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

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.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson