Quotations and Commentary
Edited by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2003
Selected Writings of Emerson, edited by D. McQuade
Introduction--“Descended from nine successive generations of prominent New England ministers, Emerson was born in Boston in 1803.”
Emerson spent most of his adult life in Concord, where he tried to assemble a colony of intellectuals. He succeeded in attracting a few intellectuals to Concord—Ellery Channing, for example, an aspiring poet, and Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer. Others, like Carlyle, declined Emerson’s offer to help settle them in Concord.
--“Emerson’s career at Harvard was far less active and distinguished than that of his brothers. He graduated thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine.”
Emerson ultimately followed in his ancestors’ footsteps and became a minister. After a few years, however, he gave up his ministry, and devoted himself to lecturing and writing. He didn’t believe in churches or in organized religion. Though he wasn’t an atheist, he rejected many of the central tenets of Christianity; his religious views were radical and controversial. In this respect, he reminds one of Carlyle, his friend and contemporary.
--“By the mid 1840s, Emerson was one of the most respected figures in what was known as the Lyceum movement—an association formed to offer general instruction to adults through a network of lectures and concerts.”
For Emerson, as for Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, lecturing was a major source of income. When Emerson was travelling on the lecture circuit, Thoreau often lived in his house, to help his wife with gardening, etc.
--“Over the years...Emerson’s friendship with Thoreau had deteriorated. They simply seemed to move in opposite directions on most issues. Eventually it became difficult for them to converse. ‘If I knew only Thoreau, I should think cooperation of good men impossible. Always some weary captious paradox to fight you with, and the time and temper wasted.’” Thoreau wrote thus of Emerson: “[Emerson] offered me friendship on such terms that I could not accept it without degradation. He would not meet me on equal terms, but only to be to some extent my patron.”
The Heart Of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry
Emerson began his journal when he was about fifteen. He called it a Commonplace Book, and recorded in it his thoughts and experiences, as well as memorable passages from books. He wrote in his journal for almost sixty years. Like Thoreau, Emerson borrowed from his journal as he was writing his books and lectures.
Emerson’s most interesting work is his Journals, in abridged form. Emerson’s Journals, like the Journals of Kierkegaard or of any other writer, are actually a book of aphorisms. A comparison between Emerson’s Journals and Emerson’s Essays, or between Emerson’s Journals and Montaigne’s Essays, shows that aphorisms are more interesting than essays; the aphoristic form is the most interesting form of philosophical writing.
12/15/20--Being somewhat unsociable, and a mediocre student, Emerson didn’t enjoy college; he referred to Harvard as, “this irksome school”. Like most students at that time, Emerson finished college at age eighteen.
2/22--“I have not much cause...to wish my Alma Mater well, personally; I was not often highly flattered by success, and was every day mortified by my own ill fate or ill conduct.” But as soon as he returned to Harvard as a graduate, he felt “sentimental” and “poetical”: “I felt a crowd of pleasant thoughts, as I went posting about from place to place, and room to chapel.”
When a journal entry doesn’t specify a particular day, I give only the month and year; 2/22, for example, means February, 1822. When no month is specified, I give the year; for example, 1822. If I give no date at all, that means that the quote is from the same date as the last quote.
5/22--At age eighteen, Emerson took stock of himself, and found little cause for satisfaction: “Ungenerous and selfish, cautious and cold, I yet wish to be romantic; have not sufficient feeling to speak a natural, hearty welcome to a friend or stranger, and yet send abroad wishes and fancies of a friendship with a man I never knew. There is not in the whole wide Universe of God...one being to whom I am attached with warm and entire devotion....These will appear frightful confessions [but] it is a true picture of a barren and desolate soul.” Philosophers generally develop their intellectual side at the expense of their emotional side. As Jung would say, thought is their superior function, feeling their inferior function.
3/23/23--When he was twenty, Emerson began to entertain ambitious dreams, but his dreams seemed a long way from realization. “From childhood the names of the great have ever resounded in my ear, and it is impossible that I should be indifferent to the rank which I must take in the innumerable assembly of men, or that I should shut my eyes upon the huge interval which separates me from the minds which I am wont to venerate.”
Nowadays, young people no longer have “the names of the great” resounding in their ears. They no longer feel that a “huge interval” separates them from those they idolize. Hence, they no longer feel the spur to self-improvement that Emerson felt. The young people of today are more easily satisfied with themselves than the young people of Emerson’s day.
4/18/24--At age twenty, Emerson decided to become a minister, and began studying divinity. In a long journal entry, he explained his career choice, and made a “careful examination of my past and present life”. “I have, or had, a strong imagination, and consequently a keen relish for the beauties of poetry....My reasoning faculty is proportionably weak, nor can I ever hope to write a Butler’s Analogy or an Essay of Hume....I may add that the preaching most in vogue at the present day depends chiefly on imagination for its success, and asks those accomplishments which I believe are most within my grasp.”
--He was less confident about his ability to deal with people; he said that he had, “a sore uneasiness in the company of most men and women, a frigid fear of offending and jealousy of disrespect, an inability to lead and an unwillingness to follow the current conversation, which contrive to make me second with all those among whom chiefly I wish to be first.... My bearing in the world is the direct opposite of that good-humoured independence and self-esteem which mark the gentleman.”
--“I burn after the ‘aliquid immensum infinitumque’ [something immense and infinite] which Cicero desired.”
This phrase from Cicero seems to epitomize the Faustian character of Western man—restless, dissatisfied, yearning for something beyond the here and now. If this isn’t the character of everyone in the West, it is the character of the most outstanding people in the West, of people like Cicero and Emerson.
--Like many young people, Emerson had a tendency toward asceticism: “I would sacrifice inclination to the interest of mind and soul. I would remember that ‘Spare Fast oft with Gods doth diet,’ that Justinian devoted but one out of twenty-four hours to sleep, and this week (for instance) I will remember to curtail my dinner and supper sensibly and rise from table each day with an appetite, till Tuesday evening next, and so see if it be a fact that I can understand more clearly.”
Young people often experiment with different ways of living. Tolstoy said that when he was young, there was hardly a single philosophy or ethical theory that he didn’t try, that he didn’t adopt and live by for a time.
--“I cannot assume the elevation I ought,—but lose the influence I should exert among those of meaner or younger understanding, for want of sufficient bottom in my nature, for want of that confidence of manner which springs from an erect mind which is without fear and without reproach.”
Many intellectuals have made a similar complaint; many intellectuals have complained that they lack a firm, strong ego, that they have spirit but not character.
This long journal entry, this self-examination, is a remarkable work for a twenty-year-old, remarkable both for its keen analysis and for its graceful prose.
1824--Even at age twenty, even when embarking on a career as minister, Emerson was already planning to write a work similar to the essays of Montaigne or Bacon. He spoke of, “those books which collect and embody the wisdom of their times....which, without originality, seize upon all the popular speculations floating among sensible men and give them in a compact graceful form to the following age. I should like to add another volume to this valuable work.”
5/54--Later in his career, Emerson wished that his work were an organic whole, instead of a collection of discrete thoughts: “If Minerva offered me a gift and an option, I would say give me continuity. I am tired of scraps....Away with this Jew’s rag-bag of ends and tufts of brocade, velvet, and cloth-of-gold; let me spin some yards or miles of helpful twine, a clew to lead to one kingly truth, a cord to bind wholesome and belonging facts.”
People often say that writers can’t judge their own work. But writers frequently display a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Even at age twenty, Emerson understood his strengths and weaknesses. Emerson knew what his work lacked—it lacked “continuity”; though it possessed a wealth of interesting thoughts, it lacked “one kingly truth”.
2/8/25--Like many people, Emerson found it difficult to stick to one book: “My cardinal vice of intellectual dissipation—sinful strolling from book to book, from care to idleness—is my cardinal vice still; is a malady that belongs to the chapter of Incurables.”
1/8/26--“It is not certain that God exists, but that he does not is a most bewildering and improbable chimera.”
The work of Darwin and other modern scientists has made it seem less “bewildering and improbable” that God doesn’t exist. We are no longer baffled by the question, ‘where did all this come from, if not from God?’ The questions that we find baffling are, ‘how could all this have emanated from God? how can any serious person believe that it did?’
1828--Emerson’s family was the sort of family from which genius often emerges. It was an old, prominent, talented family, with a certain weakness and instability in both body and mind. Emerson’s brothers, Charles and Edward, were very gifted, and did better at Harvard than Emerson himself did. But Edward experienced bouts of insanity and died young; Charles also died young. When Emerson discussed Edward’s insanity in his journal, he suggested that other members of his family were also mentally unstable: “When I consider the constitutional calamity of my family, which, in its falling upon Edward, has buried at once so many towering hopes—with whatever reason, I have little apprehension of my own liability to the same evil. I have so much mixture of silliness in my intellectual frame that I think Providence has tempered me against this. My brother lived and acted and spoke with preternatural energy. My own manner is sluggish; my speech sometimes flippant, sometimes embarrassed and ragged; my actions (if I may say so) are of a passive kind. Edward had always great power of face. I have none. I laugh; I blush; I look ill-tempered; against my will and against my interest. But all this imperfection, as it appears to me, is a caput mortuum, is a ballast—as things go, is a defence.”
12/27/34--“I believe the Christian religion to be profoundly true; true to an extent that they who are styled its most orthodox defenders have never, or but in rarest glimpses, once or twice in a lifetime, reached. I, who seek to be a realist, to deny and put off everything that I do not heartily accept, do yet catch myself continually in a practical unbelief of its deepest teachings.”
How difficult it must be to remain faithful to the moral precepts of Christianity! How few people have done so, even for a single day!
1/7/35--“How precisely parallel are the biographies of religious enthusiasts—Swedenborg, Guyon, Fox, Luther, and perhaps Boehmen. Each owes all to the discovery that God must be sought within, not without. That is the discovery of Jesus.”
It is doubtful that Emerson believed in the divinity of Christ. Emerson regarded Christ as a genius, a poet, a prophet, a philosopher, one who made ‘discoveries’.
Emerson’s brand of Christianity was a radical Protestantism. Emerson constantly preached that God is within you, God is in every individual. Thus, there’s no need for priests or for churches.
3/23/35--Though Emerson’s theology was radical, his personal life was staid and conservative, as the following passage suggests: “There is no greater lie than a voluptuous book like Boccaccio. For it represents the pleasures of appetite, which only at rare intervals, a few times in a life-time, are intense, and to whose acme continence is essential, as frequent, habitual, and belonging to the incontinent.”
6/20/35--“The good of publishing one’s thoughts is that of hooking to you like-minded men, and of giving to men whom you value, such as Wordsworth or Landor, one hour of stimulated thought. Yet, how few! Who in Concord cares for the first philosophy in a book? The woman whose child is to be suckled? The man at Nine-acre-Corner who is to cart sixty loads of gravel on his meadow? the stageman? the gunsmith? Oh, no! Who then?”
This is the problem that every philosopher faces: Who is going to read your book? You may have written a classic, but who wants a classic? Who has time for it? Who will benefit from it? Who has any desire for truth? The businessman trying to increase his profits? The scientist trying to discover a miracle drug? Oh, no! Who then? Your book is suited only for “like-minded men”, and how few of them there are in the world!
1/22/36--“Upham thinks it fatal to the happiness of a young man to set out with ultra-conservative notions in this country. He must settle it in his mind that the human race have got possession, and, though they will make many blunders and do some great wrongs, yet on the whole will consult the interest of the whole.”
Though Emerson wasn’t enthusiastic about democracy, he approved of it, tolerated it, accepted it. What else could he do? He knew it was useless to try to institute a new form of government in the U.S.
2/28/36--“The man comes out of the wrangle of the shop and office, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. He not only quits the cabal, but he finds himself. But how few men see the sky and the woods!”
Nature can have a purifying effect on character, just as literature, and other forms of culture, can have a purifying effect on character. Business, on the other hand, corrupts character.
7/21/36--“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of triumph out of Shakespear [sic], Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.”
The idea of making one’s own Bible is of a piece with the rest of Emerson’s religious thinking; Emerson believed in making one’s own church, being one’s own minister, etc.
Emerson recommended to Thoreau that he keep a journal. The two kinds of book that everyone should write, Emerson thought, were a journal and a book of quotations. These two kinds of book can be combined into one; the term “Commonplace Book” is sometimes used for a book that contains both quotes and remarks on daily events.
11/12/36--“How many attractions for us have our passing fellows in the streets, both male and female, which our ethics forbid us to express, which yet infuse so much pleasure into life. A lovely child, a handsome youth, a beautiful girl, a heroic man, a maternal woman, a venerable old man, charm us, though strangers, and we cannot say so, or look at them but for a moment.”
This is the sort of brief observation that one often finds in Emerson’s Journals. Such observations give Emerson’s Journals a charm that his essays don’t possess. Emerson’s Journals are like a book of aphorisms, and they contain the brief insights that only books of aphorisms have.
11/28/36--“Come, let us not be an appanage to Alexander, Charles V, or any of history’s heroes. Dead men all! But for me the earth is new to-day, and the sun is raining light.”
Emerson constantly preaches, in various forms, the doctrine of self-reliance.
1/8/37--“Can you not show the man of genius that always genius is situated in the world as it is with him?”
In other words, can you not describe the plight of the genius in such a way that a genius, if he reads your work, will be encouraged to learn that throughout history, genius has always suffered from the same neglect, isolation, and opposition that he himself suffers from?
3/29/37--“Carlyle again. I think he has seen, as no other in our time, how inexhaustible a mine is the language of Conversation....His paragraphs are all a sort of splendid conversation.”
4/22/37--“The most tedious of all discourses are on the subject of the Supreme Being.”
5/6/37--“I was made a hermit, and am content with my lot. I pluck golden fruit from rare meetings with wise men. I can well abide alone in the intervals, and the fruit of my own tree shall have a better flavor.”
8/4/37--“After raffling all day in Plutarch’s morals, or shall I say angling there, for such fish as I might find, I sallied out this fine afternoon through the woods to Walden water.”
Angling is an apt metaphor for reading. One can read or fish for many hours and not catch anything, and then suddenly one catches something—a large bass or an interesting idea—that makes one’s labors worthwhile.
If reading can be compared to fishing, looking for good books can be compared to hunting.
Emerson’s large, stately house was in downtown Concord, a mile or two from Walden Pond. He owned some land on the north side of Walden Pond, and it was there that Thoreau, with Emerson’s permission, built his tiny cabin.
8/9/37--“Carlyle: how the sight of his handwriting warms my heart at the little post-window....How noble that, alone and unpraised, he should still write for he knew not whom....This man upholds and propels civilization. For every wooden post he knocks away he replaces one of stone.”
2/17/38--“How much self-reliance it implies to write a true description of anything, for example, Wordsworth’s picture of skating; that leaning back on your heels and stopping in mid-career. So simple a fact no common man would have trusted himself to detach as a thought.”
Emerson traces all originality to self-reliance.
3/5/38--“You can never come to any peace or power until you put your whole reliance in the moral constitution of man, and not at all in a historical Christianity. Christ preaches the greatness of man, but we hear only the greatness of Christ.”
Emerson constantly depreciates the importance of Christ, and stresses the importance of the individual. Emerson has high regard for Christ as one who elevated the individual, but he doesn’t think Christianity should focus on the divinity of Christ. Thus, Emerson’s theology is the opposite of Kierkegaard’s, which stressed the divinity of Christ.
3/18/38--Emerson hated the hollowness and insincerity of established Christianity; he spoke of, “the ugliness and unprofitableness of theology and churches at this day”.
5/26/38--Emerson loved to worship God in nature: “In the wood, God was manifest, as he was not in the sermon.”
10/12/38--“The scholar should deal plainly with society and tell them that he saw well enough before he spoke the consequence of his speaking; that up there in his silent study, by his dim lamp, he fore-heard this Babel of outcries. The nature of man he knew, the insanity that comes of inaction and tradition, and knew well that when their dream and routine were disturbed, like bats and owls and nocturnal beasts they would howl and shriek and fly at the torch-bearer....The taunts and cries of hatred and anger, the very epithets you bestow on me, are so familiar long ago in my reading that they sound to me ridiculously old and stale. The same thing has happened so many times over (that is, with the appearance of every original observer) that, if people were not very ignorant of literary history, they would be struck with the exact coincidence.”
Emerson is probably reacting, in this passage, to the opposition that he aroused by his radical theology, especially by his description of Christ as a prophet and seer, not a divine being. This opposition was neither violent nor lasting; for most of Emerson’s career, he was embraced by society far more warmly than most philosophers are.
9/29/39--“When I was thirteen years old, my Uncle Samuel Ripley one day asked me, ‘How is it, Ralph, that all the boys dislike you and quarrel with you, whilst the grown people are fond of you?’ Now am I thirty-six and the fact is reversed,—the old people suspect and dislike me, and the young love me.”
4/7/40--“At Providence I was made very sensible of the desire of all open minds for religious teaching....What men want is a Religion.”
--“In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man. This the people accept readily enough, and even with loud commendation, as long as I call the lecture Art, or Politics, or Literature, or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts.”
9/41--“I told Henry Thoreau that his freedom is in the form, but he does not disclose new matter. I am very familiar with all his thoughts,—they are my own quite originally drest. But if the question be, what new ideas has he thrown into circulation, he has not yet told what that is which he was created to say.”
Thoreau had few original ideas. He stayed close to life, and concentrated on ethical questions such as “What is a good life?” and “How should one pass one’s time?” Thus, Thoreau reminds one of an ancient philosopher—a stoic or an epicurean.
One of the chief virtues of Thoreau’s prose is that he always speaks from the heart, he speaks about matters that he cares about and has experienced. Since he didn’t try to construct an elaborate philosophical system, or refute those who did construct such a system, he didn’t feel compelled to address a host of lofty subjects, such as aesthetics, religion, morality, politics, epistemology, etc. He simply lived, and wrote about his life.
10/30/41--“Shelley is wholly unaffecting to me. I was born a little too soon: but his power is so manifest over a large class of the best persons, that he is not to be overlooked.”
Since great writers generally express the spirit of their age, it is difficult for those from an earlier age to appreciate them. Those from an earlier age can only say, “I was born a little too soon”.
12/41--“When Jones Very was in Concord, he said to me, ‘I always felt when I heard you speak or read your writings that you saw the truth better than others, yet I felt that your spirit was not quite right. It was as if a vein of colder air blew across me.’”
1/30/42, 3/20/42--The death of Emerson’s five-year-old son, Waldo, prompted the following lines: “A boy of early wisdom, of a grave and even majestic deportment, of a perfect gentleness. Every tramper that ever tramped is abroad, but the little feet are still....I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness. Explanation I have none, consolation none that rises out of the fact itself; only diversion; only oblivion of this, and pursuit of new objects.”
3/20/42--Emerson worked as editor of a magazine called The Dial, which was an organ of the Transcendentalist movement. He tired of the job, but wondered whom he could pass it on to: “Neither do I like to put it in the hands of the Humanity and Reform Men, because they trample on letters and poetry; nor in the hands of the Scholars, for they are dead and dry.” These two parties—the social reform party and the scholarly party—are still numerous today. On the other hand, those who bring culture into life, and life into culture, are as rare now as they were in Emerson’s time.
9/42--“Milnes brought Carlyle to the railway, and showed him the departing train. Carlyle looked at it and then said, ‘These are our poems, Milnes.’ Milnes ought to have answered, ‘Aye, and our histories, Carlyle.’”
Modern man has spent so much time and energy and thought on machinery and technology that he has little left for culture. As man’s mastery over nature has increased, his inner world has become impoverished.
9/42--“September 27 was a fine day, and Hawthorne and I set forth on a walk....Our walk had no incidents. It needed none, for we were in excellent spirits, had much conversation, for we were both old collectors who had never had opportunity before to show each other our cabinets, so that we could have filled with matter much longer days.”
Hawthorne lived in Concord for many years. Hawthorne was friendly with both Thoreau and Emerson, though his world view had little in common with that of Thoreau and Emerson. Emerson thought little of Hawthorne’s novels and stories, and Thoreau found Hawthorne cool toward his favorite cause, the abolition of slavery.
10/42--“Everything good, we say, is on the highway....I think I will never read any but the commonest of all books: the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Homer.”
The verdict of mankind as a whole, after it has deliberated for a century or two, is almost always reliable. Those books that are regarded as classics almost always deserve to be so regarded.
9/64--In an English newspaper, Emerson read an article on Wordsworth “in which [Wordsworth’s] highest merits were affirmed, and his unquestionable superiority to all English poets since Milton”.
Remembering how Wordsworth was long underestimated, Emerson is struck by “the certainty with which the best opinion comes to be the established opinion”.
This quote follows logically from the previous quote. Here, too, Emerson argues that the verdict of mankind on a writer is reliable.
10/42--“In this great, empty continent of ours, stretching enormous almost from pole to pole, with thousands of long rivers and thousands of ranges of mountains, the rare scholar, who, under a farmhouse roof, reads Homer and the Tragedies, adorns the land. He begins to fill it with wit, to counterbalance the enormous disproportion of the unquickened earth.”
Whitman often writes about “this great, empty continent of ours”. When one reads Whitman, one is struck by the magnitude of the land, and the weakness of cultural tradition. The land seemed to claim the attention of early Americans, and divert their attention from culture.
12/10/42--“The harvest will be better preserved and go farther, laid up in private bins, in each farmer’s corn-barn, and each woman’s basket, than if it were kept in national granaries....Take away from me the feeling that I must depend on myself, give me the least hint that I have good friends and backers there in reserve who will gladly help me, and instantly I relax my diligence.”
This passage is a double-barreled shotgun: with the first barrel, Emerson blasts away at communism; with the second, he blasts away at the welfare state.
Communism was in the air in Emerson’s day. During the nineteenth century, communism captured the imagination of many American intellectuals, as well as many European intellectuals. Some of Emerson’s friends experimented with communal living (Brook Farm, Fruitlands, etc.)
Welfare payments and unemployment insurance have become so firmly rooted in modern society that we forget the simple fact that such policies cause people to ‘relax their diligence’, and also relax their frugality.
3/43--“In Roxbury, in 1825, I read Cotton’s translation of Montaigne. It seemed to me as if I had written the book myself in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thought and experience. No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.”
Such an expression of kinship between author and reader reminds one of the Roman poet Ennius, who thought that he was a reincarnation of Homer.
Montaigne, like Shakespeare, was untouched by the influence of ascetic Protestantism, hence he discusses sexual matters with an openness that Emerson found shocking.
Montaigne is especially popular with those who seek a general understanding of the world. He is less popular with those who have vaster ambitions, those who seek to extend the boundaries of human knowledge, and explore new intellectual continents—for example, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
9/3/43--“The capital defect of my nature for society (as it is of so many others) is the want of animal spirits. They seem to me a thing incredible, as if God should raise the dead.” By “animal spirits”, Emerson evidently means warmth and spontaneity.
6/45--“Even for those whom I really love I have not animal spirits.”
8/48--“I observe that all the bookish men have a tendency to believe that they are unpopular. Parker gravely informs me by word and by letter that he is precisely the most unpopular of all men in New England. Alcott believed the same thing of himself, and I, no doubt, if they had not anticipated me in claiming this distinction, should have claimed it for myself.”
The unpopularity of “bookish men” is related to their lack of “animal spirits”.
12/31/43--“We rail at trade, but the historian of the world will see that it was the principle of liberty; that it settled America, and destroyed feudalism, and made peace and keeps peace; that it will abolish slavery.”
5/45--“Our virtue runs in a narrow rill: we have never a freshet. We ought to be subject to enthusiasms. One would like to see Boston and Massachusetts agitated like a wave with some generosity, mad for learning, for music, for philosophy, for association, for freedom, for art; but now it goes like a pedlar with its hand ever on its pocket, cautious, calculating.”
9/45--“Garrison [the abolitionist] is a virile speaker; he lacks the feminine element which we find in men of genius.”
5/23/46--The Civil War came as no surprise to Emerson; long before it began, Emerson wrote thus: “Cotton thread holds the Union together; unites John C. Calhoun and Abbott Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets, but cotton thread is the Union.”
4/47--“We live in Lilliput. The Americans are free-willers, fussy, self-asserting, buzzing all round creation. But the Asiatics believe it is writ on the iron leaf, and will not turn on their heel to save them from famine, plague, or sword. That is great, gives a great air to the people.”
10/47--On Carlyle: “An immense talker, and, altogether, as extraordinary in that as in his writing; I think even more so. You will never discover his real vigor and range, or how much more he might do than he has ever done, without seeing him....He, too, says that there is properly no religion in England.”
4/19/48--“Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who writes always to the unknown friend .”
1/50--“The English journals snub my new book [Representative Men]; as, indeed, they have all its foregoers.”
The passage of time has transformed Emerson into a classic, and has put him almost beyond the reach of criticism. But when a writer like Emerson is still alive, when he isn’t yet deified, when he hasn’t yet become a classic, it’s easy to criticize him.
10/71--Emerson felt that Tennyson was criticized because he was still alive: “The only limit to the praise of Tennyson as a lyric poet is, that he is alive. If he were an ancient, there would be none.”
12/18/50--“X complained that life had lost its interest. ’Tis very funny, to be sure, to hear this. For most of us the world is all too interesting,—l’embarras de richesses. We are wasted with our versatility; with the eagerness to grasp on every possible side, we all run to nothing. I cannot open an agricultural paper without finding objects enough for Methusalem. I jilt twenty books whenever I fix on one....I wish to know France. I wish to study art. I wish to read laws.”
Modern life is highly stimulating and interesting—even more so now than in Emerson’s day. This is due to the abundance and availability of books, the development of business and commerce, and the invention of new technology, such as the telephone, the car, the television, etc.
3/66--Emerson found life so interesting that he sometimes wished he were immortal: “When I read a good book, say, one which opens a literary question, I wish that life were 3000 years long. Who would not launch into this Egyptian history...but for the memento mori which he reads on all sides? Who is not provoked by the temptation of the Sanscrit literature?”
When Emerson wrote these words, Egyptian history was being unearthed and expounded for the first time.
10/52--“Last Sunday I was at Plymouth on the beach....I supposed Webster must have passed, as indeed he had died at three in the morning. The sea, the rocks, the woods, gave no sign that America and the world had lost the completest man. Nature had not in our days, or not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece. He brought the strength of a savage into the height of culture. He was a man in equilibrio; a man within and without, the strong and perfect body of the first ages, with the civility and thought of the last.”
Emerson was deeply impressed by Daniel Webster, the lawyer, orator and politician. He was deeply disappointed, however, when Webster failed to champion the cause of abolition, and chose instead to compromise with Southerners, and to support the Fugitive Slave Act, which Emerson abhorred.
5/21/56--Though there was some friction between Thoreau and Emerson, they often enjoyed each other’s company. “Yesterday to the Sawmill Brook with Henry. He was in search of yellow violet ...which he waded into the water for; and which he concluded, on examination, had been out five days. Having found his flowers, he drew out of his breast pocket his diary and read the names of all the plants that should bloom this day, May 20; whereof he keeps account as a banker when his notes fall due....He thinks he could tell by the flowers what day of the month it is, within two days.”
2/58--“It is impossible to be a gentleman, and not be an abolitionist. For a gentleman is one who is fulfilled with all nobleness, and imparts it; is the natural defender and raiser of the weak and oppressed, like the Cid.”
4/59--“I am a natural reader, and only a writer in the absence of natural writers. In a true time, I should never have written.”
Many writers have been such voracious readers that it was difficult for them to put down their book, and take up their pen. Wilde, for example, said he was so fond of reading that he had no desire to write.
Emerson speaks of a “true time”, a time when people like himself will spend their whole lives reading, and never write. Will there ever be such a time? If civilization advances, and literature advances with it, there will be less and less reason to create new literature. People can concentrate on living, on developing their personality, and on reading, instead of producing more books.
--“Secondary men and primary men. These travellers to Europe, these readers of books, these youths rushing into counting-rooms of successful merchants, are all imitators, and we get only the same product weaker. But the man who never so slowly and patiently works out his native thought, is a primary person.”
5/20/43--“I enjoy all the hours of life. Few persons have such susceptibility to pleasure...I eat my dinner and sow my turnips, yet do I never, I think, fear death. It seems to me so often a relief, a rendering-up of responsibility, a quittance of so many vexatious trifles.”
5/46--“When summer opens, I see how fast it matures, and fear it will be short; but after the heats of July and August, I am reconciled, like one who has had his swing, to the cool of autumn. So will it be with the coming of death.”
6/60--“I reached the other day the end of my fifty-seventh year, and am easier in my mind than hitherto. I could never give much reality to evil and pain. But now when my wife says perhaps this tumor on your shoulder is a cancer, I say, What if it is?”
7/64--“Old age brings along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it....To be out of the war, out of debt, out of the drouth, out of the blues, out of the dentist’s hands, out of the second thoughts, mortifications, and remorses that inflict such twinges and shooting pains,—out of the next winter, and the high prices, and company below your ambition,—surely these are soothing hints. And, harbinger of this, what an alleviator is sleep, which muzzles all these dogs for me every day?”
4/5/61--“One capital advantage of old age is the absolute insignificance of a success more or less. I went to town and read a lecture yesterday. Thirty years ago it had really been a matter of importance to me whether it was good and effective. Now it is of none in relation to me. It is long already fixed what I can and what I cannot do.”
3/24/62--“Sam Staples yesterday had been to see Henry Thoreau. ‘Never spent an hour with more satisfaction. Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.’ Thinks that very few men in Concord know Mr. Thoreau; finds him serene and happy.” Thoreau died six weeks later.
8/62--“I believe in life everlasting.”
Emerson was never an atheist, like Leopardi and Schopenhauer; his religious bent may have become more pronounced with age.
--“I grieve to see that the Government is governed by the hurrahs of the soldiers or the citizens. It does not lead opinion, but follows it.”
This is the great weakness—some would say the great strength—of democracy. In a democracy, leaders don’t lead, they follow.
6/63--“Take egotism out, and you would castrate the benefactors. Luther, Mirabeau, Napoleon, John Adams, Andrew Jackson...would lose their vigor.”
Such reasoning runs counter to Christianity’s emphasis on unselfishness. Nietzsche would have agreed with this passage wholeheartedly.
6/24/63--“In reading Henry Thoreau’s journal, I am very sensible of the vigour of his constitution....In reading him, I find the same thought, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality.”
6/64--“’Tis bad, when believers and unbelievers live in the same manner;—I distrust the religion.”
This was what infuriated Kierkegaard about modern Christianity: it didn’t shape the lives of its adherents. Modern Christians confine their religion to Sunday mornings, they confine their religion within the walls of the church. Kierkegaard wanted an impassioned Christianity, a Christianity that permeated one’s entire life, a Christianity that left a clear mark on its adherents, and separated them from unbelievers.
10/25/64--“There is an astonishing magnificence even in this low town, and within a quarter of a mile of my doors, in the appearance of the Lincoln hills now drest in their coloured forest, under the lights and clouds of morning, as I saw them at eight o’clock. When I see this spectacle so near, and so surprising, I think no house should be built quite low, or should obstruct the prospect by trees.”
“This low town” refers to the fact that Concord is a low-lying town, with few hills, and no mountains. Concord is bordered on the east by the town of Lincoln.
5/68--“When I remember how easily and happily I think in certain company,—as, for instance, in former years, with Alcott...I see that I cannot exaggerate its importance among the resources of inspiration.”
Conversation can bring to light ideas and viewpoints that one didn’t know one had.
Throughout this book, Emerson speaks frequently of Bronson Alcott, who is largely forgotten nowadays. Emerson describes Alcott as a highly gifted person and a captivating talker. Though Alcott was full of grandiose ideas, especially on the subject of education, he couldn’t express himself well in writing.
When Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he burst onto the literary scene with his “American Scholar” address, his controversial Divinity School address, and his essay, “Nature”.
“Nature”, 1--“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 vulgar things.”
Emerson had three loves: moral beauty, nature and eloquence. Emerson’s essays occasionally express profound ideas in eloquent language; sometimes, however, they are vague and unclear, and leave the reader wondering whether Emerson was a true mystic, or merely misty in his thinking. Sometimes the reader wishes that Emerson’s prose were less poetic and more precise.
“The American Scholar”
--“The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they—let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.”
--“Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated. Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.”
--“It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads.”
--“One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, ‘He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.’ There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”
--“Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth....Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind....Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.”
--“The day is always his who works in it with serenity and great aims. The unstable estimates of men crowd to him whose mind is filled with a truth, as the heaped waves of the Atlantic follow the moon.”
--“If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience—patience; with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life.”
--“The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on. First, one, then another, we drain all cisterns, and waxing greater by all these supplies, we crave a better and more abundant food. The man has never lived that can feed us ever.”
--“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
“History”--“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”
Nietzsche used this sentence as an epigraph to his book, Gay Science. Nietzsche loved Emerson’s optimism and cheerfulness, which he preferred to the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the melancholy of Carlyle. Emerson’s optimism, besides being the product of his temperament, was the product of his belief in what he called “the infinitude of the private man”, that is, his belief that all that was good, wise and holy was contained in the individual.
Emerson rejected established Christianity, and its idea that only certain men, and certain days, are holy; according to Emerson, all men are divine, all days are holy. Emerson stressed the notion that the kingdom of God is within you. He wanted to do away with all religious forms. Harvard closed its doors to Emerson for thirty years because of his radical theology.
“Self-Reliance”--“I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools...alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”
Thoreau, like Emerson, was opposed to charity and philanthropy. Both men, however, were willing to donate to specific causes that they believed in: Thoreau was a benefactor of John Brown, the abolitionist, Emerson was a benefactor of Bronson Alcott, the educational reformer. Thoreau and Emerson weren’t interested in helping man in general, they only wanted to help specific men, men who deserved help on account of their high ideals, their moral character, or their intellectual gifts. Their philanthropy wasn’t aimed at alleviating suffering, it was aimed at furthering ideals.
--“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”
This natural morality reminds one of Montaigne, though it is expressed in bolder, more radical terms than those used by Montaigne. This natural morality is in opposition to established morality, Church morality, which defined right and wrong according to an objective standard, a standard outside the individual. This natural morality is an important part of Emerson’s philosophy, and one of the ideas that endeared him to Nietzsche.
--“I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere.”
Here Emerson asserts, or rather ‘supposes’, that natural morality is a fact, not an ideal. In other words, people always follow their natural inclinations, whether they intend to do so or not.
This is true, insofar as even a philosopher who opposes natural morality is doing so because his own nature prompts him to. For example, when Socrates says that we should live by reason, not natural inclination, Socrates is expressing his own nature, his own dominant super-ego. Another example: if a person commits a violent crime, and then repents and enters a monastery, is he not following two different parts of his own nature? In conclusion, there is reason to agree with Emerson that everything men do is an expression of their nature, and therefore the doctrine “Follow Your Nature” is not an ideal, it’s a fact, an inescapable fact.
But there is also reason to disagree with Emerson, or at least to qualify his idea. If man always followed his own nature, how could the nature of man evolve or progress? How could the nature of man be educated or civilized? If, for example, the Gallic or Germanic tribesman of the first century followed his nature, and was never influenced by Romans or Christians, how could he have developed into the cultured European of the eighteenth century? From this point of view, the doctrine “Follow Your Nature” is neither a fact nor an ideal.
If nature is twisted and repressed, neurosis results. If nature is followed, without any attempt at education or improvement, barbarism results. Man must strike a balance between following nature and molding nature.
--“Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.”
What Emerson calls an “involuntary perception” is what others have called an intuition. Intuition, according to Emerson, is our best tool for discovering truth.
--“Travelling is a fool’s paradise.”
This is an old argument in Western literature. Montaigne, Emerson’s favorite writer, expressed the same view, as did Horace and other ancient writers.
Emerson himself, when he was in his twenties, travelled to Europe, chiefly in order to converse with Carlyle, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Landor.
“Spiritual Laws”--“The ancestor of every action is a thought.”
Heine expressed the same view when he said, “thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder”. This view is the basis of the view that philosophy moves the world. If actions are caused by thoughts, and thoughts are shaped by philosophy, isn’t philosophy the ultimate cause of action?
“Friendship”--“The sweet sincerity of joy and peace, which I draw from this alliance with my brother’s soul, is the nut itself, whereof all nature and all thought is but the husk and shell. Happy is the house that shelters a friend!”
Montaigne, in his friendship with La Boetie, experienced the pleasures of friendship as fully as any man ever has. Though Emerson had many literary acquaintances, and many acquaintances in Concord, and though he was quite close to Thoreau and Carlyle, he never experienced friendship as Montaigne experienced it.
Nietzsche, like Montaigne, regarded friendship as the greatest pleasure of his life; he called his friendship with Wagner, “by far the most profound and cordial recreation of my life”.(Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever”, 5) Emerson regarded friendship as the best that life had to offer, but it’s doubtful whether he experienced it as such.
--“Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort.”
--“The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. That high office requires great and sublime parts. There must be very two, before there can be very one.”
A healthy, firm, strong ego is a prerequisite to both friendship and love. Those who have a weak ego, and who have the greatest need for friendship and love, never attain them.
--“Love is only the reflection of a man’s own worthiness from other men. Men have sometimes exchanged names with their friends, as if they would signify that in their friend each loved his own soul.”
Thus the basis of friendship is similarity of character, a feeling of kinship.
“Heroism”--“Towards all this external evil, the man within the breast assumes a warlike attitude, and affirms his ability to cope single-handed with the infinite army of enemies. To this military attitude of the soul we give the name of Heroism.”
--“The great will not condescend to take anything seriously; all must be as gay as the song of a canary, though it were the building of cities, or the eradication of old and foolish churches and nations, which have cumbered the earth long thousands of years.”
Nietzsche, who read Emerson carefully, must have loved this passage, which harmonizes with Nietzsche’s concept of “Joyous Science”, of laughing wisdom.
--“The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world.”
--“The unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments in obscure duties is hardening the character to that temper which will work with honor, if need be, in the tumult, or on the scaffold.”
“Considerations by the Way”--“The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses....If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population. When it reaches its true law of action, every man that is born will be hailed as essential.”
A passage like this will shock many modern readers, but similar views were expressed by many other writers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—writers like Carlyle, Nietzsche, Shaw and Wells.
--“Plutarch affirms that the cruel wars which followed the march of Alexander introduced the civility, language, and arts of Greece into the savage East; introduced marriage; built seventy cities, and united hostile nations under one government.... Wars, fires, plagues, break up immovable routine, clear the ground of rotten races and dens of distemper, and open a fair field to new men.”
--“A depression of spirits develops the germs of a plague in individuals and nations.”
Illness often results from a psychological cause, from “a depression of spirits”, and the relationship between plagues and the death-instinct merits investigation.
“Shakespeare; Or, The Poet”--“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality. If we require the originality which consists in weaving, like a spider, their web from their own bowels; in finding clay, and making bricks, and building the house; no great men are original....The greatest genius is the most indebted man. A poet [is] a heart in unison with his time and country.”
--“There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say...’today I will square the circle’...He finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.”
--“What trait of his private mind has he hidden in his dramas?....So far from Shakespeare’s being the least known, he is the one person, in all modern history, known to us.”
--Emerson expresses surprise that Shakespeare, “this man of men”, didn’t lead a more distinguished life, a more holy life: “Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but this man, in wide contrast ....It must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.”
Thus speaks the Puritan, who reveres religion and morality ahead of art. Such an attitude reminds one of Plato, who also revered morality and disdained art.
Society and Solitude
“Books”--“Never read any book that is not a year old.”
This reminds one of Schopenhauer, who criticized the common tendency to read new books, second-rate books, and ignore the old classics. Someone, however, must read new books—after all, every classic was once a new book.
Letters and Social Aims
“Quotation and Originality”--“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.”
That is to say, quotation is a form of creation. Montaigne made the same argument; here, as elsewhere in Emerson’s work, Montaigne may have directly influenced Emerson. But Emerson rarely quotes Montaigne; in fact, Emerson rarely quotes anyone. Like Nietzsche, Emerson had no fondness for quotation.