Sign up for our RWE mailing list

Literary Ethics

An Oration delivered before the Literary Societies of
Dartmouth College,
July 24, 1838



The invitation to address you this day, with which you have honored me, was
so welcome, that I made haste to obey it. A summons to celebrate with scholars a
literary festival, is so alluring to me, as to overcome the doubts I might well
entertain of my ability to bring you any thought worthy of your attention. I
have reached the middle age of man; yet I believe I am not less glad or sanguine
at the meeting of scholars, than when, a boy, I first saw the graduates of my
own College assembled at their anniversary. Neither years nor books have yet
availed to extirpate a prejudice then rooted in me, that a scholar is the
favorite of Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of
men. His duties lead him directly into the holy ground where other men’s
aspirations only point. His successes are occasions of the purest joy to all
men. Eyes is he to the blind; feet is he to the lame. His failures, if he is
worthy, are inlets to higher advantages. And because the scholar, by every
thought he thinks, extends his dominion into the general mind of men, he is not
one, but many. The few scholars in each country, whose genius I know, seem to me
not individuals, but societies; and, when events occur of great import, I count
over these representatives of opinion, whom they will affect, as if I were
counting nations. And, even if his results were incommunicable; if they abode in
his own spirit; the intellect hath somewhat so sacred in its possessions, that
the fact of his existence and pursuits would be a happy omen. Meantime I know
that a very different estimate of the scholar’s profession prevails in this
country, and the importunity, with which society presses its claim upon young
men, tends to pervert the views of the youth in respect to the culture of the
intellect. Hence the historical failure, on which Europe and America have so
freely commented. This country has not fulfilled what seemed the reasonable
expectation of mankind. Men looked, when all feudal straps and bandages were
snapped asunder, that nature, too long the mother of dwarfs, should reimburse
itself by a brood of Titans, who should laugh and leap in the continent, and run
up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and of love. But the mark
of American merit in painting, in sculpture, in poetry, in fiction, in
eloquence, seems to be a certain grace without grandeur, and itself not new but
derivative; a vase of fair outline, but empty, — which whoso sees, may fill
with what wit and character is in him, but which does not, like the charged
cloud, overflow with terrible beauty, and emit lightnings on all beholders.

I will not lose myself in the desultory questions, what are the limitations,
and what the causes of the fact. It suffices me to say, in general, that the
diffidence of mankind in the soul has crept over the American mind; that men
here, as elsewhere, are indisposed to innovation, and prefer any antiquity, any
usage, any livery productive of ease or profit, to the unproductive service of
thought. Yet, in every sane hour, the service of thought appears reasonable, the
despotism of the senses insane. The scholar may lose himself in schools, in
words, and become a pedant; but when he comprehends his duties, he above all men
is a realist, and converses with things. For, the scholar is the student of the
world, and of what worth the world is, and with what emphasis it accosts the
soul of man, such is the worth, such the call of the scholar. The want of the
times, and the propriety of this anniversary, concur to draw attention to the
doctrine of Literary Ethics. What I have to say on that doctrine distributes
itself under the topics of the resources, the subject, and the discipline of the
scholar. I. The resources of the scholar are proportioned to his confidence in
the attributes of the Intellect. The resources of the scholar are co-extensive
with nature and truth, yet can never be his, unless claimed by him with an equal
greatness of mind. He cannot know them until he has beheld with awe the
infinitude and impersonality of the intellectual power. When he has seen, that
it is not his, nor any man’s, but that it is the soul which made the world, and
that it is all accessible to him, he will know that he, as its minister, may
rightfully hold all things subordinate and answerable to it. A divine pilgrim in
nature, all things attend his steps. Over him stream the flying constellations;
over him streams Time, as they, scarcely divided into months and years. He
inhales the year as a vapor: its fragrant midsummer breath, its sparkling
January heaven. And so pass into his mind, in bright transfiguration, the grand
events of history, to take a new order and scale from him. He is the world; and
the epochs and heroes of chronology are pictorial images, in which his thoughts
are told. There is no event but sprung somewhere from the soul of man; and
therefore there is none but the soul of man can interpret. Every presentiment of
the mind is executed somewhere in a gigantic fact. What else is Greece, Rome,
England, France, St. Helena? What else are churches, literatures, and empires?
The new man must feel that he is new, and has not come into the world mortgaged
to the opinions and usages of Europe, and Asia, and Egypt. The sense of
spiritual independence is like the lovely varnish of the dew, whereby the old,
hard, peaked earth, and its old self-same productions, are made new every
morning, and shining with the last touch of the artist’s hand. A false humility,
a complaisance to reigning schools, or to the wisdom of antiquity, must not
defraud me of supreme possession of this hour. If any person have less love of
liberty, and less jealousy to guard his integrity, shall he therefore dictate to
you and me? Say to such doctors, We are thankful to you, as we are to history,
to the pyramids, and the authors; but now our day is come; we have been born out
of the eternal silence; and now will we live, — live for ourselves, — and not
as the pall-bearers of a funeral, but as the upholders and creators of our age;
and neither Greece nor Rome, nor the three Unities of Aristotle, nor the three
Kings of Cologne, nor the College of the Sorbonne, nor the Edinburgh Review, is
to command any longer. Now that we are here, we will put our own interpretation
on things, and our own things for interpretation. Please himself with
complaisance who will, — for me, things must take my scale, not I theirs. I
will say with the warlike king, "God gave me this crown, and the whole world
shall not take it away." The whole value of history, of biography, is to
increase my self-trust, by demonstrating what man can be and do. This is the
moral of the Plutarchs, the Cudworths, the Tennemanns, who give us the story of
men or of opinions. Any history of philosophy fortifies my faith, by showing me,
that what high dogmas I had supposed were the rare and late fruit of a
cumulative culture, and only now possible to some recent Kant or Fichte, — were
the prompt improvisations of the earliest inquirers; of Parmenides, Heraclitus,
and Xenophanes. In view of these students, the soul seems to whisper, `There is
a better way than this indolent learning of another. Leave me alone; do not
teach me out of Leibnitz or Schelling, and I shall find it all out myself.’
Still more do we owe to biography the fortification of our hope. If you would
know the power of character, see how much you would impoverish the world, if you
could take clean out of history the lives of Milton, Shakspeare, and Plato, —
these three, and cause them not to be. See you not, how much less the power of
man would be? I console myself in the poverty of my thoughts; in the paucity of
great men, in the malignity and dulness of the nations, by falling back on these
sublime recollections, and seeing what the prolific soul could beget on actual
nature; — seeing that Plato was, and Shakspeare, and Milton, — three
irrefragable facts. Then I dare; I also will essay to be. The humblest, the most
hopeless, in view of these radiant facts, may now theorize and hope. In spite of
all the rueful abortions that squeak and gibber in the street, in spite of
slumber and guilt, in spite of the army, the bar-room, and the jail, _have been_
these glorious manifestations of the mind; and I will thank my great brothers so
truly for the admonition of their being, as to endeavor also to be just and
brave, to aspire and to speak. Plotinus too, and Spinoza, and the immortal bards
of philosophy, –that which they have written out with patient courage, makes me
bold. No more will I dismiss, with haste, the visions which flash and sparkle
across my sky; but observe them, approach them, domesticate them, brood on them,
and draw out of the past, genuine life for the present hour.

To feel the full value of these lives, as occasions of hope and provocation,
you must come to know, that each admirable genius is but a successful diver in
that sea whose floor of pearls is all your own. The impoverishing philosophy of
ages has laid stress on the distinctions of the individual, and not on the
universal attributes of man. The youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a
hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he
admires. In solitude, in a remote village, the ardent youth loiters and mourns.
With inflamed eye, in this sleeping wilderness, he has read the story of the
Emperor Charles the Fifth, until his fancy has brought home to the surrounding
woods, the faint roar of cannonades in the Milanese, and marches in Germany. He
is curious concerning that man’s day. What filled it? the crowded orders, the
stern decisions, the foreign despatches, the Castilian etiquette? The soul
answers — Behold his day here! In the sighing of these woods, in the quiet of
these gray fields, in the cool breeze that sings out of these northern
mountains; in the workmen, the boys, the maidens, you meet, — in the hopes of
the morning, the ennui of noon, and sauntering of the afternoon; in the
disquieting comparisons; in the regrets at want of vigor; in the great idea, and
the puny execution; — behold Charles the Fifth’s day; another, yet the same;
behold Chatham’s, Hampden’s, Bayard’s, Alfred’s, Scipio’s, Pericles’s day, —
day of all that are born of women. The difference of circumstance is merely
costume. I am tasting the self-same life, — its sweetness, its greatness, its
pain, which I so admire in other men. Do not foolishly ask of the inscrutable,
obliterated past, what it cannot tell, — the details of that nature, of that
day, called Byron, or Burke; — but ask it of the enveloping Now; the more
quaintly you inspect its evanescent beauties, its wonderful details, its
spiritual causes, its astounding whole, — so much the more you master the
biography of this hero, and that, and every hero. Be lord of a day, through
wisdom and justice, and you can put up your history books.

An intimation of these broad rights is familiar in the sense of injury which
men feel in the assumption of any man to limit their possible progress. We
resent all criticism, which denies us any thing that lies in our line of
advance. Say to the man of letters, that he cannot paint a Transfiguration, or
build a steamboat, or be a grand-marshal, — and he will not seem to himself
depreciated. But deny to him any quality of literary or metaphysical power, and
he is piqued. Concede to him genius, which is a sort of Stoical _plenum_
annulling the comparative, and he is content; but concede him talents never so
rare, denying him genius, and he is aggrieved. What does this mean? Why simply,
that the soul has assurance, by instincts and presentiments, of _all_ power in
the direction of its ray, as well as of the special skills it has already
acquired. In order to a knowledge of the resources of the scholar, we must not
rest in the use of slender accomplishments, — of faculties to do this and that
other feat with words; but we must pay our vows to the highest power, and pass,
if it be possible, by assiduous love and watching, into the visions of absolute
truth. The growth of the intellect is strictly analogous in all individuals. It
is larger reception. Able men, in general, have good dispositions, and a respect
for justice; because an able man is nothing else than a good, free, vascular
organization, whereinto the universal spirit freely flows; so that his fund of
justice is not only vast, but infinite. All men, in the abstract, are just and
good; what hinders them, in the particular, is, the momentary predominance of
the finite and individual over the general truth. The condition of our
incarnation in a private self, seems to be, a perpetual tendency to prefer the
private law, to obey the private impulse, to the exclusion of the law of
universal being. The hero is great by means of the predominance of the universal
nature; he has only to open his mouth, and it speaks; he has only to be forced
to act, and it acts. All men catch the word, or embrace the deed, with the
heart, for it is verily theirs as much as his; but in them this disease of an
excess of organization cheats them of equal issues. Nothing is more simple than
greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great. The vision of genius comes by
renouncing the too officious activity of the understanding, and giving leave and
amplest privilege to the spontaneous sentiment. Out of this must all that is
alive and genial in thought go. Men grind and grind in the mill of a truism, and
nothing comes out but what was put in. But the moment they desert the tradition
for a spontaneous thought, then poetry, wit, hope, virtue, learning, anecdote,
all flock to their aid. Observe the phenomenon of extempore debate. A man of
cultivated mind, but reserved habits, sitting silent, admires the miracle of
free, impassioned, picturesque speech, in the man addressing an assembly; — a
state of being and power, how unlike his own! Presently his own emotion rises to
his lips, and overflows in speech. He must also rise and say somewhat. Once
embarked, once having overcome the novelty of the situation, he finds it just as
easy and natural to speak, — to speak with thoughts, with pictures, with
rhythmical balance of sentences, — as it was to sit silent; for, it needs not
to do, but to suffer; he only adjusts himself to the free spirit which gladly
utters itself through him; and motion is as easy as rest.

II. I pass now to consider the task offered to the intellect of this country.
The view I have taken of the resources of the scholar, presupposes a subject as
broad. We do not seem to have imagined its riches. We have not heeded the
invitation it holds out. To be as good a scholar as Englishmen are; to have as
much learning as our contemporaries; to have written a book that is read;
satisfies us. We assume, that all thought is already long ago adequately set
down in books, — all imaginations in poems; and what we say, we only throw in
as confirmatory of this supposed complete body of literature. A very shallow
assumption. Say rather, all literature is yet to be written. Poetry has scarce
chanted its first song. The perpetual admonition of nature to us, is, `The world
is new, untried. Do not believe the past. I give you the universe a virgin
to-day.’ By Latin and English poetry, we were born and bred in an oratorio of
praises of nature, — flowers, birds, mountains, sun, and moon; — yet the
naturalist of this hour finds that he knows nothing, by all their poems, of any
of these fine things; that he has conversed with the mere surface and show of
them all; and of their essence, or of their history, knows nothing. Further
inquiry will discover that nobody, — that not these chanting poets themselves,
knew any thing sincere of these handsome natures they so commended; that they
contented themselves with the passing chirp of a bird, that they saw one or two
mornings, and listlessly looked at sunsets, and repeated idly these few glimpses
in their song. But go into the forest, you shall find all new and undescribed.
The screaming of the wild geese flying by night; the thin note of the
companionable titmouse, in the winter day; the fall of swarms of flies, in
autumn, from combats high in the air, pattering down on the leaves like rain;
the angry hiss of the wood-birds; the pine throwing out its pollen for the
benefit of the next century; the turpentine exuding from the tree; — and,
indeed, any vegetation; any animation; any and all, are alike unattempted. The
man who stands on the seashore, or who rambles in the woods, seems to be the
first man that ever stood on the shore, or entered a grove, his sensations and
his world are so novel and strange. Whilst I read the poets, I think that
nothing new can be said about morning and evening. But when I see the daybreak,
I am not reminded of these Homeric, or Shakspearian, or Miltonic, or Chaucerian
pictures. No; but I feel perhaps the pain of an alien world; a world not yet
subdued by the thought; or, I am cheered by the moist, warm, glittering,
budding, melodious hour, that takes down the narrow walls of my soul, and
extends its life and pulsation to the very horizon. _That_ is morning, to cease
for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large
as nature. The noonday darkness of the American forest, the deep, echoing,
aboriginal woods, where the living columns of the oak and fir tower up from the
ruins of the trees of the last millennium; where, from year to year, the eagle
and the crow see no intruder; the pines, bearded with savage moss, yet touched
with grace by the violets at their feet; the broad, cold lowland, which forms
its coat of vapor with the stillness of subterranean crystallization; and where
the traveller, amid the repulsive plants that are native in the swamp, thinks
with pleasing terror of the distant town; this beauty, –haggard and desert
beauty, which the sun and the moon, the snow and the rain, repaint and vary, has
never been recorded by art, yet is not indifferent to any passenger. All men are
poets at heart. They serve nature for bread, but her loveliness overcomes them
sometimes. What mean these journeys to Niagara; these pilgrims to the White
Hills? Men believe in the adaptations of utility, always: in the mountains, they
may believe in the adaptations of the eye. Undoubtedly, the changes of geology
have a relation to the prosperous sprouting of the corn and peas in my kitchen
garden; but not less is there a relation of beauty between my soul and the dim
crags of Agiocochook up there in the clouds. Every man, when this is told,
hearkens with joy, and yet his own conversation with nature is still unsung.

Is it otherwise with civil history? Is it not the lesson of our experience
that every man, were life long enough, would write history for himelf? What else
do these volumes of extracts and manuscript commentaries, that every scholar
writes, indicate? Greek history is one thing to me; another to you. Since the
birth of Niebuhr and Wolf, Roman and Greek History have been written anew. Since
Carlyle wrote French History, we see that no history, that we have, is safe, but
a new classifier shall give it new and more philosophical arrangement.
Thucydides, Livy, have only provided materials. The moment a man of genius
pronounces the name of the Pelasgi, of Athens, of the Etrurian, of the Roman
people, we see their state under a new aspect. As in poetry and history, so in
the other departments. There are few masters or none. Religion is yet to be
settled on its fast foundations in the breast of man; and politics, and
philosophy, and letters, and art. As yet we have nothing but tendency and

This starting, this warping of the best literary works from the adamant of
nature, is especially observable in philosophy. Let it take what tone of
pretension it will, to this complexion must it come, at last. Take, for example,
the French Eclecticism, which Cousin esteems so conclusive; there is an optical
illusion in it. It avows great pretensions. It looks as if they had all truth,
in taking all the systems, and had nothing to do, but to sift and wash and
strain, and the gold and diamonds would remain in the last colander. But, Truth
is such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a
commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light. Shut the shutters never so
quick, to keep all the light in, it is all in vain; it is gone before you can
cry, Hold. And so it happens with our philosophy. Translate, collate, distil all
the systems, it steads you nothing; for truth will not be compelled, in any
mechanical manner. But the first observation you make, in the sincere act of
your nature, though on the veriest trifle, may open a new view of nature and of
man, that, like a menstruum, shall dissolve all theories in it; shall take up
Greece, Rome, Stoicism, Eclecticism, and what not, as mere data and food for
analysis, and dispose of your world-containing system, as a very little unit. A
profound thought, anywhere, classifies all things: a profound thought will lift
Olympus. The book of philosophy is only a fact, and no more inspiring fact than
another, and no less; but a wise man will never esteem it anything final and
transcending. Go and talk with a man of genius, and the first word he utters,
sets all your so-called knowledge afloat and at large. Then Plato, Bacon, Kant,
and the Eclectic Cousin, condescend instantly to be men and mere facts.

I by no means aim, in these remarks, to disparage the merit of these or of
any existing compositions; I only say that any particular portraiture does not
in any manner exclude or fore-stall a new attempt, but, when considered by the
soul, warps and shrinks away. The inundation of the spirit sweeps away before it
all our little architecture of wit and memory, as straws and straw-huts before
the torrent. Works of the intellect are great only by comparison with each
other; Ivanhoe and Waverley compared with Castle Radcliffe and the Porter
novels; but nothing is great, — not mighty Homer and Milton, — beside the
infinite Reason. It carries them away as a flood. They are as a sleep.

Thus is justice done to each generation and individual, –wisdom teaching man
that he shall not hate, or fear, or mimic his ancestors; that he shall not
bewail himself, as if the world was old, and thought was spent, and he was born
into the dotage of things; for, by virtue of the Deity, thought renews itself
inexhaustibly every day, and the thing whereon it shines, though it were dust
and sand, is a new subject with countless relations. III. Having thus spoken of
the resources and the subject of the scholar, out of the same faith proceeds
also the rule of his ambition and life. Let him know that the world is his, but
he must possess it by putting himself into harmony with the constitution of
things. He must be a solitary, laborious, modest, and charitable soul. He must
embrace solitude as a bride. He must have his glees and his glooms alone. His
own estimate must be measure enough, his own praise reward enough for him. And
why must the student be solitary and silent? That he may become acquainted with
his thoughts. If he pines in a lonely place, hankering for the crowd, for
display, he is not in the lonely place; his heart is in the market; he does not
see; he does not hear; he does not think. But go cherish your soul; expel
companions; set your habits to a life of solitude; then, will the faculties rise
fair and full within, like forest trees and field flowers; you will have
results, which, when you meet your fellow-men, you can communicate, and they
will gladly receive. Do not go into solitude only that you may presently come
into public. Such solitude denies itself; is public and stale. The public can
get public experience, but they wish the scholar to replace to them those
private, sincere, divine experiences, of which they have been defrauded by
dwelling in the street. It is the noble, manlike, just thought, which is the
superiority demanded of you, and not crowds but solitude confers this elevation.
Not insulation of place, but independence of spirit is essential, and it is only
as the garden, the cottage, the forest, and the rock, are a sort of mechanical
aids to this, that they are of value. Think alone, and all places are friendly
and sacred. The poets who have lived in cities have been hermits still.
Inspiration makes solitude anywhere. Pindar, Raphael, Angelo, Dryden, De Stael,
dwell in crowds, it may be, but the instant thought comes, the crowd grows dim
to their eye; their eye fixes on the horizon, — on vacant space; they forget
the bystanders; they spurn personal relations; they deal with abstractions, with
verities, with ideas. They are alone with the mind.

Of course, I would not have any superstition about solitude. Let the youth
study the uses of solitude and of society. Let him use both, not serve either.
The reason why an ingenious soul shuns society, is to the end of finding
society. It repudiates the false, out of love of the true. You can very soon
learn all that society can teach you for one while. Its foolish routine, an
indefinite multiplication of balls, concerts, rides, theatres, can teach you no
more than a few can. Then accept the hint of shame, of spiritual emptiness and
waste, which true nature gives you, and retire, and hide; lock the door; shut
the shutters; then welcome falls the imprisoning rain, — dear hermitage of
nature. Re-collect the spirits. Have solitary prayer and praise. Digest and
correct the past experience; and blend it with the new and divine life. You will
pardon me, Gentlemen, if I say, I think that we have need of a more rigorous
scholastic rule; such an asceticism, I mean, as only the hardihood and devotion
of the scholar himself can enforce. We live in the sun and on the surface, — a
thin, plausible, superficial existence, and talk of muse and prophet, of art and
creation. But out of our shallow and frivolous way of life, how can greatness
ever grow? Come now, let us go and be dumb. Let us sit with our hands on our
mouths, a long, austere, Pythagorean lustrum. Let us live in corners, and do
chores, and suffer, and weep, and drudge, with eyes and hearts that love the
Lord. Silence, seclusion, austerity, may pierce deep into the grandeur and
secret of our being, and so diving, bring up out of secular darkness, the
sublimities of the moral constitution. How mean to go blazing, a gaudy
butterfly, in fashionable or political saloons, the fool of society, the fool of
notoriety, a topic for newspapers, a piece of the street, and forfeiting the
real prerogative of the russet coat, the privacy, and the true and warm heart of
the citizen! Fatal to the man of letters, fatal to man, is the lust of display,
the seeming that unmakes our being. A mistake of the main end to which they
labor, is incident to literary men, who, dealing with the organ of language, —
the subtlest, strongest, and longest-lived of man’s creations, and only fitly
used as the weapon of thought and of justice, — learn to enjoy the pride of
playing with this splendid engine, but rob it of its almightiness by failing to
work with it. Extricating themselves from the tasks of the world, the world
revenges itself by exposing, at every turn, the folly of these incomplete,
pedantic, useless, ghostly creatures. The scholar will feel, that the richest
romance, — the noblest fiction that was ever woven, — the heart and soul of
beauty, — lies enclosed in human life. Itself of surpassing value, it is also
the richest material for his creations. How shall he know its secrets of
tenderness, of terror, of will, and of fate? How can he catch and keep the
strain of upper music that peals from it? Its laws are concealed under the
details of daily action. All action is an experiment upon them. He must bear his
share of the common load. He must work with men in houses, and not with their
names in books. His needs, appetites, talents, affections, accomplishments, are
keys that open to him the beautiful museum of human life. Why should he read it
as an Arabian tale, and not know, in his own beating bosom, its sweet and smart?
Out of love and hatred, out of earnings, and borrowings, and lendings, and
losses; out of sickness and pain; out of wooing and worshipping; out of
travelling, and voting, and watching, and caring; out of disgrace and contempt,
comes our tuition in the serene and beautiful laws. Let him not slur his lesson;
let him learn it by heart. Let him endeavor exactly, bravely, and cheerfully, to
solve the problem of that life which is set before _him_. And this, by punctual
action, and not by promises or dreams. Believing, as in God, in the presence and
favor of the grandest influences, let him deserve that favor, and learn how to
receive and use it, by fidelity also to the lower observances. This lesson is
taught with emphasis in the life of the great actor of this age, and affords the
explanation of his success. Bonaparte represents truly a great recent
revolution, which we in this country, please God, shall carry to its farthest
consummation. Not the least instructive passage in modern history, seems to me a
trait of Napoleon, exhibited to the English when he became their prisoner. On
coming on board the Bellerophon, a file of English soldiers drawn up on deck,
gave him a military salute. Napoleon observed, that their manner of handling
their arms differed from the French exercise, and, putting aside the guns of
those nearest him, walked up to a soldier, took his gun, and himself went
through the motion in the French mode. The English officers and men looked on
with astonishment, and inquired if such familiarity was usual with the Emperor.

In this instance, as always, that man, with whatever defects or vices,
represented performance in lieu of pretension. Feudalism and Orientalism had
long enough thought it majestic to do nothing; the modern majesty consists in
work. He belonged to a class, fast growing in the world, who think, that what a
man can do is his greatest ornament, and that he always consults his dignity by
doing it. He was not a believer in luck; he had a faith, like sight, in the
application of means to ends. Means to ends, is the motto of all his behavior.
He believed that the great captains of antiquity performed their exploits only
by correct combinations, and by justly comparing the relation between means and
consequences; efforts and obstacles. The vulgar call good fortune that which
really is produced by the calculations of genius. But Napoleon, thus faithful to
facts, had also this crowning merit; that, whilst he believed in number and
weight, and omitted no part of prudence, he believed also in the freedom and
quite incalculable force of the soul. A man of infinite caution, he neglected
never the least particular of preparation, of patient adaptation; yet
nevertheless he had a sublime confidence, as in his all, in the sallies of the
courage, and the faith in his destiny, which, at the right moment, repaired all
losses, and demolished cavalry, infantry, king, and kaisar, as with irresistible
thunderbolts. As they say the bough of the tree has the character of the leaf,
and the whole tree of the bough, so, it is curious to remark, Bonaparte’s army
partook of this double strength of the captain; for, whilst strictly supplied in
all its appointments, and everything expected from the valor and discipline of
every platoon, in flank and centre, yet always remained his total trust in the
prodigious revolutions of fortune, which his reserved Imperial Guard were
capable of working, if, in all else, the day was lost. Here he was sublime. He
no longer calculated the chance of the cannon-ball. He was faithful to tactics
to the uttermost, — and when all tactics had come to an end, then, he dilated,
and availed himself of the mighty saltations of the most formidable soldiers in

Let the scholar appreciate this combination of gifts, which, applied to
better purpose, make true wisdom. He is a revealer of things. Let him first
learn the things. Let him not, too eager to grasp some badge of reward, omit the
work to be done. Let him know, that, though the success of the market is in the
reward, true success is the doing; that, in the private obedience to his mind;
in the sedulous inquiry, day after day, year after year, to know how the thing
stands; in the use of all means, and most in the reverence of the humble
commerce and humble needs of life, — to hearken what _they_ say, and so, by
mutual reaction of thought and life, to make thought solid, and life wise; and
in a contempt for the gabble of to-day’s opinions, the secret of the world is to
be learned, and the skill truly to unfold it is acquired. Or, rather, is it not,
that, by this discipline, the usurpation of the senses is overcome, and the
lower faculties of man are subdued to docility; through which, as an
unobstructed channel, the soul now easily and gladly flows? The good scholar
will not refuse to bear the yoke in his youth; to know, if he can, the uttermost
secret of toil and endurance; to make his own hands acquainted with the soil by
which he is fed, and the sweat that goes before comfort and luxury. Let him pay
his tithe, and serve the world as a true and noble man; never forgetting to
worship the immortal divinities, who whisper to the poet, and make him the
utterer of melodies that pierce the ear of eternal time. If he have this twofold
goodness, — the drill and the inspiration, –then he has health; then he is a
whole, and not a fragment; and the perfection of his endowment will appear in
his compositions. Indeed, this twofold merit characterizes ever the productions
of great masters. The man of genius should occupy the whole space between God or
pure mind, and the multitude of uneducated men. He must draw from the infinite
Reason, on one side; and he must penetrate into the heart and sense of the
crowd, on the other. From one, he must draw his strength; to the other, he must
owe his aim. The one yokes him to the real; the other, to the apparent. At one
pole, is Reason; at the other, Common Sense. If he be defective at either
extreme of the scale, his philosophy will seem low and utilitarian; or it will
appear too vague and indefinite for the uses of life. The student, as we all
along insist, is great only by being passive to the superincumbent spirit. Let
this faith, then, dictate all his action. Snares and bribes abound to mislead
him; let him be true nevertheless. His success has its perils too. There is
somewhat inconvenient and injurious in his position. They whom his thoughts have
entertained or inflamed, seek him before yet they have learned the hard
conditions of thought. They seek him, that he may turn his lamp on the dark
riddles whose solution they think is inscribed on the walls of their being. They
find that he is a poor, ignorant man, in a white-seamed, rusty coat, like
themselves, no wise emitting a continuous stream of light, but now and then a
jet of luminous thought, followed by total darkness; moreover, that he cannot
make of his infrequent illumination a portable taper to carry whither he would,
and explain now this dark riddle, now that. Sorrow ensues. The scholar regrets
to damp the hope of ingenuous boys; and the youth has lost a star out of his new
flaming firmament. Hence the temptation to the scholar to mystify; to hear the
question; to sit upon it; to make an answer of words, in lack of the oracle of
things. Not the less let him be cold and true, and wait in patience, knowing
that truth can make even silence eloquent and memorable. Truth shall be policy
enough for him. Let him open his breast to all honest inquiry, and be an artist
superior to tricks of art. Show frankly as a saint would do, your experience,
methods, tools, and means. Welcome all comers to the freest use of the same. And
out of this superior frankness and charity, you shall learn higher secrets of
your nature, which gods will bend and aid you to communicate. If, with a high
trust, he can thus submit himself, he will find that ample returns are poured
into his bosom, out of what seemed hours of obstruction and loss. Let him not
grieve too much on account of unfit associates. When he sees how much thought he
owes to the disagreeable antagonism of various persons who pass and cross him,
he can easily think that in a society of perfect sympathy, no word, no act, no
record, would be. He will learn, that it is not much matter what he reads, what
he does. Be a scholar, and he shall have the scholar’s part of every thing. As,
in the counting-room, the merchant cares little whether the cargo be hides or
barilla; the transaction, a letter of credit or a transfer of stocks; be it what
it may, his commission comes gently out of it; so you shall get your lesson out
of the hour, and the object, whether it be a concentrated or a wasteful
employment, even in reading a dull book, or working off a stint of mechanical
day labor, which your necessities or the necessities of others impose.

Gentlemen, I have ventured to offer you these considerations upon the
scholar’s place, and hope, because I thought, that, standing, as many of you now
do, on the threshold of this College, girt and ready to go and assume tasks,
public and private, in your country, you would not be sorry to be admonished of
those primary duties of the intellect, whereof you will seldom hear from the
lips of your new companions. You will hear every day the maxims of a low
prudence. You will hear, that the first duty is to get land and money, place and
name. `What is this Truth you seek? what is this Beauty?’ men will ask, with
derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore truth and
beauty, be bold, be firm, be true. When you shall say, `As others do, so will I:
I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat the good of the
land, and let learning and romantic expectations go, until a more convenient
season;’ — then dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and
poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand thousand men. The
hour of that choice is the crisis of your history; and see that you hold
yourself fast by the intellect. It is this domineering temper of the sensual
world, that creates the extreme need of the priests of science; and it is the
office and right of the intellect to make and not take its estimate. Bend to the
persuasion which is flowing to you from every object in nature, to be its tongue
to the heart of man, and to show the besotted world how passing fair is wisdom.
Forewarned that the vice of the times and the country is an excessive
pretension, let us seek the shade, and find wisdom in neglect. Be content with a
little light, so it be your own. Explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor
flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize, nor
accept another’s dogmatism. Why should you renounce your right to traverse the
star-lit deserts of truth, for the premature comforts of an acre, house, and
barn? Truth also has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself necessary to
the world, and mankind will give you bread, and if not store of it, yet such as
shall not takeaway your property in all men’s possessions, in all men’s
affections, in art, in nature, and in hope.

You will not fear, that I am enjoining too stern an asceticism. Ask not, Of
what use is a scholarship that systematically retreats? or, Who is the better
for the philosopher who conceals his accomplishments, and hides his thoughts
from the waiting world? Hides his thoughts! Hide the sun and moon. Thought is
all light, and publishes itself to the universe. It will speak, though you were
dumb, by its own miraculous organ. It will flow out of your actions, your
manners, and your face. It will bring you friendships. It will impledge you to
truth by the love and expectation of generous minds. By virtue of the laws of
that Nature, which is one and perfect, it shall yield every sincere good that is
in the soul, to the scholar beloved of earth and heaven.

(Visited 975 times, 1 visits today)


Live Video Streaming

ViewLive Streaming from of the documentary, Emerson: The Ideal In America

All proceeds go to supporting - The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Ideal in the West

From the director/author of Emerson: The Ideal In America

"Ide­al­ismthe old­est continuously-operating philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem in the West. 

Kindle Edition Is also available!

Emerson: The Ideal in America-Educator's Edition

Documentary on Life and Inspiration of
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson's house in Concord, MA

Educator's Edition, includes full interviews,
54 minute doc + 49 minutes of bonus material.

Emerson: The Ideal in America--Educator's Edition

Copyright© 2015 All Rights Reserved.