and became an ordained minister, continuing a long line of ministers in his family. He traveled widely and lectured, and became well known for his publications Essays and Nature. View titles by Ralph Waldo Emerson

About

Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that an appreciation of its vast natural resources would become the foundation of American culture. His assertion that human thought and actions proceed from nature, was a radical departure from the traditional European emphasis on domesticating nature to suit human needs. His philosophy is rich in common natural scenes of daily life, and expresses the inherent harmony between man and nature. This collection brings together 15 of Emerson's most significant essays, including "Nature", "The American Scholar", "Self-reliance" and "The Transcendentalist", as well as his assessments of Montaigne, Napoleon and Thoreau.

Excerpt


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Introduction by Larzer Ziff

Suggestions for Further Reading

A Note on the Text

ESSAYS

Nature 1836

The American Scholar 1837

An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge 1838

Man the Reformer 1841

History (Essays, First Series) 1841

Self-Reliance (Essays, First Series) 1841

The Over-Soul (Essays, First Series) 1841

Circles (Essays, First Series) 1841

The Transcendentalist 1842

The Poet (Essays, Second Series) 1844

Experience (Essays, Second Series) 1844

Montaigne; Or, the Skeptic

(Representative Men) 1850

Fate (The Conduct of Life) 1860

Thoreau 1862

PENGUIN CLASSICS

RALPH WALDO EMERSON
SELECTED ESSAYS

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the son of a Unitarian minister and a chaplain during the American Revolution, was born in 1803 in Boston. He attended the Boston Latin School, and in 1817 entered Harvard, graduating in 1820. Emerson supported himself as a schoolteacher from 1821-26. In 1826 he was “approbated to preach,” and in 1829 became pastor of the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston. That same year he married Ellen Louise Tucker, who was to die of tuberculosis only seventeen months later. In 1832 Emerson resigned his pastorate and traveled to Europe, where he met Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. He settled in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1834, where he began a new career as a public lecturer, and married Lydia Jackson a year later. A group that gathered around Emerson in Concord came to be known as “the Concord school,” and included Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Every year Emerson made a lecture tour; and these lectures were the source of most of his essays. Nature (1836), his first published work, contained the essence of his transcendental philosophy, which views the world of phenomena as a sort of symbol of the inner life and emphasizes individual freedom and self-reliance. Emerson’s address to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard (1837) and another address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School (1838) applied his doctrine to the scholar and the clergyman, provoking sharp controversy. An ardent abolitionist, Emerson lectured and wrote widely against slavery from the 1840s through the Civil War. His principal publications include two volumes of Essays (1841,1844), Poems (1847), Representative Men (1850), The Conduct of Life (1860), and Society and Solitude (1870). He died of pneumonia in 1882 and was buried in Concord.

Larzer Ziff is the author of Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America; Puritanism in America: New Culture in a New World; The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation; and numerous articles in the field of American literature. He is currently Caroline Donovan Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University.

RALPH WALDO

EMERSON


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Selected Essays


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Edited with an Introduction by

LARZER ZIFF


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First published in The Penguin American Library 1982

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882.
Selected essays.
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Introduction


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Ralph Waldo Emerson occupies the very center of the American intellectual tradition. Reading his works we recognize we are at a great junction point. Puritanism and revolutionary republicanism, their force all but spent, arrive at this junction to be transformed and flow out again, with vigor, as idealism and individualism. The world of nature, battered by the assaults of a burgeoning population, arrives at it to flow out again as spirit rather than matter. The giants of political history, such as Napoleon, who seem to have dominated the lives of thousands, arrive at it to flow out again, not as causes of our destiny, but as effects of the same force that can elevate us all.

From our perspective in the twentieth century, we note this, and yet in order to appreciate the texture of Emerson’s achievement we may find it valuable to begin by approaching it from the perspective of the culture in which he lived in his formative years. In the following pages, then, we shall start with the world Emerson found and move from that environment to the world he has left us.

With the publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), Washington Irving won international fame for himself and some international respect for American culture. The rude American republic of unfinished manners, commercial instincts, and awful art was not, after all, the hopelessly permanent home of aggressively practical mediocrity. Cultivation, Irving demonstrated, was possible. Its previous invisibility had been a matter only of immaturity, not, as English critics would have had it, of the intrinsic nature of American society. Given time for further cultivation, America could be expected to produce more Geoffrey Crayons.

The obstacles to literature around which Irving made his way can be summed up under two headings, history and nature. With regard to history, the United States was of so recent an origin that no significant series of identity-giving events had yet taken place to impart tone to the people or their surroundings. They lacked character because they lacked a common past and therefore lacked common allegiances and a common pattern of reaction to the problems of living the daily life. American conditions were so mutable that uprooting seemed to occur swiftly after each planting: political history was a history of repeated elections and changes of office; family history was marked by the rise and fall of fortunes within two or three generations; intellectual history was punctuated by the ceaseless succession of one religious movement after another — orthodox formalism, moral reform, resurgent pietism.

Nature also seemed opposed to the acculturation of the citizenry despite its promise of abundant prosperity. The brooding weight of the vast, primitive continent stretching beyond the western horizon made the seaboard effort at civilization appear trivial. The task of taming, it seemed, would have to go on for a century at least before a culture, in the traditional sense, would emerge.

The nature that was the staple subject of the romantic artists of Europe bore copious signs of an interchange with everlasting human aspirations. Ruins gave wild-flowers their meaning. But American nature was a splendid, empty theater, offering economic promise but suggesting no previous human experience.

At the start of The Sketch Book, Geoffrey Crayon tells his reader, “I visited various parts of my own country, and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification.” But, he complains, all that mighty spectacle — oceanic lakes, lofty mountains, boundless plains — had reference only to itself, while the landscapes of Europe “held forth the charms of storied and poetical associations.” Longing for the traces of renowned achievement rather than the exclusive dominance of commonplace reality, longing, that is, for a nurturing marriage of history and nature rather than the exclusive dominance of either the humdrum or unmediated wildness, he went to Europe. When the cry of “Land!” sounded from the watchman on the ship, he sped to the rail to look across the water at a dim form that could be called Europe. With it in his eyes, he experienced the rush of a throng of sensations and exclaimed that he, at last, was gazing on “the land of promise.” The needy European, emerging from tradition with an empty stomach, regarded America as the land of promise, but the native son, his stomach full and his imagination starved, reversed the application of the biblical phrase.

Just as European naturalists had hunted down and captured American flora, sketching them and preserving them in notebooks, so Washington Irving conducted a relentless search for those items of the European scene that spoke of the power of the past to dominate the present. As each was located, he described it to bind it in his portfolio. He was avid for everything that resisted mutability and testified, as nothing in America did, to the existence of permanent values.

The enormous popularity of The Sketch Book in America indicates how widespread among his compatriots was Irving’s longing for stability beyond the shifts of time. They were grateful for the opportunity he provided them to exercise their sense that they shared the sentiments of older peoples despite the shallowness of their history. They were anxious to feel themselves a folk. In the failure of their surroundings to provide the customs that would satisfy this want, they were thankful to be fed with legends they could domesticate and foreign scenes that told them that they were, after all, as tender and as conservative as the people of older cultures.

This yearning for a landscape that spoke of human permanence was in only apparent opposition to everyday American reality. Its fulfillment, as indicated by the popularity of the work of Irving and those who followed in his path — among them Longfellow and also, in some part, Hawthorne — was more a matter of Americans continuing to do what they were doing than otherwise. To be sure, they needed to take greater pains to stabilize their economy and to assure political continuity in order to promote development rather than change. But as settlements continued their steady encroachment on the wildness of the west, and as the older communities of the east proceeded to formalize behavior into customs, so conservative values would control the changing face of American society. The history of the culture would be the history of European man in the new world, bringing to it institutions best fitted to subdue it. American civilization might differ from that of European countries in that it blended people of different stocks and was distinguished by a high degree of mobility, both social and geographical. But classes, or at least distinct social groupings, would stabilize, and the necessarily different American institutions would nevertheless exist to protect the very same elements of human continuity that were protected by the institutions of European civilization.

When Irving spoke of the “storied associations” of the European landscape, he thus attributed the rich suggestiveness he found there to the scene before his eyes rather than to the imagination behind them. In common with many another artist, he affirmed that the “poetic” was a quality that inhered in objective reality and stimulated a responsive feeling commensurate with it in the sensitive observer. With meaning so located, little wonder that American nature could not supply the imagination. If the object had to carry “storied” associations in order to resonate, it had to be connected to a remembered past of human events. The superficiality of the American past meant that it must be assisted by the artist’s visiting legends upon the scene until the passage of time provided a memorable body of events. The imagination, that is, was dependent upon, even determined by, history.

Such a view of culture held by thinkers paralleled and reinforced the view of American progress held by their practical countrymen, which assumed that the material advance on natural resources would result in a historical accumulation of cultural resources. American history was the history of the westward movement of European peoples; American culture was the result of their actions upon nature. From the American Revolution to the 1830s these views dominated.

Yet seen from the perspective of the twentieth century, American culture appears to have been shaped far more profoundly by another, much more radical, outlook, one that elevated nature over history, affirmed that the American language was that which nature taught men rather than one that men inflicted upon nature (thereby giving it storied associations), and insisted that facts, which is to say history, were merely apparent and were so far from determining the imagination that they could actually be made to conform to it. Such an outlook inevitably collided with the materialism of the practical view of American progress, as the earlier outlook, represented by Irving, did not. It asserted that the permanence beyond mutability so yearned for was to be located in the ideas which preceded action rather than in the sentiments which were action’s leavings. This outlook, one that said that American history must be the history of nature speaking through men, not of men shaping nature, became the single most powerful force in American intellectual life in the nineteenth century and shaped some of America’s greatest works of literature, such as Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Walden, as well as generating an American school of philosophy, to be furthered by William James and John Dewey. The turnaround from the earlier view to the discovery of a culture rooted in nature, rather than based on the domestication of nature to European manners, was the result of the life and work of one man, Ralph Waldo Emerson. To read his essays is to see a nation discovering its intellectual identity.

When Geoffrey Crayon’s Sketch Book appeared, Ralph Waldo Emerson was pursuing his decidedly undistinguished undergraduate career at Harvard College. His father, minister of the First Church of Boston, had died when he was eight, and his widowed mother, assisted by friends, struggled successfully to see that, at the least, her boys were educated. Sandwiched between his brilliant older brother, William, and his brilliant younger brothers, Edward and Charles, Ralph dutifully attended college and managed to graduate thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. His native capacities seemed to fit him for nothing so well as a career as yet another high-minded, if lackluster, New England preacher. By the end of 1829, he was established as minister of the Second Church of Boston, had married, and was beginning to compile a collection of sermons on which he could hope to draw over a long and sedentary career.

The break between the life of this Ralph Waldo Emerson and the life of Americans greatest thinker was not sharply dramatic, but it was no less painful for being gradual. Ellen Tucker Emerson died of tuberculosis in February 1831, and in his isolation, her widower increasingly questioned the relation of his convictions to his profession. He concluded that he could not conscientiously administer the Lord’s Supper because he did not feel it to have the sacramental meaning given it by his church. His parishioners were patient with the minister in mourning, but after friendly discussions he decided to resign his post. At the time, it was unclear even to him that this was the first public sign of his discontent with the notion of an anthropomorphic god. The concept of the deity that would take its place underlay the first full announcement of his philosophy some five years later. In Nature (1836), he would write, “Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the nature of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men.”

With the assistance of gifts and loans from family and friends, Emerson traveled in Europe from December 1832 to October 1833, visiting, among others, Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose fame was well established, and the then unknown Carlyle, with whom he commenced a lifelong friendship. Soon after his return to America, his wife’s estate was settled, and he received a legacy that yielded some $1200 per annum. Far from affluent, he had, nonetheless, thereby become in some part independent, able to choose his opportunities rather than be swayed by them, and he used his independence to purchase time to think what he wished and to experiment with its written expression.

His ministerial background had developed in Emerson the habit of employing oral delivery as an intermediate stage between notebooks and manuscripts, on one hand, and print on the other. Despite resigning his pulpit, therefore, he continued to accept invitations to give guest sermons for some time after his return to America and his move to a home in Concord. A new marketplace for his spoken words, however, was rapidly growing in the American 1830s and soon replaced the pulpit. The lyceum movement which sprang up in communities throughout the Northeast and Middle West (known in those days as the New North) brought secular lectures on literary, philosophical, and scientific topics as well as lighter entertainments to men and women who had grown up habituated to receiving some good part of their learning from the spoken word. The line between instruction and amusement was not a strong one, and as Emerson became active as a lyceum speaker he willingly accepted the need to hold his audience by attracting as well as edifying its members. When they became restive, he blamed his presentation rather than their intelligence, as his journals show, and labored to improve the former as the surest means of affecting the latter. Almost all of his published essays throughout his career received this rigorous form of pretesting.

In September 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson and soon thereafter settled into the domestic pattern that was to characterize the remainder of his long life. They were to have four children, the first of whom, Waldo, died at the age of five in 1842, an event that keys the remarkable baritone of “Experience”: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree.” But Emerson’s Concord life was, in the main, punctuated by the excitement of ideas rather than events. There he was in the midst of friends — Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne were, at various times, his neighbors — and there, as his reputation spread, he received an increasing number of visitors, ranging from pilgrims who wished simply to see him as one wishes to see a monument, to thinkers who wished to sharpen their ideas in conversation with him, to enthusiasts of one or another cause who sought to enlist him in their movements.

When young Henry Adams of Boston, with his flawless social and financial background, pondered his America, he recognized that there was a third force in it apart from the forces of politics and money represented by the two branches of his family. That force he called Concord: it was the influence upon the nation of Emerson’s example that man need not be the creature of his circumstances but could rise above his fate and work his way upon the world. “Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time,” Emerson wrote in “History,” “serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine, the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race; remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him.”

Fame came to Emerson at a moderate but firm pace. His first major publication, Nature, sold five hundred copies within a month, but, more importantly, it reached a consequential readership of American intellectuals conscious that the national mind was mired in a boggy backwater of stale theology. It was reviewed intensely. An audience was thus prepared for his address on The American Scholar at Harvard in the following year, and those who crowded the aisles and perched at the windows to hear him were enthusiastic about his stunning demonstration that the much-lamented shallow past of America was, in fact, a strong enabler, and that nature could teach the American lessons of power unavailable to the European. In 1776, Americans had declared their political independence from Great Britain, but it was not until 1837 that they received from Emerson what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “their intellectual declaration of independence.” In the following year, invited to address the graduating class of divinity at Cambridge, Emerson preached pure subversion — a doctrine of perpetual revelation. The storm broke quickly afterward, but none was calmer in the center of its ragings than Emerson. He stood firmly on what he had said, refused to respond to vehement attacks, and coolly administered to himself and all who would listen the reminder that contradiction was not persecution.

Each succeeding book of Emerson’s reached a wider audience than the preceding. Although his major essays are commonly considered to be those composed through 1844 — a judgment in need of reexamination — his reputation continued to grow beyond that year, and his essays continued to kindle new lights and shape new shadows. After the Civil War, he admitted to himself that his creative powers had indeed waned, but to his death in 1882, some days short of his seventy-ninth birthday, the demand for his public appearance — even if it were but to sit on a platform and be seen — was constant. When Society and Solitude was published in 1870, it sold faster than its predecessors, and its shrewd author wrote in his journal: “This is not for its merit, but only shows that old age is a good advertisement. Your name has been seen so often that your book must be worth buying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson turned around Americans’ sense of their spatial and temporal location and released the flow of the mainstream of their thought. Surely, patriotic ranters had kept shouting, a land that held such vast natural resources was a land that would breed people to match them. But this was simplistic analogizing, and the more reflective, as has been seen, resigned themselves to the need to domesticate that vast nature because meaning came from human history. Emerson taught a new relation to nature. Once upon a time, man was instinct with nature, as the birds and the beasts are instinct with it, and was an inseparable part of it. But with the growth of his understanding — known mythically as the fall of man — he separated from it and looked on matter as a reality foreign to his soul. He attempts a partial reunion with nature when he searches for its laws so that he can manipulate it, but his thoughts he now regards as one thing and nature’s mindless processes as another.

Soul and matter were not so separated, Emerson affirmed. The very language of man, his most human attribute and that which therefore seemed to distinguish him from nature, was a vocabulary that was taught by nature. Man in his fullest state thinks poetically, taking the tropes that furnish his mind from the natural world around him. The spirit that is present behind nature does not act upon us from without but acts within us. “The world proceeds,” Emerson says in Nature, “from the same spirit as the body of man.”

What men commonly call the real, then, is only the apparent. The real, rather, is what they term the ideal — the Idea or Soul of which appearance is but a visible, imperfect termination — and it unites the elements in the natural world to one another and to ourselves. For real, meaning matter, versus ideal, meaning thought, substitute the truer distinction between the real as the idea behind all appearances and the apparent as the mere show of a world apart from us. “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions,” Emerson maintains in Nature. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of spirit, “because nature is, as we are, fluid, and moulded by the spirit which we find within ourselves for the looking.”

No philosophy is so drenched in the common natural scenes of daily life as is Emerson’s, and none has so powerful a sense of these as constant revelations rather than ordinary events. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune,” he says in Nature, “I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.” This is a dramatization of what elsewhere he calls the perpetual revelation available to us if we remain alert and open. Such nature does not need “storied associations” to affect us, because we are its and it is ours, speakers of the same language. “In this refulgent summer,” Emerson begins his message to the divinity students, “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.” He is not providing a pretty pictorial introduction to soften the impact of his revolutionary message. Rather he is validating that message of the divinity of the human soul by describing the effects of the selfsame divinity in the apparent world.

Emerson’s theme is flow rather than form, power rather than circumstance. The idealist, he says, sees mind as the only reality and nature, literature, and history as subjective phenomena. We are all natural-born idealists and our disagreements with that philosophy are a measure of our decline into the materialism of appearances. The procession of facts that the materialist calls the world really flows from “an invisible unsounded centre” (“The Transcendentalist”) in the self. The exercise of reason relaxes the despotism of the senses and shows us “nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat” (Nature), rather than as substantial and resistant to the will.

Experience, one may protest to Emerson, proves otherwise. Things do resist us: ice freezes and fire burns. This, he responds, is only because our higher moments — those in which our reason rather than our sense impression governs — come too infrequently: “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brier moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences” (“The Over-Soul”).

Emerson’s ideas of the relation of nature to the self delivered Americans into the custody of America. Instead of regarding their identity as a historically determined consciousness that must impose itself upon the mindless matter of the wild, they were encouraged to see that their land was another expression of the soul centered in themselves, that it beckoned to them to realize their true relation with it. American history could be the history of nature’s reassuming alienated man to itself rather than the history of man’s warfare with it.

History as conventionally conceived was but an “old chronology of selfishness and pride.” Once facts are apprehended as symbols rather than causes, man realizes himself as the maker rather than the effect of his circumstances. “All history,” Emerson says in “History,” “becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.” As a result, his ideas move in an atmosphere in which Plato and Napoleon, Montaigne and Thoreau, Plotinus and Shakespeare share the same immediacy. They appear to be our contemporaries because their writings are not forms but fluxes, are not thoughts but men thinking. Whenever that flow fails to reach us and we feel that we are confronted with words rather than the power of men speaking, we must reject the words regardless of the eminence of their source. Emerson saw this idea to its controversial end: Jesus too must be so regarded.

“But why should you keep your head over your shoulder?” Emerson asks in “Self-Reliance.” “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?” Just as the individual must become rather than be, so history is a lived present rather than a shaping past. It is not a chronology but an instantly available cosmos.

Unlike the views illustrated by Washington Irving, Emerson’s ideas set American thought on a course of opposition to American materialism. And although they were opposed to prevailing political and economic beliefs, they were assisted in their career by American events. In 1837, between the opening manifesto, Nature, and the address on The American Scholar, the United States underwent the greatest crisis in its history, a devastating financial panic. Banks failed, real-estate values plunged, staple foods became scarce, and angry mobs rioted. The material world that seemed so weighty an answer to the idealist collapsed of a sudden and demonstrated the falseness of its seeming solidity. An audience was ripe for the message that we need not submit to facts but can master them.

Another contemporary correlative to Emerson’s philosophy was the rise of the American West as a political force. Although he deplored the avarice of the land-hungry speculators and the crass demagoguery of the western politicians, Emerson saw that the West was not just another region adding its voice to those of the North and the South but was an imperfectly articulated idea. It was the spirit of the continent answering back to the Europeanization of the seaboard. Even as he opposed western greed and western rant, Emerson harnessed to his philosophy the power of the brooding plains and silent mountains that put the might of nature in the balance against stock market and legislature.

The political actuality that stimulated Emerson’s repeated insistence on self-reliant individualism was the American faith in majority rule. As many a European observer noted, in practice this resulted in a tyranny of public opinion. While it was true that the older hierarchical structures of authority severely limited individual freedom and individual economic opportunity, they did provide some compensation. A man born into a certain class, a certain trade, a certain church, and a certain allegiance to a hereditary ruler knows who he is. What from one side appear as restrictions are, from the other, the sure providers of identity. Once a man has given to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he is free to think as he pleases and behave as he wishes. He need not fear what others think of him.

This European condition was well epitomized by Goethe when he said: “For myself . . . I have always been a royalist. I have let others babble, and have done as I saw fit.” Contrary to the folklore of democracy, such a man experiences a continuity between his acceptance of the autocratic state and his ability to do what pleases him. And surely his iconoclastic theorizing and his free social behavior would have been persecuted in a democratic society in which majority opinion was translated into civil law and, more importantly, where majority morals were translated into the rigorous unwritten laws of acceptable conduct.

In his constant emphasis on the self Emerson was reacting to the social tyranny of the American crowd. He did not for a moment believe that the counter to majority rule should be a return to some form of autocracy. Rather, he pursued the ideal of destroying the mob through bringing to each of its members a sense of himself as a separate person. When he called each man “an infinitely repellent orb,” he was expressing a hope: ideally, each of us can develop a sense of self that resists grouping if we follow our reason rather than our understanding. Where others gazed upon a church congregation or a political gathering and saw a mass unified by a purpose or a prejudice, Emerson saw individuals, each with his own integrity, an integrity that was being destroyed by the preacher or party boss who encouraged them to think of themselves as a collectivity.

In May 1839, Emerson returned from attending church to vent in his journal his displeasure with the minister he had heard: “Cease, O thou unauthorized talker, to prate of consolation, and resignation, and spiritual joys, in neat and balanced sentences. For I know these men who sit below, and on the hearing of these words look up. Hush, quickly: for care and calamity are things to them. There is Mr. Tolman, the shoemaker, whose daughter is gone mad, and he is looking up through his spectacles to hear what you can offer for his case. Here is my friend, whose scholars are all leaving him, and he knows not what to turn his hand to next. Here is my wife, who has come to church in hope of being soothed and strengthened after being wounded by the sharp tongue of a slut in her house. Here is the stage-driver who has the jaundice, and cannot get well. Here is B. who failed last week, and he is looking up. O speak things, then, or hold thy tongue.” These comments are an example of Emerson’s seeing one plus one plus one plus one when he saw a group. For him it was not a trick of perception, it was a moral necessity.

Similarly, in October 1838 Emerson addressed his journal after having observed the local boss of the Democratic party haranguing a group of villagers in a shop: “Here, thought I, is one who loves what I hate.” He went on to explain: “I hate numbers. He cares for nothing but numbers and persons. All the qualities of man, all his accomplishments, affections, enterprises, except solely the ticket he votes for, are nothing to this philosopher. Numbers of majorities are all he sees in the newspapers.”

European republicans of the day, chafing under the tyranny of one or another monarch and enraged by the cruel division of their native land into parcels, each to be delivered to some petty nobleman in need of a job, opposed such despotism by attempting to rally their countrymen into a sense of their collective self. But in a land in which the tyrant was a collectivity and ruled far more in the mind than in the laws, Emerson reversed the process and attempted to disperse the mob. He writes in his journal in April 1841: “Let there be one man, let there be truth & virtue in one man, in two men, in ten men, then can there be concert: then is concert for the first time possible; now nothing is gained by adding zeroes, but when there is love & truth, these do naturally & necessarily cohabit, cooperate, & bless.”

The revolution to which Emerson incites is moral. Each individual must realize that when he exercises his reason he is a majority of one already and insofar as he yields to a merely numerical majority he simply adds zeroes to himself and participates in his own diminishment and in the degradation of democracy.

Although it is not political in its first intent, so severely individualistic a philosophy does have political implications. One who follows it may easily discover that there is no clear line between the disregard of public opinion in favor of reason and the disregard of law in favor of conscience. Emerson’s friend and disciple, Thoreau, provided a celebrated illustration when his conscience did not permit him to pay taxes to an unjust state and he spent a night in jail. As a consequence he gave the world his great essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” a document soundly Emersonian in its principles. But Emerson did not need to witness Thoreau’s disobedience to realize that although ideally the exercise of reason never poses a threat to society, in practice conflicts will occur to the degree that society still proceeds from property rather than character. In such exigencies, he occupied Jefferson’s position: when there is no option but to choose between the anarchy of private excess and the tyranny of public suppression, the former is the lesser evil because natural sanity will quickly temper anarchy whereas suppression once in place cannot readily be removed.

The literary implications of Emerson’s teachings were also to be writ large by a disciple. Walt Whitman found in Emerson the central reasons for his poetry. Specifically, Emerson’s assertion in “The Poet” that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem” encouraged Whitman to break with traditional verse forms and seek the form his thought demanded, however far such might be from anything previously regarded as poetry. More broadly, Whitman took from Emerson the idea of the soul as the maker of its world. Just as Adam when he named the beasts completed the creation because until the animals had names they did not exist in the field of thought and thus were unrealized, so Whitman named the objects in his America in completion of the merely political creation of the United States. He did not seek Irving’s storied associations but recognized that the meaning resided in the poet rather than in the fact. The act of poetry was the act of naming the parts of his unrealized America. When he dealt, as he often did, with the American crowd, with en-masse as he was fond of calling it, Whitman focused on the faces in the crowd, calling them out of their anonymity. Like Emerson, when he saw a gathering he saw individuals. To trace the enormous influence of Whitman on the poets who followed is to recognize what a mighty line is anchored in Emerson.

Orthodox Protestantism was officially outraged by Emerson’s ideas, but these ideas drew considerable strength from the protest tradition within Protestantism. His idealism was derived from Plato and Plotinus and was modified by Kant and his German and British transcendental followers. It also took hints from Oriental mysticism and the doctrine of the inner light taught by George Fox and his Quaker followers. The assertion that the spirit is above law and is its judge rather than its subject had brought harsh punishment upon those who affirmed it in opposition to the Puritan establishment of seventeenth-century New England, and it scandalized the formalist nineteenth-century descendants of this orthodoxy who held that the days of revelation had ended. But the Puritan migration to America and the Puritan revolution in England had been fueled by a belief in the vital presence of the spirit and a contempt for the forms of a ritualized church that seemed to have lost the spirit in the canonization of its laws. Such antinomianism lurked in a good number of nineteenth-century Americans, uneasy with both the legalism in conservative churches and the substitution of morality for piety in liberal ones. Emerson struck a note in “Self-Reliance” that they echoed: “There are two confessionals, in one or another of which we must be shriven. You may fulfill your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat and dog — whether any of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.”

When Emerson visited in England in 1833, he had done so as a humble searcher hoping to find himself, grateful for those moments spared him by the illustrious. He returned in 1848 as one of the celebrated, invited there to lecture throughout the island. The British wanted not only to hear his specific ideas but to hear an American, and Emerson, they knew, was the foremost embodiment of the best and most characteristic thought of his nation. Emerson’s mission was strikingly different from that of the Geoffrey Crayon whom his younger self had partly resembled when he crossed the ocean fifteen years earlier. Still, it was not unfitting that he should undertake this second voyage on a ship called the Washington Irving.

The reputation that gained Emerson his English invitation is even wider today. His influence has been great: both directly, in that major writers have had their ideas and their expression shaped by what they learned from him, and indirectly, in that he stands as the representative in thought of American identity and so provides the cornerstone for the words and deeds of many who may not know his work but who when they believe themselves to be influenced by America are actually responding to what Emerson said America meant. Among the former are Thoreau, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Borges. Among the latter are the radical dissenters of the abolition movement and of the movement against the Vietnam War, and writers who insisted on a voice of the American wild more powerful than the murmurs of civilization, writers such as D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway.

Emerson insisted on our reading books only to experience those moments in which we hear a voice that we recognize as proceeding from the same center as our own voices. We approach him today as a writer of enormous historical importance, perhaps the single most influential member of the American literary community. The reasons we have for reading him are not, then, the reasons that he gave for reading the classics. And yet were we today to try him by the test he offers, neither he nor we would suffer from the experiment. This is because after all consideration is given, as it should be, to Emerson’s philosophy in terms of its consequences for culture, letters, politics, and conduct, the kernel of his appeal is still not reached. This is not public but private. It is not an assertion of victory over the agonies of life but a refusal to knuckle under to them. “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat,” Emerson writes in “Experience,” “up again, old heart! . . . there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” He says that what he writes here is what our inner voice tells us in our sane moments. The kernel of Emerson is that voice.

— Larzer Ziff

Suggestions for
Further Reading


------------------------------

The three major biographies are:

Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York, 1981).

Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, 1995).

Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1949).

An excellent introduction to the riches in Emerson’s journals is:

Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

Among the leading studies of Emerson’s thought are:

Jonathan Bishop, Emerson on the Soul (Cambridge, Mass., 1964).

John Jay Chapman, Emerson, and Other Essays (New York, 1898).

Barbara Packer, Emerson’sFall (New York, 1982).

Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia, 1953).

Studies that place Emerson in his literary context are:

F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941).

Barbara Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” in Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Two (New York, 1995).

Larzer Ziff, Literary Democracy (New York, 1981).

A NOTE ON THE TEXT

All essays in this book are reprinted in their entirety from the standard edition prepared by Emerson’s son, Edward Waldo Emerson: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, 1903-4), 12 vols.

Selected Essays of
Ralph Waldo Emerson


------------------------------

Nature


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A subtle chain of countless rings

The next unto the farthest brings;

The eye reads omens where it goes,

And speaks all languages the rose;

And, striving to be man, the worm

Mounts through all the spires of form.

INTRODUCTION

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely yet a remote approach to an idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena. Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex.

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore if that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME,that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. In enumerating the values of nature and casting up their sum, I shall use the word in both senses; — in its common and in its philosophical import. In inquiries so general as our present one, the inaccuracy is not material; no confusion of thought will occur. Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.

NATURE

I

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

COMMODITY

II

Whoever considers the final cause of the world will discern a multitude of uses that enter as parts into that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes: Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.

Under the general name of commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind, and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.

“More servants wait on man

Than he’ll take notice of.”1

Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.

The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Æolus’s bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air. By the aggregate of these aids, how is the face of the world changed, from the era of Noah to that of Napoleon! The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the book-shop, and the human race read and write of all that happens, for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs. He sets his house upon the road, and the human race go forth every morning, and shovel out the snow, and cut a path for him.

But there is no need of specifying particulars in this class of uses. The catalogue is endless, and the examples so obvious, that I shall leave them to the reader’s reflection, with the general remark, that this mercenary benefit is one which has respect to a farther good. A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.

A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty.

The ancient Greeks called the world ,2 beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of artists. By the mutual action of its structure and of the laws of light, perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose is round and symmetrical. And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse has its own beauty. But besides this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of some of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat-ear, the egg, the wings and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, flames, clouds, buds, leaves, and the forms of many trees, as the palm.

For better consideration, we may distribute the aspects of Beauty in a threefold manner.

1. First, the simple perception of natural forms is a delight. The influence of the forms and actions in nature is so needful to man, that, in its lowest functions, it seems to lie on the confines of commodity and beauty. To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself. The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

But in other hours, Nature satisfies by its loveliness, and without any mixture of corporeal benefit. I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind. How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.

Not less excellent, except for our less susceptibility in the afternoon, was the charm, last evening, of a January sunset. The western clouds divided and subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable softness, and the air had so much life and sweetness that it was a pain to come within doors. What was it that nature would say? Was there no meaning in the live repose of the valley behind the mill, and which Homer or Shakspeare could not re-form for me in words? The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background, and the stars of the dead calices of flowers, and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost, contribute something to the mute music.

The inhabitants of cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year. I please myself with the graces of the winter scenery, and believe that we are as much touched by it as by the genial influences of summer. To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath. The state of the crop in the surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week. The succession of native plants in the pastures and roadsides, which makes the silent clock by which time tells the summer hours, will make even the divisions of the day sensible to a keen observer. The tribes of birds and insects, like the plants punctual to their time, follow each other, and the year has room for all. By water-courses, the variety is greater. In July, the blue pontederia or pickerel-weed blooms in large beds in the shallow parts of our pleasant river, and swarms with yellow butterflies in continual motion. Art cannot rival this pomp of purple and gold. Indeed the river is a perpetual gala, and boasts each month a new ornament.

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part. The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and ’t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone; ’t is only a mirage as you look from the windows of diligence.

2. The presence of a higher, namely, of the spiritual element is essential to its perfection. The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will. Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue. Every natural action is graceful. Every heroic act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine. We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself. “All those things for which men plough, build, or sail, obey virtue;” said Sallust “The winds and waves,” said Gibbon, “are always on the side of the ablest navigators.” So are the sun and noon and all the stars of heaven. When a noble act is done, — perchance in a scene of great natural beauty; when Leonidas and his three hundred martyrs consume one day in dying, and the sun and moon come each and look at them once in the steep defile of Thermopylae; when Arnold Winkelried, in the high Alps, under the shadow of the avalanche, gathers in his side a sheaf of Austrian spears to break the line for his comrades; are not these heroes entitled to add the beauty of the scene to the beauty of the deed? When the bark of Columbus nears the shore of America; — before it the beach lined with savages, fleeing out of all their huts of cane; the sea behind; and the purple mountains of the Indian Archipelago around, can we separate the man from the living picture? Does not the New World clothe his form with her palm-groves and savannahs as fit drapery? Ever does natural beauty steal in like air, and envelope great actions. When Sir Harry Vane was dragged up the Tower-hill, sitting on a sled, to suffer death as the champion of the English laws, one of the multitude cried out to him, “You never sate on so glorious a seat!” Charles II., to intimidate the citizens of London, caused the patriot Lord Russell to be drawn in an open coach through the principal streets of the city on his way to the scaffold. “But,” his biographer says, “the multitude imagined they saw liberty and virtue sitting by his side.” In private places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretches out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet, and bend her lines of grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture. A virtuous man is in unison with her works, and makes the central figure of the visible sphere. Homer, Pindar, Socrates, Phocion, associate themselves fitly in our memory with the geography and climate of Greece. The visible heavens and earth sympathize with Jesus. And in common life whosoever has seen a person of powerful character and happy genius, will have remarked how easily he took all things along with him, — the persons, the opinions, and the day, and nature became ancillary to a man.

3. There is still another aspect under which the beauty of the world may be viewed, namely, as it becomes an object of the intellect. Beside the relation of things to virtue, they have a relation to thought. The intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affection. The intellectual and the active powers seem to succeed each other, and the exclusive activity of the one generates the exclusive activity of the other. There is something unfriendly in each to the other, but they are like the alternate periods of feeding and working in animals; each prepares and will be followed by the other. Therefore does beauty, which, in relation to actions, as we have seen, comes unsought, and comes because it is unsought, remain for the apprehension and pursuit of the intellect; and then again, in its turn, of the active power. Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature re-forms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation.

All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even to delight. This love of beauty is Taste. Others have the same love in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms. The creation of beauty is Art.

The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature. For although the works of nature are innumerable and all different, the result or the expression of them all is similar and single. Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A leaf, a sunbeam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, — that perfectness and harmony, is beauty. The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, — the totality of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty “il più nell’ uno.”3 Nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce. Thus is Art a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art does Nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.

Author

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803­–1882) was a renowned lecturer and writer whose ideas on philosophy, religion, and literature influenced many writers, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. After an undergraduate career at Harvard, he studied at Harvard Divinity School and became an ordained minister, continuing a long line of ministers in his family. He traveled widely and lectured, and became well known for his publications Essays and Nature. View titles by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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