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Essays, Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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I conceive this gradual casting off of material aids,
and the indication of growing trust in the private
self-supplied powers of the individual, to be the
affirmative principle of the recent philosophy, and
that it is feeling its own profound truth and is
reaching forward at this very hour to the happiest
conclusions. I readily concede that in this, as in
every period of intellectual activity, there has been
a noise of denial and protest; much was to be resisted,
much was to be got rid of by those who were reared in
the old, before they could begin to affirm and to
construct. Many a reformer perishes in his removal of
rubbish; and that makes the offensiveness of the class.
They are partial; they are not equal to the work they
pretend. They lose their way; in the assault on the
kingdom of darkness they expend all their energy on
some accidental evil, and lose their sanity and power
of benefit. It is of little moment that one or two or
twenty errors of our social system be corrected, but
of much that the man be in his senses.

The criticism and attack on institutions, which we
have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that
society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself
renovated, attempts to renovate things around him:
he has become tediously good in some particular but
negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and
vanity are often the disgusting result.

It is handsomer to remain in the establishment better
than the establishment, and conduct that in the best
manner, than to make a sally against evil by some
single improvement, without supporting it by a total
regeneration. Do not be so vain of your one objection.
Do you think there is only one? Alas! my good friend,
there is no part of society or of life better than
any other part. All our things are right and wrong
together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions
alike. Do you complain of our Marriage? Our marriage is
no worse than our education, our diet, our trade, our
social customs. Do you complain of the laws of Property?
It is a pedantry to give such importance to them. Can we
not play the game of life with these counters, as well
as with those? in the institution of property, as well
as out of it? Let into it the new and renewing principle
of love, and property will be universality. No one gives
the impression of superiority to the institution, which
he must give who will reform it. It makes no difference
what you say, you must make me feel that you are aloof
from it; by your natural and supernatural advantages do
easily see to the end of it,--do see how man can do
without it. Now all men are on one side. No man deserves
to be heard against property. Only Love, only an Idea,
is against property as we hold it.

I cannot afford to be irritable and captious, nor
to waste all my time in attacks. If I should go out
of church whenever I hear a false sentiment I could
never stay there five minutes. But why come out? the
street is as false as the church, and when I get to
my house, or to my manners, or to my speech, I have
not got away from the lie. When we see an eager
assailant of one of these wrongs, a special reformer,
we feel like asking him, What right have you, sir, to
your one virtue? Is virtue piecemeal? This is a jewel
amidst the rags of a beggar.

In another way the right will be vindicated. In
the midst of abuses, in the heart of cities, in
the aisles of false churches, alike in one place
and in another,--wherever, namely, a just and
heroic soul finds itself, there it will do what
is next at hand, and by the new quality of character
it shall put forth it shall abrogate that old
condition, law or school in which it stands, before
the law of its own mind.

If partiality was one fault of the movement party,
the other defect was their reliance on Association.
Doubts such as those I have intimated drove many
good persons to agitate the questions of social
reform. But the revolt against the spirit of commerce,
the spirit of aristocracy, and the inveterate abuses
of cities, did not appear possible to individuals;
and to do battle against numbers they armed themselves
with numbers, and against concert they relied on new

Following or advancing beyond the ideas of St. Simon,
of Fourier, and of Owen, three communities have
already been formed in Massachusetts on kindred plans,
and many more in the country at large. They aim to
give every member a share in the manual labor, to give
an equal reward to labor and to talent, and to unite a
liberal culture with an education to labor. The scheme
offers, by the economies of associated labor and expense,
to make every member rich, on the same amount of property,
that, in separate families, would leave every member poor.
These new associations are composed of men and women of
superior talents and sentiments; yet it may easily be
questioned whether such a community will draw, except in
its beginnings, the able and the good; whether those who
have energy will not prefer their chance of superiority
and power in the world, to the humble certainties of the
association; whether such a retreat does not promise to
become an asylum to those who have tried and failed,
rather than a field to the strong; and whether the members
will not necessarily be fractions of men, because each
finds that he cannot enter it, without some compromise.
Friendship and association are very fine things, and a
grand phalanx of the best of the human race, banded for
some catholic object; yes, excellent; but remember that
no society can ever be so large as one man. He, in his
friendship, in his natural and momentary associations,
doubles or multiplies himself; but in the hour in which
he mortgages himself to two or ten or twenty, he dwarfs
himself below the stature of one.

But the men of less faith could not thus believe,
and to such, concert appears the sole specific of
strength. I have failed, and you have failed, but
perhaps together we shall not fail. Our housekeeping
is not satisfactory to us, but perhaps a phalanx, a
community, might be. Many of us have differed in
opinion, and we could find no man who could make the
truth plain, but possibly a college, or an ecclesiastical
council might. I have not been able either to persuade
my brother or to prevail on myself, to disuse the traffic
or the potation of brandy, but perhaps a pledge of total
abstinence might effectually restrain us. The candidate
my party votes for is not to be trusted with a dollar,
but he will be honest in the Senate, for we can bring
public opinion to bear on him. Thus concert was the
specific in all cases. But concert is neither better
nor worse, neither more nor less potent than individual
force. All the men in the world cannot make a statue
walk and speak, cannot make a drop of blood, or a blade
of grass, any more than one man can. But let there be
one man, let there be truth in two men, in ten men, then
is concert for the first time possible; because the force
which moves the world is a new quality, and can never be
furnished by adding whatever quantities of a different
kind. What is the use of the concert of the false and
the disunited? There can be no concert in two, where
there is no concert in one. When the individual is not
individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way
and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by
his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is
warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows and with
the other backs water, what concert can be?

I do not wonder at the interest these projects
inspire. The world is awaking to the idea of union,
and these experiments show what it is thinking of.
It is and will be magic. Men will live and communicate,
and plough, and reap, and govern, as by added ethereal
power, when once they are united; as in a celebrated
experiment, by expiration and respiration exactly
together, four persons lift a heavy man from the ground
by the little finger only, and without sense of weight.
But this union must be inward, and not one of covenants,
and is to be reached by a reverse of the methods they
use. The union is only perfect when all the uniters
are isolated. It is the union of friends who live in
different streets or towns. Each man, if he attempts
to join himself to others, is on all sides cramped and
diminished of his proportion; and the stricter the union
the smaller and the more pitiful he is. But leave him
alone, to recognize in every hour and place the secret
soul; he will go up and down doing the works of a true
member, and, to the astonishment of all, the work will
be done with concert, though no man spoke. Government
will be adamantine without any governor. The union must
be ideal in actual individualism.

I pass to the indication in some particulars of
that faith in man, which the heart is preaching
to us in these days, and which engages the more
regard, from the consideration that the speculations
of one generation are the history of the next

In alluding just now to our system of education, I
spoke of the deadness of its details. But it is open
to graver criticism than the palsy of its members:
it is a system of despair. The disease with which the
human mind now labors is want of faith. Men do not
believe in a power of education. We do not think we
can speak to divine sentiments in man, and we do not
try. We renounce all high aims. We believe that the
defects of so many perverse and so many frivolous
people who make up society, are organic, and society
is a hospital of incurables. A man of good sense but
of little faith, whose compassion seemed to lead him
to church as often as he went there, said to me that
"he liked to have concerts, and fairs, and churches,
and other public amusements go on." I am afraid the
remark is too honest, and comes from the same origin
as the maxim of the tyrant, "If you would rule the
world quietly, you must keep it amused." I notice too
that the ground on which eminent public servants urge
the claims of popular education is fear; 'This country
is filling up with thousands and millions of voters,
and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.'
We do not believe that any education, any system of
philosophy, any influence of genius, will ever give
depth of insight to a superficial mind. Having settled
ourselves into this infidelity, our skill is expended
to procure alleviations, diversion, opiates. We adorn
the victim with manual skill, his tongue with languages,
his body with inoffensive and comely manners. So have we
cunningly hid the tragedy of limitation and inner death
we cannot avert. Is it strange that society should be
devoured by a secret melancholy which breaks through all
its smiles and all its gayety and games?

But even one step farther our infidelity has gone.
It appears that some doubt is felt by good and wise
men whether really the happiness and probity of men
is increased by the culture of the mind in those
disciplines to which we give the name of education.
Unhappily too the doubt comes from scholars, from
persons who have tried these methods. In their
experience the scholar was not raised by the sacred
thoughts amongst which he dwelt, but used them to
selfish ends. He was a profane person, and became a
showman, turning his gifts to a marketable use, and
not to his own sustenance and growth. It was found
that the intellect could be independently developed,
that is, in separation from the man, as any single
organ can be invigorated, and the result was monstrous.
A canine appetite for knowledge was generated, which
must still be fed but was never satisfied, and this
knowledge, not being directed on action, never took
the character of substantial, humane truth, blessing
those whom it entered. It gave the scholar certain
powers of expression, the power of speech, the power
of poetry, of literary art, but it did not bring him
to peace or to beneficence.

When the literary class betray a destitution of
faith, it is not strange that society should be
disheartened and sensualized by unbelief. What
remedy? Life must be lived on a higher plane. We
must go up to a higher platform, to which we are
always invited to ascend; there, the whole aspect
of things changes. I resist the skepticism of our
education and of our educated men. I do not believe
that the differences of opinion and character in
men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the
class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of
skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants,
or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes.
You remember the story of the poor woman who importuned
King Philip of Macedon to grant her justice, which
Philip refused: the woman exclaimed, "I appeal:" the
king, astonished, asked to whom she appealed: the woman
replied, "From Philip drunk to Philip sober." The text
will suit me very well. I believe not in two classes
of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and
Philip sober. I think, according to the good-hearted
word of Plato, "Unwillingly the soul is deprived of
truth." Iron conservative, miser, or thief, no man is
but by a supposed necessity which he tolerates by
shortness or torpidity of sight. The soul lets no man
go without some visitations and holydays of a diviner
presence. It would be easy to show, by a narrow scanning
of any man's biography, that we are not so wedded to our
paltry performances of every kind but that every man
has at intervals the grace to scorn his performances,
in comparing them with his belief of what he should do;
--that he puts himself on the side of his enemies,
listening gladly to what they say of him, and accusing
himself of the same things.

What is it men love in Genius, but its infinite
hope, which degrades all it has done? Genius
counts all its miracles poor and short. Its own
idea it never executed. The Iliad, the Hamlet,
the Doric column, the Roman arch, the Gothic minster,
the German anthem, when they are ended, the master
casts behind him. How sinks the song in the waves
of melody which the universe pours over his soul!
Before that gracious Infinite out of which he drew
these few strokes, how mean they look, though the
praises of the world attend them. From the triumphs
of his art he turns with desire to this greater
defeat. Let those admire who will. With silent joy
he sees himself to be capable of a beauty that
eclipses all which his hands have done; all which
human hands have ever done.

Well, we are all the children of genius, the
children of virtue,--and feel their inspirations
in our happier hours. Is not every man sometimes
a radical in politics? Men are conservatives when
they are least vigorous, or when they are most
luxurious. They are conservatives after dinner,
or before taking their rest; when they are sick,
or aged: in the morning, or when their intellect
or their conscience has been aroused; when they
hear music, or when they read poetry, they are
radicals. In the circle of the rankest tories that
could be collected in England, Old or New, let a
powerful and stimulating intellect, a man of great
heart and mind, act on them, and very quickly these
frozen conservators will yield to the friendly
influence, these hopeless will begin to hope, these
haters will begin to love, these immovable statues
will begin to spin and revolve. I cannot help
recalling the fine anecdote which Warton relates of
Bishop Berkeley, when he was preparing to leave
England with his plan of planting the gospel among
the American savages. "Lord Bathurst told me that
the members of the Scriblerus club being met at his
house at dinner, they agreed to rally Berkeley, who
was also his guest, on his scheme at Bermudas.
Berkeley, having listened to the many lively things
they had to say, begged to be heard in his turn, and
displayed his plan with such an astonishing and
animating force of eloquence and enthusiasm, that
they were struck dumb, and, after some pause, rose
up all together with earnestness, exclaiming, 'Let
us set out with him immediately.'" Men in all ways
are better than they seem. They like flattery for the
moment, but they know the truth for their own. It is
a foolish cowardice which keeps us from trusting them
and speaking to them rude truth. They resent your
honesty for an instant, they will thank you for it
always. What is it we heartily wish of each other? Is
it to be pleased and flattered? No, but to be convicted
and exposed, to be shamed out of our nonsense of all
kinds, and made men of, instead of ghosts and phantoms.
We are weary of gliding ghostlike through the world,
which is itself so slight and unreal. We crave a sense
of reality, though it come in strokes of pain. I explain
so,--by this manlike love of truth,--those excesses and
errors into which souls of great vigor, but not equal
insight, often fall. They feel the poverty at the bottom
of all the seeming affluence of the world. They know
the speed with which they come straight through the thin
masquerade, and conceive a disgust at the indigence of
nature: Rousseau, Mirabeau, Charles Fox, Napoleon, Byron,
--and I could easily add names nearer home, of raging
riders, who drive their steeds so hard, in the violence
of living to forget its illusion: they would know the
worst, and tread the floors of hell. The heroes of
ancient and modern fame, Cimon, Themistocles, Alcibiades,
Alexander, Caesar, have treated life and fortune as a
game to be well and skilfully played, but the stake not
to be so valued but that any time it could be held as a
trifle light as air, and thrown up. Caesar, just before
the battle of Pharsalia, discourses with the Egyptian
priest concerning the fountains of the Nile, and offers
to quit the army, the empire, and Cleopatra, if he will
show him those mysterious sources.

The same magnanimity shows itself in our social
relations, in the preference, namely, which each
man gives to the society of superiors over that
of his equals. All that a man has will he give for
right relations with his mates. All that he has
will he give for an erect demeanor in every company
and on each occasion. He aims at such things as his
neighbors prize, and gives his days and nights, his
talents and his heart, to strike a good stroke, to
acquit himself in all men's sight as a man. The
consideration of an eminent citizen, of a noted
merchant, of a man of mark in his profession; a naval
and military honor, a general's commission, a marshal's
baton, a ducal coronet, the laurel of poets, and,
anyhow procured, the acknowledgment of eminent merit,
--have this lustre for each candidate that they enable
him to walk erect and unashamed in the presence of some
persons before whom he felt himself inferior. Having
raised himself to this rank, having established his
equality with class after class of those with whom
he would live well, he still finds certain others
before whom he cannot possess himself, because they
have somewhat fairer, somewhat grander, somewhat purer,
which extorts homage of him. Is his ambition pure? then
will his laurels and his possessions seem worthless:
instead of avoiding these men who make his fine gold
dim, he will cast all behind him and seek their society
only, woo and embrace this his humiliation and
mortification, until he shall know why his eye sinks,
his voice is husky, and his brilliant talents are
paralyzed in this presence. He is sure that the soul
which gives the lie to all things will tell none. His
constitution will not mislead him. If it cannot carry
itself as it ought, high and unmatchable in the presence
of any man; if the secret oracles whose whisper makes
the sweetness and dignity of his life do here withdraw
and accompany him no longer,--it is time to undervalue
what he has valued, to dispossess himself of what he has
acquired, and with Caesar to take in his hand the army,
the empire, and Cleopatra, and say, "All these will I
relinquish, if you will show me the fountains of the
Nile." Dear to us are those who love us; the swift
moments we spend with them are a compensation for a great
deal of misery; they enlarge our life;--but dearer are
those who reject us as unworthy, for they add another
life: they build a heaven before us whereof we had not
dreamed, and thereby supply to us new powers out of the
recesses of the spirit, and urge us to new and unattempted

As every man at heart wishes the best and not
inferior society, wishes to be convicted of his
error and to come to himself,--so he wishes that
the same healing should not stop in his thought,
but should penetrate his will or active power.
The selfish man suffers more from his selfishness
than he from whom that selfishness withholds some
important benefit. What he most wishes is to be
lifted to some higher platform, that he may see
beyond his present fear the transalpine good, so
that his fear, his coldness, his custom may be
broken up like fragments of ice, melted and carried
away in the great stream of good will. Do you ask
my aid? I also wish to be a benefactor. I wish more
to be a benefactor and servant than you wish to be
served by me; and surely the greatest good fortune
that could befall me is precisely to be so moved by
you that I should say, 'Take me and all mine, and
use me and mine freely to your ends'! for I could
not say it otherwise than because a great enlargement
had come to my heart and mind, which made me superior
to my fortunes. Here we are paralyzed with fear; we
hold on to our little properties, house and land,
office and money, for the bread which they have in
our experience yielded us, although we confess that
our being does not flow through them. We desire to be
made great; we desire to be touched with that fire
which shall command this ice to stream, and make our
existence a benefit. If therefore we start objections
to your project, O friend of the slave, or friend of
the poor, or of the race, understand well that it is
because we wish to drive you to drive us into your
measures. We wish to hear ourselves confuted. We are
haunted with a belief that you have a secret which it
would highliest advantage us to learn, and we would
force you to impart it to us, though it should bring
us to prison, or to worse extremity.

Nothing shall warp me from the belief that every
man is a lover of truth. There is no pure lie, no
pure malignity in nature. The entertainment of the
proposition of depravity is the last profligacy
and profanation. There is no skepticism, no atheism
but that. Could it be received into common belief,
suicide would unpeople the planet. It has had a name
to live in some dogmatic theology, but each man's
innocence and his real liking of his neighbor have
kept it a dead letter. I remember standing at the
polls one day when the anger of the political contest
gave a certain grimness to the faces of the independent
electors, and a good man at my side, looking on the
people, remarked, "I am satisfied that the largest
part of these men, on either side, mean to vote right."
I suppose considerate observers, looking at the masses
of men in their blameless and in their equivocal actions,
will assent, that in spite of selfishness and frivolity,
the general purpose in the great number of persons is
fidelity. The reason why any one refuses his assent to
your opinion, or his aid to your benevolent design, is
in you: he refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth,
because, though you think you have it, he feels that
you have it not. You have not given him the authentic

If it were worth while to run into details this
general doctrine of the latent but ever soliciting
Spirit, it would be easy to adduce illustration in
particulars of a man's equality to the Church, of
his equality to the State, and of his equality to
every other man. It is yet in all men's memory that,
a few years ago, the liberal churches complained
that the Calvinistic church denied to them the name
of Christian. I think the complaint was confession:
a religious church would not complain. A religious
man like Behmen, Fox, or Swedenborg is not irritated
by wanting the sanction of the Church, but the Church
feels the accusation of his presence and belief.

It only needs that a just man should walk in our
streets to make it appear how pitiful and inartificial
a contrivance is our legislation. The man whose part
is taken and who does not wait for society in anything,
has a power which society cannot choose but feel. The
familiar experiment called the hydrostatic paradox, in
which a capillary column of water balances the ocean,
is a symbol of the relation of one man to the whole
family of men. The wise Dandamis, on hearing the lives
of Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes read, "judged them
to be great men every way, excepting, that they were
too much subjected to the reverence of the laws, which
to second and authorize, true virtue must abate very
much of its original vigor."

And as a man is equal to the Church and equal to
the State, so he is equal to every other man. The
disparities of power in men are superficial; and
all frank and searching conversation, in which a
man lays himself open to his brother, apprises each
of their radical unity. When two persons sit and
converse in a thoroughly good understanding, the
remark is sure to be made, See how we have disputed
about words! Let a clear, apprehensive mind, such
as every man knows among his friends, converse with
the most commanding poetic genius, I think it would
appear that there was no inequality such as men
fancy, between them; that a perfect understanding,
a like receiving, a like perceiving, abolished
differences; and the poet would confess that his
creative imagination gave him no deep advantage,
but only the superficial one that he could express
himself and the other could not; that his advantage
was a knack, which might impose on indolent men but
could not impose on lovers of truth; for they know
the tax of talent, or what a price of greatness the
power of expression too often pays. I believe it is
the conviction of the purest men, that the net amount
of man and man does not much vary. Each is incomparably
superior to his companion in some faculty. His want of
skill in other directions has added to his fitness for
his own work. Each seems to have some compensation
yielded to him by his infirmity, and every hindrance
operates as a concentration of his force.

These and the like experiences intimate that man
stands in strict connection with a higher fact never
yet manifested. There is power over and behind us,
and we are the channels of its communications. We
seek to say thus and so, and over our head some
spirit sits which contradicts what we say. We would
persuade our fellow to this or that; another self
within our eyes dissuades him. That which we keep
back, this reveals. In vain we compose our faces and
our words; it holds uncontrollable communication with
the enemy, and he answers civilly to us, but believes
the spirit. We exclaim, 'There's a traitor in the
house!' but at last it appears that he is the true
man, and I am the traitor. This open channel to the
highest life is the first and last reality, so subtle,
so quiet, yet so tenacious, that although I have never
expressed the truth, and although I have never heard
the expression of it from any other, I know that the
whole truth is here for me. What if I cannot answer
your questions? I am not pained that I cannot frame a
reply to the question, What is the operation we call
Providence? There lies the unspoken thing, present,
omnipresent. Every time we converse we seek to
translate it into speech, but whether we hit or whether
we miss, we have the fact. Every discourse is an
approximate answer: but it is of small consequence
that we do not get it into verbs and nouns, whilst it
abides for contemplation forever.

If the auguries of the prophesying heart shall make
themselves good in time, the man who shall be born,
whose advent men and events prepare and foreshow,
is one who shall enjoy his connection with a higher
life, with the man within man; shall destroy distrust
by his trust, shall use his native but forgotten
methods, shall not take counsel of flesh and blood,
but shall rely on the Law alive and beautiful which
works over our heads and under our feet. Pitiless,
it avails itself of our success when we obey it, and
of our ruin when we contravene it. Men are all secret
believers in it, else the word justice would have no
meaning: they believe that the best is the true; that
right is done at last; or chaos would come. It rewards
actions after their nature, and not after the design
of the agent. 'Work,' it saith to man, 'in every hour,
paid or unpaid, see only that thou work, and thou canst
not escape the reward: whether thy work be fine or
coarse, planting corn or writing epics, so only it be
honest work, done to thine own approbation, it shall
earn a reward to the senses as well as to the thought:
no matter how often defeated, you are born to victory.
The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.'

As soon as a man is wonted to look beyond surfaces,
and to see how this high will prevails without an
exception or an interval, he settles himself into
serenity. He can already rely on the laws of gravity,
that every stone will fall where it is due; the good
globe is faithful, and carries us securely through
the celestial spaces, anxious or resigned, we need
not interfere to help it on: and he will learn one
day the mild lesson they teach, that our own orbit
is all our task, and we need not assist the
administration of the universe. Do not be so impatient
to set the town right concerning the unfounded
pretensions and the false reputation of certain men
of standing. They are laboring harder to set the town
right concerning themselves, and will certainly succeed.
Suppress for a few days your criticism on the
insufficiency of this or that teacher or experimenter,
and he will have demonstrated his insufficiency to all
men's eyes. In like manner, let a man fall into the
divine circuits, and he is enlarged. Obedience to his
genius is the only liberating influence. We wish to
escape from subjection and a sense of inferiority, and
we make self-denying ordinances, we drink water, we eat
grass, we refuse the laws, we go to jail: it is all in
vain; only by obedience to his genius, only by the
freest activity in the way constitutional to him, does
an angel seem to arise before a man and lead him by the
hand out of all the wards of the prison.

That which befits us, embosomed in beauty and wonder
as we are, is cheerfulness and courage, and the endeavor
to realize our aspirations. The life of man is the true
romance, which when it is valiantly conducted will yield
the imagination a higher joy than any fiction. All around
us what powers are wrapped up under the coarse mattings
of custom, and all wonder prevented. It is so wonderful
to our neurologists that a man can see without his eyes,
that it does not occur to them that it is just as
wonderful that he should see with them; and that is ever
the difference between the wise and the unwise: the
latter wonders at what is unusual, the wise man wonders
at the usual. Shall not the heart which has received so
much, trust the Power by which it lives? May it not quit
other leadings, and listen to the Soul that has guided
it so gently and taught it so much, secure that the
future will be worthy of the past?

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