Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

Nature (1836) (complete book)

Nature (1836)
(complete book) by
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.

I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

Vol I – Nature, Addresses & Lectures (1836)

Nature: Introduction Audio Essays
(Glossary for Emerson’s Nature)
Chapter I. Nature Audio Essays
Chapter II. Commodity Audio Essays
Chapter III. Beauty Audio Essays
Chapter IV. Language Audio Essays
Chapter V. Discipline Audio Essays
Chapter VI. Idealism Audio Essays
Chapter VII. Spirit
Chapter VIII. Prospects Audio Essays

The American Scholar Audio Essays
The Young American
The Conservative
Divinity School Address

Literary Ethics
The Method of Nature
Man the Reformer
Introductory Lecture on the Times
The Transcendentalist

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

The Young American

A Lecture read before the Mercantile Library Association,
Boston, February
7, 1844


It is remarkable, that our people have their intellectual culture from one
country, and their duties from another.  This false state of things is newly in
a way to be corrected. America is beginning to assert itself to the senses and
to the imagination of her children, and Europe is receding in the same degree.
This their reaction on education gives a new importance to the internal
improvements and to the politics of the country. Who has not been stimulated to
reflection by the facilities now in progress of construction for travel and the
transportation of goods in the United States?

This rage for road building is beneficent for America, where vast distance is
so main a consideration in our domestic politics and trade, inasmuch as the
great political promise of the invention is to hold the Union staunch, whose
days seemed already numbered by the mere inconvenience of transporting
representatives, judges, and officers across such tedious distances of land and
water. Not only is distance annihilated, but when, as now, the locomotive and
the steamboat, like enormous shuttles, shoot every day across the thousand
various threads of national descent and employment, and bind them fast in one
web, an hourly assimilation goes forward, and there is no danger that local
peculiarities and hostilities should be preserved.

1. But I hasten to speak of the utility of these improvements in creating an
American sentiment. An unlooked for consequence of the railroad, is the
increased acquaintance it has given the American people with the boundless
resources of their own soil. If this invention has reduced England to a third of
its size, by bringing people so much nearer, in this country it has given a new
celerity to _time_, or anticipated by fifty years the planting of tracts of
land, the choice of water privileges, the working of mines, and other natural
advantages. Railroad iron is a magician's rod, in its power to evoke the
sleeping energies of land and water.

The railroad is but one arrow in our quiver, though it has great value as a
sort of yard-stick, and surveyor's line. The bountiful continent is ours, state
on state, and territory on territory, to the waves of the Pacific sea;

"Our garden is the immeasurable earth, The heaven's blue pillars are Medea's

The task of surveying, planting, and building upon this immense tract,
requires an education and a sentiment commensurate thereto. A consciousness of
this fact, is beginning to take the place of the purely trading spirit and
education which sprang up whilst all the population lived on the fringe of
sea-coast. And even on the coast, prudent men have begun to see that every
American should be educated with a view to the values of land. The arts of
engineering and of architecture are studied; scientific agriculture is an object
of growing attention; the mineral riches are explored; limestone, coal, slate,
and iron; and the value of timber-lands is enhanced.

Columbus alleged as a reason for seeking a continent in the West, that the
harmony of nature required a great tract of land in the western hemisphere, to
balance the known extent of land in the eastern; and it now appears that we must
estimate the native values of this broad region to redress the balance of our
own judgments, and appreciate the advantages opened to the human race in this
country, which is our fortunate home. The land is the appointed remedy for
whatever is false and fantastic in our culture. The continent we inhabit is to
be physic and food for our mind, as well as our body. The land, with its
tranquilizing, sanative influences, is to repair the errors of a scholastic and
traditional education, and bring us into just relations with men and things.

The habit of living in the presence of these invitations of natural wealth is
not inoperative; and this habit, combined with the moral sentiment which, in the
recent years, has interrogated every institution, usage, and law, has,
naturally, given a strong direction to the wishes and aims of active young men
to withdraw from cities, and cultivate the soil. This inclination has appeared
in the most unlooked for quarters, in men supposed to be absorbed in business,
and in those connected with the liberal professions. And, since the walks of
trade were crowded, whilst that of agriculture cannot easily be, inasmuch as the
farmer who is not wanted by others can yet grow his own bread, whilst the
manufacturer or the trader, who is not wanted, cannot, — this seemed a happy
tendency. For, beside all the moral benefit which we may expect from the
farmer's profession, when a man enters it considerately, this promised the
conquering of the soil, plenty, and beyond this, the adorning of the country
with every advantage and ornament which labor, ingenuity, and affection for a
man's home, could suggest.

Meantime, with cheap land, and the pacific disposition of the people, every
thing invites to the arts of agriculture, of gardening, and domestic
architecture. Public gardens, on the scale of such plantations in Europe and
Asia, are now unknown to us. There is no feature of the old countries that
strikes an American with more agreeable surprise than the beautiful gardens of
Europe; such as the Boboli in Florence, the Villa Borghese in Rome, the Villa
d'Este in Tivoli, the gardens at Munich, and at Frankfort on the Maine: works
easily imitated here, and which might well make the land dear to the citizen,
and inflame patriotism. It is the fine art which is left for us, now that
sculpture, painting, and religious and civil architecture have become effete,
and have passed into second childhood. We have twenty degrees of latitude
wherein to choose a seat, and the new modes of travelling enlarge the
opportunity of selection, by making it easy to cultivate very distant tracts,
and yet remain in strict intercourse with the centres of trade and population.
And the whole force of all the arts goes to facilitate the decoration of lands
and dwellings. A garden has this advantage, that it makes it indifferent where
you live. A well-laid garden makes the face of the country of no account; let
that be low or high, grand or mean, you have made a beautiful abode worthy of
man. If the landscape is pleasing, the garden shows it, — if tame, it excludes
it. A little grove, which any farmer can find, or cause to grow near his house,
will, in a few years, make cataracts and chains of mountains quite unnecessary
to his scenery; and he is so contented with his alleys, woodlands, orchards, and
river, that Niagara, and the Notch of the White Hills, and Nantasket Beach, are
superfluities. And yet the selection of a fit houselot has the same advantage
over an indifferent one, as the selection to a given employment of a man who has
a genius for that work. In the last case, the culture of years will never make
the most painstaking apprentice his equal: no more will gardening give the
advantage of a happy site to a house in a hole or on a pinnacle. In America, we
have hitherto little to boast in this kind. The cities drain the country of the
best part of its population: the flower of the youth, of both sexes, goes into
the towns, and the country is cultivated by a so much inferior class. The land,
— travel a whole day together, — looks poverty-stricken, and the buildings
plain and poor. In Europe, where society has an aristocratic structure, the land
is full of men of the best stock, and the best culture, whose interest and pride
it is to remain half the year on their estates, and to fill them with every
convenience and ornament. Of course, these make model farms, and model
architecture, and are a constant education to the eye of the surrounding
population. Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and
infuse into them the passion for country life, and country pleasures, will
render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most
poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art the native
but hidden graces of the landscape.

I look on such improvements, also, as directly tending to endear the land to
the inhabitant. Any relation to the land, the habit of tilling it, or mining it,
or even hunting on it, generates the feeling of patriotism. He who keeps shop on
it, or he who merely uses it as a support to his desk and ledger, or to his
manufactory, values it less. The vast majority of the people of this country
live by the land, and carry its quality in their manners and opinions. We in the
Atlantic states, by position, have been commercial, and have, as I said, imbibed
easily an European culture. Luckily for us, now that steam has narrowed the
Atlantic to a strait, the nervous, rocky West is intruding a new and continental
element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius. How
much better when the whole land is a garden, and the people have grown up in the
bowers of a paradise. Without looking, then, to those extraordinary social
influences which are now acting in precisely this direction, but only at what is
inevitably doing around us, I think we must regard the _land_ as a commanding
and increasing power on the citizen, the sanative and Americanizing influence,
which promises to disclose new virtues for ages to come.

2. In the second place, the uprise and culmination of the new and anti-feudal
power of Commerce, is the political fact of most significance to the American at
this hour.

We cannot look on the freedom of this country, in connexion with its youth,
without a presentiment that here shall laws and institutions exist on some scale
of proportion to the majesty of nature. To men legislating for the area betwixt
the two oceans, betwixt the snows and the tropics, somewhat of the gravity of
nature will infuse itself into the code. A heterogeneous population crowding on
all ships from all corners of the world to the great gates of North America,
namely, Boston, New York, and New Orleans, and thence proceeding inward to the
prairie and the mountains, and quickly contributing their private thought to the
public opinion, their toll to the treasury, and their vote to the election, it
cannot be doubted that the legislation of this country should become more
catholic and cosmopolitan than that of any other. It seems so easy for America
to inspire and express the most expansive and humane spirit; new-born, free,
healthful, strong, the land of the laborer, of the democrat, of the
philanthropist, of the believer, of the saint, she should speak for the human
race. It is the country of the Future. From Washington, proverbially `the city
of magnificent distances,' through all its cities, states, and territories, it
is a country of beginnings, of projects, of designs, and expectations.
Gentlemen, there is a sublime and friendly Destiny by which the human race is
guided, — the race never dying, the individual never spared, — to results
affecting masses and ages. Men are narrow and selfish, but the Genius or Destiny
is not narrow, but beneficent. It is not discovered in their calculated and
voluntary activity, but in what befalls, with or without their design. Only what
is inevitable interests us, and it turns out that love and good are inevitable,
and in the course of things. That Genius has infused itself into nature. It
indicates itself by a small excess of good, a small balance in brute facts
always favorable to the side of reason. All the facts in any part of nature
shall be tabulated, and the results shall indicate the same security and
benefit; so slight as to be hardly observable, and yet it is there. The sphere
is flattened at the poles, and swelled at the equator; a form flowing
necessarily from the fluid state, yet _the_ form, the mathematician assures us,
required to prevent the protuberances of the continent, or even of lesser
mountains cast up at any time by earthquakes, from continually deranging the
axis of the earth. The census of the population is found to keep an invariable
equality in the sexes, with a trifling predominance in favor of the male, as if
to counterbalance the necessarily increased exposure of male life in war,
navigation, and other accidents. Remark the unceasing effort throughout nature
at somewhat better than the actual creatures: _amelioration in nature_, which
alone permits and authorizes amelioration in mankind. The population of the
world is a conditional population; these are not the best, but the best that
could live in the existing state of soils, gases, animals, and morals: the best
that could _yet_ live; there shall be a better, please God. This Genius, or
Destiny, is of the sternest administration, though rumors exist of its secret
tenderness. It may be styled a cruel kindness, serving the whole even to the
ruin of the member; a terrible communist, reserving all profits to the
community, without dividend to individuals. Its law is, you shall have
everything as a member, nothing to yourself. For Nature is the noblest engineer,
yet uses a grinding economy, working up all that is wasted to-day into
to-morrow's creation; — not a superfluous grain of sand, for all the
ostentation she makes of expense and public works. It is because Nature thus
saves and uses, laboring for the general, that we poor particulars are so
crushed and straitened, and find it so hard to live. She flung us out in her
plenty, but we cannot shed a hair, or a paring of a nail, but instantly she
snatches at the shred, and appropriates it to the general stock. Our condition
is like that of the poor wolves: if one of the flock wound himself, or so much
as limp, the rest eat him up incontinently.

That serene Power interposes the check upon the caprices and officiousness of
our wills. Its charity is not our charity. One of its agents is our will, but
that which expresses itself in our will, is stronger than our will. We are very
forward to help it, but it will not be accelerated. It resists our meddling,
eleemosynary contrivances. We devise sumptuary and relief laws, but the
principle of population is always reducing wages to the lowest pittance on which
human life can be sustained. We legislate against forestalling and monopoly; we
would have a common granary for the poor; but the selfishness which hoards the
corn for high prices, is the preventive of famine; and the law of
self-preservation is surer policy than any legislation can be. We concoct
eleemosynary systems, and it turns out that our charity increases pauperism. We
inflate our paper currency, we repair commerce with unlimited credit, and are
presently visited with unlimited bankruptcy.

It is easy to see that the existing generation are conspiring with a
beneficence, which, in its working for coming generations, sacrifices the
passing one, which infatuates the most selfish men to act against their private
interest for the public welfare. We build railroads, we know not for what or for
whom; but one thing is certain, that we who build will receive the very smallest
share of benefit. Benefit will accrue; they are essential to the country, but
that will be felt not until we are no longer countrymen. We do the like in all
matters: –"Man's heart the Almighty to the Future set By secret and inviolable

We plant trees, we build stone houses, we redeem the waste, we make
prospective laws, we found colleges and hospitals, for remote generations. We
should be mortified to learn that the little benefit we chanced in our own
persons to receive was the utmost they would yield.

The history of commerce, is the record of this beneficent tendency. The
patriarchal form of government readily becomes despotic, as each person may see
in his own family. Fathers wish to be the fathers of the minds of their
children, and behold with impatience a new character and way of thinking
presuming to show itself in their own son or daughter. This feeling, which all
their love and pride in the powers of their children cannot subdue, becomes
petulance and tyranny when the head of the clan, the emperor of an empire, deals
with the same difference of opinion in his subjects. Difference of opinion is
the one crime which kings never forgive. An empire is an immense egotism. "I am
the State," said the French Louis. When a French ambassador mentioned to Paul of
Russia, that a man of consequence in St. Petersburg was interesting himself in
some matter, the Czar interrupted him, — "There is no man of consequence in
this empire, but he with whom I am actually speaking; and so long only as I am
speaking to him, is he of any consequence." And Nicholas, the present emperor,
is reported to have said to his council, "The age is embarrassed with new
opinions; rely on me, gentlemen, I shall oppose an iron will to the progress of
liberal opinions."

It is easy to see that this patriarchal or family management gets to be
rather troublesome to all but the papa; the sceptre comes to be a crowbar. And
this unpleasant egotism, Feudalism opposes, and finally destroys. The king is
compelled to call in the aid of his brothers and cousins, and remote relations,
to help him keep his overgrown house in order; and this club of noblemen always
come at last to have a will of their own; they combine to brave the sovereign,
and call in the aid of the people. Each chief attaches as many followers as he
can, by kindness, maintenance, and gifts; and as long as war lasts, the nobles,
who must be soldiers, rule very well. But when peace comes, the nobles prove
very whimsical and uncomfortable masters; their frolics turn out to be insulting
and degrading to the commoner. Feudalism grew to be a bandit and brigand.

Meantime Trade had begun to appear: Trade, a plant which grows wherever there
is peace, as soon as there is peace, and as long as there is peace. The luxury
and necessity of the noble fostered it. And as quickly as men go to foreign
parts, in ships or caravans, a new order of things springs up; new command takes
place, new servants and new masters. Their information, their wealth, their
correspondence, have made them quite other men than left their native shore.
_They_ are nobles now, and by another patent than the king's. Feudalism had been
good, had broken the power of the kings, and had some good traits of its own;
but it had grown mischievous, it was time for it to die, and, as they say of
dying people, all its faults came out. Trade was the strong man that broke it
down, and raised a new and unknown power in its place. It is a new agent in the
world, and one of great function; it is a very intellectual force. This
displaces physical strength, and instals computation, combination, information,
science, in its room. It calls out all force of a certain kind that slumbered in
the former dynasties. It is now in the midst of its career. Feudalism is not
ended yet. Our governments still partake largely of that element. Trade goes to
make the governments insignificant, and to bring every kind of faculty of every
individual that can in any manner serve any person, _on sale_. Instead of a huge
Army and Navy, and Executive Departments, it converts Government into an
Intelligence-Office, where every man may find what he wishes to buy, and expose
what he has to sell, not only produce and manufactures, but art, skill, and
intellectual and moral values. This is the good and this the evil of trade, that
it would put everything into market, talent, beauty, virtue, and man himself.

By this means, however, it has done its work. It has its faults, and will
come to an end, as the others do. The philosopher and lover of man have much
harm to say of trade; but the historian will see that trade was the principle of
Liberty; that trade planted America and destroyed Feudalism; that it makes peace
and keeps peace, and it will abolish slavery. We complain of its oppression of
the poor, and of its building up a new aristocracy on the ruins of the
aristocracy it destroyed. But the aristocracy of trade has no permanence, is not
entailed, was the result of toil and talent, the result of merit of some kind,
and is continually falling, like the waves of the sea, before new claims of the
same sort. Trade is an instrument in the hands of that friendly Power which
works for us in our own despite. We design it thus and thus; it turns out
otherwise and far better. This beneficent tendency, omnipotent without violence,
exists and works. Every line of history inspires a confidence that we shall not
go far wrong; that things mend. That is the moral of all we learn, that it
warrants Hope, the prolific mother of reforms. Our part is plainly not to throw
ourselves across the track, to block improvement, and sit till we are stone, but
to watch the uprise of successive mornings, and to conspire with the new works
of new days. Government has been a fossil; it should be a plant. I conceive that
the office of statute law should be to express, and not to impede the mind of
mankind. New thoughts, new things. Trade was one instrument, but Trade is also
but for a time, and must give way to somewhat broader and better, whose signs
are already dawning in the sky.

3. I pass to speak of the signs of that which is the sequel of trade.

In consequence of the revolution in the state of society wrought by trade,
Government in our times is beginning to wear a clumsy and cumbrous appearance.
We have already seen our way to shorter methods. The time is full of good signs.
Some of them shall ripen to fruit. All this beneficent socialism is a friendly
omen, and the swelling cry of voices for the education of the people, indicates
that Government has other offices than those of banker and executioner. Witness
the new movements in the civilized world, the Communism of France, Germany, and
Switzerland; the Trades' Unions; the English League against the Corn Laws; and
the whole _Industrial Statistics_, so called. In Paris, the blouse, the badge of
the operative, has begun to make its appearance in the saloons. Witness, too,
the spectacle of three Communities which have within a very short time sprung up
within this Commonwealth, besides several others undertaken by citizens of
Massachusetts within the territory of other States. These proceeded from a
variety of motives, from an impatience of many usages in common life, from a
wish for greater freedom than the manners and opinions of society permitted, but
in great part from a feeling that the true offices of the State, the State had
let fall to the ground; that in the scramble of parties for the public purse,
the main duties of government were omitted, — the duty to instruct the
ignorant, to supply the poor with work and with good guidance. These communists
preferred the agricultural life as the most favorable condition for human
culture; but they thought that the farm, as we manage it, did not satisfy the
right ambition of man. The farmer after sacrificing pleasure, taste, freedom,
thought, love, to his work, turns out often a bankrupt, like the merchant. This
result might well seem astounding. All this drudgery, from cockcrowing to
starlight, for all these years, to end in mortgages and the auctioneer's flag,
and removing from bad to worse. It is time to have the thing looked into, and
with a sifting criticism ascertained who is the fool. It seemed a great deal
worse, because the farmer is living in the same town with men who pretend to
know exactly what he wants. On one side, is agricultural chemistry, coolly
exposing the nonsense of our spendthrift agriculture and ruinous expense of
manures, and offering, by means of a teaspoonful of artificial guano, to turn a
sandbank into corn; and, on the other, the farmer, not only eager for the
information, but with bad crops and in debt and bankruptcy, for want of it. Here
are Etzlers and mechanical projectors, who, with the Fourierists, undoubtingly
affirm that the smallest union would make every man rich; — and, on the other
side, a multitude of poor men and women seeking work, and who cannot find enough
to pay their board. The science is confident, and surely the poverty is real. If
any means could be found to bring these two together!

This was one design of the projectors of the Associations which are now
making their first feeble experiments. They were founded in love, and in labor.
They proposed, as you know, that all men should take a part in the manual toil,
and proposed to amend the condition of men, by substituting harmonious for
hostile industry. It was a noble thought of Fourier, which gives a favorable
idea of his system, to distinguish in his Phalanx a class as the Sacred Band, by
whom whatever duties were disagreeable, and likely to be omitted, were to be

At least, an economical success seemed certain for the enterprise, and that
agricultural association must, sooner or later, fix the price of bread, and
drive single farmers into association, in self-defence; as the great commercial
and manufacturing companies had already done. The Community is only the
continuation of the same movement which made the joint-stock companies for
manufactures, mining, insurance, banking, and so forth. It has turned out
cheaper to make calico by companies; and it is proposed to plant corn, and to
bake bread by companies.

Undoubtedly, abundant mistakes will be made by these first adventurers, which
will draw ridicule on their schemes. I think, for example, that they exaggerate
the importance of a favorite project of theirs, that of paying talent and labor
at one rate, paying all sorts of service at one rate, say ten cents the hour.
They have paid it so; but not an instant would a dime remain a dime. In one hand
it became an eagle as it fell, and in another hand a copper cent. For the whole
value of the dime is in knowing what to do with it. One man buys with it a
land-title of an Indian, and makes his posterity princes; or buys corn enough to
feed the world; or pen, ink, and paper, or a painter's brush, by which he can
communicate himself to the human race as if he were fire; and the other buys
barley candy. Money is of no value; it cannot spend itself. All depends on the
skill of the spender. Whether, too, the objection almost universally felt by
such women in the community as were mothers, to an associate life, to a common
table, and a common nursery, &c., setting a higher value on the private
family with poverty, than on an association with wealth, will not prove
insuperable, remains to be determined.

But the Communities aimed at a higher success in securing to all their
members an equal and thorough education. And on the whole, one may say, that
aims so generous, and so forced on them by the times, will not be relinquished,
even if these attempts fail, but will be prosecuted until they succeed.

This is the value of the Communities; not what they have done, but the
revolution which they indicate as on the way. Yes, Government must educate the
poor man. Look across the country from any hill-side around us, and the
landscape seems to crave Government. The actual differences of men must be
acknowledged, and met with love and wisdom. These rising grounds which command
the champaign below, seem to ask for lords, true lords, _land_-lords, who
understand the land and its uses, and the applicabilities of men, and whose
government would be what it should, namely, mediation between want and supply.
How gladly would each citizen pay a commission for the support and continuation
of good guidance. None should be a governor who has not a talent for governing.
Now many people have a native skill for carving out business for many hands; a
genius for the disposition of affairs; and are never happier than when difficult
practical questions, which embarrass other men, are to be solved. All lies in
light before them; they are in their element. Could any means be contrived to
appoint only these! There really seems a progress towards such a state of
things, in which this work shall be done by these natural workmen; and this, not
certainly through any increased discretion shown by the citizens at elections,
but by the gradual contempt into which official government falls, and the
increasing disposition of private adventurers to assume its fallen functions.
Thus the costly Post Office is likely to go into disuse before the private
transportation-shop of Harnden and his competitors. The currency threatens to
fall entirely into private hands. Justice is continually administered more and
more by private reference, and not by litigation. We have feudal governments in
a commercial age. It would be but an easy extension of our commercial system, to
pay a private emperor a fee for services, as we pay an architect, an engineer,
or a lawyer. If any man has a talent for righting wrong, for administering
difficult affairs, for counselling poor farmers how to turn their estates to
good husbandry, for combining a hundred private enterprises to a general
benefit, let him in the county-town, or in Court-street, put up his sign-board,
Mr. Smith, _Governor_, Mr. Johnson, _Working king_.

How can our young men complain of the poverty of things in New England, and
not feel that poverty as a demand on their charity to make New England rich?
Where is he who seeing a thousand men useless and unhappy, and making the whole
region forlorn by their inaction, and conscious himself of possessing the
faculty they want, does not hear his call to go and be their king?

We must have kings, and we must have nobles. Nature provides such in every
society, — only let us have the real instead of the titular. Let us have our
leading and our inspiration from the best. In every society some men are born to
rule, and some to advise. Let the powers be well directed, directed by love, and
they would everywhere be greeted with joy and honor. The chief is the chief all
the world over, only not his cap and his plume. It is only their dislike of the
pretender, which makes men sometimes unjust to the accomplished man. If society
were transparent, the noble would everywhere be gladly received and accredited,
and would not be asked for his day's work, but would be felt as benefit,
inasmuch as he was noble. That were his duty and stint, — to keep himself pure
and purifying, the leaven of his nation. I think I see place and duties for a
nobleman in every society; but it is not to drink wine and ride in a fine coach,
but to guide and adorn life for the multitude by forethought, by elegant
studies, by perseverance, self-devotion, and the remembrance of the humble old
friend, by making his life secretly beautiful.

I call upon you, young men, to obey your heart, and be the nobility of this
land. In every age of the world, there has been a leading nation, one of a more
generous sentiment, whose eminent citizens were willing to stand for the
interests of general justice and humanity, at the risk of being called, by the
men of the moment, chimerical and fantastic. Which should be that nation but
these States? Which should lead that movement, if not New England? Who should
lead the leaders, but the Young American? The people, and the world, is now
suffering from the want of religion and honor in its public mind. In America,
out of doors all seems a market; in doors, an air-tight stove of
conventionalism. Every body who comes into our houses savors of these habits;
the men, of the market; the women, of the custom. I find no expression in our
state papers or legislative debate, in our lyceums or churches, specially in our
newspapers, of a high national feeling, no lofty counsels that rightfully stir
the blood. I speak of those organs which can be presumed to speak a popular
sense. They recommend conventional virtues, whatever will earn and preserve
property; always the capitalist; the college, the church, the hospital, the
theatre, the hotel, the road, the ship, of the capitalist, — whatever goes to
secure, adorn, enlarge these, is good; what jeopardizes any of these, is
damnable. The `opposition' papers, so called, are on the same side. They attack
the great capitalist, but with the aim to make a capitalist of the poor man. The
opposition is against those who have money, from those who wish to have money.
But who announces to us in journal, or in pulpit, or in the street, the secret
of heroism,

"Man alone Can perform the impossible?"

I shall not need to go into an enumeration of our national defects and vices
which require this Order of Censors in the state. I might not set down our most
proclaimed offences as the worst. It is not often the worst trait that occasions
the loudest outcry. Men complain of their suffering, and not of the crime. I
fear little from the bad effect of Repudiation; I do not fear that it will
spread. Stealing is a suicidal business; you cannot repudiate but once. But the
bold face and tardy repentance permitted to this local mischief, reveal a public
mind so preoccupied with the love of gain, that the common sentiment of
indignation at fraud does not act with its natural force. The more need of a
withdrawal from the crowd, and a resort to the fountain of right, by the brave.
The timidity of our public opinion, is our disease, or, shall I say, the
publicness of opinion, the absence of private opinion. Good-nature is plentiful,
but we want justice, with heart of steel, to fight down the proud. The private
mind has the access to the totality of goodness and truth, that it may be a
balance to a corrupt society; and to stand for the private verdict against
popular clamor, is the office of the noble. If a humane measure is propounded in
behalf of the slave, or of the Irishman, or the Catholic, or for the succor of
the poor, that sentiment, that project, will have the homage of the hero. That
is his nobility, his oath of knighthood, to succor the helpless and oppressed;
always to throw himself on the side of weakness, of youth, of hope, on the
liberal, on the expansive side, never on the defensive, the conserving, the
timorous, the lock and bolt system. More than our good-will we may not be able
to give. We have our own affairs, our own genius, which chains us to our proper
work. We cannot give our life to the cause of the debtor, of the slave, or the
pauper, as another is doing; but to one thing we are bound, not to blaspheme the
sentiment and the work of that man, not to throw stumbling-blocks in the way of
the abolitionist, the philanthropist, as the organs of influence and opinion are
swift to do. It is for us to confide in the beneficent Supreme Power, and not to
rely on our money, and on the state because it is the guard of money. At this
moment, the terror of old people and of vicious people, is lest the Union of
these States be destroyed: as if the Union had any other real basis than the
good pleasure of a majority of the citizens to be united. But the wise and just
man will always feel that he stands on his own feet; that he imparts strength to
the state, not receives security from it; and that if all went down, he and such
as he would quite easily combine in a new and better constitution. Every great
and memorable community has consisted of formidable individuals, who, like the
Roman or the Spartan, lent his own spirit to the state and made it great. Yet
only by the supernatural is a man strong; nothing is so weak as an egotist.
Nothing is mightier than we, when we are vehicles of a truth before which the
state and the individual are alike ephemeral.

Gentlemen, the development of our American internal resources, the extension
to the utmost of the commercial system, and the appearance of new moral causes
which are to modify the state, are giving an aspect of greatness to the Future,
which the imagination fears to open. One thing is plain for all men of common
sense and common conscience, that here, here in America, is the home of man.
After all the deductions which are to be made for our pitiful politics, which
stake every gravest national question on the silly die, whether James or whether
Jonathan shall sit in the chair and hold the purse; after all the deduction is
made for our frivolities and insanities, there still remains an organic
simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its balance, redresses itself
presently, which offers opportunity to the human mind not known in any other

It is true, the public mind wants self-respect. We are full of vanity, of
which the most signal proof is our sensitiveness to foreign and especially
English censure. One cause of this is our immense reading, and that reading
chiefly confined to the productions of the English press. It is also true, that,
to imaginative persons in this country, there is somewhat bare and bald in our
short history, and unsettled wilderness. They ask, who would live in a new
country, that can live in an old? and it is not strange that our youths and
maidens should burn to see the picturesque extremes of an antiquated country.
But it is one thing to visit the pyramids, and another to wish to live there.
Would they like tithes to the clergy, and sevenths to the government, and
horse-guards, and licensed press, and grief when a child is born, and
threatening, starved weavers, and a pauperism now constituting one-thirteenth of
the population? Instead of the open future expanding here before the eye of
every boy to vastness, would they like the closing in of the future to a narrow
slit of sky, and that fast contracting to be no future? One thing, for instance,
the beauties of aristocracy, we commend to the study of the travelling American.
The English, the most conservative people this side of India, are not sensible
of the restraint, but an American would seriously resent it. The aristocracy,
incorporated by law and education, degrades life for the unprivileged classes.
It is a questionable compensation to the embittered feeling of a proud commoner,
the reflection that a fop, who, by the magic of title, paralyzes his arm, and
plucks from him half the graces and rights of a man, is himself also an aspirant
excluded with the same ruthlessness from higher circles, since there is no end
to the wheels within wheels of this spiral heaven. Something may be pardoned to
the spirit of loyalty when it becomes fantastic; and something to the
imagination, for the baldest life is symbolic. Philip II. of Spain rated his
ambassador for neglecting serious affairs in Italy, whilst he debated some point
of honor with the French ambassador; "You have left a business of importance for
a ceremony." The ambassador replied, "Your majesty's self is but a ceremony." In
the East, where the religious sentiment comes in to the support of the
aristocracy, and in the Romish church also, there is a grain of sweetness in the
tyranny; but in England, the fact seems to me intolerable, what is commonly
affirmed, that such is the transcendent honor accorded to wealth and birth, that
no man of letters, be his eminence what it may, is received into the best
society, except as a lion and a show. The English have many virtues, many
advantages, and the proudest history of the world; but they need all, and more
than all the resources of the past to indemnify a heroic gentleman in that
country for the mortifications prepared for him by the system of society, and
which seem to impose the alternative to resist or to avoid it. That there are
mitigations and practical alleviations to this rigor, is not an excuse for the
rule. Commanding worth, and personal power, must sit crowned in all companies,
nor will extraordinary persons be slighted or affronted in any company of
civilized men. But the system is an invasion of the sentiment of justice and the
native rights of men, which, however decorated, must lessen the value of English
citizenship. It is for Englishmen to consider, not for us; we only say, let us
live in America, too thankful for our want of feudal institutions. Our houses
and towns are like mosses and lichens, so slight and new; but youth is a fault
of which we shall daily mend. This land, too, is as old as the Flood, and wants
no ornament or privilege which nature could bestow. Here stars, here woods, here
hills, here animals, here men abound, and the vast tendencies concur of a new
order. If only the men are employed in conspiring with the designs of the Spirit
who led us hither, and is leading us still, we shall quickly enough advance out
of all hearing of other's censures, out of all regrets of our own, into a new
and more excellent social state than history has recorded.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

The Transcendentalist

A Lecture read at the Masonic Temple, Boston,
January, 1842

The first thing we have to say respecting what are called "new views" here in New England, at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times. The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it classifies. What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. These two modes of thinking are both natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in higher nature. He concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. But I, he says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. Every materialist will be an idealist; but an idealist can never go backward to be a materialist.

The idealist, in speaking of events, sees them as spirits. He does not deny the sensuous fact: by no means; but he will not see that alone. He does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the "other end," each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him. This manner of looking at things, transfers every object in nature from an independent and anomalous position without there, into the consciousness. Even the materialist Condillac, perhaps the most logical expounder of materialism, was constrained to say, "Though we should soar into the heavens, though we should sink into the abyss, we never go out of ourselves; it is always our own thought that we perceive." What more could an idealist say?

The materialist, secure in the certainty of sensation, mocks at fine-spun theories, at star-gazers and dreamers, and believes that his life is solid, that he at least takes nothing for granted, but knows where he stands, and what he does. Yet how easy it is to show him, that he also is a phantom walking and working amid phantoms, and that he need only ask a question or two beyond his daily questions, to find his solid universe growing dim and impalpable before his sense. The sturdy capitalist, no matter how deep and square on blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house or Exchange, must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, he knows not whither, — a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness. And this wild balloon, in which his whole venture is embarked, is a just symbol of his whole state and faculty. One thing, at least, he says is certain, and does not give me the headache, that figures do not lie; the multiplication table has been hitherto found unimpeachable truth; and, moreover, if I put a gold eagle in my safe, I find it again to-morrow; — but for these thoughts, I know not whence they are. They change and pass away. But ask him why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone.

In the order of thought, the materialist takes his departure from the external world, and esteems a man as one product of that. The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance. The materialist respects sensible masses, Society, Government, social art, and luxury, every establishment, every mass, whether majority of numbers, or extent of space, or amount of objects, every social action. The idealist has another measure, which is metaphysical, namely, the "rank" which things themselves take in his consciousness; not at all, the size or appearance. Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors. Nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena. Although in his action overpowered by the laws of action, and so, warmly cooperating with men, even preferring them to himself, yet when he speaks scientifically, or after the order of thought, he is constrained to degrade persons into representatives of truths. He does not respect labor, or the products of labor, namely, property, otherwise than as a manifold symbol, illustrating with wonderful fidelity of details the laws of being; he does not respect government, except as far as it reiterates the law of his mind; nor the church; nor charities; nor arts, for themselves; but hears, as at a vast distance, what they say, as if his consciousness would speak to him through a pantomimic scene. His thought, — that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.

From this transfer of the world into the consciousness, this beholding of all things in the mind, follow easily his whole ethics. It is simpler to be self-dependent. The height, the deity of man is, to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force. Society is good when it does not violate me; but best when it is likest to solitude. Everything real is self-existent. Everything divine shares the self-existence of Deity. All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought, of those that are dependent and of those that are independent of your will. Do not cumber yourself with fruitless pains to mend and remedy remote effects; let the soul be erect, and all things will go well. You think me the child of my circumstances: I make my circumstance. Let any thought or motive of mine be different from that they are, the difference will transform my condition and economy. I — this thought which is called I, — is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax. The mould is invisible, but the world betrays the shape of the mould. You call it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me. Am I in harmony with myself? my position will seem to you just and commanding. Am I vicious and insane? my fortunes will seem to you obscure and descending. As I am, so shall I associate, and, so shall I act; Caesar’s history will paint out Caesar. Jesus acted so, because he thought so. I do not wish to overlook or to gainsay any reality; I say, I make my circumstance: but if you ask me, Whence am I? I feel like other men my relation to that Fact which cannot be spoken, or defined, nor even thought, but which exists, and will exist.

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own.

In action, he easily incurs the charge of antinomianism by his avowal that he, who has the Lawgiver, may with safety not only neglect, but even contravene every written commandment. In the play of Othello, the expiring Desdemona absolves her husband of the murder, to her attendant Emilia. Afterwards, when Emilia charges him with the crime, Othello exclaims,

"You heard her say herself it was not I."

Emilia replies,

"The more angel she, and thou the blacker devil."

Of this fine incident, Jacobi, the Transcendental moralist, makes use, with other parallel instances, in his reply to Fichte. Jacobi, refusing all measure of right and wrong except the determinations of the private spirit, remarks that there is no crime but has sometimes been a virtue. "I," he says, "am that atheist, that godless person who, in opposition to an imaginary doctrine of calculation, would lie as the dying Desdemona lied; would lie and deceive, as Pylades when he personated Orestes; would assassinate like Timoleon; would perjure myself like Epaminondas, and John de Witt; I would resolve on suicide like Cato; I would commit sacrilege with David; yea, and pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, for no other reason than that I was fainting for lack of food. For, I have assurance in myself, that, in pardoning these faults according to the letter, man exerts the sovereign right which the majesty of his being confers on him; he sets the seal of his divine nature to the grace he accords."

In like manner, if there is anything grand and daring in human thought or virtue, any reliance on the vast, the unknown; any presentiment; any extravagance of faith, the spiritualist adopts it as most in nature. The oriental mind has always tended to this largeness. Buddhism is an expression of it. The Buddhist who thanks no man, who says, "do not flatter your benefactors," but who, in his conviction that every good deed can by no possibility escape its reward, will not deceive the benefactor by pretending that he has done more than he should, is a Transcendentalist.

You will see by this sketch that there is no such thing as a Transcendental "party;" that there is no pure Transcendentalist; that we know of none but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. Only in the instinct of the lower animals, we find the suggestion of the methods of it, and something higher than our understanding. The squirrel hoards nuts, and the bee gathers honey, without knowing what they do, and they are thus provided for without selfishness or disgrace.

Shall we say, then, that Transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish. Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow. Man owns the dignity of the life which throbs around him in chemistry, and tree, and animal, and in the involuntary functions of his own body; yet he is balked when he tries to fling himself into this enchanted circle, where all is done without degradation. Yet genius and virtue predict in man the same absence of private ends, and of condescension to circumstances, united with every trait and talent of beauty and power.

This way of thinking, falling on Roman times, made Stoic philosophers; falling on despotic times, made patriot Catos and Brutuses; falling on superstitious times, made prophets and apostles; on popish times, made protestants and ascetic monks, preachers of Faith against the preachers of Works; on prelatical times, made Puritans and Quakers; and falling on Unitarian and commercial times, makes the peculiar shades of Idealism which we know.

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them "Transcendental" forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man’s thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent, that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought, is popularly called at the present day "Transcendental."

Although, as we have said, there is no pure Transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day; and the history of genius and of religion in these times, though impure, and as yet not incarnated in any powerful individual, will be the history of this tendency.

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! What they do, is done only because they are overpowered by the humanities that speak on all sides; and they consent to such labor as is open to them, though to their lofty dream the writing of Iliads or Hamlets, or the building of cities or empires seems drudgery.

Now every one must do after his kind, be he asp or angel, and these must. The question, which a wise man and a student of modern history will ask, is, what that kind is? And truly, as in ecclesiastical history we take so much pains to know what the Gnostics, what the Essenes, what the Manichees, and what the Reformers believed, it would not misbecome us to inquire nearer home, what these companions and contemporaries of ours think and do, at least so far as these thoughts and actions appear to be not accidental and personal, but common to many, and the inevitable flower of the Tree of Time. Our American literature and spiritual history are, we confess, in the optative mood; but whoso knows these seething brains, these admirable radicals, these unsocial worshippers, these talkers who talk the sun and moon away, will believe that this heresy cannot pass away without leaving its mark.

They are lonely; the spirit of their writing and conversation is lonely; they repel influences; they shun general society; they incline to shut themselves in their chamber in the house, to live in the country rather than in the town, and to find their tasks and amusements in solitude. Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial, –they are not stockish or brute, — but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. Like the young Mozart, they are rather ready to cry ten times a day, "But are you sure you love me?" Nay, if they tell you their whole thought, they will own that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature; that there are persons whom in their hearts they daily thank for existing, — persons whose faces are perhaps unknown to them, but whose fame and spirit have penetrated their solitude, — and for whose sake they wish to exist. To behold the beauty of another character, which inspires a new interest in our own; to behold the beauty lodged in a human being, with such vivacity of apprehension, that I am instantly forced home to inquire if I am not deformity itself: to behold in another the expression of a love so high that it assures itself, — assures itself also to me against every possible casualty except my unworthiness; — these are degrees on the scale of human happiness, to which they have ascended; and it is a fidelity to this sentiment which has made common association distasteful to them. They wish a just and even fellowship, or none. They cannot gossip with you, and they do not wish, as they are sincere and religious, to gratify any mere curiosity which you may entertain. Like fairies, they do not wish to be spoken of. Love me, they say, but do not ask who is my cousin and my uncle. If you do not need to hear my thought, because you can read it in my face and behavior, then I will tell it you from sunrise to sunset. If you cannot divine it, you would not understand what I say. I will not molest myself for you. I do not wish to be profaned.

And yet, it seems as if this loneliness, and not this love, would prevail in their circumstances, because of the extravagant demand they make on human nature. That, indeed, constitutes a new feature in their portrait, that they are the most exacting and extortionate critics. Their quarrel with every man they meet, is not with his kind, but with his degree. There is not enough of him, –that is the only fault. They prolong their privilege of childhood in this wise, of doing nothing, — but making immense demands on all the gladiators in the lists of action and fame. They make us feel the strange disappointment which overcasts every human youth. So many promising youths, and never a finished man! The profound nature will have a savage rudeness; the delicate one will be shallow, or the victim of sensibility; the richly accomplished will have some capital absurdity; and so every piece has a crack. ‘T is strange, but this masterpiece is a result of such an extreme delicacy, that the most unobserved flaw in the boy will neutralize the most aspiring genius, and spoil the work. Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, "Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?" And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists? where are they who represented to the last generation that extravagant hope, which a few happy aspirants suggest to ours? In looking at the class of counsel, and power, and wealth, and at the matronage of the land, amidst all the prudence and all the triviality, one asks, Where are they who represented genius, virtue, the invisible and heavenly world, to these? Are they dead, — taken in early ripeness to the gods, — as ancient wisdom foretold their fate? Or did the high idea die out of them, and leave their unperfumed body as its tomb and tablet, announcing to all that the celestial inhabitant, who once gave them beauty, had departed? Will it be better with the new generation? We easily predict a fair future to each new candidate who enters the lists, but we are frivolous and volatile, and by low aims and ill example do what we can to defeat this hope. Then these youths bring us a rough but effectual aid. By their unconcealed dissatisfaction, they expose our poverty, and the insignificance of man to man. A man is a poor limitary benefactor. He ought to be a shower of benefits — a great influence, which should never let his brother go, but should refresh old merits continually with new ones; so that, though absent, he should never be out of my mind, his name never far from my lips; but if the earth should open at my side, or my last hour were come, his name should be the prayer I should utter to the Universe. But in our experience, man is cheap, and friendship wants its deep sense. We affect to dwell with our friends in their absence, but we do not; when deed, word, or letter comes not, they let us go. These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watch-tower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.

With this passion for what is great and extraordinary, it cannot be wondered at, that they are repelled by vulgarity and frivolity in people. They say to themselves, It is better to be alone than in bad company. And it is really a wish to be met, — the wish to find society for their hope and religion, — which prompts them to shun what is called society. They feel that they are never so fit for friendship, as when they have quitted mankind, and taken themselves to friend. A picture, a book, a favorite spot in the hills or the woods, which they can people with the fair and worthy creation of the fancy, can give them often forms so vivid, that these for the time shall seem real, and society the illusion.

But their solitary and fastidious manners not only withdraw them from the conversation, but from the labors of the world; they are not good citizens, not good members of society; unwillingly they bear their part of the public and private burdens; they do not willingly share in the public charities, in the public religious rites, in the enterprises of education, of missions foreign or domestic, in the abolition of the slave-trade, or in the temperance society. They do not even like to vote. The philanthropists inquire whether Transcendentalism does not mean sloth: they had as lief hear that their friend is dead, as that he is a Transcendentalist; for then is he paralyzed, and can never do anything for humanity. What right, cries the good world, has the man of genius to retreat from work, and indulge himself? The popular literary creed seems to be, `I am a sublime genius; I ought not therefore to labor.’ But genius is the power to labor better and more availably. Deserve thy genius: exalt it. The good, the illuminated, sit apart from the rest, censuring their dulness and vices, as if they thought that, by sitting very grand in their chairs, the very brokers, attorneys, and congressmen would see the error of their ways, and flock to them. But the good and wise must learn to act, and carry salvation to the combatants and demagogues in the dusty arena below.

On the part of these children, it is replied, that life and their faculty seem to them gifts too rich to be squandered on such trifles as you propose to them. What you call your fundamental institutions, your great and holy causes, seem to them great abuses, and, when nearly seen, paltry matters. Each `Cause,’ as it is called, — say Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism, — becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers. You make very free use of these words `great’ and `holy,’ but few things appear to them such. Few persons have any magnificence of nature to inspire enthusiasm, and the philanthropies and charities have a certain air of quackery. As to the general course of living, and the daily employments of men, they cannot see much virtue in these, since they are parts of this vicious circle; and, as no great ends are answered by the men, there is nothing noble in the arts by which they are maintained. Nay, they have made the experiment, and found that, from the liberal professions to the coarsest manual labor, and from the courtesies of the academy and the college to the conventions of the cotillon-room and the morning call, there is a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming, which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without an aim.

Unless the action is necessary, unless it is adequate, I do not wish to perform it. I do not wish to do one thing but once. I do not love routine. Once possessed of the principle, it is equally easy to make four or forty thousand applications of it. A great man will be content to have indicated in any the slightest manner his perception of the reigning Idea of his time, and will leave to those who like it the multiplication of examples. When he has hit the white, the rest may shatter the target. Every thing admonishes us how needlessly long life is. Every moment of a hero so raises and cheers us, that a twelve-month is an age. All that the brave Xanthus brings home from his wars, is the recollection that, at the storming of Samos, "in the heat of the battle, Pericles smiled on me, and passed on to another detachment." It is the quality of the moment, not the number of days, of events, or of actors, that imports.

New, we confess, and by no means happy, is our condition: if you want the aid of our labor, we ourselves stand in greater want of the labor. We are miserable with inaction. We perish of rest and rust: but we do not like your work.

`Then,’ says the world, `show me your own.’

`We have none.’

`What will you do, then?’ cries the world.

`We will wait.’

`How long?’

`Until the Universe rises up and calls us to work.’

`But whilst you wait, you grow old and useless.’

`Be it so: I can sit in a corner and "perish," (as you call it,) but I will not move until I have the highest command. If no call should come for years, for centuries, then I know that the want of the Universe is the attestation of faith by my abstinence. Your virtuous projects, so called, do not cheer me. I know that which shall come will cheer me. If I cannot work, at least I need not lie. All that is clearly due to-day is not to lie. In other places, other men have encountered sharp trials, and have behaved themselves well. The martyrs were sawn asunder, or hung alive on meat-hooks. Cannot we screw our courage to patience and truth, and without complaint, or even with good-humor, await our turn of action in the Infinite Counsels?’

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons, we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time, — whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth, — and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate.

These two states of thought diverge every moment, and stand in wild contrast. To him who looks at his life from these moments of illumination, it will seem that he skulks and plays a mean, shiftless, and subaltern part in the world. That is to be done which he has not skill to do, or to be said which others can say better, and he lies by, or occupies his hands with some plaything, until his hour comes again. Much of our reading, much of our labor, seems mere waiting: it was not that we were born for. Any other could do it as well, or better. So little skill enters into these works, so little do they mix with the divine life, that it really signifies little what we do, whether we turn a grindstone, or ride, or run, or make fortunes, or govern the state. The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other, never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise; and, with the progress of life, the two discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves. Yet, what is my faith? What am I? What but a thought of serenity and independence, an abode in the deep blue sky? Presently the clouds shut down again; yet we retain the belief that this petty web we weave will at last be overshot and reticulated with veins of the blue, and that the moments will characterize the days. Patience, then, is for us, is it not? Patience, and still patience. When we pass, as presently we shall, into some new infinitude, out of this Iceland of negations, it will please us to reflect that, though we had few virtues or consolations, we bore with our indigence, nor once strove to repair it with hypocrisy or false heat of any kind.

But this class are not sufficiently characterized, if we omit to add that they are lovers and worshippers of Beauty. In the eternal trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, each in its perfection including the three, they prefer to make Beauty the sign and head. Something of the same taste is observable in all the moral movements of the time, in the religious and benevolent enterprises. They have a liberal, even an aesthetic spirit. A reference to Beauty in action sounds, to be sure, a little hollow and ridiculous in the ears of the old church. In politics, it has often sufficed, when they treated of justice, if they kept the bounds of selfish calculation. If they granted restitution, it was prudence which granted it. But the justice which is now claimed for the black, and the pauper, and the drunkard is for Beauty, — is for a necessity to the soul of the agent, not of the beneficiary. I say, this is the tendency, not yet the realization. Our virtue totters and trips, does not yet walk firmly. Its representatives are austere; they preach and denounce; their rectitude is not yet a grace. They are still liable to that slight taint of burlesque which, in our strange world, attaches to the zealot. A saint should be as dear as the apple of the eye. Yet we are tempted to smile, and we flee from the working to the speculative reformer, to escape that same slight ridicule. Alas for these days of derision and criticism! We call the Beautiful the highest, because it appears to us the golden mean, escaping the dowdiness of the good, and the heartlessness of the true. — They are lovers of nature also, and find an indemnity in the inviolable order of the world for the violated order and grace of man.

There is, no doubt, a great deal of well-founded objection to be spoken or felt against the sayings and doings of this class, some of whose traits we have selected; no doubt, they will lay themselves open to criticism and to lampoons, and as ridiculous stories will be to be told of them as of any. There will be cant and pretension; there will be subtilty and moonshine. These persons are of unequal strength, and do not all prosper. They complain that everything around them must be denied; and if feeble, it takes all their strength to deny, before they can begin to lead their own life. Grave seniors insist on their respect to this institution, and that usage; to an obsolete history; to some vocation, or college, or etiquette, or beneficiary, or charity, or morning or evening call, which they resist, as what does not concern them. But it costs such sleepless nights, alienations and misgivings, — they have so many moods about it; — these old guardians never change "their" minds; they have but one mood on the subject, namely, that Antony is very perverse, — that it is quite as much as Antony can do, to assert his rights, abstain from what he thinks foolish, and keep his temper. He cannot help the reaction of this injustice in his own mind. He is braced-up and stilted; all freedom and flowing genius, all sallies of wit and frolic nature are quite out of the question; it is well if he can keep from lying, injustice, and suicide. This is no time for gaiety and grace. His strength and spirits are wasted in rejection. But the strong spirits overpower those around them without effort. Their thought and emotion comes in like a flood, quite withdraws them from all notice of these carping critics; they surrender themselves with glad heart to the heavenly guide, and only by implication reject the clamorous nonsense of the hour. Grave seniors talk to the deaf, — church and old book mumble and ritualize to an unheeding, preoccupied and advancing mind, and thus they by happiness of greater momentum lose no time, but take the right road at first.

But all these of whom I speak are not proficients; they are novices; they only show the road in which man should travel, when the soul has greater health and prowess. Yet let them feel the dignity of their charge, and deserve a larger power. Their heart is the ark in which the fire is concealed, which shall burn in a broader and universal flame. Let them obey the Genius then most when his impulse is wildest; then most when he seems to lead to uninhabitable desarts of thought and life; for the path which the hero travels alone is the highway of health and benefit to mankind. What is the privilege and nobility of our nature, but its persistency, through its power to attach itself to what is permanent?

Society also has its duties in reference to this class, and must behold them with what charity it can. Possibly some benefit may yet accrue from them to the state. In our Mechanics’ Fair, there must be not only bridges, ploughs, carpenters’ planes, and baking troughs, but also some few finer instruments, — raingauges, thermometers, and telescopes; and in society, besides farmers, sailors, and weavers, there must be a few persons of purer fire kept specially as gauges and meters of character; persons of a fine, detecting instinct, who betray the smallest accumulations of wit and feeling in the bystander. Perhaps too there might be room for the exciters and monitors; collectors of the heavenly spark with power to convey the electricity to others. Or, as the storm-tossed vessel at sea speaks the frigate or `line packet’ to learn its longitude, so it may not be without its advantage that we should now and then encounter rare and gifted men, to compare the points of our spiritual compass, and verify our bearings from superior chronometers.

Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statute, or a subscription of stock, for an improvement in dress, or in dentistry, for a new house or a larger business, for a political party, or the division of an estate, — will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable? Soon these improvements and mechanical inventions will be superseded; these modes of living lost out of memory; these cities rotted, ruined by war, by new inventions, by new seats of trade, or the geologic changes: — all gone, like the shells which sprinkle the seabeach with a white colony to-day, forever renewed to be forever destroyed. But the thoughts which these few hermits strove to proclaim by silence, as well as by speech, not only by what they did, but by what they forbore to do, shall abide in beauty and strength, to reorganize themselves in nature, to invest themselves anew in other, perhaps higher endowed and happier mixed clay than ours, in fuller union with the surrounding system.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

The Conservative

A Lecture delivered at the Masonic Temple,
Boston, December 9, 1841

The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of
Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever
since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. The
conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the
most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and
colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor,
reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields,
in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom
with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now
one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the
first time, under new names and hot personalities.

Such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a correspondent depth
of seat in the human constitution. It is the opposition of Past and Future, of
Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason. It is the primal
antagonism, the appearance in trifles of the two poles of nature.

There is a fragment of old fable which seems somehow to have been dropped
from the current mythologies, which may deserve attention, as it appears to
relate to this subject.

Saturn grew weary of sitting alone, or with none but the great Uranus or
Heaven beholding him, and he created an oyster. Then he would act again, but he
made nothing more, but went on creating the race of oysters. Then Uranus cried,
`a new work, O Saturn! the old is not good again.'

Saturn replied. `I fear. There is not only the alternative of making and not
making, but also of unmaking. Seest thou the great sea, how it ebbs and flows?
so is it with me; my power ebbs; and if I put forth my hands, I shall not do,
but undo. Therefore I do what I have done; I hold what I have got; and so I
resist Night and Chaos.'

`O Saturn,' replied Uranus, `thou canst not hold thine own, but by making
more. Thy oysters are barnacles and cockles, and with the next flowing of the
tide, they will be pebbles and sea-foam.'

`I see,' rejoins Saturn, `thou art in league with Night, thou art become an
evil eye; thou spakest from love; now thy words smite me with hatred. I appeal
to Fate, must there not be rest?' — `I appeal to Fate also,' said Uranus, `must
there not be motion?' — But Saturn was silent, and went on making oysters for a
thousand years.

After that, the word of Uranus came into his mind like a ray of the sun, and
he made Jupiter; and then he feared again; and nature froze, the things that
were made went backward, and, to save the world, Jupiter slew his father Saturn.

This may stand for the earliest account of a conversation on politics between
a Conservative and a Radical, which has come down to us. It is ever thus. It is
the counteraction of the centripetal and the centrifugal forces. Innovation is
the salient energy; Conservatism the pause on the last movement. `That which is
was made by God,' saith Conservatism. `He is leaving that, he is entering this
other;' rejoins Innovation.

There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined
with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers
clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle,
which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and
bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course,
conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing,
pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must
saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society,
must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the
prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and
sure of final success. Conservatism stands on man's confessed limitations;
reform on his indisputable infinitude; conservatism on circumstance; liberalism
on power; one goes to make an adroit member of the social frame; the other to
postpone all things to the man himself; conservatism is debonnair and social;
reform is individual and imperious. We are reformers in spring and summer; in
autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at
night. Reform is affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for
comfort, reform for truth. Conservatism is more candid to behold another's
worth; reform more disposed to maintain and increase its own. Conservatism makes
no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no
gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry. It makes a great difference to your figure
and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism
never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not
establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and
treachery, believes in a negative fate; believes that men's temper governs them;
that for me, it avails not to trust in principles; they will fail me; I must
bend a little; it distrusts nature; it thinks there is a general law without a
particular application, — law for all that does not include any one. Reform in
its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to
egotism and bloated self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural
refining and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction.

And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely
affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an
impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society,
in a true man, both must combine. Nature does not give the crown of its
approbation, namely, beauty, to any action or emblem or actor, but to one which
combines both these elements; not to the rock which resists the waves from age
to age, nor to the wave which lashes incessantly the rock, but the superior
beauty is with the oak which stands with its hundred arms against the storms of
a century, and grows every year like a sapling; or the river which ever flowing,
yet is found in the same bed from age to age; or, greatest of all, the man who
has subsisted for years amid the changes of nature, yet has distanced himself,
so that when you remember what he was, and see what he is, you say, what
strides! what a disparity is here!

Throughout nature the past combines in every creature with the present. Each
of the convolutions of the sea-shell, each node and spine marks one year of the
fish's life, what was the mouth of the shell for one season, with the addition
of new matter by the growth of the animal, becoming an ornamental node. The
leaves and a shell of soft wood are all that the vegetation of this summer has
made, but the solid columnar stem, which lifts that bank of foliage into the air
to draw the eye and to cool us with its shade, is the gift and legacy of dead
and buried years.

In nature, each of these elements being always present, each theory has a
natural support. As we take our stand on Necessity, or on Ethics, shall we go
for the conservative, or for the reformer. If we read the world historically, we
shall say, Of all the ages, the present hour and circumstance is the cumulative
result; this is the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been, or that
is yet possible. If we see it from the side of Will, or the Moral Sentiment, we
shall accuse the Past and the Present, and require the impossible of the Future.

But although this bifold fact lies thus united in real nature, and so united
that no man can continue to exist in whom both these elements do not work, yet
men are not philosophers, but are rather very foolish children, who, by reason
of their partiality, see everything in the most absurd manner, and are the
victims at all times of the nearest object. There is even no philosopher who is
a philosopher at all times. Our experience, our perception is conditioned by the
need to acquire in parts and in succession, that is, with every truth a certain
falsehood. As this is the invariable method of our training, we must give it
allowance, and suffer men to learn as they have done for six millenniums, a word
at a time, to pair off into insane parties, and learn the amount of truth each
knows, by the denial of an equal amount of truth. For the present, then, to come
at what sum is attainable to us, we must even hear the parties plead as parties.

That which is best about conservatism, that which, though it cannot be
expressed in detail, inspires reverence in all, is the Inevitable. There is the
question not only, what the conservative says for himself? but, why must he say
it? What insurmountable fact binds him to that side? Here is the fact which men
call Fate, and fate in dread degrees, fate behind fate, not to be disposed of by
the consideration that the Conscience commands this or that, but necessitating
the question, whether the faculties of man will play him true in resisting the
facts of universal experience? For although the commands of the Conscience are
_essentially_ absolute, they are _historically_ limitary. Wisdom does not seek a
literal rectitude, but an useful, that is, a conditioned one, such a one as the
faculties of man and the constitution of things will warrant. The reformer, the
partisan loses himself in driving to the utmost some specialty of right conduct,
until his own nature and all nature resist him; but Wisdom attempts nothing
enormous and disproportioned to its powers, nothing which it cannot perform or
nearly perform. We have all a certain intellection or presentiment of reform
existing in the mind, which does not yet descend into the character, and those
who throw themselves blindly on this lose themselves. Whatever they attempt in
that direction, fails, and reacts suicidally on the actor himself. This is the
penalty of having transcended nature. For the existing world is not a dream, and
cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is
the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born. Reform
converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred
fact. This also was true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not
have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue. Your schemes may be
feasible, or may not be, but this has the endorsement of nature and a long
friendship and cohabitation with the powers of nature. This will stand until a
better cast of the dice is made. The contest between the Future and the Past is
one between Divinity entering, and Divinity departing. You are welcome to try
your experiments, and, if you can, to displace the actual order by that ideal
republic you announce, for nothing but God will expel God. But plainly the
burden of proof must lie with the projector. We hold to this, until you can
demonstrate something better.

The system of property and law goes back for its origin to barbarous and
sacred times; it is the fruit of the same mysterious cause as the mineral or
animal world. There is a natural sentiment and prepossession in favor of age, of
ancestors, of barbarous and aboriginal usages, which is a homage to the element
of necessity and divinity which is in them. The respect for the old names of
places, of mountains, and streams, is universal. The Indian and barbarous name
can never be supplanted without loss. The ancients tell us that the gods loved
the Ethiopians for their stable customs; and the Egyptians and Chaldeans, whose
origin could not be explored, passed among the junior tribes of Greece and Italy
for sacred nations.

Moreover, so deep is the foundation of the existing social system, that it
leaves no one out of it. We may be partial, but Fate is not. All men have their
root in it. You who quarrel with the arrangements of society, and are willing to
embroil all, and risk the indisputable good that exists, for the chance of
better, live, move, and have your being in this, and your deeds contradict your
words every day. For as you cannot jump from the ground without using the
resistance of the ground, nor put out the boat to sea, without shoving from the
shore, nor attain liberty without rejecting obligation, so you are under the
necessity of using the Actual order of things, in order to disuse it; to live by
it, whilst you wish to take away its life. The past has baked your loaf, and in
the strength of its bread you would break up the oven. But you are betrayed by
your own nature. You also are conservatives. However men please to style
themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical
with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my
conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new
beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions;
among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest,
and that the seceder from the seceder is as damnable as the pope himself.

On these and the like grounds of general statement, conservatism plants
itself without danger of being displaced. Especially before this _personal_
appeal, the innovator must confess his weakness, must confess that no man is to
be found good enough to be entitled to stand champion for the principle. But
when this great tendency comes to practical encounters, and is challenged by
young men, to whom it is no abstraction, but a fact of hunger, distress, and
exclusion from opportunities, it must needs seem injurious. The youth, of
course, is an innovator by the fact of his birth. There he stands, newly born on
the planet, a universal beggar, with all the reason of things, one would say, on
his side. In his first consideration how to feed, clothe, and warm himself, he
is met by warnings on every hand, that this thing and that thing have owners,
and he must go elsewhere. Then he says; If I am born into the earth, where is my
part? have the goodness, gentlemen of this world, to show me my wood-lot, where
I may fell my wood, my field where to plant my corn, my pleasant ground where to
build my cabin.

`Touch any wood, or field, or house-lot, on your peril,' cry all the
gentlemen of this world; `but you may come and work in ours, for us, and we will
give you a piece of bread.'

And what is that peril?

Knives and muskets, if we meet you in the act; imprisonment, if we find you

And by what authority, kind gentlemen?

By our law.

And your law, — is it just?

As just for you as it was for us. We wrought for others under this law, and
got our lands so.

I repeat the question, Is your law just?

Not quite just, but necessary. Moreover, it is juster now than it was when we
were born; we have made it milder and more equal.

I will none of your law, returns the youth; it encumbers me. I cannot
understand, or so much as spare time to read that needless library of your laws.
Nature has sufficiently provided me with rewards and sharp penalties, to bind me
not to transgress. Like the Persian noble of old, I ask "that I may neither
command nor obey." I do not wish to enter into your complex social system. I
shall serve those whom I can, and they who can will serve me. I shall seek those
whom I love, and shun those whom I love not, and what more can all your laws
render me?

With equal earnestness and good faith, replies to this plaintiff an upholder
of the establishment, a man of many virtues:

Your opposition is feather-brained and overfine. Young man, I have no skill
to talk with you, but look at me; I have risen early and sat late, and toiled
honestly, and painfully for very many years. I never dreamed about methods; I
laid my bones to, and drudged for the good I possess; it was not got by fraud,
nor by luck, but by work, and you must show me a warrant like these stubborn
facts in your own fidelity and labor, before I suffer you, on the faith of a few
fine words, to ride into my estate, and claim to scatter it as your own.

Now you touch the heart of the matter, replies the reformer. To that fidelity
and labor, I pay homage. I am unworthy to arraign your manner of living, until I
too have been tried. But I should be more unworthy, if I did not tell you why I
cannot walk in your steps. I find this vast network, which you call property,
extended over the whole planet. I cannot occupy the bleakest crag of the White
Hills or the Alleghany Range, but some man or corporation steps up to me to show
me that it is his. Now, though I am very peaceable, and on my private account
could well enough die, since it appears there was some mistake in my creation,
and that I have been _mis_sent to this earth, where all the seats were already
taken, — yet I feel called upon in behalf of rational nature, which I
represent, to declare to you my opinion, that, if the Earth is yours, so also is
it mine. All your aggregate existences are less to me a fact than is my own; as
I am born to the earth, so the Earth is given to me, what I want of it to till
and to plant; nor could I, without pusillanimity, omit to claim so much. I must
not only have a name to live, I must live. My genius leads me to build a
different manner of life from any of yours. I cannot then spare you the whole
world. I love you better. I must tell you the truth practically; and take that
which you call yours. It is God's world and mine; yours as much as you want,
mine as much as I want. Besides, I know your ways; I know the symptoms of the
disease. To the end of your power, you will serve this lie which cheats you.
Your want is a gulf which the possession of the broad earth would not fill.
Yonder sun in heaven you would pluck down from shining on the universe, and make
him a property and privacy, if you could; and the moon and the north star you
would quickly have occasion for in your closet and bed-chamber. What you do not
want for use, you crave for ornament, and what your convenience could spare,
your pride cannot.

On the other hand, precisely the defence which was set up for the British
Constitution, namely, that with all its admitted defects, rotten boroughs and
monopolies, it worked well, and substantial justice was somehow done; the wisdom
and the worth did get into parliament, and every interest did by right, or
might, or sleight, get represented; — the same defence is set up for the
existing institutions. They are not the best; they are not just; and in respect
to you, personally, O brave young man! they cannot be justified. They have, it
is most true, left you no acre for your own, and no law but our law, to the
ordaining of which, you were no party. But they do answer the end, they are
really friendly to the good; unfriendly to the bad; they second the industrious,
and the kind; they foster genius. They really have so much flexibility as to
afford your talent and character, on the whole, the same chance of demonstration
and success which they might have, if there was no law and no property.

It is trivial and merely superstitious to say that nothing is given you, no
outfit, no exhibition; for in this institution of _credit_, which is as
universal as honesty and promise in the human countenance, always some neighbor
stands ready to be bread and land and tools and stock to the young adventurer.
And if in any one respect they have come short, see what ample retribution of
good they have made. They have lost no time and spared no expense to collect
libraries, museums, galleries, colleges, palaces, hospitals, observatories,
cities. The ages have not been idle, nor kings slack, nor the rich niggardly.
Have we not atoned for this small offence (which we could not help) of leaving
you no right in the soil, by this splendid indemnity of ancestral and national
wealth? Would you have been born like a gipsy in a hedge, and preferred your
freedom on a heath, and the range of a planet which had no shed or boscage to
cover you from sun and wind, — to this towered and citied world? to this world
of Rome, and Memphis, and Constantinople, and Vienna, and Paris, and London, and
New York? For thee Naples, Florence, and Venice, for thee the fair
Mediterranean, the sunny Adriatic; for thee both Indies smile; for thee the
hospitable North opens its heated palaces under the polar circle; for thee roads
have been cut in every direction across the land, and fleets of floating palaces
with every security for strength, and provision for luxury, swim by sail and by
steam through all the waters of this world. Every island for thee has a town;
every town a hotel. Though thou wast born landless, yet to thy industry and
thrift and small condescension to the established usage, — scores of servants
are swarming in every strange place with cap and knee to thy command, scores,
nay hundreds and thousands, for thy wardrobe, thy table, thy chamber, thy
library, thy leisure; and every whim is anticipated and served by the best
ability of the whole population of each country. The king on the throne governs
for thee, and the judge judges; the barrister pleads, the farmer tills, the
joiner hammers, the postman rides. Is it not exaggerating a trifle to insist on
a formal acknowledgment of your claims, when these substantial advantages have
been secured to you? Now can your children be educated, your labor turned to
their advantage, and its fruits secured to them after your death. It is
frivolous to say, you have no acre, because you have not a mathematically
measured piece of land. Providence takes care that you shall have a place, that
you are waited for, and come accredited; and, as soon as you put your gift to
use, you shall have acre or acre's worth according to your exhibition of desert,
— acre, if you need land; — acre's worth, if you prefer to draw, or carve, or
make shoes, or wheels, to the tilling of the soil.

Besides, it might temper your indignation at the supposed wrong which society
has done you, to keep the question before you, how society got into this
predicament? Who put things on this false basis? No single man, but all men. No
man voluntarily and knowingly; but it is the result of that degree of culture
there is in the planet. The order of things is as good as the character of the
population permits. Consider it as the work of a great and beneficent and
progressive necessity, which, from the first pulsation of the first animal life,
up to the present high culture of the best nations, has advanced thus far. Thank
the rude fostermother though she has taught you a better wisdom than her own,
and has set hopes in your heart which shall be history in the next ages. You are
yourself the result of this manner of living, this foul compromise, this
vituperated Sodom. It nourished you with care and love on its breast, as it had
nourished many a lover of the right, and many a poet, and prophet, and teacher
of men. Is it so irremediably bad? Then again, if the mitigations are
considered, do not all the mischiefs virtually vanish? The form is bad, but see
you not how every personal character reacts on the form, and makes it new? A
strong person makes the law and custom null before his own will. Then the
principle of love and truth reappears in the strictest courts of fashion and
property. Under the richest robes, in the darlings of the selectest circles of
European or American aristocracy, the strong heart will beat with love of
mankind, with impatience of accidental distinctions, with the desire to achieve
its own fate, and make every ornament it wears authentic and real.

Moreover, as we have already shown that there is no pure reformer, so it is
to be considered that there is no pure conservative, no man who from the
beginning to the end of his life maintains the defective institutions; but he
who sets his face like a flint against every novelty, when approached in the
confidence of conversation, in the presence of friendly and generous persons,
has also his gracious and relenting motions, and espouses for the time the cause
of man; and even if this be a shortlived emotion, yet the remembrance of it in
private hours mitigates his selfishness and compliance with custom.

The Friar Bernard lamented in his cell on Mount Cenis the crimes of mankind,
and rising one morning before day from his bed of moss and dry leaves, he gnawed
his roots and berries, drank of the spring, and set forth to go to Rome to
reform the corruption of mankind. On his way he encountered many travellers who
greeted him courteously; and the cabins of the peasants and the castles of the
lords supplied his few wants. When he came at last to Rome, his piety and good
will easily introduced him to many families of the rich, and on the first day he
saw and talked with gentle mothers with their babes at their breasts, who told
him how much love they bore their children, and how they were perplexed in their
daily walk lest they should fail in their duty to them. `What!' he said, `and
this on rich embroidered carpets, on marble floors, with cunning sculpture, and
carved wood, and rich pictures, and piles of books about you?' — `Look at our
pictures and books,' they said, `and we will tell you, good Father, how we spent
the last evening. These are stories of godly children and holy families and
romantic sacrifices made in old or in recent times by great and not mean
persons; and last evening, our family was collected, and our husbands and
brothers discoursed sadly on what we could save and give in the hard times.'
Then came in the men, and they said, `What cheer, brother? Does thy convent want
gifts?' Then the friar Bernard went home swiftly with other thoughts than he
brought, saying, `This way of life is wrong, yet these Romans, whom I prayed God
to destroy, are lovers, they are lovers; what can I do?'

The reformer concedes that these mitigations exist, and that, if he proposed
comfort, he should take sides with the establishment. Your words are excellent,
but they do not tell the whole. Conservatism is affluent and openhanded, but
there is a cunning juggle in riches. I observe that they take somewhat for
everything they give. I look bigger, but am less; I have more clothes, but am
not so warm; more armor, but less courage; more books, but less wit. What you
say of your planted, builded and decorated world, is true enough, and I gladly
avail myself of its convenience; yet I have remarked that what holds in
particular, holds in general, that the plant Man does not require for his most
glorious flowering this pomp of preparation and convenience, but the thoughts of
some beggarly Homer who strolled, God knows when, in the infancy and barbarism
of the old world; the gravity and sense of some slave Moses who leads away his
fellow slaves from their masters; the contemplation of some Scythian Anacharsis;
the erect, formidable valor of some Dorian townsmen in the town of Sparta; the
vigor of Clovis the Frank, and Alfred the Saxon, and Alaric the Goth, and
Mahomet, Ali, and Omar the Arabians, Saladin the Curd, and Othman the Turk,
sufficed to build what you call society, on the spot and in the instant when the
sound mind in a sound body appeared. Rich and fine is your dress, O
conservatism! your horses are of the best blood; your roads are well cut and
well paved; your pantry is full of meats and your cellar of wines, and a very
good state and condition are you for gentlemen and ladies to live under; but
every one of these goods steals away a drop of my blood. I want the necessity of
supplying my own wants. All this costly culture of yours is not necessary.
Greatness does not need it. Yonder peasant, who sits neglected there in a
corner, carries a whole revolution of man and nature in his head, which shall be
a sacred history to some future ages. For man is the end of nature; nothing so
easily organizes itself in every part of the universe as he; no moss, no lichen
is so easily born; and he takes along with him and puts out from himself the
whole apparatus of society and condition _extempore_, as an army encamps in a
desert, and where all was just now blowing sand, creates a white city in an
hour, a government, a market, a place for feasting, for conversation, and for

These considerations, urged by those whose characters and whose fortunes are
yet to be formed, must needs command the sympathy of all reasonable persons. But
beside that charity which should make all adult persons interested for the
youth, and engage them to see that he has a free field and fair play on his
entrance into life, we are bound to see that the society, of which we compose a
part, does not permit the formation or continuance of views and practices
injurious to the honor and welfare of mankind. The objection to conservatism,
when embodied in a party, is, that in its love of acts, it hates principles; it
lives in the senses, not in truth; it sacrifices to despair; it goes for
availableness in its candidate, not for worth; and for expediency in its
measures, and not for the right. Under pretence of allowing for friction, it
makes so many additions and supplements to the machine of society, that it will
play smoothly and softly, but will no longer grind any grist.

The conservative party in the universe concedes that the radical would talk
sufficiently to the purpose, if we were still in the garden of Eden; he
legislates for man as he ought to be; his theory is right, but he makes no
allowance for friction; and this omission makes his whole doctrine false. The
idealist retorts, that the conservative falls into a far more noxious error in
the other extreme. The conservative assumes sickness as a necessity, and his
social frame is a hospital, his total legislation is for the present distress, a
universe in slippers and flannels, with bib and papspoon, swallowing pills and
herb-tea. Sickness gets organized as well as health, the vice as well as the
virtue. Now that a vicious system of trade has existed so long, it has
stereotyped itself in the human generation, and misers are born. And now that
sickness has got such a foot-hold, leprosy has grown cunning, has got into the
ballot-box; the lepers outvote the clean; society has resolved itself into a
Hospital Committee, and all its laws are quarantine. If any man resist, and set
up a foolish hope he has entertained as good against the general despair,
society frowns on him, shuts him out of her opportunities, her granaries, her
refectories, her water and bread, and will serve him a sexton's turn.
Conservatism takes as low a view of every part of human action and passion. Its
religion is just as bad; a lozenge for the sick; a dolorous tune to beguile the
distemper; mitigations of pain by pillows and anodynes; always mitigations,
never remedies; pardons for sin, funeral honors, –never self-help, renovation,
and virtue. Its social and political action has no better aim; to keep out wind
and weather, to bring the day and year about, and make the world last our day;
not to sit on the world and steer it; not to sink the memory of the past in the
glory of a new and more excellent creation; a timid cobbler and patcher, it
degrades whatever it touches. The cause of education is urged in this country
with the utmost earnestness, — on what ground? why on this, that the people
have the power, and if they are not instructed to sympathize with the
intelligent, reading, trading, and governing class, inspired with a taste for
the same competitions and prizes, they will upset the fair pageant of
Judicature, and perhaps lay a hand on the sacred muniments of wealth itself, and
new distribute the land. Religion is taught in the same spirit. The contractors
who were building a road out of Baltimore, some years ago, found the Irish
laborers quarrelsome and refractory, to a degree that embarrassed the agents,
and seriously interrupted the progress of the work. The corporation were advised
to call off the police, and build a Catholic chapel; which they did; the priest
presently restored order, and the work went on prosperously. Such hints, be
sure, are too valuable to be lost. If you do not value the Sabbath, or other
religious institutions, give yourself no concern about maintaining them. They
have already acquired a market value as conservators of property; and if priest
and church-member should fail, the chambers of commerce and the presidents of
the Banks, the very innholders and landlords of the county would muster with
fury to their support.

Of course, religion in such hands loses its essence. Instead of that
reliance, which the soul suggests on the eternity of truth and duty, men are
misled into a reliance on institutions, which, the moment they cease to be the
instantaneous creations of the devout sentiment, are worthless. Religion among
the low becomes low. As it loses its truth, it loses credit with the sagacious.
They detect the falsehood of the preaching, but when they say so, all good
citizens cry, Hush; do not weaken the state, do not take off the strait jacket
from dangerous persons. Every honest fellow must keep up the hoax the best he
can; must patronize providence and piety, and wherever he sees anything that
will keep men amused, schools or churches or poetry, or picture-galleries or
music, or what not, he must cry "Hist-a-boy," and urge the game on. What a
compliment we pay to the good SPIRIT with our superserviceable zeal!

But not to balance reasons for and against the establishment any longer, and
if it still be asked in this necessity of partial organization, which party on
the whole has the highest claims on our sympathy? I bring it home to the private
heart, where all such questions must have their final arbitrement. How will
every strong and generous mind choose its ground, — with the defenders of the
old? or with the seekers of the new? Which is that state which promises to edify
a great, brave, and beneficent man; to throw him on his resources, and tax the
strength of his character? On which part will each of us find himself in the
hour of health and of aspiration?

I understand well the respect of mankind for war, because that breaks up the
Chinese stagnation of society, and demonstrates the personal merits of all men.
A state of war or anarchy, in which law has little force, is so far valuable,
that it puts every man on trial. The man of principle is known as such, and even
in the fury of faction is respected. In the civil wars of France, Montaigne
alone, among all the French gentry, kept his castle gates unbarred, and made his
personal integrity as good at least as a regiment. The man of courage and
resources is shown, and the effeminate and base person. Those who rise above
war, and those who fall below it, it easily discriminates, as well as those,
who, accepting its rude conditions, keep their own head by their own sword.

But in peace and a commercial state we depend, not as we ought, on our
knowledge and all men's knowledge that we are honest men, but we cowardly lean
on the virtue of others. For it is always at last the virtue of some men in the
society, which keeps the law in any reverence and power. Is there not something
shameful that I should owe my peaceful occupancy of my house and field, not to
the knowledge of my countrymen that I am useful, but to their respect for sundry
other reputable persons, I know not whom, whose joint virtues still keep the law
in good odor?

It will never make any difference to a hero what the laws are. His greatness
will shine and accomplish itself unto the end, whether they second him or not.
If he have earned his bread by drudgery, and in the narrow and crooked ways
which were all an evil law had left him, he will make it at least honorable by
his expenditure. Of the past he will take no heed; for its wrongs he will not
hold himself responsible: he will say, all the meanness of my progenitors shall
not bereave me of the power to make this hour and company fair and fortunate.
Whatsoever streams of power and commodity flow to me, shall of me acquire
healing virtue, and become fountains of safety. Cannot I too descend a Redeemer
into nature? Whosoever hereafter shall name my name, shall not record a
malefactor, but a benefactor in the earth. If there be power in good intention,
in fidelity, and in toil, the north wind shall be purer, the stars in heaven
shall glow with a kindlier beam, that I have lived. I am primarily engaged to
myself to be a public servant of all the gods, to demonstrate to all men that
there is intelligence and good will at the heart of things, and ever higher and
yet higher leadings. These are my engagements; how can your law further or
hinder me in what I shall do to men? On the other hand, these dispositions
establish their relations to me. Wherever there is worth, I shall be greeted.
Wherever there are men, are the objects of my study and love. Sooner or later
all men will be my friends, and will testify in all methods the energy of their
regard. I cannot thank your law for my protection. I protect it. It is not in
its power to protect me. It is my business to make myself revered. I depend on
my honor, my labor, and my dispositions, for my place in the affections of
mankind, and not on any conventions or parchments of yours.

But if I allow myself in derelictions, and become idle and dissolute, I
quickly come to love the protection of a strong law, because I feel no title in
myself to my advantages. To the intemperate and covetous person no love flows;
to him mankind would pay no rent, no dividend, if force were once relaxed; nay,
if they could give their verdict, they would say, that his self-indulgence and
his oppression deserved punishment from society, and not that rich board and
lodging he now enjoys. The law acts then as a screen of his unworthiness, and
makes him worse the longer it protects him.

In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high
platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that
innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of
the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers
them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this
hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial
plant, but grew here on the wild crab of conservatism. It is much that this old
and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that
amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

Introductory Lecture on the Times

Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston,
December 2, 1841

The times, as we say — or the present aspects of our social state, the Laws, Divinity, Natural Science, Agriculture, Art, Trade, Letters, have their root in an invisible spiritual reality. To appear in these aspects, they must first exist, or have some necessary foundation. Beside all the small reasons we assign, there is a great reason for the existence of every extant fact; a reason which lies grand and immovable, often unsuspected behind it in silence. The Times are the masquerade of the eternities; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times — the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if we have the wit and the love to search it out. Nature itself seems to propound to us this topic, and to invite us to explore the meaning of the conspicuous facts of the day. Everything that is popular, it has been said, deserves the attention of the philosopher: and this for the obvious reason, that although it may not be of any worth in itself, yet it characterizes the people.

Here is very good matter to be handled, if we are skilful; an abundance of important practical questions which it behoves us to understand. Let us examine the pretensions of the attacking and defending parties. Here is this great fact of Conservatism, entrenched in its immense redoubts, with Himmaleh for its front, and Atlas for its flank, and Andes for its rear, and the Atlantic and Pacific seas for its ditches and trenches, which has planted its crosses, and crescents, and stars and stripes, and various signs and badges of possession, over every rood of the planet, and says, `I will hold fast; and to whom I will, will I give; and whom I will, will I exclude and starve:’ so says Conservatism; and all the children of men attack the colossus in their youth, and all, or all but a few, bow before it when they are old. A necessity not yet commanded, a negative imposed on the will of man by his condition a deficiency in his force, is the foundation on which it rests. Let this side be fairly stated. Meantime, on the other part, arises Reform, and offers the sentiment of Love as an overmatch to this material might. I wish to consider well this affirmative side, which has a loftier port and reason than heretofore, which encroaches on the other every day, puts it out of countenance, out of reason, and out of temper, and leaves it nothing but silence and possession.

The fact of aristocracy, with its two weapons of wealth and manners, is as commanding a feature of the nineteenth century, and the American republic, as of old Rome, or modern England. The reason and influence of wealth, the aspect of philosophy and religion, and the tendencies which have acquired the name of Transcendentalism in Old and New England; the aspect of poetry, as the exponent and interpretation of these things; the fuller development and the freer play of Character as a social and political agent; — these and other related topics will in turn come to be considered.

But the subject of the Times is not an abstract question. We talk of the world, but we mean a few men and women. If you speak of the age, you mean your own platoon of people, as Milton and Dante painted in colossal their platoons, and called them Heaven and Hell. In our idea of progress, we do not go out of this personal picture. We do not think the sky will be bluer, or honey sweeter, or our climate more temperate, but only that our relation to our fellows will be simpler and happier. What is the reason to be given for this extreme attraction which _persons_ have for us, but that they are the Age? they are the results of the Past; they are the heralds of the Future. They indicate, — these witty, suffering, blushing, intimidating figures of the only race in which there are individuals or changes, how far on the Fate has gone, and what it drives at. As trees make scenery, and constitute the hospitality of the landscape, so persons are the world to persons. A cunning mystery by which the Great Desart of thoughts and of planets takes this engaging form, to bring, as it would seem, its meanings nearer to the mind. Thoughts walk and speak, and look with eyes at me, and transport me into new and magnificent scenes. These are the pungent instructors who thrill the heart of each of us, and make all other teaching formal and cold. How I follow them with aching heart, with pining desire! I count myself nothing before them. I would die for them with joy. They can do what they will with me. How they lash us with those tongues! How they make the tears start, make us blush and turn pale, and lap us in Elysium to soothing dreams, and castles in the air! By tones of triumph; of dear love; by threats; by pride that freezes; these have the skill to make the world look bleak and inhospitable, or seem the nest of tenderness and joy. I do not wonder at the miracles which poetry attributes to the music of Orpheus, when I remember what I have experienced from the varied notes of the human voice. They are an incalculable energy which countervails all other forces in nature, because they are the channel of supernatural powers. There is no interest or institution so poor and withered, but if a new strong man could be born into it, he would immediately redeem and replace it. A personal ascendency, — that is the only fact much worth considering. I remember, some years ago, somebody shocked a circle of friends of order here in Boston, who supposed that our people were identified with their religious denominations, by declaring that an eloquent man, — let him be of what sect soever, — would be ordained at once in one of our metropolitan churches. To be sure he would; and not only in ours, but in any church, mosque, or temple, on the planet; but he must be eloquent, able to supplant our method and classification, by the superior beauty of his own. Every fact we have was brought here by some person; and there is none that will not change and pass away before a person, whose nature is broader than the person which the fact in question represents. And so I find the Age walking about in happy and hopeful natures, in strong eyes, and pleasant thoughts, and think I read it nearer and truer so, than in the statute-book, or in the investments of capital, which rather celebrate with mournful music the obsequies of the last age. In the brain of a fanatic; in the wild hope of a mountain boy, called by city boys very ignorant, because they do not know what his hope has certainly apprised him shall be; in the love-glance of a girl; in the hair-splitting conscientiousness of some eccentric person, who has found some new scruple to embarrass himself and his neighbors withal; is to be found that which shall constitute the times to come, more than in the now organized and accredited oracles. For, whatever is affirmative and now advancing, contains it. I think that only is real, which men love and rejoice in; not what they tolerate, but what they choose; what they embrace and avow, and not the things which chill, benumb, and terrify them.

And so why not draw for these times a portrait gallery? Let us paint the painters. Whilst the Daguerreotypist, with camera-obscura and silver plate, begins now to traverse the land, let us set up our Camera also, and let the sun paint the people. Let us paint the agitator, and the man of the old school, and the member of Congress, and the college-professor, the formidable editor, the priest, and reformer, the contemplative girl, and the fair aspirant for fashion and opportunities, the woman of the world who has tried and knows; –let us examine how well she knows. Could we indicate the indicators, indicate those who most accurately represent every good and evil tendency of the general mind, in the just order which they take on this canvass of Time; so that all witnesses should recognise a spiritual law, as each well known form flitted for a moment across the wall, we should have a series of sketches which would report to the next ages the color and quality of ours.

Certainly, I think, if this were done, there would be much to admire as well as to condemn; souls of as lofty a port, as any in Greek or Roman fame, might appear; men of great heart, of strong hand, and of persuasive speech; subtle thinkers, and men of wide sympathy, and an apprehension which looks over all history, and everywhere recognises its own. To be sure, there will be fragments and hints of men, more than enough: bloated promises, which end in nothing or little. And then truly great men, but with some defect in their composition, which neutralizes their whole force. Here is a Damascus blade, such as you may search through nature in vain to parallel, laid up on the shelf in some village to rust and ruin. And how many seem not quite available for that idea which they represent! Now and then comes a bolder spirit, I should rather say, a more surrendered soul, more informed and led by God, which is much in advance of the rest, quite beyond their sympathy, but predicts what shall soon be the general fulness; as when we stand by the seashore, whilst the tide is coming in, a wave comes up the beach far higher than any foregoing one, and recedes; and for a long while none comes up to that mark; but after some time the whole sea is there and beyond it.

But we are not permitted to stand as spectators of the pageant which the times exhibit: we are parties also, and have a responsibility which is not to be declined. A little while this interval of wonder and comparison is permitted us, but to the end that we shall play a manly part. As the solar system moves forward in the heavens, certain stars open before us, and certain stars close up behind us; so is man’s life. The reputations that were great and inaccessible change and tarnish. How great were once Lord Bacon’s dimensions! he is now reduced almost to the middle height; and many another star has turned out to be a planet or an asteroid: only a few are the fixed stars which have no parallax, or none for us. The change and decline of old reputations are the gracious marks of our own growth. Slowly, like light of morning, it steals on us, the new fact, that we, who were pupils or aspirants, are now society: do compose a portion of that head and heart we are wont to think worthy of all reverence and heed. We are the representatives of religion and intellect, and stand in the light of Ideas, whose rays stream through us to those younger and more in the dark. What further relations we sustain, what new lodges we are entering, is now unknown. To-day is a king in disguise. To-day always looks mean to the thoughtless, in the face of an uniform experience, that all good and great and happy actions are made up precisely of these blank to-days. Let us not be so deceived. Let us unmask the king as he passes. Let us not inhabit times of wonderful and various promise without divining their tendency. Let us not see the foundations of nations, and of a new and better order of things laid, with roving eyes, and an attention preoccupied with trifles.

The two omnipresent parties of History, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, divide society to-day as of old. Here is the innumerable multitude of those who accept the state and the church from the last generation, and stand on no argument but possession. They have reason also, and, as I think, better reason than is commonly stated. No Burke, no Metternich has yet done full justice to the side of conservatism. But this class, however large, relying not on the intellect but on instinct, blends itself with the brute forces of nature, is respectable only as nature is, but the individuals have no attraction for us. It is the dissenter, the theorist, the aspirant, who is quitting this ancient domain to embark on seas of adventure, who engages our interest. Omitting then for the present all notice of the stationary class, we shall find that the movement party divides itself into two classes, the actors, and the students.

The actors constitute that great army of martyrs who, at least in America, by their conscience and philanthropy, occupy the ground which Calvinism occupied in the last age, and compose the visible church of the existing generation. The present age will be marked by its harvest of projects for the reform of domestic, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical institutions. The leaders of the crusades against War, Negro slavery, Intemperance, Government based on force, Usages of trade, Court and Custom-house Oaths, and so on to the agitators on the system of Education and the laws of Property, are the right successors of Luther, Knox, Robinson, Fox, Penn, Wesley, and Whitfield. They have the same virtues and vices; the same noble impulse, and the same bigotry. These movements are on all accounts important; they not only check the special abuses, but they educate the conscience and the intellect of the people. How can such a question as the Slave trade be agitated for forty years by all the Christian nations, without throwing great light on ethics into the general mind? The fury, with which the slave-trader defends every inch of his bloody deck, and his howling auction-platform, is a trumpet to alarm the ear of mankind, to wake the dull, and drive all neutrals to take sides, and to listen to the argument and the verdict. The Temperance-question, which rides the conversation of ten thousand circles, and is tacitly recalled at every public and at every private table, drawing with it all the curious ethics of the Pledge, of the Wine-question, of the equity of the manufacture and the trade, is a gymnastic training to the casuistry and conscience of the time. Antimasonry had a deep right and wrong, which gradually emerged to sight out of the turbid controversy. The political questions touching the Banks; the Tariff; the limits of the executive power; the right of the constituent to instruct the representative; the treatment of the Indians; the Boundary wars; the Congress of nations; are all pregnant with ethical conclusions; and it is well if government and our social order can extricate themselves from these alembics, and find themselves still government and social order. The student of history will hereafter compute the singular value of our endless discussion of questions, to the mind of the period.

Whilst each of these aspirations and attempts of the people for the Better is magnified by the natural exaggeration of its advocates, until it excludes the others from sight, and repels discreet persons by the unfairness of the plea, the movements are in reality all parts of one movement. There is a perfect chain, — see it, or see it not, — of reforms emerging from the surrounding darkness, each cherishing some part of the general idea, and all must be seen, in order to do justice to any one. Seen in this their natural connection, they are sublime. The conscience of the Age demonstrates itself in this effort to raise the life of man by putting it in harmony with his idea of the Beautiful and the Just. The history of reform is always identical; it is the comparison of the idea with the fact. Our modes of living are not agreeable to our imagination. We suspect they are unworthy. We arraign our daily employments. They appear to us unfit, unworthy of the faculties we spend on them. In conversation with a wise man, we find ourselves apologizing for our employments; we speak of them with shame. Nature, literature, science, childhood, appear to us beautiful; but not our own daily work, not the ripe fruit and considered labors of man. This beauty which the fancy finds in everything else, certainly accuses that manner of life we lead. Why should it be hateful? Why should it contrast thus with all natural beauty? Why should it not be poetic, and invite and raise us? Is there a necessity that the works of man should be sordid? Perhaps not. — Out of this fair Idea in the mind springs the effort at the Perfect. It is the interior testimony to a fairer possibility of life and manners, which agitates society every day with the offer of some new amendment. If we would make more strict inquiry concerning its origin, we find ourselves rapidly approaching the inner boundaries of thought, that term where speech becomes silence, and science conscience. For the origin of all reform is in that mysterious fountain of the moral sentiment in man, which, amidst the natural, ever contains the supernatural for men. That is new and creative. That is alive. That alone can make a man other than he is. Here or nowhere resides unbounded energy, unbounded power.

The new voices in the wilderness crying "Repent," have revived a hope, which had well nigh perished out of the world, that the thoughts of the mind may yet, in some distant age, in some happy hour, be executed by the hands. That is the hope, of which all other hopes are parts. For some ages, these ideas have been consigned to the poet and musical composer, to the prayers and the sermons of churches; but the thought, that they can ever have any footing in real life, seems long since to have been exploded by all judicious persons. Milton, in his best tract, describes a relation between religion and the daily occupations, which is true until this time.

"A wealthy man, addicted to his pleasure and to his profits, finds religion to be a traffic so entangled, and of so many piddling accounts, that of all mysteries he cannot skill to keep a stock going upon that trade. What should he do? Fain he would have the name to be religious; fain he would bear up with his neighbors in that. What does he, therefore, but resolve to give over toiling, and to find himself out some factor, to whose care and credit he may commit the whole managing of his religious affairs; some divine of note and estimation that must be. To him he adheres, resigns the whole warehouse of his religion, with all the locks and keys, into his custody; and indeed makes the very person of that man his religion; esteems his associating with him a sufficient evidence and commendatory of his own piety. So that a man may say, his religion is now no more within himself, but is become a dividual moveable, and goes and comes near him, according as that good man frequents the house. He entertains him, gives him gifts, feasts him, lodges him; his religion comes home at night, prays, is liberally supped, and sumptuously laid to sleep, rises, is saluted, and after the malmsey, or some well spiced beverage, and better breakfasted than he whose morning appetite would have gladly fed on green figs between Bethany and Jerusalem, his religion walks abroad at eight, and leaves his kind entertainer in the shop, trading all day without his religion."

This picture would serve for our times. Religion was not invited to eat or drink or sleep with us, or to make or divide an estate, but was a holiday guest. Such omissions judge the church; as the compromise made with the slaveholder, not much noticed at first, every day appears more flagrant mischief to the American constitution. But now the purists are looking into all these matters. The more intelligent are growing uneasy on the subject of Marriage. They wish to see the character represented also in that covenant. There shall be nothing brutal in it, but it shall honor the man and the woman, as much as the most diffusive and universal action. Grimly the same spirit looks into the law of Property, and accuses men of driving a trade in the great boundless providence which had given the air, the water, and the land to men, to use and not to fence in and monopolize. It casts its eye on Trade, and Day Labor, and so it goes up and down, paving the earth with eyes, destroying privacy, and making thorough-lights. Is all this for nothing? Do you suppose that the reforms, which are preparing, will be as superficial as those we know?

By the books it reads and translates, judge what books it will presently print. A great deal of the profoundest thinking of antiquity, which had become as good as obsolete for us, is now re-appearing in extracts and allusions, and in twenty years will get all printed anew. See how daring is the reading, the speculation, the experimenting of the time. If now some genius shall arise who could unite these scattered rays! And always such a genius does embody the ideas of each time. Here is great variety and richness of mysticism, each part of which now only disgusts, whilst it forms the sole thought of some poor Perfectionist or "Comer out," yet, when it shall be taken up as the garniture of some profound and all-reconciling thinker, will appear the rich and appropriate decoration of his robes.

These reforms are our contemporaries; they are ourselves; our own light, and sight, and conscience; they only name the relation which subsists between us and the vicious institutions which they go to rectify. They are the simplest statements of man in these matters; the plain right and wrong. I cannot choose but allow and honor them. The impulse is good, and the theory; the practice is less beautiful. The Reformers affirm the inward life, but they do not trust it, but use outward and vulgar means. They do not rely on precisely that strength which wins me to their cause; not on love, not on a principle, but on men, on multitudes, on circumstances, on money, on party; that is, on fear, on wrath, and pride. The love which lifted men to the sight of these better ends, was the true and best distinction of this time, the disposition to trust a principle more than a material force. I think _that_ the soul of reform; the conviction, that not sensualism, not slavery, not war, not imprisonment, not even government, are needed, — but in lieu of them all, reliance on the sentiment of man, which will work best the more it is trusted; not reliance on numbers, but, contrariwise, distrust of numbers, and the feeling that then are we strongest, when most private and alone. The young men, who have been vexing society for these last years with regenerative methods, seem to have made this mistake; they all exaggerated some special means, and all failed to see that the Reform of Reforms must be accomplished without means.

The Reforms have their high origin in an ideal justice, but they do not retain the purity of an idea. They are quickly organized in some low, inadequate form, and present no more poetic image to the mind, than the evil tradition which they reprobated. They mix the fire of the moral sentiment with personal and party heats, with measureless exaggerations, and the blindness that prefers some darling measure to justice and truth. Those, who are urging with most ardor what are called the greatest benefits of mankind, are narrow, self-pleasing, conceited men, and affect us as the insane do. They bite us, and we run mad also. I think the work of the reformer as innocent as other work that is done around him; but when I have seen it near, I do not like it better. It is done in the same way, it is done profanely, not piously; by management, by tactics, and clamor. It is a buzz in the ear. I cannot feel any pleasure in sacrifices which display to me such partiality of character. We do not want actions, but men; not a chemical drop of water, but rain; the spirit that sheds and showers actions, countless, endless actions. You have on some occasion played a bold part. You have set your heart and face against society, when you thought it wrong, and returned it frown for frown. Excellent: now can you afford to forget it, reckoning all your action no more than the passing of your hand through the air, or a little breath of your mouth? The world leaves no track in space, and the greatest action of man no mark in the vast idea. To the youth diffident of his ability, and full of compunction at his unprofitable existence, the temptation is always great to lend himself to public movements, and as one of a party accomplish what he cannot hope to effect alone. But he must resist the degradation of a man to a measure. I must act with truth, though I should never come to act, as you call it, with effect. I must consent to inaction. A patience which is grand; a brave and cold neglect of the offices which prudence exacts, so it be done in a deep, upper piety; a consent to solitude and inaction, which proceeds out of an unwillingness to violate character, is the century which makes the gem. Whilst therefore I desire to express the respect and joy I feel before this sublime connection of reforms, now in their infancy around us, I urge the more earnestly the paramount duties of self-reliance. I cannot find language of sufficient energy to convey my sense of the sacredness of private integrity. All men, all things, the state, the church, yea the friends of the heart are phantasms and unreal beside the sanctuary of the heart. With so much awe, with so much fear, let it be respected.

The great majority of men, unable to judge of any principle until its light falls on a fact, are not aware of the evil that is around them, until they see it in some gross form, as in a class of intemperate men, or slaveholders, or soldiers, or fraudulent persons. Then they are greatly moved; and magnifying the importance of that wrong, they fancy that if that abuse were redressed, all would go well, and they fill the land with clamor to correct it. Hence the missionary and other religious efforts. If every island and every house had a Bible, if every child was brought into the Sunday School, would the wounds of the world heal, and man be upright?

But the man of ideas, accounting the circumstance nothing, judges of the commonwealth from the state of his own mind. `If,’ he says, `I am selfish, then is there slavery, or the effort to establish it, wherever I go. But if I am just, then is there no slavery, let the laws say what they will. For if I treat all men as gods, how to me can there be such a thing as a slave?’ But how frivolous is your war against circumstances. This denouncing philanthropist is himself a slaveholder in every word and look. Does he free me? Does he cheer me? He is the state of Georgia, or Alabama, with their sanguinary slave-laws walking here on our north-eastern shores. We are all thankful he has no more political power, as we are fond of liberty ourselves. I am afraid our virtue is a little geographical. I am not mortified by our vice; that is obduracy; it colors and palters, it curses and swears, and I can see to the end of it; but, I own, our virtue makes me ashamed; so sour and narrow, so thin and blind, virtue so vice-like. Then again, how trivial seem the contests of the abolitionist, whilst he aims merely at the circumstance of the slave. Give the slave the least elevation of religious sentiment, and he is no slave: you are the slave: he not only in his humility feels his superiority, feels that much deplored condition of his to be a fading trifle, but he makes you feel it too. He is the master. The exaggeration, which our young people make of his wrongs, characterizes themselves. What are no trifles to them, they naturally think are no trifles to Pompey.

We say, then, that the reforming movement is sacred in its origin; in its management and details timid and profane. These benefactors hope to raise man by improving his circumstances: by combination of that which is dead, they hope to make something alive. In vain. By new infusions alone of the spirit by which he is made and directed, can he be re-made and reinforced. The sad Pestalozzi, who shared with all ardent spirits the hope of Europe on the outbreak of the French Revolution, after witnessing its sequel, recorded his conviction, that "the amelioration of outward circumstances will be the effect, but can never be the means of mental and moral improvement." Quitting now the class of actors, let us turn to see how it stands with the other class of which we spoke, namely, the students.

A new disease has fallen on the life of man. Every Age, like every human body, has its own distemper. Other times have had war, or famine, or a barbarism domestic or bordering, as their antagonism. Our forefathers walked in the world and went to their graves, tormented with the fear of Sin, and the terror of the Day of Judgment. These terrors have lost their force, and our torment is Unbelief, the Uncertainty as to what we ought to do; the distrust of the value of what we do, and the distrust that the Necessity (which we all at last believe in) is fair and beneficent. Our Religion assumes the negative form of rejection. Out of love of the true, we repudiate the false: and the Religion is an abolishing criticism. A great perplexity hangs like a cloud on the brow of all cultivated persons, a certain imbecility in the best spirits, which distinguishes the period. We do not find the same trait in the Arabian, in the Hebrew, in Greek, Roman, Norman, English periods; no, but in other men a natural firmness. The men did not see beyond the need of the hour. They planted their foot strong, and doubted nothing. We mistrust every step we take. We find it the worst thing about time, that we know not what to do with it. We are so sharp-sighted that we can neither work nor think, neither read Plato nor not read him.

Then there is what is called a too intellectual tendency. Can there be too much intellect? We have never met with any such excess. But the criticism, which is levelled at the laws and manners, ends in thought, without causing a new method of life. The genius of the day does not incline to a deed, but to a beholding. It is not that men do not wish to act; they pine to be employed, but are paralyzed by the uncertainty what they should do. The inadequacy of the work to the faculties, is the painful perception which keeps them still. This happens to the best. Then, talents bring their usual temptations, and the current literature and poetry with perverse ingenuity draw us away from life to solitude and meditation. This could well be borne, if it were great and involuntary; if the men were ravished by their thought, and hurried into ascetic extravagances. Society could then manage to release their shoulder from its wheel, and grant them for a time this privilege of sabbath. But they are not so. Thinking, which was a rage, is become an art. The thinker gives me results, and never invites me to be present with him at his invocation of truth, and to enjoy with him its proceeding into his mind.

So little action amidst such audacious and yet sincere profession, that we begin to doubt if that great revolution in the art of war, which has made it a game of posts instead of a game of battles, has not operated on Reform; whether this be not also a war of posts, a paper blockade, in which each party is to display the utmost resources of his spirit and belief, and no conflict occur; but the world shall take that course which the demonstration of the truth shall indicate.

But we must pay for being too intellectual, as they call it. People are not as light-hearted for it. I think men never loved life less. I question if care and doubt ever wrote their names so legibly on the faces of any population. This _Ennui_, for which we Saxons had no name, this word of France has got a terrific significance. It shortens life, and bereaves the day of its light. Old age begins in the nursery, and before the young American is put into jacket and trowsers, he says, `I want something which I never saw before;’ and `I wish I was not I.’ I have seen the same gloom on the brow even of those adventurers from the intellectual class, who had dived deepest and with most success into active life. I have seen the authentic sign of anxiety and perplexity on the greatest forehead of the state. The canker worms have crawled to the topmost bough of the wild elm, and swing down from that. Is there less oxygen in the atmosphere? What has checked in this age the animal spirits which gave to our forefathers their bounding pulse?

But have a little patience with this melancholy humor. Their unbelief arises out of a greater Belief; their inaction out of a scorn of inadequate action. By the side of these men, the hot agitators have a certain cheap and ridiculous air; they even look smaller than the others. Of the two, I own, I like the speculators best. They have some piety which looks with faith to a fair Future, unprofaned by rash and unequal attempts to realize it. And truly we shall find much to console us, when we consider the cause of their uneasiness. It is the love of greatness, it is the need of harmony, the contrast of the dwarfish Actual with the exorbitant Idea. No man can compare the ideas and aspirations of the innovators of the present day, with those of former periods, without feeling how great and high this criticism is. The revolutions that impend over society are not now from ambition and rapacity, from impatience of one or another form of government, but from new modes of thinking, which shall recompose society after a new order, which shall animate labor by love and science, which shall destroy the value of many kinds of property, and replace all property within the dominion of reason and equity. There was never so great a thought laboring in the breasts of men, as now. It almost seems as if what was aforetime spoken fabulously and hieroglyphically, was now spoken plainly, the doctrine, namely, of the indwelling of the Creator in man. The spiritualist wishes this only, that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual, that is, anything positive, dogmatic, or personal. The excellence of this class consists in this, that they have believed; that, affirming the need of new and higher modes of living and action, they have abstained from the recommendation of low methods. Their fault is that they have stopped at the intellectual perception; that their will is not yet inspired from the Fountain of Love. But whose fault is this? and what a fault, and to what inquiry does it lead! We have come to that which is the spring of all power, of beauty and virtue, of art and poetry; and who shall tell us according to what law its inspirations and its informations are given or withholden?

I do not wish to be guilty of the narrowness and pedantry of inferring the tendency and genius of the Age from a few and insufficient facts or persons. Every age has a thousand sides and signs and tendencies; and it is only when surveyed from inferior points of view, that great varieties of character appear. Our time too is full of activity and performance. Is there not something comprehensive in the grasp of a society which to great mechanical invention, and the best institutions of property, adds the most daring theories; which explores the subtlest and most universal problems? At the manifest risk of repeating what every other Age has thought of itself, we might say, we think the Genius of this Age more philosophical than any other has been, righter in its aims, truer, with less fear, less fable, less mixture of any sort.

But turn it how we will, as we ponder this meaning of the times, every new thought drives us to the deep fact, that the Time is the child of the Eternity. The main interest which any aspects of the Times can have for us, is the great spirit which gazes through them, the light which they can shed on the wonderful questions, What we are? and Whither we tend? We do not wish to be deceived. Here we drift, like white sail across the wild ocean, now bright on the wave, now darkling in the trough of the sea; — but from what port did we sail? Who knows? Or to what port are we bound? Who knows? There is no one to tell us but such poor weather-tossed mariners as ourselves, whom we speak as we pass, or who have hoisted some signal, or floated to us some letter in a bottle from far. But what know they more than we? They also found themselves on this wondrous sea. No; from the older sailors, nothing. Over all their speaking-trumpets, the gray sea and the loud winds answer, Not in us; not in Time. Where then but in Ourselves, where but in that Thought through which we communicate with absolute nature, and are made aware that, whilst we shed the dust of which we are built, grain by grain, till it is all gone, the law which clothes us with humanity remains new? where, but in the intuitions which are vouchsafed us from within, shall we learn the Truth? Faithless, faithless, we fancy that with the dust we depart and are not; and do not know that the law and the perception of the law are at last one; that only as much as the law enters us, becomes us, we are living men, — immortal with the immortality of this law. Underneath all these appearances, lies that which is, that which lives, that which causes. This ever renewing generation of appearances rests on a reality, and a reality that is alive.

To a true scholar the attraction of the aspects of nature, the departments of life, and the passages of his experience, is simply the information they yield him of this supreme nature which lurks within all. That reality, that causing force is moral. The Moral Sentiment is but its other name. It makes by its presence or absence right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, genius or depravation. As the granite comes to the surface, and towers into the highest mountains, and, if we dig down, we find it below the superficial strata, so in all the details of our domestic or civil life, is hidden the elemental reality, which ever and anon comes to the surface, and forms the grand men, who are the leaders and examples, rather than the companions of the race. The granite is curiously concealed under a thousand formations and surfaces, under fertile soils, and grasses, and flowers, under well-manured, arable fields, and large towns and cities, but it makes the foundation of these, and is always indicating its presence by slight but sure signs. So is it with the Life of our life; so close does that also hide. I read it in glad and in weeping eyes: I read it in the pride and in the humility of people: it is recognized in every bargain and in every complaisance, in every criticism, and in all praise: it is voted for at elections; it wins the cause with juries; it rides the stormy eloquence of the senate, sole victor; histories are written of it, holidays decreed to it; statues, tombs, churches, built to its honor; yet men seem to fear and to shun it, when it comes barely to view in our immediate neighborhood.

For that reality let us stand: that let us serve, and for that speak. Only as far as _that_ shines through them, are these times or any times worth consideration. I wish to speak of the politics, education, business, and religion around us, without ceremony or false deference. You will absolve me from the charge of flippancy, or malignity, or the desire to say smart things at the expense of whomsoever, when you see that reality is all we prize, and that we are bound on our entrance into nature to speak for that. Let it not be recorded in our own memories, that in this moment of the Eternity, when we who were named by our names, flitted across the light, we were afraid of any fact, or disgraced the fair Day by a pusillanimous preference of our bread to our freedom. What is the scholar, what is the man _for_, but for hospitality to every new thought of his time? Have you leisure, power, property, friends? you shall be the asylum and patron of every new thought, every unproven opinion, every untried project, which proceeds out of good will and honest seeking. All the newspapers, all the tongues of to-day will of course at first defame what is noble; but you who hold not of to-day, not of the times, but of the Everlasting, are to stand for it: and the highest compliment man ever receives from heaven, is the sending to him its disguised and discredited angels.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

Man the Reformer

A Lecture read before the Mechanics' Apprentices' Library
Boston, January 25, 1841


Mr. President, and Gentlemen,

I wish to offer to your consideration some thoughts on the particular and
general relations of man as a reformer. I shall assume that the aim of each
young man in this association is the very highest that belongs to a rational
mind. Let it be granted, that our life, as we lead it, is common and mean; that
some of those offices and functions for which we were mainly created are grown
so rare in society, that the memory of them is only kept alive in old books and
in dim traditions; that prophets and poets, that beautiful and perfect men, we
are not now, no, nor have even seen such; that some sources of human instruction
are almost unnamed and unknown among us; that the community in which we live
will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine
illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual
world. Grant all this, as we must, yet I suppose none of my auditors will deny
that we ought to seek to establish ourselves in such disciplines and courses as
will deserve that guidance and clearer communication with the spiritual nature.
And further, I will not dissemble my hope, that each person whom I address has
felt his own call to cast aside all evil customs, timidities, and limitations,
and to be in his place a free and helpful man, a reformer, a benefactor, not
content to slip along through the world like a footman or a spy, escaping by his
nimbleness and apologies as many knocks as he can, but a brave and upright man,
who must find or cut a straight road to everything excellent in the earth, and
not only go honorably himself, but make it easier for all who follow him, to go
in honor and with benefit.

In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at
the present hour. Lutherans, Hernhutters, Jesuits, Monks, Quakers, Knox, Wesley,
Swedenborg, Bentham, in their accusations of society, all respected something,
— church or state, literature or history, domestic usages, the market town, the
dinner table, coined money. But now all these and all things else hear the
trumpet, and must rush to judgment, — Christianity, the laws, commerce,
schools, the farm, the laboratory; and not a kingdom, town, statute, rite,
calling, man, or woman, but is threatened by the new spirit.

What if some of the objections whereby our institutions are assailed are
extreme and speculative, and the reformers tend to idealism; that only shows the
extravagance of the abuses which have driven the mind into the opposite extreme.
It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much
falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas, and aims to
recruit and replenish nature from that source. Let ideas establish their
legitimate sway again in society, let life be fair and poetic, and the scholars
will gladly be lovers, citizens, and philanthropists.

It will afford no security from the new ideas, that the old nations, the laws
of centuries, the property and institutions of a hundred cities, are built on
other foundations. The demon of reform has a secret door into the heart of every
lawmaker, of every inhabitant of every city. The fact, that a new thought and
hope have dawned in your breast, should apprize you that in the same hour a new
light broke in upon a thousand private hearts. That secret which you would fain
keep, — as soon as you go abroad, lo! there is one standing on the doorstep, to
tell you the same. There is not the most bronzed and sharpened money-catcher,
who does not, to your consternation, almost, quail and shake the moment he hears
a question prompted by the new ideas. We thought he had some semblance of ground
to stand upon, that such as he at least would die hard; but he trembles and
flees. Then the scholar says, `Cities and coaches shall never impose on me
again; for, behold every solitary dream of mine is rushing to fulfilment. That
fancy I had, and hesitated to utter because you would laugh, — the broker, the
attorney, the market-man are saying the same thing. Had I waited a day longer to
speak, I had been too late. Behold, State Street thinks, and Wall Street doubts,
and begins to prophesy!'

It cannot be wondered at, that this general inquest into abuses should arise
in the bosom of society, when one considers the practical impediments that stand
in the way of virtuous young men. The young man, on entering life, finds the way
to lucrative employments blocked with abuses. The ways of trade are grown
selfish to the borders of theft, and supple to the borders (if not beyond the
borders) of fraud. The employments of commerce are not intrinsically unfit for a
man, or less genial to his faculties, but these are now in their general course
so vitiated by derelictions and abuses at which all connive, that it requires
more vigor and resources than can be expected of every young man, to right
himself in them; he is lost in them; he cannot move hand or foot in them. Has he
genius and virtue? the less does he find them fit for him to grow in, and if he
would thrive in them, he must sacrifice all the brilliant dreams of boyhood and
youth as dreams; he must forget the prayers of his childhood; and must take on
him the harness of routine and obsequiousness. If not so minded, nothing is left
him but to begin the world anew, as he does who puts the spade into the ground
for food. We are all implicated, of course, in this charge; it is only necessary
to ask a few questions as to the progress of the articles of commerce from the
fields where they grew, to our houses, to become aware that we eat and drink and
wear perjury and fraud in a hundred commodities. How many articles of daily
consumption are furnished us from the West Indies; yet it is said, that, in the
Spanish islands, the venality of the officers of the government has passed into
usage, and that no article passes into our ships which has not been fraudulently
cheapened. In the Spanish islands, every agent or factor of the Americans,
unless he be a consul, has taken oath that he is a Catholic, or has caused a
priest to make that declaration for him. The abolitionist has shown us our
dreadful debt to the southern negro. In the island of Cuba, in addition to the
ordinary abominations of slavery, it appears, only men are bought for the
plantations, and one dies in ten every year, of these miserable bachelors, to
yield us sugar. I leave for those who have the knowledge the part of sifting the
oaths of our custom-houses; I will not inquire into the oppression of the
sailors; I will not pry into the usages of our retail trade. I content myself
with the fact, that the general system of our trade, (apart from the blacker
traits, which, I hope, are exceptions denounced and unshared by all reputable
men,) is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of
human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the
sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of
superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage. It is not that which a
man delights to unlock to a noble friend; which he meditates on with joy and
self-approval in his hour of love and aspiration; but rather what he then puts
out of sight, only showing the brilliant result, and atoning for the manner of
acquiring, by the manner of expending it. I do not charge the merchant or the
manufacturer. The sins of our trade belong to no class, to no individual. One
plucks, one distributes, one eats. Every body partakes, every body confesses,
–with cap and knee volunteers his confession, yet none feels himself
accountable. He did not create the abuse; he cannot alter it. What is he? an
obscure private person who must get his bread. That is the vice, — that no one
feels himself called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man. It happens
therefore that all such ingenuous souls as feel within themselves the
irrepressible strivings of a noble aim, who by the law of their nature must act
simply, find these ways of trade unfit for them, and they come forth from it.
Such cases are becoming more numerous every year.

But by coming out of trade you have not cleared yourself. The trail of the
serpent reaches into all the lucrative professions and practices of man. Each
has its own wrongs. Each finds a tender and very intelligent conscience a
disqualification for success. Each requires of the practitioner a certain
shutting of the eyes, a certain dapperness and compliance, an acceptance of
customs, a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love, a
compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity. Nay, the evil custom reaches
into the whole institution of property, until our laws which establish and
protect it, seem not to be the issue of love and reason, but of selfishness.
Suppose a man is so unhappy as to be born a saint, with keen perceptions, but
with the conscience and love of an angel, and he is to get his living in the
world; he finds himself excluded from all lucrative works; he has no farm, and
he cannot get one; for, to earn money enough to buy one, requires a sort of
concentration toward money, which is the selling himself for a number of years,
and to him the present hour is as sacred and inviolable as any future hour. Of
course, whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours,
is at once vitiated. Inextricable seem to be the twinings and tendrils of this
evil, and we all involve ourselves in it the deeper by forming connections, by
wives and children, by benefits and debts.

Considerations of this kind have turned the attention of many philanthropic
and intelligent persons to the claims of manual labor, as a part of the
education of every young man. If the accumulated wealth of the past generations
is thus tainted, — no matter how much of it is offered to us, — we must begin
to consider if it were not the nobler part to renounce it, and to put ourselves
into primary relations with the soil and nature, and abstaining from whatever is
dishonest and unclean, to take each of us bravely his part, with his own hands,
in the manual labor of the world.

But it is said, `What! will you give up the immense advantages reaped from
the division of labor, and set every man to make his own shoes, bureau, knife,
wagon, sails, and needle? This would be to put men back into barbarism by their
own act.' I see no instant prospect of a virtuous revolution; yet I confess, I
should not be pained at a change which threatened a loss of some of the luxuries
or conveniences of society, if it proceeded from a preference of the
agricultural life out of the belief, that our primary duties as men could be
better discharged in that calling. Who could regret to see a high conscience and
a purer taste exercising a sensible effect on young men in their choice of
occupation, and thinning the ranks of competition in the labors of commerce, of
law, and of state? It is easy to see that the inconvenience would last but a
short time. This would be great action, which always opens the eyes of men. When
many persons shall have done this, when the majority shall admit the necessity
of reform in all these institutions, their abuses will be redressed, and the way
will be open again to the advantages which arise from the division of labor, and
a man may select the fittest employment for his peculiar talent again, without

But quite apart from the emphasis which the times give to the doctrine, that
the manual labor of society ought to be shared among all the members, there are
reasons proper to every individual, why he should not be deprived of it. The use
of manual labor is one which never grows obsolete, and which is inapplicable to
no person. A man should have a farm or a mechanical craft for his culture. We
must have a basis for our higher accomplishments, our delicate entertainments of
poetry and philosophy, in the work of our hands. We must have an antagonism in
the tough world for all the variety of our spiritual faculties, or they will not
be born. Manual labor is the study of the external world. The advantage of
riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir. When I go into my
garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health, that
I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do
for me what I should have done with my own hands. But not only health, but
education is in the work. Is it possible that I who get indefinite quantities of
sugar, hominy, cotton, buckets, crockery ware, and letter paper, by simply
signing my name once in three months to a cheque in favor of John Smith and Co.
traders, get the fair share of exercise to my faculties by that act, which
nature intended for me in making all these far-fetched matters important to my
comfort? It is Smith himself, and his carriers, and dealers, and manufacturers,
it is the sailor, the hidedrogher, the butcher, the negro, the hunter, and the
planter, who have intercepted the sugar of the sugar, and the cotton of the
cotton. They have got the education, I only the commodity. This were all very
well if I were necessarily absent, being detained by work of my own, like
theirs, work of the same faculties; then should I be sure of my hands and feet,
but now I feel some shame before my wood-chopper, my ploughman, and my cook, for
they have some sort of self-sufficiency, they can contrive without my aid to
bring the day and year round, but I depend on them, and have not earned by use a
right to my arms and feet.

Consider further the difference between the first and second owner of
property. Every species of property is preyed on by its own enemies, as iron by
rust; timber by rot; cloth by moths; provisions by mould, putridity, or vermin;
money by thieves; an orchard by insects; a planted field by weeds and the inroad
of cattle; a stock of cattle by hunger; a road by rain and frost; a bridge by
freshets. And whoever takes any of these things into his possession, takes the
charge of defending them from this troop of enemies, or of keeping them in
repair. A man who supplies his own want, who builds a raft or a boat to go a
fishing, finds it easy to caulk it, or put in a thole-pin, or mend the rudder.
What he gets only as fast as he wants for his own ends, does not embarrass him,
or take away his sleep with looking after. But when he comes to give all the
goods he has year after year collected, in one estate to his son, house,
orchard, ploughed land, cattle, bridges, hardware, wooden-ware, carpets, cloths,
provisions, books, money, and cannot give him the skill and experience which
made or collected these, and the method and place they have in his own life, the
son finds his hands full, — not to use these things, — but to look after them
and defend them from their natural enemies. To him they are not means, but
masters. Their enemies will not remit; rust, mould, vermin, rain, sun, freshet,
fire, all seize their own, fill him with vexation, and he is converted from the
owner into a watchman or a watch-dog to this magazine of old and new chattels.
What a change! Instead of the masterly good humor, and sense of power, and
fertility of resource in himself; instead of those strong and learned hands,
those piercing and learned eyes, that supple body, and that mighty and
prevailing heart, which the father had, whom nature loved and feared, whom snow
and rain, water and land, beast and fish seemed all to know and to serve, we
have now a puny, protected person, guarded by walls and curtains, stoves and
down beds, coaches, and men-servants and women-servants from the earth and the
sky, and who, bred to depend on all these, is made anxious by all that endangers
those possessions, and is forced to spend so much time in guarding them, that he
has quite lost sight of their original use, namely, to help him to his ends, —
to the prosecution of his love; to the helping of his friend, to the worship of
his God, to the enlargement of his knowledge, to the serving of his country, to
the indulgence of his sentiment, and he is now what is called a rich man, — the
menial and runner of his riches.

Hence it happens that the whole interest of history lies in the fortunes of
the poor. Knowledge, Virtue, Power are the victories of man over his
necessities, his march to the dominion of the world. Every man ought to have
this opportunity to conquer the world for himself. Only such persons interest
us, Spartans, Romans, Saracens, English, Americans, who have stood in the jaws
of need, and have by their own wit and might extricated themselves, and made man

I do not wish to overstate this doctrine of labor, or insist that every man
should be a farmer, any more than that every man should be a lexicographer. In
general, one may say, that the husbandman's is the oldest, and most universal
profession, and that where a man does not yet discover in himself any fitness
for one work more than another, this may be preferred. But the doctrine of the
Farm is merely this, that every man ought to stand in primary relations with the
work of the world, ought to do it himself, and not to suffer the accident of his
having a purse in his pocket, or his having been bred to some dishonorable and
injurious craft, to sever him from those duties; and for this reason, that labor
is God's education; that he only is a sincere learner, he only can become a
master, who learns the secrets of labor, and who by real cunning extorts from
nature its sceptre.

Neither would I shut my ears to the plea of the learned professions, of the
poet, the priest, the lawgiver, and men of study generally; namely, that in the
experience of all men of that class, the amount of manual labor which is
necessary to the maintenance of a family, indisposes and disqualifies for
intellectual exertion. I know, it often, perhaps usually, happens, that where
there is a fine organization apt for poetry and philosophy, that individual
finds himself compelled to wait on his thoughts, to waste several days that he
may enhance and glorify one; and is better taught by a moderate and dainty
exercise, such as rambling in the fields, rowing, skating, hunting, than by the
downright drudgery of the farmer and the smith. I would not quite forget the
venerable counsel of the Egyptian mysteries, which declared that "there were two
pairs of eyes in man, and it is requisite that the pair which are beneath should
be closed, when the pair that are above them perceive, and that when the pair
above are closed, those which are beneath should be opened." Yet I will suggest
that no separation from labor can be without some loss of power and of truth to
the seer himself; that, I doubt not, the faults and vices of our literature and
philosophy, their too great fineness, effeminacy, and melancholy, are
attributable to the enervated and sickly habits of the literary class. Better
that the book should not be quite so good, and the bookmaker abler and better,
and not himself often a ludicrous contrast to all that he has written.

But granting that for ends so sacred and dear, some relaxation must be had, I
think, that if a man find in himself any strong bias to poetry, to art, to the
contemplative life, drawing him to these things with a devotion incompatible
with good husbandry, that man ought to reckon early with himself, and,
respecting the compensations of the Universe, ought to ransom himself from the
duties of economy, by a certain rigor and privation in his habits. For
privileges so rare and grand, let him not stint to pay a great tax. Let him be a
caenobite, a pauper, and if need be, celibate also. Let him learn to eat his
meals standing, and to relish the taste of fair water and black bread. He may
leave to others the costly conveniences of housekeeping, and large hospitality,
and the possession of works of art. Let him feel that genius is a hospitality,
and that he who can create works of art needs not collect them. He must live in
a chamber, and postpone his self-indulgence, forewarned and forearmed against
that frequent misfortune of men of genius, — the taste for luxury. This is the
tragedy of genius, — attempting to drive along the ecliptic with one horse of
the heavens and one horse of the earth, there is only discord and ruin and
downfall to chariot and charioteer.

The duty that every man should assume his own vows, should call the
institutions of society to account, and examine their fitness to him, gains in
emphasis, if we look at our modes of living. Is our housekeeping sacred and
honorable? Does it raise and inspire us, or does it cripple us instead? I ought
to be armed by every part and function of my household, by all my social
function, by my economy, by my feasting, by my voting, by my traffic. Yet I am
almost no party to any of these things. Custom does it for me, gives me no power
therefrom, and runs me in debt to boot. We spend our incomes for paint and
paper, for a hundred trifles, I know not what, and not for the things of a man.
Our expense is almost all for conformity. It is for cake that we run in debt; 't
is not the intellect, not the heart, not beauty, not worship, that costs so
much. Why needs any man be rich? Why must he have horses, fine garments,
handsome apartments, access to public houses, and places of amusement? Only for
want of thought. Give his mind a new image, and he flees into a solitary garden
or garret to enjoy it, and is richer with that dream, than the fee of a county
could make him. But we are first thoughtless, and then find that we are
moneyless. We are first sensual, and then must be rich. We dare not trust our
wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, and so we buy ice-creams. He is
accustomed to carpets, and we have not sufficient character to put floor-cloths
out of his mind whilst he stays in the house, and so we pile the floor with
carpets. Let the house rather be a temple of the Furies of Lacedaemon,
formidable and holy to all, which none but a Spartan may enter or so much as
behold. As soon as there is faith, as soon as there is society, comfits and
cushions will be left to slaves. Expense will be inventive and heroic. We shall
eat hard and lie hard, we shall dwell like the ancient Romans in narrow
tenements, whilst our public edifices, like theirs, will be worthy for their
proportion of the landscape in which we set them, for conversation, for art, for
music, for worship. We shall be rich to great purposes; poor only for selfish

Now what help for these evils? How can the man who has learned but one art,
procure all the conveniences of life honestly? Shall we say all we think? —
Perhaps with his own hands. Suppose he collects or makes them ill; — yet he has
learned their lesson. If he cannot do that. — Then perhaps he can go without.
Immense wisdom and riches are in that. It is better to go without, than to have
them at too great a cost. Let us learn the meaning of economy. Economy is a
high, humane office, a sacrament, when its aim is grand; when it is the prudence
of simple tastes, when it is practised for freedom, or love, or devotion. Much
of the economy which we see in houses, is of a base origin, and is best kept out
of sight. Parched corn eaten to-day that I may have roast fowl to my dinner on
Sunday, is a baseness; but parched corn and a house with one apartment, that I
may be free of all perturbations, that I may be serene and docile to what the
mind shall speak, and girt and road-ready for the lowest mission of knowledge or
goodwill, is frugality for gods and heroes.

Can we not learn the lesson of self-help? Society is full of infirm people,
who incessantly summon others to serve them. They contrive everywhere to exhaust
for their single comfort the entire means and appliances of that luxury to which
our invention has yet attained. Sofas, ottomans, stoves, wine, game-fowl,
spices, perfumes, rides, the theatre, entertainments, — all these they want,
they need, and whatever can be suggested more than these, they crave also, as if
it was the bread which should keep them from starving; and if they miss any one,
they represent themselves as the most wronged and most wretched persons on
earth. One must have been born and bred with them to know how to prepare a meal
for their learned stomach. Meantime, they never bestir themselves to serve
another person; not they! they have a great deal more to do for themselves than
they can possibly perform, nor do they once perceive the cruel joke of their
lives, but the more odious they grow, the sharper is the tone of their
complaining and craving. Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants and to
serve them one's self, so as to have somewhat left to give, instead of being
always prompt to grab? It is more elegant to answer one's own needs, than to be
richly served; inelegant perhaps it may look to-day, and to a few, but it is an
elegance forever and to all.

I do not wish to be absurd and pedantic in reform. I do not wish to push my
criticism on the state of things around me to that extravagant mark, that shall
compel me to suicide, or to an absolute isolation from the advantages of civil
society. If we suddenly plant our foot, and say, — I will neither eat nor drink
nor wear nor touch any food or fabric which I do not know to be innocent, or
deal with any person whose whole manner of life is not clear and rational, we
shall stand still. Whose is so? Not mine; not thine; not his. But I think we
must clear ourselves each one by the interrogation, whether we have earned our
bread to-day by the hearty contribution of our energies to the common benefit?
and we must not cease to _tend_ to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by
laying one stone aright every day.

But the idea which now begins to agitate society has a wider scope than our
daily employments, our households, and the institutions of property. We are to
revise the whole of our social structure, the state, the school, religion,
marriage, trade, science, and explore their foundations in our own nature; we
are to see that the world not only fitted the former men, but fits us, and to
clear ourselves of every usage which has not its roots in our own mind. What is
a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer
of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which
embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour
repairs herself, yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a
new life? Let him renounce everything which is not true to him, and put all his
practices back on their first thoughts, and do nothing for which he has not the
whole world for his reason. If there are inconveniences, and what is called ruin
in the way, because we have so enervated and maimed ourselves, yet it would be
like dying of perfumes to sink in the effort to reattach the deeds of every day
to the holy and mysterious recesses of life.

The power, which is at once spring and regulator in all efforts of reform, is
the conviction that there is an infinite worthiness in man which will appear at
the call of worth, and that all particular reforms are the removing of some
impediment. Is it not the highest duty that man should be honored in us? I ought
not to allow any man, because he has broad lands, to feel that he is rich in my
presence. I ought to make him feel that I can do without his riches, that I
cannot be bought, — neither by comfort, neither by pride, — and though I be
utterly penniless, and receiving bread from him, that he is the poor man beside
me. And if, at the same time, a woman or a child discovers a sentiment of piety,
or a juster way of thinking than mine, I ought to confess it by my respect and
obedience, though it go to alter my whole way of life.

The Americans have many virtues, but they have not Faith and Hope. I know no
two words whose meaning is more lost sight of. We use these words as if they
were as obsolete as Selah and Amen. And yet they have the broadest meaning, and
the most cogent application to Boston in 1841. The Americans have no faith. They
rely on the power of a dollar; they are deaf to a sentiment. They think you may
talk the north wind down as easily as raise society; and no class more faithless
than the scholars or intellectual men. Now if I talk with a sincere wise man,
and my friend, with a poet, with a conscientious youth who is still under the
dominion of his own wild thoughts, and not yet harnessed in the team of society
to drag with us all in the ruts of custom, I see at once how paltry is all this
generation of unbelievers, and what a house of cards their institutions are, and
I see what one brave man, what one great thought executed might effect. I see
that the reason of the distrust of the practical man in all theory, is his
inability to perceive the means whereby we work. Look, he says, at the tools
with which this world of yours is to be built. As we cannot make a planet, with
atmosphere, rivers, and forests, by means of the best carpenters' or engineers'
tools, with chemist's laboratory and smith's forge to boot, — so neither can we
ever construct that heavenly society you prate of, out of foolish, sick, selfish
men and women, such as we know them to be. But the believer not only beholds his
heaven to be possible, but already to begin to exist, — not by the men or
materials the statesman uses, but by men transfigured and raised above
themselves by the power of principles. To principles something else is possible
that transcends all the power of expedients.

Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph
of some enthusiasm. The victories of the Arabs after Mahomet, who, in a few
years, from a small and mean beginning, established a larger empire than that of
Rome, is an example. They did they knew not what. The naked Derar, horsed on an
idea, was found an overmatch for a troop of Roman cavalry. The women fought like
men, and conquered the Roman men. They were miserably equipped, miserably fed.
They were Temperance troops. There was neither brandy nor flesh needed to feed
them. They conquered Asia, and Africa, and Spain, on barley. The Caliph Omar's
walking stick struck more terror into those who saw it, than another man's
sword. His diet was barley bread; his sauce was salt; and oftentimes by way of
abstinence he ate his bread without salt. His drink was water. His palace was
built of mud; and when he left Medina to go to the conquest of Jerusalem, he
rode on a red camel, with a wooden platter hanging at his saddle, with a bottle
of water and two sacks, one holding barley, and the other dried fruits.

But there will dawn ere long on our politics, on our modes of living, a
nobler morning than that Arabian faith, in the sentiment of love. This is the
one remedy for all ills, the panacea of nature. We must be lovers, and at once
the impossible becomes possible. Our age and history, for these thousand years,
has not been the history of kindness, but of selfishness. Our distrust is very
expensive. The money we spend for courts and prisons is very ill laid out. We
make, by distrust, the thief, and burglar, and incendiary, and by our court and
jail we keep him so. An acceptance of the sentiment of love throughout
Christendom for a season, would bring the felon and the outcast to our side in
tears, with the devotion of his faculties to our service. See this wide society
of laboring men and women. We allow ourselves to be served by them, we live
apart from them, and meet them without a salute in the streets. We do not greet
their talents, nor rejoice in their good fortune, nor foster their hopes, nor in
the assembly of the people vote for what is dear to them. Thus we enact the part
of the selfish noble and king from the foundation of the world. See, this tree
always bears one fruit. In every household, the peace of a pair is poisoned by
the malice, slyness, indolence, and alienation of domestics. Let any two matrons
meet, and observe how soon their conversation turns on the troubles from their
"_help_," as our phrase is. In every knot of laborers, the rich man does not
feel himself among his friends, — and at the polls he finds them arrayed in a
mass in distinct opposition to him. We complain that the politics of masses of
the people are controlled by designing men, and led in opposition to manifest
justice and the common weal, and to their own interest. But the people do not
wish to be represented or ruled by the ignorant and base. They only vote for
these, because they were asked with the voice and semblance of kindness. They
will not vote for them long. They inevitably prefer wit and probity. To use an
Egyptian metaphor, it is not their will for any long time "to raise the nails of
wild beasts, and to depress the heads of the sacred birds." Let our affection
flow out to our fellows; it would operate in a day the greatest of all
revolutions. It is better to work on institutions by the sun than by the wind.
The state must consider the poor man, and all voices must speak for him. Every
child that is born must have a just chance for his bread. Let the amelioration
in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the
grasping of the poor. Let us begin by habitual imparting. Let us understand that
the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be
ever so rich. Let me feel that I am to be a lover. I am to see to it that the
world is the better for me, and to find my reward in the act. Love would put a
new face on this weary old world in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too
long, and it would warm the heart to see how fast the vain diplomacy of
statesmen, the impotence of armies, and navies, and lines of defence, would be
superseded by this unarmed child. Love will creep where it cannot go, will
accomplish that by imperceptible methods, — being its own lever, fulcrum, and
power, — which force could never achieve. Have you not seen in the woods, in a
late autumn morning, a poor fungus or mushroom, — a plant without any solidity,
nay, that seemed nothing but a soft mush or jelly, — by its constant, total,
and inconceivably gentle pushing, manage to break its way up through the frosty
ground, and actually to lift a hard crust on its head? It is the symbol of the
power of kindness. The virtue of this principle in human society in application
to great interests is obsolete and forgotten. Once or twice in history it has
been tried in illustrious instances, with signal success. This great, overgrown,
dead Christendom of ours still keeps alive at least the name of a lover of
mankind. But one day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be
dissolved in the universal sunshine.

Will you suffer me to add one trait more to this portrait of man the
reformer? The mediator between the spiritual and the actual world should have a
great prospective prudence. An Arabian poet describes his hero by saying,

"Sunshine was he
In the winter day;
And in the midsummer
and shade."

He who would help himself and others, should not be a subject of irregular
and interrupted impulses of virtue, but a continent, persisting, immovable
person, — such as we have seen a few scattered up and down in time for the
blessing of the world; men who have in the gravity of their nature a quality
which answers to the fly-wheel in a mill, which distributes the motion equably
over all the wheels, and hinders it from falling unequally and suddenly in
destructive shocks. It is better that joy should be spread over all the day in
the form of strength, than that it should be concentrated into ecstasies, full
of danger and followed by reactions. There is a sublime prudence, which is the
very highest that we know of man, which, believing in a vast future, — sure of
more to come than is yet seen, — postpones always the present hour to the whole
life; postpones talent to genius, and special results to character. As the
merchant gladly takes money from his income to add to his capital, so is the
great man very willing to lose particular powers and talents, so that he gain in
the elevation of his life. The opening of the spiritual senses disposes men ever
to greater sacrifices, to leave their signal talents, their best means and skill
of procuring a present success, their power and their fame, — to cast all
things behind, in the insatiable thirst for divine communications. A purer fame,
a greater power rewards the sacrifice. It is the conversion of our harvest into
seed. As the farmer casts into the ground the finest ears of his grain, the time
will come when we too shall hold nothing back, but shall eagerly convert more
than we now possess into means and powers, when we shall be willing to sow the
sun and the moon for seeds.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

The Method of Nature

An Oration delivered before the Society of the Adelphi, in
Waterville College, Maine, August 11, 1841


Let us exchange congratulations on the enjoyments and the promises of this literary anniversary. The land we live in has no interest so dear, if it knew its want, as the fit consecration of days of reason and thought. Where there is no vision, the people perish. The scholars are the priests of that thought which establishes the foundations of the earth. No matter what is their special work or profession, they stand for the spiritual interest of the world, and it is a common calamity if they neglect their post in a country where the material interest is so predominant as it is in America. We hear something too much of the results of machinery, commerce, and the useful arts. We are a puny and a fickle folk. Avarice, hesitation, and following, are our diseases. The rapid wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the incessant expansions of our population and arts, enchants the eyes of all the rest; the luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and feature of man.

I do not wish to look with sour aspect at the industrious manufacturing village, or the mart of commerce. I love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway; I feel the pride which the sight of a ship inspires; I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also. But let me discriminate what is precious herein. There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken; that act or step is the spiritual act; all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times. And I will not be deceived into admiring the routine of handicrafts and mechanics, how splendid soever the result, any more than I admire the routine of the scholars or clerical class. That splendid results ensue from the labors of stupid men, is the fruit of higher laws than their will, and the routine is not to be praised for it. I would not have the laborer sacrificed to the result, — I would not have the laborer sacrificed to my convenience and pride, nor to that of a great class of such as me. Let there be worse cotton and better men. The weaver should not be bereaved of his superiority to his work, and his knowledge that the product or the skill is of no value, except so far as it embodies his spiritual prerogatives. If I see nothing to admire in the unit, shall I admire a million units? Men stand in awe of the city, but do not honor any individual citizen; and are continually yielding to this dazzling result of numbers, that which they would never yield to the solitary example of any one.

Whilst the multitude of men degrade each other, and give currency to desponding doctrines, the scholar must be a bringer of hope, and must reinforce man against himself. I sometimes believe that our literary anniversaries will presently assume a greater importance, as the eyes of men open to their capabilities. Here, a new set of distinctions, a new order of ideas, prevail. Here, we set a bound to the respectability of wealth, and a bound to the pretensions of the law and the church. The bigot must cease to be a bigot to-day. Into our charmed circle, power cannot enter; and the sturdiest defender of existing institutions feels the terrific inflammability of this air which condenses heat in every corner that may restore to the elements the fabrics of ages. Nothing solid is secure; every thing tilts and rocks. Even the scholar is not safe; he too is searched and revised. Is his learning dead? Is he living in his memory? The power of mind is not mortification, but life. But come forth, thou curious child! hither, thou loving, all-hoping poet! hither, thou tender, doubting heart, who hast not yet found any place in the world’s market fit for thee; any wares which thou couldst buy or sell, — so large is thy love and ambition, — thine and not theirs is the hour. Smooth thy brow, and hope and love on, for the kind heaven justifies thee, and the whole world feels that thou art in the right.

We ought to celebrate this hour by expressions of manly joy. Not thanks, not prayer seem quite the highest or truest name for our communication with the infinite, — but glad and conspiring reception, — reception that becomes giving in its turn, as the receiver is only the All-Giver in part and in infancy. I cannot, –nor can any man, — speak precisely of things so sublime, but it seems to me, the wit of man, his strength, his grace, his tendency, his art, is the grace and the presence of God. It is beyond explanation. When all is said and done, the rapt saint is found the only logician. Not exhortation, not argument becomes our lips, but paeans of joy and praise. But not of adulation: we are too nearly related in the deep of the mind to that we honor. It is God in us which checks the language of petition by a grander thought. In the bottom of the heart, it is said; `I am, and by me, O child! this fair body and world of thine stands and grows. I am; all things are mine: and all mine are thine.’

The festival of the intellect, and the return to its source, cast a strong light on the always interesting topics of Man and Nature. We are forcibly reminded of the old want. There is no man; there hath never been. The Intellect still asks that a man may be born. The flame of life flickers feebly in human breasts. We demand of men a richness and universality we do not find. Great men do not content us. It is their solitude, not their force, that makes them conspicuous. There is somewhat indigent and tedious about them. They are poorly tied to one thought. If they are prophets, they are egotists; if polite and various, they are shallow. How tardily men arrive at any result! how tardily they pass from it to another! The crystal sphere of thought is as concentrical as the geological structure of the globe. As our soils and rocks lie in strata, concentric strata, so do all men’s thinkings run laterally, never vertically. Here comes by a great inquisitor with auger and plumb-line, and will bore an Artesian well through our conventions and theories, and pierce to the core of things. But as soon as he probes the crust, behold gimlet, plumb-line, and philosopher take a lateral direction, in spite of all resistance, as if some strong wind took everything off its feet, and if you come month after month to see what progress our reformer has made, — not an inch has he pierced, — you still find him with new words in the old place, floating about in new parts of the same old vein or crust. The new book says, `I will give you the key to nature,’ and we expect to go like a thunderbolt to the centre. But the thunder is a surface phenomenon, makes a skin-deep cut, and so does the sage. The wedge turns out to be a rocket. Thus a man lasts but a very little while, for his monomania becomes insupportably tedious in a few months. It is so with every book and person: and yet — and yet — we do not take up a new book, or meet a new man, without a pulse-beat of expectation. And this invincible hope of a more adequate interpreter is the sure prediction of his advent.

In the absence of man, we turn to nature, which stands next. In the divine order, intellect is primary; nature, secondary; it is the memory of the mind. That which once existed in intellect as pure law, has now taken body as Nature. It existed already in the mind in solution; now, it has been precipitated, and the bright sediment is the world. We can never be quite strangers or inferiors in nature. It is flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone. But we no longer hold it by the hand; we have lost our miraculous power; our arm is no more as strong as the frost; nor our will equivalent to gravity and the elective attractions. Yet we can use nature as a convenient standard, and the meter of our rise and fall. It has this advantage as a witness, it cannot be debauched. When man curses, nature still testifies to truth and love. We may, therefore, safely study the mind in nature, because we cannot steadily gaze on it in mind; as we explore the face of the sun in a pool, when our eyes cannot brook his direct splendors.

It seems to me, therefore, that it were some suitable paean, if we should piously celebrate this hour by exploring the _method of nature_. Let us see _that_, as nearly as we can, and try how far it is transferable to the literary life. Every earnest glance we give to the realities around us, with intent to learn, proceeds from a holy impulse, and is really songs of praise. What difference can it make whether it take the shape of exhortation, or of passionate exclamation, or of scientific statement? These are forms merely. Through them we express, at last, the fact, that God has done thus or thus.

In treating a subject so large, in which we must necessarily appeal to the intuition, and aim much more to suggest, than to describe, I know it is not easy to speak with the precision attainable on topics of less scope. I do not wish in attempting to paint a man, to describe an air-fed, unimpassioned, impossible ghost. My eyes and ears are revolted by any neglect of the physical facts, the limitations of man. And yet one who conceives the true order of nature, and beholds the visible as proceeding from the invisible, cannot state his thought, without seeming to those who study the physical laws, to do them some injustice. There is an intrinsic defect in the organ. Language overstates. Statements of the infinite are usually felt to be unjust to the finite, and blasphemous. Empedocles undoubtedly spoke a truth of thought, when he said, “I am God;” but the moment it was out of his mouth, it became a lie to the ear; and the world revenged itself for the seeming arrogance, by the good story about his shoe. How can I hope for better hap in my attempts to enunciate spiritual facts? Yet let us hope, that as far as we receive the truth, so far shall we be felt by every true person to say what is just.

The method of nature: who could ever analyze it? That rushing stream will not stop to be observed. We can never surprise nature in a corner; never find the end of a thread; never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg: the egg hastens to be a bird. The wholeness we admire in the order of the world, is the result of infinite distribution. Its smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed; as insane persons are those who hold fast to one thought, and do not flow with the course of nature. Not the cause, but an ever novel effect, nature descends always from above. It is unbroken obedience. The beauty of these fair objects is imported into them from a metaphysical and eternal spring. In all animal and vegetable forms, the physiologist concedes that no chemistry, no mechanics, can account for the facts, but a mysterious principle of life must be assumed, which not only inhabits the organ, but makes the organ.

How silent, how spacious, what room for all, yet without place to insert an atom, — in graceful succession, in equal fulness, in balanced beauty, the dance of the hours goes forward still. Like an odor of incense, like a strain of music, like a sleep, it is inexact and boundless. It will not be dissected, nor unravelled, nor shown. Away profane philosopher! seekest thou in nature the cause? This refers to that, and that to the next, and the next to the third, and everything refers. Thou must ask in another mood, thou must feel it and love it, thou must behold it in a spirit as grand as that by which it exists, ere thou canst know the law. Known it will not be, but gladly beloved and enjoyed.

The simultaneous life throughout the whole body, the equal serving of innumerable ends without the least emphasis or preference to any, but the steady degradation of each to the success of all, allows the understanding no place to work. Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end, to a universe of ends, and not to one, — a work of _ecstasy_, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length. Each effect strengthens every other. There is no revolt in all the kingdoms from the commonweal: no detachment of an individual. Hence the catholic character which makes every leaf an exponent of the world. When we behold the landscape in a poetic spirit, we do not reckon individuals. Nature knows neither palm nor oak, but only vegetable life, which sprouts into forests, and festoons the globe with a garland of grasses and vines.

That no single end may be selected, and nature judged thereby, appears from this, that if man himself be considered as the end, and it be assumed that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded. Read alternately in natural and in civil history, a treatise of astronomy, for example, with a volume of French _Memoires pour servir_. When we have spent our wonder in computing this wasteful hospitality with which boon nature turns off new firmaments without end into her wide common, as fast as the madrepores make coral, — suns and planets hospitable to souls, — and then shorten the sight to look into this court of Louis Quatorze, and see the game that is played there, –duke and marshal, abbe and madame, — a gambling table where each is laying traps for the other, where the end is ever by some lie or fetch to outwit your rival and ruin him with this solemn fop in wig and stars, — the king; one can hardly help asking if this planet is a fair specimen of the so generous astronomy, and if so, whether the experiment have not failed, and whether it be quite worth while to make more, and glut the innocent space with so poor an article.

I think we feel not much otherwise if, instead of beholding foolish nations, we take the great and wise men, the eminent souls, and narrowly inspect their biography. None of them seen by himself — and his performance compared with his promise or idea, will justify the cost of that enormous apparatus of means by which this spotted and defective person was at last procured.

To questions of this sort, nature replies, `I grow.’ All is nascent, infant. When we are dizzied with the arithmetic of the savant toiling to compute the length of her line, the return of her curve, we are steadied by the perception that a great deal is doing; that all seems just begun; remote aims are in active accomplishment. We can point nowhere to anything final; but tendency appears on all hands: planet, system, constellation, total nature is growing like a field of maize in July; is becoming somewhat else; is in rapid metamorphosis. The embryo does not more strive to be man, than yonder burr of light we call a nebula tends to be a ring, a comet, a globe, and parent of new stars. Why should not then these messieurs of Versailles strut and plot for tabourets and ribbons, for a season, without prejudice to their faculty to run on better errands by and by?

But nature seems further to reply, `I have ventured so great a stake as my success, in no single creature. I have not yet arrived at any end. The gardener aims to produce a fine peach or pear, but my aim is the health of the whole tree, — root, stem, leaf, flower, and seed, — and by no means the pampering of a monstrous pericarp at the expense of all the other functions.’

In short, the spirit and peculiarity of that impression nature makes on us, is this, that it does not exist to any one or to any number of particular ends, but to numberless and endless benefit; that there is in it no private will, no rebel leaf or limb, but the whole is oppressed by one superincumbent tendency, obeys that redundancy or excess of life which in conscious beings we call ecstasy.

With this conception of the genius or method of nature, let us go back to man. It is true, he pretends to give account of himself to himself, but, at last, what has he to recite but the fact that there is a Life not to be described or known otherwise than by possession? What account can he give of his essence more than “so it was to be”? The royal reason, the Grace of God seems the only description of our multiform but ever identical fact. There is virtue, there is genius, there is success, or there is not. There is the incoming or the receding of God: that is all we can affirm; and we can show neither how nor why. Self-accusation, remorse, and the didactic morals of self-denial and strife with sin, is a view we are constrained by our constitution to take of the fact seen from the platform of action; but seen from the platform of intellection, there is nothing for us but praise and wonder.

The termination of the world in a man, appears to be the last victory of intelligence. The universal does not attract us until housed in an individual. Who heeds the waste abyss of possibility? The ocean is everywhere the same, but it has no character until seen with the shore or the ship. Who would value any number of miles of Atlantic brine bounded by lines of latitude and longitude? Confine it by granite rocks, let it wash a shore where wise men dwell, and it is filled with expression; and the point of greatest interest is where the land and water meet. So must we admire in man, the form of the formless, the concentration of the vast, the house of reason, the cave of memory. See the play of thoughts! what nimble gigantic creatures are these! what saurians, what palaiotheria shall be named with these agile movers? The great Pan of old, who was clothed in a leopard skin to signify the beautiful variety of things, and the firmament, his coat of stars, — was but the representative of thee, O rich and various Man! thou palace of sight and sound, carrying in thy senses the morning and the night and the unfathomable galaxy; in thy brain, the geometry of the City of God; in thy heart, the bower of love and the realms of right and wrong. An individual man is a fruit which it cost all the foregoing ages to form and ripen. The history of the genesis or the old mythology repeats itself in the experience of every child. He too is a demon or god thrown into a particular chaos, where he strives ever to lead things from disorder into order. Each individual soul is such, in virtue of its being a power to translate the world into some particular language of its own; if not into a picture, a statue, or a dance, — why, then, into a trade, an art, a science, a mode of living, a conversation, a character, an influence. You admire pictures, but it is as impossible for you to paint a right picture, as for grass to bear apples. But when the genius comes, it makes fingers: it is pliancy, and the power of transferring the affair in the street into oils and colors. Raphael must be born, and Salvator must be born.

There is no attractiveness like that of a new man. The sleepy nations are occupied with their political routine. England, France and America read Parliamentary Debates, which no high genius now enlivens; and nobody will read them who trusts his own eye: only they who are deceived by the popular repetition of distinguished names. But when Napoleon unrolls his map, the eye is commanded by original power. When Chatham leads the debate, men may well listen, because they must listen. A man, a personal ascendency is the only great phenomenon. When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it. Follow the great man, and you shall see what the world has at heart in these ages. There is no omen like that.

But what strikes us in the fine genius is that which belongs of right to every one. A man should know himself for a necessary actor. A link was wanting between two craving parts of nature, and he was hurled into being as the bridge over that yawning need, the mediator betwixt two else unmarriageable facts. His two parents held each of one of the wants, and the union of foreign constitutions in him enables him to do gladly and gracefully what the assembled human race could not have sufficed to do. He knows his materials; he applies himself to his work; he cannot read, or think, or look, but he unites the hitherto separated strands into a perfect cord. The thoughts he delights to utter are the reason of his incarnation. Is it for him to account himself cheap and superfluous, or to linger by the wayside for opportunities? Did he not come into being because something must be done which he and no other is and does? If only he “sees”, the world will be visible enough. He need not study where to stand, nor to put things in favorable lights; in him is the light, from him all things are illuminated, to their centre. What patron shall he ask for employment and reward? Hereto was he born, to deliver the thought of his heart from the universe to the universe, to do an office which nature could not forego, nor he be discharged from rendering, and then immerge again into the holy silence and eternity out of which as a man he arose. God is rich, and many more men than one he harbors in his bosom, biding their time and the needs and the beauty of all. Is not this the theory of every man’s genius or faculty? Why then goest thou as some Boswell or listening worshipper to this saint or to that? That is the only lese-majesty. Here art thou with whom so long the universe travailed in labor; darest thou think meanly of thyself whom the stalwart Fate brought forth to unite his ragged sides, to shoot the gulf, to reconcile the irreconcilable?

Whilst a necessity so great caused the man to exist, his health and erectness consist in the fidelity with which he transmits influences from the vast and universal to the point on which his genius can act. The ends are momentary: they are vents for the current of inward life which increases as it is spent. A man’s wisdom is to know that all ends are momentary, that the best end must be superseded by a better. But there is a mischievous tendency in him to transfer his thought from the life to the ends, to quit his agency and rest in his acts: the tools run away with the workman, the human with the divine. I conceive a man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head and see the speaker. In all the millions who have heard the voice, none ever saw the face. As children in their play run behind each other, and seize one by the ears and make him walk before them, so is the spirit our unseen pilot. That well-known voice speaks in all languages, governs all men, and none ever caught a glimpse of its form. If the man will exactly obey it, it will adopt him, so that he shall not any longer separate it from himself in his thought, he shall seem to be it, he shall be it. If he listen with insatiable ears, richer and greater wisdom is taught him, the sound swells to a ravishing music, he is borne away as with a flood, he becomes careless of his food and of his house, he is the fool of ideas, and leads a heavenly life. But if his eye is set on the things to be done, and not on the truth that is still taught, and for the sake of which the things are to be done, then the voice grows faint, and at last is but a humming in his ears. His health and greatness consist in his being the channel through which heaven flows to earth, in short, in the fulness in which an ecstatical state takes place in him. It is pitiful to be an artist, when, by forbearing to be artists, we might be vessels filled with the divine overflowings, enriched by the circulations of omniscience and omnipresence. Are there not moments in the history of heaven when the human race was not counted by individuals, but was only the Influenced, was God in distribution, God rushing into multiform benefit? It is sublime to receive, sublime to love, but this lust of imparting as from “us”, this desire to be loved, the wish to be recognized as individuals, — is finite, comes of a lower strain.

Shall I say, then, that, as far as we can trace the natural history of the soul, its health consists in the fulness of its reception, — call it piety, call it veneration — in the fact, that enthusiasm is organized therein. What is best in any work of art, but that part which the work itself seems to require and do; that which the man cannot do again, that which flows from the hour and the occasion, like the eloquence of men in a tumultuous debate? It was always the theory of literature, that the word of a poet was authoritative and final. He was supposed to be the mouth of a divine wisdom. We rather envied his circumstance than his talent. We too could have gladly prophesied standing in that place. We so quote our Scriptures; and the Greeks so quoted Homer, Theognis, Pindar, and the rest. If the theory has receded out of modern criticism, it is because we have not had poets. Whenever they appear, they will redeem their own credit.

This ecstatical state seems to direct a regard to the whole and not to the parts; to the cause and not to the ends; to the tendency, and not to the act. It respects genius and not talent; hope, and not possession: the anticipation of all things by the intellect, and not the history itself; art, and not works of art; poetry, and not experiment; virtue, and not duties.

There is no office or function of man but is rightly discharged by this divine method, and nothing that is not noxious to him if detached from its universal relations. Is it his work in the world to study nature, or the laws of the world? Let him beware of proposing to himself any end. Is it for use? nature is debased, as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish. Or is it for pleasure? he is mocked: there is a certain infatuating air in woods and mountains which draws on the idler to want and misery. There is something social and intrusive in the nature of all things; they seek to penetrate and overpower, each the nature of every other creature, and itself alone in all modes and throughout space and spirit to prevail and possess. Every star in heaven is discontented and insatiable. Gravitation and chemistry cannot content them. Ever they woo and court the eye of every beholder. Every man who comes into the world they seek to fascinate and possess, to pass into his mind, for they desire to republish themselves in a more delicate world than that they occupy. It is not enough that they are Jove, Mars, Orion, and the North Star, in the gravitating firmament: they would have such poets as Newton, Herschel and Laplace, that they may re-exist and re-appear in the finer world of rational souls, and fill that realm with their fame. So is it with all immaterial objects. These beautiful basilisks set their brute, glorious eyes on the eye of every child, and, if they can, cause their nature to pass through his wondering eyes into him, and so all things are mixed.

Therefore man must be on his guard against this cup of enchantments, and must look at nature with a supernatural eye. By piety alone, by conversing with the cause of nature, is he safe and commands it. And because all knowledge is assimilation to the object of knowledge, as the power or genius of nature is ecstatic, so must its science or the description of it be. The poet must be a rhapsodist: his inspiration a sort of bright casualty: his will in it only the surrender of will to the Universal Power, which will not be seen face to face, but must be received and sympathetically known. It is remarkable that we have out of the deeps of antiquity in the oracles ascribed to the half fabulous Zoroaster, a statement of this fact, which every lover and seeker of truth will recognize. “It is not proper,” said Zoroaster, “to understand the Intelligible with vehemence, but if you incline your mind, you will apprehend it: not too earnestly, but bringing a pure and inquiring eye. You will not understand it as when understanding some particular thing, but with the flower of the mind. Things divine are not attainable by mortals who understand sensual things, but only the light-armed arrive at the summit.”

And because ecstasy is the law and cause of nature, therefore you cannot interpret it in too high and deep a sense. Nature represents the best meaning of the wisest man. Does the sunset landscape seem to you the palace of Friendship, — those purple skies and lovely waters the amphitheatre dressed and garnished only for the exchange of thought and love of the purest souls? It is that. All other meanings which base men have put on it are conjectural and false. You cannot bathe twice in the same river, said Heraclitus; and I add, a man never sees the same object twice: with his own enlargement the object acquires new aspects.

Does not the same law hold for virtue? It is vitiated by too much will. He who aims at progress, should aim at an infinite, not at a special benefit. The reforms whose fame now fills the land with Temperance, Anti-Slavery, Non-Resistance, No Government, Equal Labor, fair and generous as each appears, are poor bitter things when prosecuted for themselves as an end. To every reform, in proportion to its energy, early disgusts are incident, so that the disciple is surprised at the very hour of his first triumphs, with chagrins, and sickness, and a general distrust: so that he shuns his associates, hates the enterprise which lately seemed so fair, and meditates to cast himself into the arms of that society and manner of life which he had newly abandoned with so much pride and hope. Is it that he attached the value of virtue to some particular practices, as, the denial of certain appetites in certain specified indulgences, and, afterward, found himself still as wicked and as far from happiness in that abstinence, as he had been in the abuse? But the soul can be appeased not by a deed but by a tendency. It is in a hope that she feels her wings. You shall love rectitude and not the disuse of money or the avoidance of trade: an unimpeded mind, and not a monkish diet; sympathy and usefulness, and not hoeing or coopering. Tell me not how great your project is, the civil liberation of the world, its conversion into a Christian church, the establishment of public education, cleaner diet, a new division of labor and of land, laws of love for laws of property; — I say to you plainly there is no end to which your practical faculty can aim, so sacred or so large, that, if pursued for itself, will not at last become carrion and an offence to the nostril. The imaginative faculty of the soul must be fed with objects immense and eternal. Your end should be one inapprehensible to the senses: then will it be a god always approached, — never touched; always giving health. A man adorns himself with prayer and love, as an aim adorns an action. What is strong but goodness, and what is energetic but the presence of a brave man? The doctrine in vegetable physiology of the _presence_, or the general influence of any substance over and above its chemical influence, as of an alkali or a living plant, is more predicable of man. You need not speak to me, I need not go where you are, that you should exert magnetism on me. Be you only whole and sufficient, and I shall feel you in every part of my life and fortune, and I can as easily dodge the gravitation of the globe as escape your influence.

But there are other examples of this total and supreme influence, besides Nature and the conscience. “From the poisonous tree, the world,” say the Brahmins, “two species of fruit are produced, sweet as the waters of life, Love or the society of beautiful souls, and Poetry, whose taste is like the immortal juice of Vishnu.” What is Love, and why is it the chief good, but because it is an overpowering enthusiasm? Never self-possessed or prudent, it is all abandonment. Is it not a certain admirable wisdom, preferable to all other advantages, and whereof all others are only secondaries and indemnities, because this is that in which the individual is no longer his own foolish master, but inhales an odorous and celestial air, is wrapped round with awe of the object, blending for the time that object with the real and only good, and consults every omen in nature with tremulous interest. When we speak truly, — is not he only unhappy who is not in love? his fancied freedom and self-rule — is it not so much death? He who is in love is wise and is becoming wiser, sees newly every time he looks at the object beloved, drawing from it with his eyes and his mind those virtues which it possesses. Therefore if the object be not itself a living and expanding soul, he presently exhausts it. But the love remains in his mind, and the wisdom it brought him; and it craves a new and higher object. And the reason why all men honor love, is because it looks up and not down; aspires and not despairs.

And what is Genius but finer love, a love impersonal, a love of the flower and perfection of things, and a desire to draw a new picture or copy of the same? It looks to the cause and life: it proceeds from within outward, whilst Talent goes from without inward. Talent finds its models, methods, and ends, in society, exists for exhibition, and goes to the soul only for power to work. Genius is its own end, and draws its means and the style of its architecture from within, going abroad only for audience, and spectator, as we adapt our voice and phrase to the distance and character of the ear we speak to. All your learning of all literatures would never enable you to anticipate one of its thoughts or expressions, and yet each is natural and familiar as household words. Here about us coils forever the ancient enigma, so old and so unutterable. Behold! there is the sun, and the rain, and the rocks: the old sun, the old stones. How easy were it to describe all this fitly; yet no word can pass. Nature is a mute, and man, her articulate speaking brother, lo! he also is a mute. Yet when Genius arrives, its speech is like a river; it has no straining to describe, more than there is straining in nature to exist. When thought is best, there is most of it. Genius sheds wisdom like perfume, and advertises us that it flows out of a deeper source than the foregoing silence, that it knows so deeply and speaks so musically, because it is itself a mutation of the thing it describes. It is sun and moon and wave and fire in music, as astronomy is thought and harmony in masses of matter.

What is all history but the work of ideas, a record of the incomputable energy which his infinite aspirations infuse into man? Has any thing grand and lasting been done? Who did it? Plainly not any man, but all men: it was the prevalence and inundation of an idea. What brought the pilgrims here? One man says, civil liberty; another, the desire of founding a church; and a third, discovers that the motive force was plantation and trade. But if the Puritans could rise from the dust, they could not answer. It is to be seen in what they were, and not in what they designed; it was the growth and expansion of the human race, and resembled herein the sequent Revolution, which was not begun in Concord, or Lexington, or Virginia, but was the overflowing of the sense of natural right in every clear and active spirit of the period. Is a man boastful and knowing, and his own master? — we turn from him without hope: but let him be filled with awe and dread before the Vast and the Divine, which uses him glad to be used, and our eye is riveted to the chain of events. What a debt is ours to that old religion which, in the childhood of most of us, still dwelt like a sabbath morning in the country of New England, teaching privation, self-denial and sorrow! A man was born not for prosperity, but to suffer for the benefit of others, like the noble rock-maple which all around our villages bleeds for the service of man. Not praise, not men’s acceptance of our doing, but the spirit’s holy errand through us absorbed the thought. How dignified was this! How all that is called talents and success, in our noisy capitals, becomes buzz and din before this man-worthiness! How our friendships and the complaisances we use, shame us now! Shall we not quit our companions, as if they were thieves and pot-companions, and betake ourselves to some desert cliff of mount Katahdin, some unvisited recess in Moosehead Lake, to bewail our innocency and to recover it, and with it the power to communicate again with these sharers of a more sacred idea?

And what is to replace for us the piety of that race? We cannot have theirs: it glides away from us day by day, but we also can bask in the great morning which rises forever out of the eastern sea, and be ourselves the children of the light. I stand here to say, Let us worship the mighty and transcendent Soul. It is the office, I doubt not, of this age to annul that adulterous divorce which the superstition of many ages has effected between the intellect and holiness. The lovers of goodness have been one class, the students of wisdom another, as if either could exist in any purity without the other. Truth is always holy, holiness always wise. I will that we keep terms with sin, and a sinful literature and society, no longer, but live a life of discovery and performance. Accept the intellect, and it will accept us. Be the lowly ministers of that pure omniscience, and deny it not before men. It will burn up all profane literature, all base current opinions, all the false powers of the world, as in a moment of time. I draw from nature the lesson of an intimate divinity. Our health and reason as men needs our respect to this fact, against the heedlessness and against the contradiction of society. The sanity of man needs the poise of this immanent force. His nobility needs the assurance of this inexhaustible reserved power. How great soever have been its bounties, they are a drop to the sea whence they flow. If you say, `the acceptance of the vision is also the act of God:’ — I shall not seek to penetrate the mystery, I admit the force of what you say. If you ask, `How can any rules be given for the attainment of gifts so sublime?’ I shall only remark that the solicitations of this spirit, as long as there is life, are never forborne. Tenderly, tenderly, they woo and court us from every object in nature, from every fact in life, from every thought in the mind. The one condition coupled with the gift of truth is its use. That man shall be learned who reduceth his learning to practice. Emanuel Swedenborg affirmed that it was opened to him, “that the spirits who knew truth in this life, but did it not, at death shall lose their knowledge.” “If knowledge,” said Ali the Caliph, “calleth unto practice, well; if not, it goeth away.” The only way into nature is to enact our best insight. Instantly we are higher poets, and can speak a deeper law. Do what you know, and perception is converted into character, as islands and continents were built by invisible infusories, or, as these forest leaves absorb light, electricity, and volatile gases, and the gnarled oak to live a thousand years is the arrest and fixation of the most volatile and ethereal currents. The doctrine of this Supreme Presence is a cry of joy and exultation. Who shall dare think he has come late into nature, or has missed anything excellent in the past, who seeth the admirable stars of possibility, and the yet untouched continent of hope glittering with all its mountains in the vast West? I praise with wonder this great reality, which seems to drown all things in the deluge of its light. What man seeing this, can lose it from his thoughts, or entertain a meaner subject? The entrance of this into his mind seems to be the birth of man. We cannot describe the natural history of the soul, but we know that it is divine. I cannot tell if these wonderful qualities which house to-day in this mortal frame, shall ever reassemble in equal activity in a similar frame, or whether they have before had a natural history like that of this body you see before you; but this one thing I know, that these qualities did not now begin to exist, cannot be sick with my sickness, nor buried in any grave; but that they circulate through the Universe: before the world was, they were. Nothing can bar them out, or shut them in, but they penetrate the ocean and land, space and time, form and essence, and hold the key to universal nature. I draw from this faith courage and hope. All things are known to the soul. It is not to be surprised by any communication. Nothing can be greater than it. Let those fear and those fawn who will. The soul is in her native realm, and it is wider than space, older than time, wide as hope, rich as love. Pusillanimity and fear she refuses with a beautiful scorn: they are not for her who putteth on her coronation robes, and goes out through universal love to universal power.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

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.

Complete Works of RWE I - Nature, Addresses & Lectures

Divinity School Address

Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday
Evening, July 15, 1838

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.
The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the
tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the
pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart
with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their
almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a
toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes
again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more
happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the
never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet
one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this
world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from
every property it gives to every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its
navigable sea; in its mountains of metal and stone; in its forests of all woods;
in its animals; in its chemical ingredients; in the powers and path of light,
heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and heart of great men to
subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the
astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe,
and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere
illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human
spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these
outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and
that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so
unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever.
These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart
and mind open to the sentiment of virtue. Then he is instructed in what is above
him. He learns that his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the
perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness. That which he
venerates is still his own, though he has not realized it yet. He ought. He
knows the sense of that grand word, though his analysis fails entirely to render
account of it. When in innocency, or when by intellectual perception, he attains
to say, — `I love the Right; Truth is beautiful within and without,
forevermore. Virtue, I am thine: save me: use me: thee will I serve, day and
night, in great, in small, that I may be not virtuous, but virtue;’ — then is
the end of the creation answered, and God is well pleased.

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain
divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under
what seem foolish details, principles that astonish. The child amidst his
baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and
in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God,
interact. These laws refuse to be adequately stated. They will not be written
out on paper, or spoken by the tongue. They elude our persevering thought; yet
we read them hourly in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions, in our own
remorse. The moral traits which are all globed into every virtuous act and
thought, — in speech, we must sever, and describe or suggest by painful
enumeration of many particulars. Yet, as this sentiment is the essence of all
religion, let me guide your eye to the precise objects of the sentiment, by an
enumeration of some of those classes of facts in which this element is

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the
laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of
space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a
justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is
instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.
He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just,
then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty
of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he
deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the
view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward,
is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs,
correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its
operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the
soul. By it, a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his
goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich;
alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture
of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good
impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the effect. But
speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected
furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and
the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear
you witness. See again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the
affections, and becomes the law of society. As we are, so we associate. The
good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their
own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is
not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one
mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool;
and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things
are made so, and not otherwise. Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not
absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much
death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a
man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit,
which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different
applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores
which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things
conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole
strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself
of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he
becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we
call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful
is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer
of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the
sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the
universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power. Thought may work cold
and intransitive in things, and find no end or unity; but the dawn of the
sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is
sovereign over all natures; and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to
break out into joy.

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes
him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the
capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great,
and hopes to derive advantages from another, — by showing the fountain of all
good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the
deeps of Reason. When he says, "I ought;" when love warms him; when he chooses,
warned from on high, the good and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through
his soul from Supreme Wisdom. Then he can worship, and be enlarged by his
worship; for he can never go behind this sentiment. In the sublimest flights of
the soul, rectitude is never surmounted, love is never outgrown.

This sentiment lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates
all forms of worship. The principle of veneration never dies out. Man fallen
into superstition, into sensuality, is never quite without the visions of the
moral sentiment. In like manner, all the expressions of this sentiment are
sacred and permanent in proportion to their purity. The expressions of this
sentiment affect us more than all other compositions. The sentences of the
oldest time, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant. This
thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and
contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest
expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed
to oriental genius, its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane
men found agreeable and true. And the unique impression of Jesus upon mankind,
whose name is not so much written as ploughed into the history of this world, is
proof of the subtle virtue of this infusion.

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before
every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern
condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second
hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive
from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject;
and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On
the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation.
As is the flood so is the ebb. Let this faith depart, and the very words it
spake, and the things it made, become false and hurtful. Then falls the church,
the state, art, letters, life. The doctrine of the divine nature being
forgotten, a sickness infects and dwarfs the constitution. Once man was all; now
he is an appendage, a nuisance. And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit cannot
wholly be got rid of, the doctrine of it suffers this perversion, that the
divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest,
and denied with fury. The doctrine of inspiration is lost; the base doctrine of
the majority of voices, usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul. Miracles,
prophecy, poetry; the ideal life, the holy life, exist as ancient history
merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspiration of society; but, when
suggested, seem ridiculous. Life is comic or pitiful, as soon as the high ends
of being fade out of sight, and man becomes near-sighted, and can only attend to
what addresses the senses.

These general views, which, whilst they are general, none will contest, find
abundant illustration in the history of religion, and especially in the history
of the Christian church. In that, all of us have had our birth and nurture. The
truth contained in that, you, my young friends, are now setting forth to teach.
As the Cultus, or established worship of the civilized world, it has great
historical interest for us. Of its blessed words, which have been the
consolation of humanity, you need not that I should speak. I shall endeavor to
discharge my duty to you, on this occasion, by pointing out two errors in its
administration, which daily appear more gross from the point of view we have
just now taken.

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the
mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he
lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the
greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God
incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of
his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through
me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when
thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and
memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no
doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The
understanding caught this high chant from the poet’s lips, and said, in the next
age, `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he
was a man.’ The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have
usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles,
but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of
Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life
was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle
shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by
Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with
the blowing clover and the falling rain.

He felt respect for Moses and the prophets; but no unfit tenderness at
postponing their initial revelations, to the hour and the man that now is; to
the eternal revelation in the heart. Thus was he a true man. Having seen that
the law in us is commanding, he would not suffer it to be commanded. Boldly,
with hand, and heart, and life, he declared it was God. Thus is he, as I think,
the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man.

1. In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect of
historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that
corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it
has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration
of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious
exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites
every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no
preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a
Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the
injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions,
which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into
official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking. All who hear me, feel,
that the language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style
of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and
formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe
Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early catachetical
instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they
did not wear the Christian name. One would rather be

`A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,’

than to be defrauded of his manly right in coming into nature, and finding
not names and places, not land and professions, but even virtue and truth
foreclosed and monopolized. You shall not be a man even. You shall not own the
world; you shall not dare, and live after the infinite Law that is in you, and
in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all
lovely forms; but you must subordinate your nature to Christ’s nature; you must
accept our interpretations; and take his portrait as the vulgar draw it.

That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by
the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies
me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no
longer a necessary reason for my being. Already the long shadows of untimely
oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever.

The divine bards are the friends of my virtue, of my intellect of my
strength. They admonish me, that the gleams which flash across my mind, are not
mine, but God’s; that they had the like, and were not disobedient to the
heavenly vision. So I love them. Noble provocations go out from them, inviting
me to resist evil; to subdue the world; and to Be. And thus by his holy
thoughts, Jesus serves us, and thus only. To aim to convert a man by miracles,
is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as
always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments. It is true that a
great and rich soul, like his, falling among the simple, does so preponderate,
that, as his did, it names the world. The world seems to them to exist for him,
and they have not yet drunk so deeply of his sense, as to see that only by
coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore.
It is a low benefit to give me something; it is a high benefit to enable me to
do somewhat of myself. The time is coming when all men will see, that the gift
of God to the soul is not a vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a
sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites
thine and mine to be and to grow.

The injustice of the vulgar tone of preaching is not less flagrant to Jesus,
than to the souls which it profanes. The preachers do not see that they make his
gospel not glad, and shear him of the locks of beauty and the attributes of
heaven. When I see a majestic Epaminondas, or Washington; when I see among my
contemporaries, a true orator, an upright judge, a dear friend; when I vibrate
to the melody and fancy of a poem; I see beauty that is to be desired. And so
lovely, and with yet more entire consent of my human being, sounds in my ear the
severe music of the bards that have sung of the true God in all ages. Now do not
degrade the life and dialogues of Christ out of the circle of this charm, by
insulation and peculiarity. Let them lie as they befel, alive and warm, part of
human life, and of the landscape, and of the cheerful day.

2. The second defect of the traditionary and limited way of using the mind of
Christ is a consequence of the first; this, namely; that the Moral Nature, that
Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness, — yea, God himself, into
the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in
society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and
done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the
goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.

It is very certain that it is the effect of conversation with the beauty of
the soul, to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and
love. If utterance is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man. Always
the seer is a sayer. Somehow his dream is told: somehow he publishes it with
solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on canvas; sometimes with chisel on stone;
sometimes in towers and aisles of granite, his soul’s worship is builded;
sometimes in anthems of indefinite music; but clearest and most permanent, in

The man enamored of this excellency, becomes its priest or poet. The office
is coeval with the world. But observe the condition, the spiritual limitation of
the office. The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not
any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can
create, who is. The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks,
alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open
his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the
man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and
as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.

To this holy office, you propose to devote yourselves. I wish you may feel
your call in throbs of desire and hope. The office is the first in the world. It
is of that reality, that it cannot suffer the deduction of any falsehood. And it
is my duty to say to you, that the need was never greater of new revelation than
now. From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction,
which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost
death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter
to its fall, almost all life extinct. On this occasion, any complaisance would
be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith
of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached.

It is time that this ill-suppressed murmur of all thoughtful men against the
famine of our churches; this moaning of the heart because it is bereaved of the
consolation, the hope, the grandeur, that come alone out of the culture of the
moral nature; should be heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din
of routine. This great and perpetual office of the preacher is not discharged.
Preaching is the expression of the moral sentiment in application to the duties
of life. In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made
sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing
into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God? Where now sounds the
persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own
origin in heaven? Where shall I hear words such as in elder ages drew men to
leave all and follow, — father and mother, house and land, wife and child?
Where shall I hear these august laws of moral being so pronounced, as to fill my
ear, and I feel ennobled by the offer of my uttermost action and passion? The
test of the true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the
soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the hands, — so commanding
that we find pleasure and honor in obeying. The faith should blend with the
light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird,
and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of
nature; it is unlovely; we are glad when it is done; we can make, we do make,
even sitting in our pews, a far better, holier, sweeter, for ourselves.

Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper
defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not
uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and
secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who
sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where
they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A
snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely
spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of
the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in
vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or
in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and
acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession,
namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his
experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and
planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and
drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there
not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not
a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this,
that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of
thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age
of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a
freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other
fact of his biography. It seemed strange that the people should come to church.
It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer
this thoughtless clamor. It shows that there is a commanding attraction in the
moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to dulness and ignorance,
coming in its name and place. The good hearer is sure he has been touched
sometimes; is sure there is somewhat to be reached, and some word that can reach
it. When he listens to these vain words, he comforts himself by their relation
to his remembrance of better hours, and so they clatter and echo unchallenged.

I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in
vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of
very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the
common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be
wisely heard; for, each is some select expression that broke out in a moment of
piety from some stricken or jubilant soul, and its excellency made it
remembered. The prayers and even the dogmas of our church, are like the zodiac
of Denderah, and the astronomical monuments of the Hindoos, wholly insulated
from anything now extant in the life and business of the people. They mark the
height to which the waters once rose. But this docility is a check upon the
mischief from the good and devout. In a large portion of the community, the
religious service gives rise to quite other thoughts and emotions. We need not
chide the negligent servant. We are struck with pity, rather, at the swift
retribution of his sloth. Alas for the unhappy man that is called to stand in
the pulpit, and not give bread of life. Everything that befalls, accuses him.
Would he ask contributions for the missions, foreign or domestic? Instantly his
face is suffused with shame, to propose to his parish, that they should send
money a hundred or a thousand miles, to furnish such poor fare as they have at
home, and would do well to go the hundred or the thousand miles to escape. Would
he urge people to a godly way of living; — and can he ask a fellow-creature to
come to Sabbath meetings, when he and they all know what is the poor uttermost
they can hope for therein? Will he invite them privately to the Lord’s Supper?
He dares not. If no heart warm this rite, the hollow, dry, creaking formality is
too plain, than that he can face a man of wit and energy, and put the invitation
without terror. In the street, what has he to say to the bold village
blasphemer? The village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the

Let me not taint the sincerity of this plea by any oversight of the claims of
good men. I know and honor the purity and strict conscience of numbers of the
clergy. What life the public worship retains, it owes to the scattered company
of pious men, who minister here and there in the churches, and who, sometimes
accepting with too great tenderness the tenet of the elders, have not accepted
from others, but from their own heart, the genuine impulses of virtue, and so
still command our love and awe, to the sanctity of character. Moreover, the
exceptions are not so much to be found in a few eminent preachers, as in the
better hours, the truer inspirations of all, — nay, in the sincere moments of
every man. But with whatever exception, it is still true, that tradition
characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of the memory,
and not out of the soul; that it aims at what is usual, and not at what is
necessary and eternal; that thus, historical Christianity destroys the power of
preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man,
where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power. What a
cruel injustice it is to that Law, the joy of the whole earth, which alone can
make thought dear and rich; that Law whose fatal sureness the astronomical
orbits poorly emulate, that it is travestied and depreciated, that it is
behooted and behowled, and not a trait, not a word of it articulated. The pulpit
in losing sight of this Law, loses its reason, and gropes after it knows not
what. And for want of this culture, the soul of the community is sick and
faithless. It wants nothing so much as a stern, high, stoical, Christian
discipline, to make it know itself and the divinity that speaks through it. Now
man is ashamed of himself; he skulks and sneaks through the world, to be
tolerated, to be pitied, and scarcely in a thousand years does any man dare to
be wise and good, and so draw after him the tears and blessings of his kind.

Certainly there have been periods when, from the inactivity of the intellect
on certain truths, a greater faith was possible in names and persons. The
Puritans in England and America, found in the Christ of the Catholic Church, and
in the dogmas inherited from Rome, scope for their austere piety, and their
longings for civil freedom. But their creed is passing away, and none arises in
its room. I think no man can go with his thoughts about him, into one of our
churches, without feeling, that what hold the public worship had on men is gone,
or going. It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good, and the fear of
the bad. In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off, — to use
the local term. It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to
withdraw from the religious meetings. I have heard a devout person, who prized
the Sabbath, say in bitterness of heart, "On Sundays, it seems wicked to go to
church." And the motive, that holds the best there, is now only a hope and a
waiting. What was once a mere circumstance, that the best and the worst men in
the parish, the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, young and old,
should meet one day as fellows in one house, in sign of an equal right in the
soul, — has come to be a paramount motive for going thither.

My friends, in these two errors, I think, I find the causes of a decaying
church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation,
than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple,
to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is
cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is
without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die, we do not mention

And now, my brothers, you will ask, What in these desponding days can be done
by us? The remedy is already declared in the ground of our complaint of the
Church. We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the
redemption be sought. Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution. The old is
for slaves. When a man comes, all books are legible, all things transparent, all
religions are forms. He is religious. Man is the wonderworker. He is seen amid
miracles. All men bless and curse. He saith yea and nay, only. The
stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past,
that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by
representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of
our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not
was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity, — a faith like
Christ’s in the infinitude of man, — is lost. None believeth in the soul of
man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! no man goeth alone.
All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in
secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think
society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is
wiser than the whole world. See how nations and races flit by on the sea of
time, and leave no ripple to tell where they floated or sunk, and one good soul
shall make the name of Moses, or of Zeno, or of Zoroaster, reverend forever.
None assayeth the stern ambition to be the Self of the nation, and of nature,
but each would be an easy secondary to some Christian scheme, or sectarian
connection, or some eminent man. Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own
sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul’s, or George Fox’s, or
Swedenborg’s, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form
lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that
men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models,
even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God
without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your
emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good
men, but say, `I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its model. The
imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it
was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something
else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of
another man’s.

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity,
and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that
fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not
bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of
the immeasurable mind. Not too anxious to visit periodically all families and
each family in your parish connection, — when you meet one of these men or
women, be to them a divine man; be to them thought and virtue; let their timid
aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be genially
tempted out in your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and
their wonder feel that you have wondered. By trusting your own heart, you shall
gain more confidence in other men. For all our penny-wisdom, for all our
soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have
sublime thoughts; that all men value the few real hours of life; they love to be
heard; they love to be caught up into the vision of principles. We mark with
light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of
routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we
thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.
Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be
followed with their love as by an angel.

And, to this end, let us not aim at common degrees of merit. Can we not
leave, to such as love it, the virtue that glitters for the commendation of
society, and ourselves pierce the deep solitudes of absolute ability and worth?
We easily come up to the standard of goodness in society. Society’s praise can
be cheaply secured, and almost all men are content with those easy merits; but
the instant effect of conversing with God, will be, to put them away. There are
persons who are not actors, not speakers, but influences; persons too great for
fame, for display; who disdain eloquence; to whom all we call art and artist,
seems too nearly allied to show and by-ends, to the exaggeration of the finite
and selfish, and loss of the universal. The orators, the poets, the commanders
encroach on us only as fair women do, by our allowance and homage. Slight them
by preoccupation of mind, slight them, as you can well afford to do, by high and
universal aims, and they instantly feel that you have right, and that it is in
lower places that they must shine. They also feel your right; for they with you
are open to the influx of the all-knowing Spirit, which annihilates before its
broad noon the little shades and gradations of intelligence in the compositions
we call wiser and wisest.

In such high communion, let us study the grand strokes of rectitude: a bold
benevolence, an independence of friends, so that not the unjust wishes of those
who love us, shall impair our freedom, but we shall resist for truth’s sake the
freest flow of kindness, and appeal to sympathies far in advance; and, — what
is the highest form in which we know this beautiful element, — a certain
solidity of merit, that has nothing to do with opinion, and which is so
essentially and manifestly virtue, that it is taken for granted, that the right,
the brave, the generous step will be taken by it, and nobody thinks of
commending it. You would compliment a coxcomb doing a good act, but you would
not praise an angel. The silence that accepts merit as the most natural thing in
the world, is the highest applause. Such souls, when they appear, are the
Imperial Guard of Virtue, the perpetual reserve, the dictators of fortune. One
needs not praise their courage, — they are the heart and soul of nature. O my
friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn. There are men who
rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to whom a crisis which intimidates and
paralyzes the majority, — demanding not the faculties of prudence and thrift,
but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifice, — comes graceful
and beloved as a bride. Napoleon said of Massena, that he was not himself until
the battle began to go against him; then, when the dead began to fall in ranks
around him, awoke his powers of combination, and he put on terror and victory as
a robe. So it is in rugged crises, in unweariable endurance, and in aims which
put sympathy out of question, that the angel is shown. But these are heights
that we can scarce remember and look up to, without contrition and shame. Let us
thank God that such things exist.

And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire
on the altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question
returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a
Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it,
and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as
the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, — to-day,
pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder. Rather let
the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.
For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new.
The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore,
soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify.
Two inestimable advantages Christianity has given us; first; the Sabbath, the
jubilee of the whole world; whose light dawns welcome alike into the closet of
the philosopher, into the garret of toil, and into prison cells, and everywhere
suggests, even to the vile, the dignity of spiritual being. Let it stand
forevermore, a temple, which new love, new faith, new sight shall restore to
more than its first splendor to mankind. And secondly, the institution of
preaching, — the speech of man to men, — essentially the most flexible of all
organs, of all forms. What hinders that now, everywhere, in pulpits, in
lecture-rooms, in houses, in fields, wherever the invitation of men or your own
occasions lead you, you speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach
it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of
those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke
oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek
Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions.
But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order
to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those
shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding
complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the
identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the
Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.