The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

Considerations by the Way

from The Conduct of Life (1860, rev. 1876)


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hear what British Merlin sung,
Of keenest eye and truest tongue.
Say not, the chiefs who first arrive
Usurp the seats for which all strive;
The forefathers this land who found
Failed to plant the vantage-ground;
Ever from one who comes to-morrow
Men wait their good and truth to borrow.
But wilt thou measure all thy road,
See thou lift the lightest load.
Who has little, to him who has less, can spare,
And thou, Cyndyllan's son! beware
Ponderous gold and stuffs to bear,
To falter ere thou thy task fulfil, —
Only the light-armed climb the hill.
The richest of all lords is Use,
And ruddy Health the loftiest Muse.
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air's salubrity:
Where the star Canope shines in May,
Shepherds are thankful, and nations gay.
The music that can deepest reach,
And cure all ill, is cordial speech:

Mask thy wisdom with delight,
Toy with the bow, yet hit the white.
Of all wit's uses, the main one
Is to live well with who has none.
Cleave to thine acre; the round year
Will fetch all fruits and virtues here:
Fool and foe may harmless roam,
Loved and lovers bide at home.
A day for toil, an hour for sport,
But for a friend is life too short.

Considerations by the Way
Although this garrulity of advising is born with us, I confess that
life is rather a subject of wonder, than of didactics. So much fate, so
much irresistible dictation from temperament and unknown inspiration
enters into it, that we doubt we can say anything out of our own
experience whereby to help each other. All the professions are timid
and expectant agencies. The priest is glad if his prayers or his sermon
meet the condition of any soul; if of two, if of ten, 'tis a signal
success. But he walked to the church without any assurance that he knew
the distemper, or could heal it. The physician prescribes hesitatingly
out of his few resources, the same tonic or sedative to this new and
peculiar constitution, which he has applied with various success to a
hundred men before. If the patient mends, he is glad and surprised. The
lawyer advises the client, and tells his story to the jury, and leaves
it with them, and is as gay and as much relieved as the client, if it
turns out that he has a verdict. The judge weighs the arguments, and
puts a brave face on the matter, and, since there must be a decision,
decides as he can, and hopes he has done justice, and given
satisfaction to the community; but is only an advocate after all. And
so is all life a timid and unskilful spectator. We do what we must, and
call it by the best names. We like very well to be praised for our
action, but our conscience says, "Not unto us." 'Tis little we can do
for each other. We accompany the youth with sympathy, and manifold old
sayings of the wise, to the gate of the arena, but 'tis certain that
not by strength of ours, or of the old sayings, but only on strength of
his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall. That by which
a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other
being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on
all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come
to him. What we have, therefore, to say of life, is rather description,
or, if you please, celebration, than available rules.

Yet vigor is contagious, and whatever makes us either think or
feel strongly, adds to our power, and enlarges our field of action. We
have a debt to every great heart, to every fine genius; to those who
have put life and fortune on the cast of an act of justice; to those
who have added new sciences; to those who have refined life by elegant
pursuits. 'Tis the fine souls who serve us, and not what is called fine
society. Fine society is only a self-protection against the vulgarities
of the street and the tavern. Fine society, in the common acceptation,
has neither ideas nor aims. It renders the service of a perfumery, or a
laundry, not of a farm or factory. 'Tis an exclusion and a precinct.
Sidney Smith said, "A few yards in London cement or dissolve
friendship." It is an unprincipled decorum; an affair of clean linen
and coaches, of gloves, cards, and elegance in trifles. There are other
measures of self-respect for a man, than the number of clean shirts he
puts on every day. Society wishes to be amused. I do not wish to be
amused. I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred. I wish the
days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant. Now we reckon them as
bank-days, by some debt which is to be paid us, or which we are to pay,
or some pleasure we are to taste. Is all we have to do to draw the
breath in, and blow it out again? Porphyry's definition is better;
"Life is that which holds matter together." The babe in arms is a
channel through which the energies we call fate, love, and reason,
visibly stream. See what a cometary train of auxiliaries man carries
with him, of animals, plants, stones, gases, and imponderable elements.
Let us infer his ends from this pomp of means. Mirabeau said, "Why
should we feel ourselves to be men, unless it be to succeed in
everything, everywhere. You must say of nothing, That is beneath me,
nor feel that anything can be out of your power. Nothing is impossible
to the man who can will. Is that necessary? That shall be: — this is
the only law of success." Whoever said it, this is in the right key.
But this is not the tone and genius of the men in the street. In the
streets, we grow cynical. The men we meet are coarse and torpid. The
finest wits have their sediment. What quantities of fribbles, paupers,
invalids, epicures, antiquaries, politicians, thieves, and triflers of
both sexes, might be advantageously spared! Mankind divides itself into
two classes,– benefactors and malefactors. The second class is vast,
the first a handful. A person seldom falls sick, but the bystanders are
animated with a faint hope that he will die: — quantities of poor
lives; of distressing invalids; of cases for a gun. Franklin said,
"Mankind are very superficial and dastardly: they begin upon a thing,
but, meeting with a difficulty, they fly from it discouraged: but they
have capacities, if they would employ them." Shall we then judge a
country by the majority, or by the minority? By the minority, surely.
'Tis pedantry to estimate nations by the census, or by square miles of
land, or other than by their importance to the mind of the time.

Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are
rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need
not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything
to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw
individuals out of them. The worst of charity is, that the lives you
are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is
the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely,
sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained,
gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni at all. If government
knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population.
When it reaches its true law of action, every man that is born will be
hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have
the considerate vote of single men spoken on their honor and their
conscience. In old Egypt, it was established law, that the vote of a
prophet be reckoned equal to a hundred hands. I think it was much
under-estimated. "Clay and clay differ in dignity," as we discover by
our preferences every day. What a vicious practice is this of our
politicians at Washington pairing off! as if one man who votes wrong,
going away, could excuse you, who mean to vote right, for going away;
or, as if your presence did not tell in more ways than in your vote.
Suppose the three hundred heroes at Thermopylae had paired off with
three hundred Persians: would it have been all the same to Greece, and
to history? Napoleon was called by his men Cent Mille. Add honesty to
him, and they might have called him Hundred Million.

Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes
down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a
dozen dessert apples; and she scatters nations of naked Indians, and
nations of clothed Christians, with two or three good heads among them.
Nature works very hard, and only hits the white once in a million
throws. In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a
century. The more difficulty there is in creating good men, the more
they are used when they come. I once counted in a little neighborhood,
and found that every able-bodied man had, say from twelve to fifteen
persons dependent on him for material aid, — to whom he is to be for
spoon and jug, for backer and sponsor, for nursery and hospital, and
many functions beside: nor does it seem to make much difference whether
he is bachelor or patriarch; if he do not violently decline the duties
that fall to him, this amount of helpfulness will in one way or another
be brought home to him. This is the tax which his abilities pay. The
good men are employed for private centres of use, and for larger
influence. All revelations, whether of mechanical or intellectual or
moral science, are made not to communities, but to single persons. All
the marked events of our day, all the cities, all the colonizations,
may be traced back to their origin in a private brain. All the feats
which make our civility were the thoughts of a few good heads.

Meantime, this spawning productivity is not noxious or
needless. You would say, this rabble of nations might be spared. But
no, they are all counted and depended on. Fate keeps everything alive
so long as the smallest thread of public necessity holds it on to the
tree. The coxcomb and bully and thief class are allowed as proletaries,
every one of their vices being the excess or acridity of a virtue. The
mass are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee. But the units,
whereof this mass is composed are neuters, every one of which may be
grown to a queen-bee. The rule is, we are used as brute atoms, until we
think: then, we use all the rest. Nature turns all malfaisance to good.
Nature provided for real needs. No sane man at last distrusts himself.
His existence is a perfect answer to all sentimental cavils. If he is,
he is wanted, and has the precise properties that are required. That we
are here, is proof we ought to be here. We have as good right, and the
same sort of right to be here, as Cape Cod or Sandy Hook have to be

To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad
heart in the observer, but, simply, that the majority are unripe, and
have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion. That,
if they knew it, is an oracle for them and for all. But in the passing
moment, the quadruped interest is very prone to prevail: and this
beast-force, whilst it makes the discipline of the world, the school of
heroes, the glory of martyrs, has provoked, in every age, the satire of
wits, and the tears of good men. They find the journals, the clubs, the
governments, the churches, to be in the interest, and the pay of the
devil. And wise men have met this obstruction in their times, like
Socrates, with his famous irony; like Bacon, with life-long
dissimulation; like Erasmus, with his book "The Praise of Folly;" like
Rabelais, with his satire rending the nations. "They were the fools who
cried against me, you will say," wrote the Chevalier de Boufflers to
Grimm; "aye, but the fools have the advantage of numbers, and 'tis that
which decides. 'Tis of no use for us to make war with them; we shall
not weaken them; they will always be the masters. There will not be a
practice or an usage introduced, of which they are not the authors."

In front of these sinister facts, the first lesson of history
is the good of evil. Good is a good doctor, but Bad is sometimes a
better. 'Tis the oppressions of William the Norman, savage forest-laws,
and crushing despotism, that made possible the inspirations of Magna
Charta under John. Edward I. wanted money, armies, castles, and as much
as he could get. It was necessary to call the people together by
shorter, swifter ways, — and the House of Commons arose. To obtain
subsidies, he paid in privileges. In the twenty-fourth year of his
reign, he decreed, "that no tax should be levied without consent of
Lords and Commons;" — which is the basis of the English Constitution.
Plutarch affirms that the cruel wars which followed the march of
Alexander, introduced the civility, language, and arts of Greece into
the savage East; introduced marriage; built seventy cities; and united
hostile nations under one government. The barbarians who broke up the
Roman empire did not arrive a day too soon. Schiller says, the Thirty
Years' War made Germany a nation. Rough, selfish despots serve men
immensely, as Henry VIII. in the contest with the Pope; as the
infatuations no less than the wisdom of Cromwell; as the ferocity of
the Russian czars; as the fanaticism of the French regicides of 1789.
The frost which kills the harvest of a year, saves the harvests of a
century, by destroying the weevil or the locust. Wars, fires, plagues,
break up immovable routine, clear the ground of rotten races and dens
of distemper, and open a fair field to new men. There is a tendency in
things to right themselves, and the war or revolution or bankruptcy
that shatters a rotten system, allows things to take a new and natural
order. The sharpest evils are bent into that periodicity which makes
the errors of planets, and the fevers and distempers of men,
self-limiting. Nature is upheld by antagonism. Passions, resistance,
danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome.
Without war, no soldier; without enemies, no hero. The sun were
insipid, if the universe were not opaque. And the glory of character is
in affronting the horrors of depravity, to draw thence new nobilities
of power: as Art lives and thrills in new use and combining of
contrasts, and mining into the dark evermore for blacker pits of night.
What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for
crucifixions and hells? And evermore in the world is this marvellous
balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats. Not Antoninus,
but a poor washer-woman said, "The more trouble, the more lion; that's
my principle."

I do not think very respectfully of the designs or the doings
of the people who went to California, in 1849. It was a rush and a
scramble of needy adventurers, and, in the western country, a general
jail-delivery of all the rowdies of the rivers. Some of them went with
honest purposes, some with very bad ones, and all of them with the very
commonplace wish to find a short way to wealth. But Nature watches over
all, and turns this malfaisance to good. California gets peopled and
subdued, — civilized in this immoral way, — and, on this fiction, a
real prosperity is rooted and grown. 'Tis a decoy-duck; 'tis tubs
thrown to amuse the whale: but real ducks, and whales that yield oil,
are caught. And, out of Sabine rapes, and out of robbers' forays, real
Romes and their heroisms come in fulness of time.

In America, the geography is sublime, but the men are not: the
inventions are excellent, but the inventors one is sometimes ashamed
of. The agencies by which events so grand as the opening of California,
of Texas, of Oregon, and the junction of the two oceans, are effected,
are paltry, — coarse selfishness, fraud, and conspiracy: and most of
the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means.

The benefaction derived in Illinois, and the great West, from
railroads is inestimable, and vastly exceeding any intentional
philanthropy on record. What is the benefit done by a good King Alfred,
or by a Howard, or Pestalozzi, or Elizabeth Fry, or Florence
Nightingale, or any lover, less or larger, compared with the
involuntary blessing wrought on nations by the selfish capitalists who
built the Illinois, Michigan, and the network of the Mississippi valley
roads, which have evoked not only all the wealth of the soil, but the
energy of millions of men. 'Tis a sentence of ancient wisdom, "that God
hangs the greatest weights on the smallest wires."

What happens thus to nations, befalls every day in private
houses. When the friends of a gentleman brought to his notice the
follies of his sons, with many hints of their danger, he replied, that
he knew so much mischief when he was a boy, and had turned out on the
whole so successfully, that he was not alarmed by the dissipation of
boys; 'twas dangerous water, but, he thought, they would soon touch
bottom, and then swim to the top. This is bold practice, and there are
many failures to a good escape. Yet one would say, that a good
understanding would suffice as well as moral sensibility to keep one
erect; the gratifications of the passions are so quickly seen to be
damaging, and, — what men like least, — seriously lowering them in
social rank. Then all talent sinks with character.

"Croyez moi, l'erreur aussi a son merite," said Voltaire. We
see those who surmount, by dint of some egotism or infatuation,
obstacles from which the prudent recoil. The right partisan is a heady
narrow man, who, because he does not see many things, sees some one
thing with heat and exaggeration, and, if he falls among other narrow
men, or on objects which have a brief importance, as some trade or
politics of the hour, he prefers it to the universe, and seems
inspired, and a godsend to those who wish to magnify the matter, and
carry a point. Better, certainly, if we could secure the strength and
fire which rude, passionate men bring into society, quite clear of
their vices. But who dares draw out the linchpin from the wagon-wheel?
'Tis so manifest, that there is no moral deformity, but is a good
passion out of place; that there is no man who is not indebted to his
foibles; that, according to the old oracle, "the Furies are the bonds
of men;" that the poisons are our principal medicines, which kill the
disease, and save the life. In the high prophetic phrase, He causes the
wrath of man to praise him, and twists and wrenches our evil to our
good. Shakspeare wrote, —

"'Tis said, best men are moulded of their faults;"

and great educators and lawgivers, and especially generals, and
leaders of colonies, mainly rely on this stuff, and esteem men of
irregular and passional force the best timber. A man of sense and
energy, the late head of the Farm School in Boston harbor, said to me,
"I want none of your good boys, — give me the bad ones." And this is
the reason, I suppose, why, as soon as the children are good, the
mothers are scared, and think they are going to die. Mirabeau said,
"There are none but men of strong passions capable of going to
greatness; none but such capable of meriting the public gratitude."
Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring. Any absorbing
passion has the effect to deliver from the little coils and cares of
every day: 'tis the heat which sets our human atoms spinning, overcomes
the friction of crossing thresholds, and first addresses in society,
and gives us a good start and speed, easy to continue, when once it is
begun. In short, there is no man who is not at some time indebted to
his vices, as no plant that is not fed from manures. We only insist
that the man meliorate, and that the plant grow upward, and convert the
base into the better nature.

The wise workman will not regret the poverty or the solitude
which brought out his working talents. The youth is charmed with the
fine air and accomplishments of the children of fortune. But all great
men come out of the middle classes. 'Tis better for the head; 'tis
better for the heart. Marcus Antoninus says, that Fronto told him,
"that the so-called high-born are for the most part heartless;" whilst
nothing is so indicative of deepest culture as a tender consideration
of the ignorant. Charles James Fox said of England, "The history of
this country proves, that we are not to expect from men in affluent
circumstances the vigilance, energy, and exertion without which the
House of Commons would lose its greatest force and weight. Human nature
is prone to indulgence, and the most meritorious public services have
always been performed by persons in a condition of life removed from
opulence." And yet what we ask daily, is to be conventional. Supply,
most kind gods! this defect in my address, in my form, in my fortunes,
which puts me a little out of the ring: supply it, and let me be like
the rest whom I admire, and on good terms with them. But the wise gods
say, No, we have better things for thee. By humiliations, by defeats,
by loss of sympathy, by gulfs of disparity, learn a wider truth and
humanity than that of a fine gentleman. A Fifth-Avenue landlord, a
West-End householder, is not the highest style of man: and, though good
hearts and sound minds are of no condition, yet he who is to be wise
for many, must not be protected. He must know the huts where poor men
lie, and the chores which poor men do. The first-class minds, Aesop,
Socrates, Cervantes, Shakspeare, Franklin, had the poor man's feeling
and mortification. A rich man was never insulted in his life: but this
man must be stung. A rich man was never in danger from cold, or hunger,
or war, or ruffians, and you can see he was not, from the moderation of
his ideas. 'Tis a fatal disadvantage to be cockered, and to eat too
much cake. What tests of manhood could he stand? Take him out of his
protections. He is a good book-keeper; or he is a shrewd adviser in the
insurance office: perhaps he could pass a college examination, and take
his degrees: perhaps he can give wise counsel in a court of law. Now
plant him down among farmers, firemen, Indians, and emigrants. Set a
dog on him: set a highwayman on him: try him with a course of mobs:
send him to Kansas, to Pike's Peak, to Oregon: and, if he have true
faculty, this may be the element he wants, and he will come out of it
with broader wisdom and manly power. Aesop, Saadi, Cervantes, Regnard,
have been taken by corsairs, left for dead, sold for slaves, and know
the realities of human life.

Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good
learner would not miss. As we go gladly to Faneuil Hall, to be played
upon by the stormy winds and strong fingers of enraged patriotism, so
is a fanatical persecution, civil war, national bankruptcy, or
revolution, more rich in the central tones than languid years of
prosperity. What had been, ever since our memory, solid continent,
yawns apart, and discloses its composition and genesis. We learn
geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven
mountains, upheaved plains, and the dry bed of the sea.

In our life and culture, everything is worked up, and comes in
use, — passion, war, revolt, bankruptcy, and not less, folly and
blunders, insult, ennui, and bad company. Nature is a rag-merchant, who
works up every shred and ort and end into new creations; like a good
chemist, whom I found, the other day, in his laboratory, converting his
old shirts into pure white sugar. Life is a boundless privilege, and
when you pay for your ticket, and get into the car, you have no guess
what good company you shall find there. You buy much that is not
rendered in the bill. Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when
working to another aim.

If now in this connection of discourse, we should venture on
laying down the first obvious rules of life, I will not here repeat the
first rule of economy, already propounded once and again, that every
man shall maintain himself, — but I will say, get health. No labor,
pains, temperance, poverty, nor exercise, that can gain it, must be
grudged. For sickness is a cannibal which eats up all the life and
youth it can lay hold of, and absorbs its own sons and daughters. I
figure it as a pale, wailing, distracted phantom, absolutely selfish,
heedless of what is good and great, attentive to its sensations, losing
its soul, and afflicting other souls with meanness and mopings, and
with ministration to its voracity of trifles. Dr. Johnson said
severely, "Every man is a rascal as soon as he is sick." Drop the cant,
and treat it sanely. In dealing with the drunken, we do not affect to
be drunk. We must treat the sick with the same firmness, giving them,
of course, every aid, — but withholding ourselves. I once asked a
clergyman in a retired town, who were his companions? what men of
ability he saw? he replied, that he spent his time with the sick and
the dying. I said, he seemed to me to need quite other company, and all
the more that he had this: for if people were sick and dying to any
purpose, we would leave all and go to them, but, as far as I had
observed, they were as frivolous as the rest, and sometimes much more
frivolous. Let us engage our companions not to spare us. I knew a wise
woman who said to her friends, "When I am old, rule me." And the best
part of health is fine disposition. It is more essential than talent,
even in the works of talent. Nothing will supply the want of sunshine
to peaches, and, to make knowledge valuable, you must have the
cheerfulness of wisdom. Whenever you are sincerely pleased, you are
nourished. The joy of the spirit indicates its strength. All healthy
things are sweet-tempered. Genius works in sport, and goodness smiles
to the last; and, for the reason, that whoever sees the law which
distributes things, does not despond, but is animated to great desires
and endeavors. He who desponds betrays that he has not seen it.

'Tis a Dutch proverb, that "paint costs nothing," such are its
preserving qualities in damp climates. Well, sunshine costs less, yet
is finer pigment. And so of cheerfulness, or a good temper, the more it
is spent, the more of it remains. The latent heat of an ounce of wood
or stone is inexhaustible. You may rub the same chip of pine to the
point of kindling, a hundred times; and the power of happiness of any
soul is not to be computed or drained. It is observed that a depression
of spirits develops the germs of a plague in individuals and nations.

It is an old commendation of right behavior, "Aliis laetus, —
sapiens sibi," which our English proverb translates, "Be merry and
wise." I know how easy it is to men of the world to look grave and
sneer at your sanguine youth, and its glittering dreams. But I find the
gayest castles in the air that were ever piled, far better for comfort
and for use, than the dungeons in the air that are daily dug and
caverned out by grumbling, discontented people. I know those miserable
fellows, and I hate them, who see a black star always riding through
the light and colored clouds in the sky overhead: waves of light pass
over and hide it for a moment, but the black star keeps fast in the
zenith. But power dwells with cheerfulness; hope puts us in a working
mood, whilst despair is no muse, and untunes the active powers. A man
should make life and Nature happier to us, or he had better never been
born. When the political economist reckons up the unproductive classes,
he should put at the head this class of pitiers of themselves, cravers
of sympathy, bewailing imaginary disasters. An old French verse runs,
in my translation: —

Some of your griefs you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived;
But what torments of pain you endured
From evils that never arrived!

There are three wants which never can be satisfied: that of the
rich, who wants something more; that of the sick, who wants something
different; and that of the traveller, who says, `Anywhere but here.'
The Turkish cadi said to Layard, "After the fashion of thy people, thou
hast wandered from one place to another, until thou art happy and
content in none." My countrymen are not less infatuated with the rococo
toy of Italy. All America seems on the point of embarking for Europe.
But we shall not always traverse seas and lands with light purposes,
and for pleasure, as we say. One day we shall cast out the passion for
Europe, by the passion for America. Culture will give gravity and
domestic rest to those who now travel only as not knowing how else to
spend money. Already, who provoke pity like that excellent family party
just arriving in their well-appointed carriage, as far from home and
any honest end as ever? Each nation has asked successively, `What are
they here for?' until at last the party are shamefaced, and anticipate
the question at the gates of each town.

Genial manners are good, and power of accommodation to any
circumstance, but the high prize of life, the crowning fortune of a man
is to be born with a bias to some pursuit, which finds him in
employment and happiness, — whether it be to make baskets, or
broadswords, or canals, or statutes, or songs. I doubt not this was the
meaning of Socrates, when he pronounced artists the only truly wise, as
being actually, not apparently so.

In childhood, we fancied ourselves walled in by the horizon, as
by a glass bell, and doubted not, by distant travel, we should reach
the baths of the descending sun and stars. On experiment, the horizon
flies before us, and leaves us on an endless common, sheltered by no
glass bell. Yet 'tis strange how tenaciously we cling to that
bell-astronomy, of a protecting domestic horizon. I find the same
illusion in the search after happiness, which I observe, every summer,
recommenced in this neighborhood, soon after the pairing of the birds.
The young people do not like the town, do not like the sea-shore, they
will go inland; find a dear cottage deep in the mountains, secret as
their hearts. They set forth on their travels in search of a home: they
reach Berkshire; they reach Vermont; they look at the farms; — good
farms, high mountain-sides: but where is the seclusion? The farm is
near this; 'tis near that; they have got far from Boston, but 'tis near
Albany, or near Burlington, or near Montreal. They explore a farm, but
the house is small, old, thin; discontented people lived there, and are
gone: — there's too much sky, too much out-doors; too public. The
youth aches for solitude. When he comes to the house, he passes through
the house. That does not make the deep recess he sought. `Ah! now, I
perceive,' he says, `it must be deep with persons; friends only can
give depth.' Yes, but there is a great dearth, this year, of friends;
hard to find, and hard to have when found: they are just going away:
they too are in the whirl of the flitting world, and have engagements
and necessities. They are just starting for Wisconsin; have letters
from Bremen: — see you again, soon. Slow, slow to learn the lesson,
that there is but one depth, but one interior, and that is — his
purpose. When joy or calamity or genius shall show him it, then woods,
then farms, then city shopmen and cab-drivers, indifferently with
prophet or friend, will mirror back to him its unfathomable heaven, its
populous solitude.

The uses of travel are occasional, and short; but the best
fruit it finds, when it finds it, is conversation; and this is a main
function of life. What a difference in the hospitality of minds!
Inestimable is he to whom we can say what we cannot say to ourselves.
Others are involuntarily hurtful to us, and bereave us of the power of
thought, impound and imprison us. As, when there is sympathy, there
needs but one wise man in a company, and all are wise, — so, a
blockhead makes a blockhead of his companion. Wonderful power to benumb
possesses this brother. When he comes into the office or public room,
the society dissolves; one after another slips out, and the apartment
is at his disposal. What is incurable but a frivolous habit? A fly is
as untamable as a hyena. Yet folly in the sense of fun, fooling, or
dawdling can easily be borne; as Talleyrand said, "I find nonsense
singularly refreshing;" but a virulent, aggressive fool taints the
reason of a household. I have seen a whole family of quiet, sensible
people unhinged and beside themselves, victims of such a rogue. For the
steady wrongheadedness of one perverse person irritates the best: since
we must withstand absurdity. But resistance only exasperates the acrid
fool, who believes that Nature and gravitation are quite wrong, and he
only is right. Hence all the dozen inmates are soon perverted, with
whatever virtues and industries they have, into contradictors,
accusers, explainers, and repairers of this one malefactor; like a boat
about to be overset, or a carriage run away with, — not only the
foolish pilot or driver, but everybody on board is forced to assume
strange and ridiculous attitudes, to balance the vehicle and prevent
the upsetting. For remedy, whilst the case is yet mild, I recommend
phlegm and truth: let all the truth that is spoken or done be at the
zero of indifferency, or truth itself will be folly. But, when the case
is seated and malignant, the only safety is in amputation; as seamen
say, you shall cut and run. How to live with unfit companions? — for,
with such, life is for the most part spent: and experience teaches
little better than our earliest instinct of self-defence, namely, not
to engage, not to mix yourself in any manner with them; but let their
madness spend itself unopposed; — you are you, and I am I.

Conversation is an art in which a man has all mankind for his
competitors, for it is that which all are practising every day while
they live. Our habit of thought, — take men as they rise, — is not
satisfying; in the common experience, I fear, it is poor and squalid.
The success which will content them, is, a bargain, a lucrative
employment, an advantage gained over a competitor, a marriage, a
patrimony, a legacy, and the like. With these objects, their
conversation deals with surfaces: politics, trade, personal defects,
exaggerated bad news, and the rain. This is forlorn, and they feel sore
and sensitive. Now, if one comes who can illuminate this dark house
with thoughts, show them their native riches, what gifts they have, how
indispensable each is, what magical powers over nature and men; what
access to poetry, religion, and the powers which constitute character;
he wakes in them the feeling of worth, his suggestions require new ways
of living, new books, new men, new arts and sciences, — then we come
out of our egg-shell existence into the great dome, and see the zenith
over and the nadir under us. Instead of the tanks and buckets of
knowledge to which we are daily confined, we come down to the shore of
the sea, and dip our hands in its miraculous waves. 'Tis wonderful the
effect on the company. They are not the men they were. They have all
been to California, and all have come back millionnaires. There is no
book and no pleasure in life comparable to it. Ask what is best in our
experience, and we shall say, a few pieces of plain-dealing with wise
people. Our conversation once and again has apprised us that we belong
to better circles than we have yet beheld; that a mental power invites
us, whose generalizations are more worth for joy and for effect than
anything that is now called philosophy or literature. In excited
conversation, we have glimpses of the Universe, hints of power native
to the soul, far-darting lights and shadows of an Andes landscape, such
as we can hardly attain in lone meditation. Here are oracles sometimes
profusely given, to which the memory goes back in barren hours.

Add the consent of will and temperament, and there exists the
covenant of friendship. Our chief want in life, is, somebody who shall
make us do what we can. This is the service of a friend. With him we
are easily great. There is a sublime attraction in him to whatever
virtue is in us. How he flings wide the doors of existence! What
questions we ask of him! what an understanding we have! how few words
are needed! It is the only real society. An Eastern poet, Ali Ben Abu
Taleb, writes with sad truth, —

"He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,
And he who has one enemy shall meet him everywhere."

But few writers have said anything better to this point than
Hafiz, who indicates this relation as the test of mental health: "Thou
learnest no secret until thou knowest friendship, since to the unsound
no heavenly knowledge enters." Neither is life long enough for
friendship. That is a serious and majestic affair, like a royal
presence, or a religion, and not a postilion's dinner to be eaten on
the run. There is a pudency about friendship, as about love, and though
fine souls never lose sight of it, yet they do not name it. With the
first class of men our friendship or good understanding goes quite
behind all accidents of estrangement, of condition, of reputation. And
yet we do not provide for the greatest good of life. We take care of
our health; we lay up money; we make our roof tight, and our clothing
sufficient; but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the
best property of all, — friends? We know that all our training is to
fit us for this, and we do not take the step towards it. How long shall
we sit and wait for these benefactors?

It makes no difference, in looking back five years, how you
have been dieted or dressed; whether you have been lodged on the first
floor or the attic; whether you have had gardens and baths, good cattle
and horses, have been carried in a neat equipage, or in a ridiculous
truck: these things are forgotten so quickly, and leave no effect. But
it counts much whether we have had good companions, in that time; —
almost as much as what we have been doing. And see the overpowering
importance of neighborhood in all association. As it is marriage, fit
or unfit, that makes our home, so it is who lives near us of equal
social degree, — a few people at convenient distance, no matter how
bad company, — these, and these only, shall be your life's companions:
and all those who are native, congenial, and by many an oath of the
heart, sacramented to you, are gradually and totally lost. You cannot
deal systematically with this fine element of society, and one may take
a good deal of pains to bring people together, and to organize clubs
and debating societies, and yet no result come of it. But it is certain
that there is a great deal of good in us that does not know itself, and
that a habit of union and competition brings people up and keeps them
up to their highest point; that life would be twice or ten times life,
if spent with wise and fruitful companions. The obvious inference is, a
little useful deliberation and preconcert, when one goes to buy house
and land.

But we live with people on other platforms; we live with
dependents, not only with the young whom we are to teach all we know,
and clothe with the advantages we have earned, but also with those who
serve us directly, and for money. Yet the old rules hold good. Let not
the tie be mercenary, though the service is measured by money. Make
yourself necessary to somebody. Do not make life hard to any. This
point is acquiring new importance in American social life. Our domestic
service is usually a foolish fracas of unreasonable demand on one side,
and shirking on the other. A man of wit was asked, in the train, what
was his errand in the city? He replied, "I have been sent to procure an
angel to do cooking." A lady complained to me, that, of her two
maidens, one was absent-minded, and the other was absent-bodied. And
the evil increases from the ignorance and hostility of every ship-load
of the immigrant population swarming into houses and farms. Few people
discern that it rests with the master or the mistress what service
comes from the man or the maid; that this identical hussy was a tutelar
spirit in one house, and a haridan in the other. All sensible people
are selfish, and nature is tugging at every contract to make the terms
of it fair. If you are proposing only your own, the other party must
deal a little hardly by you. If you deal generously, the other, though
selfish and unjust, will make an exception in your favor, and deal
truly with you. When I asked an iron-master about the slag and cinder
in railroad iron, — "O," he said, "there's always good iron to be had:
if there's cinder in the iron, 'tis because there was cinder in the

But why multiply these topics, and their illustrations, which
are endless? Life brings to each his task, and, whatever art you
select, algebra, planting, architecture, poems, commerce, politics, —
all are attainable, even to the miraculous triumphs, on the same terms,
of selecting that for which you are apt; — begin at the beginning,
proceed in order, step by step. 'Tis as easy to twist iron anchors, and
braid cannons, as to braid straw, to boil granite as to boil water, if
you take all the steps in order. Wherever there is failure, there is
some giddiness, some superstition about luck, some step omitted, which
Nature never pardons. The happy conditions of life may be had on the
same terms. Their attraction for you is the pledge that they are within
your reach. Our prayers are prophets. There must be fidelity, and there
must be adherence. How respectable the life that clings to its objects!
Youthful aspirations are fine things, your theories and plans of life
are fair and commendable: — but will you stick? Not one, I fear, in
that Common full of people, or, in a thousand, but one: and, when you
tax them with treachery, and remind them of their high resolutions,
they have forgotten that they made a vow. The individuals are fugitive,
and in the act of becoming something else, and irresponsible. The race
is great, the ideal fair, but the men whiffling and unsure. The hero is
he who is immovably centred. The main difference between people seems
to be, that one man can come under obligations on which you can rely,
— is obligable; and another is not. As he has not a law within him,
there's nothing to tie him to.

'Tis inevitable to name particulars of virtue, and of
condition, and to exaggerate them. But all rests at last on that
integrity which dwarfs talent, and can spare it. Sanity consists in not
being subdued by your means. Fancy prices are paid for position, and
for the culture of talent, but to the grand interests, superficial
success is of no account. The man, — it is his attitude, — not feats,
but forces, — not on set days and public occasions, but, at all hours,
and in repose alike as in energy, still formidable, and not to be
disposed of. The populace says, with Horne Tooke, "If you would be
powerful, pretend to be powerful." I prefer to say, with the old
prophet, "Seekest thou great things? seek them not:" — or, what was
said of a Spanish prince, "The more you took from him, the greater he
looked." Plus on lui ote, plus il est grand.

The secret of culture is to learn, that a few great points
steadily reappear, alike in the poverty of the obscurest farm, and in
the miscellany of metropolitan life, and that these few are alone to be
regarded, — the escape from all false ties; courage to be what we are;
and love of what is simple and beautiful; independence, and cheerful
relation, these are the essentials, — these, and the wish to serve, —
to add somewhat to the well-being of men.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson