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

ASCENDING thorough just degrees
To a consummate holiness,
As angel blind to trespass done,
And bleaching all souls like the sun.


In the history of opinion, the pinch of falsehood shows itself first, not in argument and formal protest, but in insincerity, indifference and abandonment of the Church or the scientific or political or economic institution for other better or worse forms.

The venerable and beautiful traditions in which we were educated are losing their hold on human belief, day by day ; a restlessness and dissatisfaction in the religious world marks that we are in a moment of transition ; as when the Roman Church broke into Protestant and Catholic, or, earlier, when Paganism broke into Christians and Pagans. The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear; material and industrial activity have materialized the age, and the mind, haughty with its sciences, disdains the religious forms as childish.

In consequence of this revolution of opinion, it appears, for the time, as the misfortune of this period that the cultivated mind has not the happiness and dignity of the religious sentiment. We are born too late for the old and too early for the new faith. I see in those classes and those persons in whom I am accustomed to look for tendency and progress, for what is most positive and most rich in human nature, and who contain the activity of to-day and the assurance of tomorrow, — I see in them character, but skepticism ; a clear enough perception of the inadequacy of the popular religious statement to the wants of their heart and intellect, and explicit declarations of this fact. They have insight and truthfulness ; they will not mask their convictions; they hate cant; but more than this I do not readily find. The gracious motions of the soul, — piety, adoration, — I do not find. Scorn of hypocrisy, pride of personal character, elegance of taste and of manners and pursuit, a boundless ambition of the intellect, willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the integrity of the character, — all these they have ; but that religious submission and abandonment which give man a new element and being, and make him sublime, — it is not in churches, it is not in houses. I see movement, I hear aspirations, but I see not how the great God prepares to satisfy the heart in the new order of things. No Church, no State emerges ; and when we have extricated ourselves from all the embarrassments of the social problem, the oracle does not yet emit any light on the mode of individual life. A thousand negatives it utters, clear and strong, on all sides ; but the sacred affirmative it hides in the deepest abyss.

We do not see that heroic resolutions will save men from those tides which a most fatal moon heaps and levels in the moral, emotive and intellectual nature. It is certain that many dark hours, many imbecilities, periods of inactivity, — solstices when we make no progress, but stand still, — will occur. In those hours, we can find comfort in reverence of the highest power, and only in that. We never do quite nothing, or never need. It looks as if there were much doubt, much waiting, to be endured by the best. Perhaps there must be austere elections and determinations before any clear vision.

No age and no person is destitute of the sentiment, but in actual history its illustrious exhibitions are interrupted and periodical, — the ages of belief, of heroic action, of intellectual activity, of men cast in a higher mould.

But the sentiment that pervades a nation, the nation must react upon. It is resisted and corrupted by that obstinate tendency to personify and bring under the eyesight what should be the contemplation of Reason alone. The Understanding will write out the vision in a Confession of Faith. Art will embody this vanishing Spirit in temples, pictures, sculptures and hymns. The senses instantly transfer the reverence from the vanishing Spirit to this steadfast form. Ignorance and passion alloy and degrade. In proportion to a man's want of goodness, it seems to him another and not himself ; that is to say, the Deity becomes more objective, until finally flat idolatry prevails.

Of course the virtuous sentiment appears arrayed against the nominal religion, and the true men are hunted as unbelievers, and burned. Then the good sense of the people wakes up so far as to take tacit part with them, to cast off reverence for the Church ; and there follows an age of unbelief.

This analysis was inevitable and useful. But the sober eye finds something ghastly in this empiricism. At first, delighted with the triumph of the intellect, the surprise of the results and the sense of power, we are like hunters on the scent and soldiers who rush to battle : but when the game is run down, when the enemy lies cold in his blood at our feet, we are alarmed at our solitude, we would gladly recall the life that so offended us; the face seems no longer that of an enemy.

I say the effect is withering ; for, this examination resulting in the constant detection of errors, the flattered understanding assumes to judge all things, and to anticipate the same victories. In the activity of the understanding, the sentiments sleep. The understanding presumes in things above its sphere, and, because it has exposed errors in a church, concludes that a church is an error ; because it has found absurdities to which the sentiment of veneration is attached, sneers at veneration; so that analysis has run to seed in unbelief. There is no faith left. We laugh and hiss, pleased with our power ill making heaven and earth a howling wilderness.

Unlovely, nay, frightful, is the solitude of the soul which is without God in the world. To wan-der all day in the sunlight among the tribes of animals, unrelated to anything better ; to behold the horse, cow and bird, and to foresee an equal and speedy end to him and them ; – no, the bird, as it hurried by with its bold and perfect flight, would disclaim his sympathy and declare him an outcast. To see men pursuing in faith their varied action, warm-hearted, providing for their children, loving their friends, performing their promises, – what are they to this chill, houseless, fatherless, aimless Cain, the man who hears only the sound of his own footsteps in God's resplendent creation ? To him, it is no creation ; to him, these fair creatures are hapless spectres : he knows not what to make of it. To him, heaven and earth have lost their beauty. How gloomy is the day, and upon yonder shining pond what melancholy light ! I cannot keep the sun in heaven, if you take away the purpose that animates him. The ball, indeed, is there, but his power to cheer, to illuminate the heart as well as the atmosphere, is gone forever. It is a lamp-wick for meanest uses. The words, great, venerable, have lost their meaning; every thought loses all its depth and has become mere surface.

But religion has an object. It does not grow thin or robust with the health of the votary. The object of adoration remains forever unhurt and identical. We are in transition, from the worship of the fathers which enshrined the law in a private and personal history, to a worship which recognizes the true eternity of the law, its presence to you and me, its equal energy in what is called brute nature as in what is called sacred. The next age will behold God in the ethical laws – as mankind be-gins to see them in this age, self-equal, self-executing, instantaneous and self-affirmed ; needing no voucher, no prophet and no miracle besides their own irresistibility, – and will regard natural history, private fortunes and politics, not for them-selves, as we have done, but as illustrations of those laws, of that beatitude and love. Nature is too thin a screen ; the glory of the One breaks in everywhere.

Every movement of religious opinion is of pro-found importance to politics and social life ; and this of to-day has the best omens as being of the most expansive humanity, since it seeks to find in every nation and creed the imperishable doctrines. I find myself always struck and stimulated by a good anecdote, any trait of heroism, of faithful service. I do not find that the age or country makes the least difference ; no, nor the language the actors spoke, nor the religion which they professed, whether Arab in the desert, or Frenchman in the Academy. I see that sensible men and conscientious men all over the world were of one religion, – the religion of well-doing and daring, men of sturdy truth, men of integrity and feeling for others. My inference is that there is a statement of religion possible which makes all skepticism absurd.

The health and welfare of man consist in ascent from surfaces to solids ; from occupation with de-tails to knowledge of the design ; from self-activity of talents, which lose their way by the lust of display, to the controlling and reinforcing of talents by the emanation of character. All that we call religion, all that saints and churches and Bibles from the beginning of the world have aimed at, is to suppress this impertinent surface-action, and an imate man to central and entire action. The human race are afflicted with a St. Vitus' dance ; their fingers and toes, their members, their senses, their talents, are superfluously active, while the torpid heart gives no oracle. When that wakes, it will revolutionize the world. Let that speak, and all these rebels will fly to their loyalty. Now every man de-feats his own action, – professes this but practises the reverse; with one hand rows, and with the other backs water. A man acts not from one motive, but from many shifting fears and short motives ; it is as if he were ten or twenty less men than himself, acting at discord with one another, so that the result of most lives is zero. But when he shall act from one motive, and all his faculties play true, it is clear mathematically, is it not, that this will tell in the result as if twenty men had co-operated, – will give new senses, new wisdom of its own kind ; that is, not more facts, nor new combinations, but divination, or direct intuition of the state of men and things ?

The lessons of the moral sentiment are, once for all, an emancipation from that anxiety which takes the joy out of all life. It teaches a great peace. It comes itself from the highest place. It is that, which being in all sound natures, and strongest in the best and most gifted men, we know to be implanted by the Creator of Men. It is a commandment at every moment and in every condition of life to do the duty of that moment and to abstain from doing the wrong. And it is so near and inward and constitutional to each, that no commandment can compare with it in authority. All wise men regard it as the voice of the Creator himself.

I know there are those to whom the question of what shall be believed is the more interesting be-cause they are to proclaim and teach what they believe.

All positive rules, ceremonial, ecclesiastical, distinctions of race or of person, are perishable ; only those distinctions hold which are in the nature of things, not matters of positive ordinance. As the earth we stand upon is not imperishable, but is chemically resolvable into gases and nebula, so is the universe an infinite series of planes, each of which is a false bottom ; and, when we think our feet are planted now at last on adamant, the slide is drawn out from under us.

We must reconcile ourselves to the new order of things. But is it a calamity ? The poet Words-worth greeted even the steam-engine and railroads ; and when they cane into his poetic Westmoreland, bisecting every delightful valley, deforming every consecrated grove, yet manned himself to say : –

" In spite of all that Beauty may disown
In your harsh features,
Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in man's art, and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o'er his brother Space,
Accepts from your hold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime."

And we can keep our religion, despite of the violent railroads of generalization, whether French or German, that block and intersect our old parish highways.

In matters of religion, men eagerly fasten their eyes on the differences between their creed and yours, whilst the charm of the study is in finding the agreements and identities in all the religious of men. What is essential to the theologian is, that whilst he is select in his opinions, severe in his search for truth, he shall be broad in his sympathies,- not to allow himself to be excluded from any church. He is to claim for his own whatever eloquence of St. Chrysostom or St. Jerome or St. Bernard he has felt. So not less of Bishop Taylor or George Herbert or Henry Seougal. He sees that what is most effective in the writer is what is dear to his, the reader's, mind.

Be not betrayed into undervaluing the churches which annoy you by their bigoted claims. They too were real churches. They answered to their times the same need as your rejection of them does to ours. The Catholic Church has been immensely rich in men and influences. Augustine, a Kempis, Fenelon, breathe the very spirit which now fires you. So with Cudworth, More, Runyan. I agree with them more than I disagree. I agree with their heart and motive ; my discontent is with their limitations and surface and language. Their statement is grown as fabulous as Dante's Inferno. Their purpose is as real as Dante's sentiment and hatred of vice. Always put the best interpretation on a tenet. Why not on Christianity, wholesome, sweet and poetic ? It is the record of a pure and holy soul, humble, absolutely disinterested, a truth-speaker and bent on serving, teaching and uplifting men. Christianity taught the capacity, the element, to love the All-perfect without a stingy bargain for personal happiness. It taught that to love him was happiness, – to love him in other's virtues.

An era in human history is the life of Jesus ; and the immense influence for good leaves all the per-version and superstition almost harmless. Mankind have been subdued to the acceptance of his doctrine, and cannot spare the benefit of so pure a servant of truth and love.

Of course a hero so attractive to the hearts of millions drew the hypocrite and the ambitious into his train, and they used his name to falsify his history and undo his work. I fear that what is called religion, but is perhaps pew-holding, not obeys but conceals the moral sentiment. I put it to this simple test: Is a rich rogue made to feel his roguery among divines or literary men? No ? Then 't is rogue again under the cassock. What sort of respect can these preachers or newspapers inspire by their weekly praises of texts and saints, when we know that they would say just the same things if Beelzebub had written the chapter, provided it stood where it does in the public opinion?

Anything but unbelief, anything but losing hold of the moral intuitions, as betrayed in the clinging to a form of devotion or a theological dogma ; as if it was the liturgy, or the chapel, that was sacred, and not justice and humility and the loving heart and serving hand.

But besides the passion and interest which pervert, is the shallowness which impoverishes. The opinions of men lose all worth to him who perceives that they are accurately predictable from the ground of their sect. Nothing is more rare, in any man, than an act of his own. The clergy are as like as peas. I cannot tell them apart. It was said : They have bronchitis because they read from their papers sermons with a near voice, and then, looking at the congregation, they try to speak with their far voice, and the shock is noxious. I think they do this, or the converse of this, with their thought. They look into Plato, or into the mind, and then try to make parish mince-meat of the amplitudes and eternities, and the shock is noxious. It is the old story again : once we had wooden chalices and golden priests, now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.

The clergy are always in danger of becoming wards and pensioners of the so-called producing classes. Their first duty is self-possession founded on knowledge. The man of practice or worldly force requires of the preacher a talent, a force, like his own ; the same as his own, but wholly applied to the priest's things. e does not forgive an application in the preacher to the merchant's things. He wishes him to be such a one as he himself should have been, had he been priest. e is sincere and ardent in his vocation, and plunged in it. Let priest or poet be as good in theirs.

The simple fact that the pulpit exists, that all over this country the people are waiting to hear a sermon on Sunday, assures that opportunity which is inestimable to young men, students of theology, for those large liberties. The existence of the Sunday, and the pulpit waiting for a weekly sermon, give him the very conditions, the pou orw he wants. That must be filled, and he is armed to fill it. Let him value his talent as a door into Nature. Let him
see his performances only as limitations. Then, over all, let him value the sensibility that receives, that loves, that dares, that affirms.

There are always plenty of young, ignorant people, – though some of them are seven, and some of them seventy years old, – wanting peremptorily instruction ; but, in the usual averages of parishes, only one person that is qualified to give it. It is only that person who concerns me, – him only that I see. The others are very amiable and promising, but they are only neuter.. in the hive, – every one a possible royal bee, but not now significant. It does not signify what they say or think to-day ; 't is the cry and the babble of the nursery, and their only virtue, docility. Buckminster, (Channing. Dr. Lowell, Edward Taylor, Parker, Bushnell, Chapin, – it is they who have been necessary, and the opinions of the floating crowd of no importance whatever.

I do not love sensation preaching, – the personalities for spite, the hurrah for our side, the review of our appearances and what others say of us! That you may read in the gazette. We come to church properly for self-examination, for approach to principles to see how it stands with us, with the deep and dear facts of right and love. At the same time it is impossible to pay no regard to the day's events, to the public opinion of the times, to the stirring shouts of parties, to the calamities and prosperities of our town and country ; to war and peace, new events, great personages, to good harvests, new resources, to bankruptcies, famines and desolations. We are not stocks or stones, we are not thinking machines, but allied to men around us, as really though not quite so visibly as the Siamese brothers. And it were inhuman to affect ignorance or indifference on Sundays to what makes our blood beat and our countenance dejected Saturday or Monday. No, these are fair tests to try our doctrines by, and see if they are worth any-thing in life. The value of a principle is the number of things it will explain ; and there is no good theory of disease which does not at once suggest a cure.

Man proposes, but God disposes. We shall not very long have any part or lot in this earth, in whose affairs we so hotly mix, and where we feel and speak so energetically of our country and our cause. It is a comfort to reflect that the gigantic evils which seem to us so mischievous and so in-curable will at last end themselves and rid the world of their presence, as all crime sooner or later must. But be that event for us soon or late, we are not excused from playing our short part in the best manner we can, no matter how insignificant our aid may be. Our children will be here, if we are not ; and their children's history will be colored by our action. But if we have no children, or if the events in which we have taken our part shall not see their solution until a distant future, there is yet a deeper fact ; that as much justice as we can see and practise is useful to men, and imperative, whether we can see it to be useful or not.

The essential ground of a new book or a new sermon is a new spirit. The author has a new thought, sees the sweep of a more comprehensive tendency than others are aware of ; falters never, but takes the victorious tone. For power is not so much shown in talent as in tone. And if I had to counsel a young preacher, I should say : When there is any difference felt between the foot-board of the pulpit and the floor of the parlor, you have not yet said that which you should say.

Inspiration will have advance, affirmation, the forward foot, the ascending state; it will be an opener of doors ; it will invent its own methods : the new wine will make the bottles new. Spirit is motive and ascending. Only let there be a deep observer, and he will make light of new shop and new circumstance that afflict you ; new shop, or old cathedral, it is all one to him. He will find the circumstance not altered, as deep a cloud of mystery on the cause, as dazzling a glory on the invincible law. Given the insight, and he will find as many beauties and heroes and strokes of genius close by him as Dante or Shakspeare beheld. A vivid thought brings the power to paint it ; and in proportion to the depth of its source is the force of its projection. We are happy and enriched ; we go away invigorated, assisted each in our own work, however different, and shall not forget to come again for new impulses.

The supposed embarrassments to young clergy-men exist only to feeble wills. They need not consider them. The differences of opinion, the strength of old sects or timorous literalists, since it is not armed with prisons or fagots as in ruder times or countries, is not worth considering except as furnishing a needed stimulus. That gray deacon or respectable matron with Calvinistic antecedents, you can readily see, could not have presented any obstacle to the march of St. Bernard or of George Fox, of Luther or of Theodore Parker. And though I observe the deafness to counsel among men, yet the power of sympathy is always great; and affirmative discourse, presuming assent, will often obtain it when argument would fail. Such, too, is the active power of good temperament. Great sweetness of temper neutralizes such vast amounts of acid! As for position, the position is always the same,- insulting the timid, and not taken by storm, but flanked, I may say, by the resolute, simply by minding their own affair. Speak the affirmative ; emphasize your choice by utter ignoring of all that you reject ; seeing that opinions are temporary, but convictions uniform and eternal, – seeing that a sentiment never loses its pathos or its persuasion, but is youthful after a thousand years.

The inevitable course of remark for us, when we meet each other for meditation on life and duty, is not so much the enjoining of this or that cure or burning out of our errors of practice, as simply the celebration of the power and beneficence amid which and by which we live, not critical, but affirmative.

All civil mankind have agreed in leaving one day for contemplation against six for practice. I hope that day will keep its honor and its use. A wise man advises that we should see to it that we read and speak two or three reasonable words, every day, amid the crowd of affairs and the noise of trifles. I should say boldly that we should astonish every day by a beam out of eternity ; retire a moment to the grand secret we carry in our bosom, of inspiration from heaven. But certainly on this seventh let us be the children of liberty, of reason, of hope; refresh the sentiment ; think as spirits think, who belong to the universe, whilst our feet walk in the streets of a little town and our Lands work in a small knot of affairs. We shall find one result, I am sure, – a certain originality and a certain haughty liberty proceeding out of our retirement and self-communion, which streets can never give, infinitely removed from all vaporing and bravado, and which yet is more than a match for any physical resistance. It is true that which they say of our New England oestrum, which will never let us stand or sit, but drives us like mad through the world. The calmest and most protected life can-not save us. We want some intercalated days, to bethink us and to derive order to our life from the heart. That should be the use of the Sabbath, – to check this headlong racing and put us in possession of ourselves once more, for love or for shame.

The Sabbath changes its forms from age to age, but the substantial benefit endures. We no longer recite the old creeds of Athanasius or Arius, of Calvin or Hopkins. The forms are flexible, but the uses not less real. The old heart remains as ever with its old human duties. The old intellect still lives, to pierce the shows to the core. Truth is simple, and will not be antique ; is ever present, and insists on being of this age and of this moment. Here is thought and love and truth and duty, new as on the first day of Adam and of angels.

"There are 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 are opened." The lower eyes see only surfaces and effects, the upper eyes behold causes and the connection of things. And when we go alone, or cone into the house of thought and worship, we come with purpose to be disabused of appearances, to see realities, the great lines of our destiny, to see that life has no caprice or fortune, is no hopping squib, but a growth after immutable laws under beneficent influences the most immense. The Church is open to great and small in all nations; and how rare and lofty, how unattainable, arc the aims it labors to set before men! We come to educate, come to isolate, to be abstractionists; in fine, to open bravely the upper eyes to the deep mystery of  cause and effect, to know that though ministers of justice and power fail, Justice and Power fail never. The open secret of the world is the art of subliming a private soul with inspirations from the great and public and divine Soul front which we live.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson