Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. IV. Representative Men: Seven Lectures
I. Uses of Great Men
IT1 is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal it would not surprise us.2 All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of the Gautama, the first men ate the earth and found it deliciously sweet.
Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually or ideally, we manage to live with superiors. We call our children and our lands by their names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.
The search after the great man is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood. We travel into foreign parts to find his works,if possible, to get a glimpse of him. But we are put off with fortune instead. You say, the English are practical; the Germans are hospitable; in Valencia the climate is delicious; and in the hills of the Sacramento there is gold for the gathering. Yes, but I do not travel to find comfortable, rich and hospitable people, or clear sky, or ingots that cost too much. But if there were any magnet that would point to the countries and houses where are the persons who are intrinsically rich and powerful, I would sell all and buy it, and put myself on the road to-day.3
The race goes with us on their credit. The knowledge that in the city is a man who invented the railroad, raises the credit of all the citizens. But enormous populations, if they be beggars, are disgusting, like moving cheese, like hills of ants or of fleas,the more, the worse.4
Our religion is the love and cherishing of these patrons. The gods of fable are the shining moments of great men.5 We run all our vessels into one mould. Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism, are the necessary and structural action of the human mind. The student of history is like a man going into a warehouse to buy cloths or carpets. He fancies he has a new article. If he go to the factory, he shall find that his new stuff still repeats the scrolls and rosettes which are found on the interior walls of the pyramids of Thebes. Our theism is the purification of the human mind. Man can paint, or make, or think, nothing but man. He believes that the great material elements had their origin from his thought. And our philosophy finds one essence collected or distributed.
If now we proceed to inquire into the kinds of service we derive from others, let us be warned of the danger of modern studies, and begin low enough. We must not contend against love, or deny the substantial existence of other people.6 I know not what would happen to us. We have social strengths. Our affection towards others creates a sort of vantage or purchase which nothing will supply. I can do that by another which I cannot do alone. I can say to you what I cannot first say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest. The stronger the nature, the more it is reactive. Let us have the quality pure. A little genius let us leave alone. A main difference betwixt men is, whether they attend their own affair or not. Man is that noble endogenous plant which grows, like the palm, from within outward. His own affair, though impossible to others, he can open with celerity and in sport. It is easy to sugar to be sweet and to nitre to be salt. We take a great deal of pains to waylay and entrap that which of itself will fall into our hands. I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error. His service to us is of like sort. It costs a beautiful person no exertion to paint her image on our eyes; yet how splendid is that benefit! It costs no more for a wise soul to convey his quality to other men. And every one can do his best thing easiest. Peu de moyens, beaucoup deffet. He is great who is what he is from nature, and who never reminds us of others.
But he must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation. I cannot tell what I would know; but I have observed there are persons who, in their character and actions, answer questions which I have not skill to put. One man answers some question which none of his contemporaries put, and is isolated. The past and passing religions and philosophies answer some other question. Certain men affect us as rich possibilities, but helpless to themselves and to their times,the sport perhaps of some instinct that rules in the air;they do not speak to our want.7 But the great are near; we know them at sight. They satisfy expectation and fall into place. What is good is effective, generative; makes for itself room, food and allies. A sound apple produces seed,a hybrid does not. Is a man in his place, he is constructive, fertile, magnetic, inundating armies with his purpose, which is thus executed. The river makes its own shores, and each legitimate idea makes its own channels and welcome,harvests for food, institutions for expression, weapons to fight with and disciples to explain it. The true artist has the planet for his pedestal; the adventurer, after years of strife, has nothing broader than his own shoes.
Our common discourse respects two kinds of use or service from superior men. Direct giving is agreeable to the early belief of men; direct giving of material or metaphysical aid, as of health, eternal youth, fine senses, arts of healing, magical power and prophecy. The boy believes there is a teacher who can sell him wisdom. Churches believe in imputed merit. But, in strictness, we are not much cognizant of direct serving. Man is endogenous, and education is his unfolding. The aid we have from others is mechanical compared with the discoveries of nature in us. What is thus learned is delightful in the doing, and the effect remains. Right ethics are central and go from the soul outward. Gift is contrary to the law of the universe. Serving others is serving us. I must absolve me to myself. Mind thy affair, says the spirit:coxcomb, would you meddle with the skies, or with other people? Indirect service is left.8 Men have a pictorial or representative quality, and serve us in the intellect. Behmen9 and Swedenborg saw that things were representative. Men are also representative; first, of things, and secondly, of ideas.
As plants convert the minerals into food for animals, so each man converts some raw material in nature to human use. The inventors of fire, electricity, magnetism, iron, lead, glass, linen, silk, cotton; the makers of tools; the inventor of decimal notation; the geometer; the engineer; the musician,severally make an easy way for all, through unknown and impossible confusions. Each man is by secret liking connected with some district of nature, whose agent and interpreter he is; as Linnæus, of plants; Huber, of bees; Fries, of lichens; Van Mons, of pears; Dalton, of atomic forms; Euclid, of lines; Newton, of fluxions.
A man is a centre for nature, running out threads of relation through every thing, fluid and solid, material and elemental. The earth rolls; every clod and stone comes to the meridian: so every organ, function, acid, crystal, grain of dust, has its relation to the brain. It waits long, but its turn comes. Each plant has its parasite, and each created thing its lover and poet. Justice has already been done to steam, to iron, to wood, to coal, to loadstone, to iodine, to corn and cotton; but how few materials are yet used by our arts! The mass of creatures and of qualities are still hid and expectant.10 It would seem as if each waited, like the enchanted princess in fairy tales, for a destined human deliverer. Each must be disenchanted and walk forth to the day in human shape. In the history of discovery, the ripe and latent truth seems to have fashioned a brain for itself.11 A magnet must be made man in some Gilbert, or Swedenborg, or Oersted, before the general mind can come to entertain its powers.12
If we limit ourselves to the first advantages, a sober grace adheres to the mineral and botanic kingdoms, which, in the highest moments, comes up as the charm of nature,the glitter of the spar, the sureness of affinity, the veracity of angles. Light and darkness, heat and cold, hunger and food, sweet and sour, solid, liquid and gas, circle us round in a wreath of pleasures, and, by their agreeable quarrel, beguile the day of life. The eye repeats every day the first eulogy on things,He saw that they were good. We know where to find them; and these performers are relished all the more, after a little experience of the pretending races. We are entitled also to higher advantages. Something is wanting to science until it has been humanized. The table of logarithms is one thing, and its vital play in botany, music, optics and architecture, another. There are advancements to numbers, anatomy, architecture, astronomy, little suspected at first, when, by union with intellect and will, they ascend into the life and reappear in conversation, character and politics.13
But this comes later. We speak now only of our acquaintance with them in their own sphere and the way in which they seem to fascinate and draw to them some genius who occupies himself with one thing, all his life long. The possibility of interpretation lies in the identity of the observer with the observed.14 Each material thing has its celestial side; has its translation, through humanity, into the spiritual and necessary sphere where it plays a part as indestructible as any other. And to these, their ends, all things continually ascend. The gases gather to the solid firmament: the chemic lump arrives at the plant, and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives at the man, and thinks. But also the constituency determines the vote of the representative. He is not only representative, but participant. Like can only be known by like. The reason why he knows about them is that he is of them; he has just come out of nature, or from being a part of that thing.15 Animated chlorine knows of chlorine, and incarnate zinc, of zinc. Their quality makes his career; and he can variously publish their virtues, because they compose him. Man, made of the dust of the world, does not forget his origin; and all that is yet inanimate will one day speak and reason. Unpublished nature will have its whole secret told. Shall we say that quartz mountains will pulverize into innumerable Werners, Von Buchs and Beaumonts, and the laboratory of the atmosphere holds in solution I know not what Berzeliuses and Davys?
Thus we sit by the fire and take hold on the poles of the earth. This quasi omnipresence supplies the imbecility of our condition. In one of those celestial days when heaven and earth meet and adorn each other, it seems a poverty that we can only spend it once: we wish for a thousand heads, a thousand bodies, that we might celebrate its immense beauty in many ways and places. Is this fancy? Well, in good faith, we are multiplied by our proxies. How easily we adopt their labors! Every ship that comes to America got its chart from Columbus. Every novel is a debtor to Homer. Every carpenter who shaves with a fore-plane borrows the genius of a forgotten inventor. Life is girt all round with a zodiac of sciences, the contributions of men who have perished to add their point of light to our sky. Engineer, broker, jurist, physician, moralist, theologian, and every man, inasmuch as he has any science,is a definer and map-maker of the latitudes and longitudes of our condition. These road-makers on every hand enrich us. We must extend the area of life and multiply our relations. We are as much gainers by finding a new property in the old earth as by acquiring a new planet.16
We are too passive in the reception of these material or semi-material aids. We must not be sacks and stomachs. To ascend one step,we are better served through our sympathy. Activity is contagious. Looking where others look, and conversing with the same things, we catch the charm which lured them. Napoleon said, You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war. Talk much with any man of vigorous mind, and we acquire very fast the habit of looking at things in the same light, and on each occurrence we anticipate his thought.
Men are helpful through the intellect and the affections. Other help I find a false appearance. If you affect to give me bread and fire, I perceive that I pay for it the full price, and at last it leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse: but all mental and moral force is a positive good. It goes out from you, whether you will or not, and profits me whom you never thought of.17 I cannot even hear of personal vigor of any kind, great power of performance, without fresh resolution. We are emulous of all that man can do. Cecils saying of Sir Walter Raleigh, I know that he can toil terribly, is an electric touch. So are Clarendons portraits,of Hampden, who was of an industry and vigilance not to be tired out or wearied by the most laborious, and of parts not to be imposed on by the most subtle and sharp, and of a personal courage equal to his best parts;of Falkland, who was so severe an adorer of truth, that he could as easily have given himself leave to steal, as to dissemble. We cannot read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.
This is the moral of biography; yet it is hard for departed men to touch the quick like our own companions, whose names may not last as long. What is he whom I never think of? Whilst in every solitude are those who succor our genius and stimulate us in wonderful manners. There is a power in love to divine anothers destiny better than that other can, and, by heroic encouragements, hold him to his task. What has friendship so signal as its sublime attraction to whatever virtue is in us? We will never more think cheaply of ourselves, or of life.18 We are piqued to some purpose, and the industry of the diggers on the railroad will not again shame us.19
Under this head too falls that homage, very pure as I think, which all ranks pay to the hero of the day, from Coriolanus and Gracchus down to Pitt, Lafayette, Wellington, Webster, Lamartine. Hear the shouts in the street! The people cannot see him enough. They delight in a man. Here is a head and a trunk! What a front! what eyes! Atlantean shoulders, and the whole carriage heroic, with equal inward force to guide the great machine!20 This pleasure of full expression to that which, in their private experience, is usually cramped and obstructed, runs also much higher, and is the secret of the readers joy in literary genius. Nothing is kept back. There is fire enough to fuse the mountain of ore. Shakspeares principal merit may be conveyed in saying that he of all men best understands the English language, and can say what he will. Yet these unchoked channels and floodgates of expression are only health or fortunate constitution. Shakspeares name suggests other and purely intellectual benefits.
Senates and sovereigns have no compliment, with their medals, swords and armorial coats, like the addressing to a human being thoughts out of a certain height, and presupposing his intelligence.21 This honor, which is possible in personal intercourse scarcely twice in a lifetime, genius perpetually pays; contented if now and then in a century the proffer is accepted. The indicators of the values of matter are degraded to a sort of cooks and confectioners, on the appearance of the indicators of ideas. Genius is the naturalist or geographer of the supersensible regions, and draws their map; and, by acquainting us with new fields of activity, cools our affection for the old. These are at once accepted as the reality, of which the world we have conversed with is the show.
We go to the gymnasium and the swimming-school to see the power and beauty of the body; there is the like pleasure and a higher benefit from witnessing intellectual feats of all kinds; as feats of memory, of mathematical combination, great power of abstraction, the transmutings of the imagination, even versatility and concentration,as these acts expose the invisible organs and members of the mind, which respond, member for member, to the parts of the body. For we thus enter a new gymnasium, and learn to choose men by their truest marks, taught, with Plato, to choose those who can, without aid from the eyes or any other sense, proceed to truth and to being. Foremost among these activities are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. When this wakes, a man seems to multiply ten times or a thousand times his force. It opens the delicious sense of indeterminate size and inspires an audacious mental habit. We are as elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and our feet tread the floor of the Pit.22 And this benefit is real because we are entitled to these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.
The high functions of the intellect are so allied that some imaginative power usually appears in all eminent minds, even in arithmeticians of the first class, but especially in meditative men of an intuitive habit of thought. This class serve us, so that they have the perception of identity and the perception of reaction. The eyes of Plato, Shakspeare, Swedenborg, Goethe, never shut on either of these laws. The perception of these laws is a kind of metre of the mind. Little minds are little through failure to see them.
Even these feasts have their surfeit. Our delight in reason degenerates into idolatry of the herald. Especially when a mind of powerful method has instructed men, we find the examples of oppression. The dominion of Aristotle, the Ptolemaic astronomy, the credit of Luther, of Bacon, of Locke;in religion the history of hierarchies, of saints, and the sects which have taken the name of each founder, are in point. Alas! every man is such a victim. The imbecility of men is always inviting the impudence of power. It is the delight of vulgar talent to dazzle and to blind the beholder. But true genius seeks to defend us from itself. True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses.23 If a wise man should appear in our village he would create, in those who conversed with him, a new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurances that we could not be cheated; as every one would discern the checks and guaranties of condition. The rich would see their mistakes and poverty, the poor their escapes and their resources.
But nature brings all this about in due time. Rotation is her remedy. The soul is impatient of masters and eager for change. Housekeepers say of a domestic who has been valuable, She had lived with me long enough. We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us complete. We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives. Rotation is the law of nature. When nature removes a great man, people explore the horizon for a successor; but none comes, and none will. His class is extinguished with him. In some other and quite different field the next man will appear; not Jefferson, not Franklin, but now a great salesman, then a road-contractor, then a student of fishes, then a buffalo-hunting explorer, or a semi-savage Western general. Thus we make a stand against our rougher masters; but against the best there is a finer remedy. The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor.24
I must not forget that we have a special debt to a single class. Life is a scale of degrees. Between rank and rank of our great men are wide intervals. Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers. These teach us the qualities of primary nature,admit us to the constitution of things. We swim, day by day, on a river of delusions and are effectually amused with houses and towns in the air, of which the men about us are dupes. But life is a sincerity. In lucid intervals we say, Let there be an entrance opened for me into realities;25 I have worn the fools cap too long. We will know the meaning of our economies and politics. Give us the cipher, and if persons and things are scores of a celestial music, let us read off the strains. We have been cheated of our reason; yet there have been sane men, who enjoyed a rich and related existence. What they know, they know for us. With each new mind, a new secret of nature transpires; nor can the Bible be closed until the last great man is born. These men correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate and engage us to new aims and powers. The veneration of mankind selects these for the highest place. Witness the multitude of statues, pictures and memorials which recall their genius in every city, village, house and ship:
How to illustrate the distinctive benefit of ideas, the service rendered by those who introduce moral truths into the general mind?I am plagued, in all my living, with a perpetual tariff of prices. If I work in my garden and prune an apple-tree, I am well enough entertained, and could continue indefinitely in the like occupation. But it comes to mind that a day is gone, and I have got this precious nothing done. I go to Boston or New York and run up and down on my affairs: they are sped, but so is the day.27 I am vexed by the recollection of this price I have paid for a trifling advantage. I remember the peau dâne on which whoso sat should have his desire, but a piece of the skin was gone for every wish.28 I go to a convention of philanthropists. Do what I can, I cannot keep my eyes off the clock. But if there should appear in the company some gentle soul who knows little of persons or parties, of Carolina or Cuba, but who announces a law that disposes these particulars, and so certifies me of the equity which checkmates every false player, bankrupts every self-seeker, and apprises me of my independence on any conditions of country, or time, or human body,that man liberates me; I forget the clock. I pass out of the sore relation to persons. I am healed of my hurts. I am made immortal by apprehending my possession of incorruptible goods. Here is great competition of rich and poor. We live in a market, where is only so much wheat, or wool, or land; and if I have so much more, every other must have so much less. I seem to have no good without breach of good manners. Nobody is glad in the gladness of another, and our system is one of war, of an injurious superiority. Every child of the Saxon race is educated to wish to be first. It is our system; and a man comes to measure his greatness by the regrets, envies and hatreds of his competitors. But in these new fields there is room: here are no self-esteems, no exclusions.
I admire great men of all classes, those who stand for facts, and for thoughts; I like rough and smooth, Scourges of God, and Darlings of the human race. I like the first Cæsar;29 and Charles V., of Spain; and Charles XII., of Sweden; Richard Plantagenet; and Bonaparte, in France. I applaud a sufficient man, an officer equal to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, well-born, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power.30 Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and all heroes, by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thought, destroying individualism; the power so great that the potentate is nothing. Then he is a monarch who gives a constitution to his people; a pontiff who preaches the equality of souls and releases his servants from their barbarous homages; an emperor who can spare his empire.
But I intended to specify, with a little minuteness, two or three points of service. Nature never spares the opium or nepenthe, but wherever she mars her creature with some deformity or defect, lays her poppies plentifully on the bruise, and the sufferer goes joyfully through life, ignorant of the ruin and incapable of seeing it, though all the world point their finger at it every day. The worthless and offensive members of society, whose existence is a social pest, invariably think themselves the most ill-used people alive, and never get over their astonishment at the ingratitude and selfishness of their contemporaries. Our globe discovers its hidden virtues, not only in heroes and archangels, but in gossips and nurses. Is it not a rare contrivance that lodged the due inertia in every creature, the conserving, resisting energy, the anger at being waked or changed? Altogether independent of the intellectual force in each is the pride of opinion, the security that we are right. Not the feeblest grandame, not a mowing idiot,31 but uses what spark of perception and faculty is left, to chuckle and triumph in his or her opinion over the absurdities of all the rest. Difference from me is the measure of absurdity. Not one has a misgiving of being wrong. Was it not a bright thought that made things cohere with this bitumen, fastest of cements? But, in the midst of this chuckle of self-gratulation, some figure goes by which Thersites too can love and admire. This is he that should marshal us the way we were going. There is no end to his aid. Without Plato we should almost lose our faith in the possibility of a reasonable book.32 We seem to want but one, but we want one. We love to associate with heroic persons, since our receptivity is unlimited; and, with the great, our thoughts and manners easily become great. We are all wise in capacity, though so few in energy. There needs but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so rapid is the contagion.
Great men are thus a collyrium to clear our eyes from egotism and enable us to see other people and their works.33 But there are vices and follies incident to whole populations and ages. Men resemble their contemporaries even more than their progenitors. It is observed in old couples, or in persons who have been house-mates for a course of years, that they grow like, and if they should live long enough we should not be able to know them apart. Nature abhors these complaisances which threaten to melt the world into a lump, and hastens to break up such maudlin agglutinations. The like assimilation goes on between men of one town, of one sect, of one political party; and the ideas of the time are in the air, and infect all who breathe it. Viewed from any high point, this city of New York, yonder city of London, the Western civilization, would seem a bundle of insanities. We keep each other in countenance and exasperate by emulation the frenzy of the time. The shield against the stingings of conscience is the universal practice, or our contemporaries. Again, it is very easy to be as wise and good as your companions. We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of the skin. We catch it by sympathy, or as a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral elevations of her husband. But we stop where they stop. Very hardly can we take another step. The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, and defend us from our contemporaries. They are the exceptions which we want, where all grows like. A foreign greatness is the antidote for cabalism.
Thus we feed on genius, and refresh ourselves from too much conversation with our mates, and exult in the depth of nature in that direction in which he leads us. What indemnification is one great man for populations of pigmies! Every mother wishes one son a genius, though all the rest should be mediocre. But a new danger appears in the excess of influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;other great men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. We cloy of the honey of each peculiar greatness. Every hero becomes a bore at last. Perhaps Voltaire was not bad-hearted, yet he said of the good Jesus, even, I pray you, let me never hear that mans name again.34 They cry up the virtues of George Washington,Damn George Washington! is the poor Jacobins whole speech and confutation. But it is human natures indispensable defence. The centripetence augments the centrifugence.35 We balance one man with his opposite, and the health of the state depends on the see-saw.
There is however a speedy limit to the use of heroes. Every genius is defended from approach by quantities of unavailableness. They are very attractive, and seem at a distance our own: but we are hindered on all sides from approach. The more we are drawn, the more we are repelled. There is something not solid in the good that is done for us. The best discovery the discoverer makes for himself. It has something unreal for his companion until he too has substantiated it. It seems as if the Deity dressed each soul which he sends into nature in certain virtues and powers not communicable to other men, and sending it to perform one more turn through the circle of beings,36 wrote, Not transferable and Good for this trip only, on these garments of the soul. There is somewhat deceptive about the intercourse of minds. The boundaries are invisible, but they are never crossed. There is such good will to impart, and such good will to receive, that each threatens to become the other; but the law of individuality collects its secret strength: you are you, and I am I, and so we remain.
For nature wishes every thing to remain itself; and whilst every individual strives to grow and exclude and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature, Nature steadily aims to protect each against every other. Each is self-defended. Nothing is more marked than the power by which individuals are guarded from individuals, in a world where every benefactor becomes so easily a malefactor only by continuation of his activity into places where it is not due; where children seem so much at the mercy of their foolish parents, and where almost all men are too social and interfering. We rightly speak of the guardian angels of children. How superior in their security from infusions of evil persons, from vulgarity and second thought! They shed their own abundant beauty on the objects they behold. Therefore they are not at the mercy of such poor educators as we adults. If we huff and chide them they soon come not to mind it and get a self-reliance; and if we indulge them to folly, they learn the limitation elsewhere.
We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great. Stick at no humiliation. Grudge no office thou canst render. Be the limb of their body, the breath of their mouth. Compromise thy egotism. Who cares for that, so thou gain aught wider and nobler? Never mind the taunt of Boswellism: the devotion may easily be greater than the wretched pride which is guarding its own skirts. Be another: not thyself, but a Platonist; not a soul, but a Christian; not a naturalist, but a Cartesian; not a poet, but a Shaksperian. In vain, the wheels of tendency will not stop, nor will all the forces of inertia, fear, or of love itself hold thee there. On, and forever onward!37 The microscope observes a monad or wheel-insect among the infusories circulating in water. Presently a dot appears on the animal, which enlarges to a slit, and it becomes two perfect animals. The ever-proceeding detachment appears not less in all thought and in society. Children think they cannot live without their parents. But, long before they are aware of it, the black dot has appeared and the detachment taken place. Any accident will now reveal to them their independence.
But great men:the word is injurious. Is there caste? is there fate? What becomes of the promise to virtue? The thoughtful youth laments the superftation of nature. Generous and handsome, he says, is your hero; but look at yonder poor Paddy, whose country is his wheelbarrow; look at his whole nation of Paddies. Why are the masses, from the dawn of history down, food for knives and powder? The idea dignifies a few leaders, who have sentiment, opinion, love, self-devotion; and they make war and death sacred;but what for the wretches whom they hire and kill? The cheapness of man is every days tragedy. It is as real a loss that others should be low as that we should be low; for we must have society.
Is it a reply to these suggestions to say, Society is a Pestalozzian school: all are teachers and pupils in turn? We are equally served by receiving and by imparting. Men who know the same things are not long the best company for each other. But bring to each an intelligent person of another experience, and it is as if you let off water from a lake by cutting a lower basin. It seems a mechanical advantage, and great benefit it is to each speaker, as he can now paint out his thought to himself. We pass very fast, in our personal moods, from dignity to dependence. And if any appear never to assume the chair, but always to stand and serve, it is because we do not see the company in a sufficiently long period for the whole rotation of parts to come about. As to what we call the masses, and common men,there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere. Fair play and an open field and freshest laurels to all who have won them! But heaven reserves an equal scope for every creature. Each is uneasy until he has produced his private ray unto the concave sphere and beheld his talent also in its last nobility and exaltation.
The heroes of the hour are relatively great; of a faster growth; or they are such in whom, at the moment of success, a quality is ripe which is then in request. Other days will demand other qualities. Some rays escape the common observer, and want a finely adapted eye. Ask the great man if there be none greater. His companions are; and not the less great but the more that society cannot see them. Nature never sends a great man into the planet without confiding the secret to another soul.
One gracious fact emerges from these studies,that there is true ascension in our love. The reputations of the nineteenth century will one day be quoted to prove its barbarism. The genius of humanity is the real subject whose biography is written in our annals. We must infer much, and supply many chasms in the record. The history of the universe is symptomatic, and life is mnemonical. No man, in all the procession of famous men, is reason or illumination or that essence we were looking for; but is an exhibition, in some quarter, of new possibilities. Could we one day complete the immense figure which these flagrant points compose!38 The study of many individuals leads us to an elemental region wherein the individual is lost, or wherein all touch by their summits. Thought and feeling that break out there cannot be impounded by any fence of personality. This is the key to the power of the greatest men,their spirit diffuses itself. A new quality of mind travels by night and by day, in concentric circles from its origin, and publishes itself by unknown methods: the union of all minds appears intimate; what gets admission to one, cannot be kept out of any other; the smallest acquisition of truth or of energy, in any quarter, is so much good to the commonwealth of souls. If the disparities of talent and position vanish when the individuals are seen in the duration which is necessary to complete the career of each,39 even more swiftly the seeming injustice disappears when we ascend to the central identity of all the individuals, and know that they are made of the substance which ordaineth and doeth.
The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow. No experience is more familiar. Once you saw phnixes: they are gone; the world is not therefore disenchanted. The vessels on which you read sacred emblems turn out to be common pottery; but the sense of the pictures is sacred, and you may still read them transferred to the walls of the world.40 For a time our teachers serve us personally, as metres or milestones of progress. Once they were angels of knowledge and their figures touched the sky. Then we drew near, saw their means, culture and limits; and they yielded their place to other geniuses. Happy, if a few names remain so high that we have not been able to read them nearer, and age and comparison have not robbed them of a ray. But at last we shall cease to look in men for completeness, and shall content ourselves with their social and delegated quality. All that respects the individual is temporary and prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a catholic existence. We have never come at the true and best benefit of any genius so long as we believe him an original force. In the moment when he ceases to help us as a cause, he begins to help us more as an effect. Then he appears as an exponent of a vaster mind and will. The opaque self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause.
Yet, within the limits of human education and agency, we may say great men exist that there may be greater men. The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.41
Note 1. MR. EMERSON eagerly sought anecdote or evidence which made good the oracles of the inspired minds. Not only in boyhood, when such enthusiasm is natural, he took keen pleasure in brave achievement, whether in the closet or the field: all through life he held to his faith in the Individual rather than the Organization. It was largely from him that the young Charles Russell Lowell learned his faith, later acted up to on the battlefield, that the world advances by impossibilities achieved. The astounding passage of the Alps by the First Consul with his army would have been among the first stories of the great world that reached Emersons ears as a boy, and later the fame of the Emperors rapid marches across Europe and repeated overthrow of the armies of the banded monarchs of Feudalism, compelling them to treat for peace at the very gates of their capitals. Mr. Emerson used to say, I like people who can do things. No wonder that Napoleon was chosen as one type of the great man in this book. But the moral element was lacking, and the sudden reverse of the scale
When one that sought but Dutys iron crown
On that loud Sabbath shook the Spoiler down
made the lesson complete; showed the sure working of the great Law. There is no need of seeking when the young Emerson made a friend of Shakspeare. In those serious New England days when there were no exciting athletics, and out-of-door play was a diversion after duties were done, and when in every well-ordered home the rule prevailed, Little folks should be seen and not heard, children naturally sought for what comfort books allowed, and sometimes, opening a cover, found it a gate to fairy-land. For happily A Midsummer Nights Dream and Macbeth were on the shelf with Mason On Self-knowledge. But before the elders had ceased to talk of the flood and the ebb in the fortune of Napoleon, then a captive at St. Helena, the boy, now in college and eagerly reading in the library, to the detriment of algebra, perhaps while studying for his Bowdoin prize dissertations came upon The True Intellectual System of the Universe by Ralph Cudworth (1678). [On the Character of Socrates (1820) and On the Present States of Ethical Philosophy (1821). These are printed in Rev. Dr. E. E. Hales Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Brown & Co., 1899.] In the review there given of the systems of ancient speculation, in order to show that belief in one sovereign God underlay the polytheism of the Pagan nations, it is probable that Mr. Emerson acquired his first knowledge of Platos writings. In his journal for 1845 he wrote thus of an experience just after leaving college: Men read so differently with purpose so unlike. I had read in Cudworth from time to time for years, and one day talked of him with Charles W. Upham, my classmate, and found him acquainted with Cudworths argument and theology, and quite heedless of all I read him for,namely, his citations from Plato and the philosophers, so that, if I had not from my youth loved the man, I suppose we might have inter-despised, as De Quincey said of Wordsworth, and (perhaps) Mackintosh. It appears from the journals that while living in Canterbury (Roxbury) in 1825, the young Emerson, flying from the daily terrors of his school for young ladies in Boston, was seeking for some bit of spiritual refreshment in the remains of his fathers library. Among the books of desiccated sermons and the commentaries on the Scriptures he came upon an odd volume of Cottons translation of Montaigne which proved a friend indeed. In the lecture on Montaigne in this volume he relates this experience, but in the journal for 1873 he adds, No book before or since was ever so much to me as that. In the fourth year after leaving college, when he had left the desk of the schoolmaster for his study at Divinity Hall, Emerson read a little book newly published in Boston, The Growth of the Mind, by Sampson Reed, which first attracted his attention to Swedenborg. Its author, a quiet druggist in Boston, and a member of the Swedenborgian Church, had graduated at Harvard at the end of Emersons Freshman year. Some early verses, never finished, entitled only S. R., seemed to show that even then something in Sampson Reed had attracted him. They begin,
Whose early reverend genius my young eye
With wonder followed and undoubting joy,
Believing in that cold and modest form
Brooded alway the everlasting mind,
And that thou, faithful, didst obey the soul.
This book made Mr. Emerson a reader of Swedenborg, even in his days of study for the ministry. To the writings of Goethe there can be little doubt that he was first introduced by Coleridge. In his Blotting Book, in which he noted and copied passages which pleased him in his reading, in the autumn of 1830 are several from Wilhelm Meister and other writings of Goethe, as well as from the Life of Goethe. It was certainly Carlyles love of German and of Goethe that set Emerson to the task of learning the language and reading the Master in the original tongue. In the early letters that passed between the friends Goethe is discussed, Mr. Emerson never being able to share to the full in his friends value for Goethe. But it is certain that for the love of his friend he struggled through nearly all of the fifty-five volumes of a pocket edition of the works in German, though he never really mastered the difficulties of the language. In a letter to Carlyle on June 29, 1845, after confessing to this gigantic anti-poet [A Correspondence between John Sterling and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1897.], as John Sterling called him, his own recent resolve to publish a volume of poems, and excusing his friend in advance from reading a word of them, he adds: Meantime I think to set a few heads before me as good texts for winter evening entertainments. I wrote a deal about Napoleon a few months ago after reading a library of memoirs. Now I have Plato, Montaigne and Swedenborg, and more in the clouds behind. [The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Supplementary Letters. Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1886.] Again, September 15, in the same year he writes, I am to read to a society in Boston presently some lectures,on Plato, or the Philosopher; Swedenborg, or the Mystic; Montaigne, or the Skeptic; Shakspeare, or the Poet; Napoleon, or the Man of the World;if I dare, and much lecturing makes us incorrigibly rash. Perhaps, before I end it, my list will be longer, and the measure of presumption overflowed. I may take names less reverend than some of these,but six lectures I have promised. I find this obligation usually a good spur to the sides of that dull horse I have charge of. But many of its advantages must be regarded at a long distance. The course of seven lectures was first given before the Boston Lyceum in the Odeon in the winter of 184546. When in response to the urgent invitation of several friends, Mr. Emerson, in the late autumn of 1847, crossed the ocean to lecture in England, his first course after landing, given before the Manchester Athenæum, was that on Representative Men. The lectures on Napoleon and on Shakspeare were later given in Exeter Hall in London. The record of the impression made on one of his hearers by this American lecturer at his first appearance before English audiences may be interesting. It is from the Memoir by the late Mr. Alexander Ireland of Manchester [Ralph Waldo Emerson, his Life, Genius and Writings. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1882.]. The first impression one had in listening to him in public was that his manner was so singularly quiet and unimpassioned that you began to fear the beauty and force of his thoughts were about to be marred by what might almost be described as monotony of expression. But very soon was this apprehension dispelled. The mingled dignity, sweetness and strength of his features, the earnestness of his manner and voice, and the evident depth and sincerity of his convictions gradually extorted your deepest attention and made you feel that you were within the grip of no ordinary man, but of one sprung of Earths first blood with titles manifold; and as he went on with serene self-possession and an air of conscious power reading sentence after sentence, charged with well-weighed meaning and set in words of faultless aptitude, you could no longer withstand his so potent spell, but were forthwith compelled to surrender yourself to the fascination of his eloquence. He used little or no action . Perhaps no orator ever succeeded with so little exertion in entrancing his audience, stealing away each faculty, and leading the listeners captive to his will. He abjured all force and excitementdispensing his regal sentences in all mildness, goodness and truth, but stealthily and surely he grew upon you from the smallest proportions, as it were; steadily increasing, until he became a Titan . The moment he finished he took up his MS. and quietly glided away,disappearing before his audience could give vent to their applause. Representative Men was published January 1, 1850. A copy was sent to Carlyle, who, a remorseful man, acknowledged it in an affectionate letter written July 19, 1850, telling, however, that his own life had been meanwhile black with care and toil. In it he said: Chapman, with due punctuality at the time of publication, sent me the Representative Men; which I read in the becoming manner: you now get the book offered you for a shilling, at all railway stations; and indeed I perceive the word representative man (as applied to the tragic loss we have had in Sir Robert Peel) has been accepted by the Able-Editors and circulates through newspapers as an appropriate household word, which is some compensation for the piracy you suffer from the typographic Letter-of-Marque men here. I found the book a most finished, clear and perfect set of Engravings in the line manner; portraitures full of likeness, and abounding in instruction and materials for reflection to me: thanks always for such a Book; and Heaven send us many more of them. Plato, I think, though it is the most admired by many, did the least for me: little save Socrates with his clogs and big cars remains alive with me from it. Swedenborg is excellent in likeness; excellent in many respects; yet I said to myself, on reaching your general conclusion about the man and his struggles: Missed the consummate flower and divine ultimate elixir of Philosophy, say you? By Heaven, in clutching at it, and almost getting it, he has tumbled into Bedlam,which is a terrible miss, if it were never so near! A miss fully as good as a mile, I should say.In fact, I generally dissented a little about the end of all these Essays; which was notable, and not without instructive interest to me, as I had so lustily shouted Hear, hear! all the way from the beginning up to that stage.On the whole let us have another book with your earliest convenience: that is the modest request one makes of you on shutting this. Earlier in the letter Carlyle had said, Though I see well enough what a great deep cleft divides us, in our ways of practically looking at this world,I see also (as probably you do yourself) where the rock-strata, miles deep, unite again: and the two souls are at one. The new book was well received on both sides of the ocean. It was naturally at that time a more popular book than the Essays had been. It received a most appreciative yet critical notice in the Revue des Deux Mondes from Emile Montègut, who was struck with Emersons detachment from the political and religious excitements of the moment, for it appeared just after the Revolution in France of 1848. He said, Revolutions and reactions intimidate him not at all and do not draw him in the least from his convictions. In nothing does he offer sacrifice to the spirit of the moment. He speaks of Swedenborg and Plato at the moment when the whole universe has ears only for Proudhon and Louis Blanc. He praises the skepticism of Montaigne as if he did not live in a century which boasts of having the most absolute philosophies. Mr. Emersons friend Horatio Greenough, the sculptor, in a letter written in December, 1851, said: I found your Representative Men in the hands of a dame du Palais at Vienna in 48 and have learned that she has been exiled, having made herself politically obnoxious. This Representative Men may have been a newspaper report of the lectures as delivered in London, or, more probably, Mr. Greenough made a mistake either in the volume or the date. But the book was not everywhere valued. Mr. George W. Cooke tells in his book on Mr. Emerson that a writer in the New Englander found it purely ridiculous for any one to laboriously write out and gravely read to large assemblies such gratuitous absurdities, and made other severe strictures; among other things, saying that a large part of what Mr. Emerson had then written must be little else than a caricature of himself. The same idea in a more courteous and complimentary form was, after Emersons death, expressed by Dr. Holmes in his Memoir, thus: He shows his own affinities and repulsions, and, as everywhere, writes his own biography, no matter about whom or what he is talking. There is hardly any book of his better worth study by those who wish to understand not Plato, not Plutarch, not Napoleon, but Emerson himself. All his great men interest us for their own sake, but we know a good deal about most of them, and Emerson holds the mirror up to them at just such an angle that we see his own face as well as that of his hero unintentionally, unconsciously, no doubt, but by a necessity which he would be the first to recognize. There is a story of the effect of this book on a schoolboy looking for light which should here be told: I remember a day when I stood idly over a counter looking at the backs of what seemed to be newly published books. I drew out one, bound in plain black muslin. Its title, Representative Men, attracted me, because I had just been reading Plutarchs Lives, and for the first time had been aroused by the reading of any book. Those Greek and Roman men moved my horizon some distance from its customary place. The titles of the books were at least cousins, and I wondered if there had been any representative men since Epaminondas and Scipio. I opened the volume at the beginning, Uses of Great Men, and read a few pages, becoming more and more agitated until I could read no more there. It was as if I had looked into a mirror for the first time. I turned around, fearful lest some one had observed what had happened to me; for a complete revelation was opened in those few pages, and I was no longer the same being that had entered the shop. These were the words for which I had been hungering and waiting. This was the education I wantedthe message that made education possible and study profitable, a foundation, and not a perpetual scaffolding. These pages opened for me a path, and opened it through solid walls of ignorance and the limiting environment of a small country academy. All that is now far, far away, and seems indeed an alien history; yet however much one may have wandered among famous books, it would be ungrateful not to remember the one book which was the talisman to all its fellows [Remembrances of Emerson, by John Albee. New York: International Book and Publishing Co. 1900.]. [back]
Note 2. Mr. Emerson tells in his Poems how, when the west wind was making music in the Æolian harp in his study windows,
Not long ago at eventide,
It seemed, so listening, at my side
A window rose, and, to say sooth,
I looked forth on the fields of youth:
I saw fair boys bestriding steeds,
I knew their forms in fancy weeds,
Long, long concealed by sundering fates,
Mates of my youth,yet not my mates,
Stronger and bolder far than I,
With grace, with genius, well attired
And then as now from far admired,
Followed with love
They knew not of,
With passion cold and shy.
Again, perhaps recalling the good and wise women who had fostered his childhood and early youth, he tells that it is revealed to the poet,
Note 3. With Mr. Emerson the benefits and pleasures of travel were incidental. He used the opportunities by the way, but when invited to travel for pleasure, inclined to say like the young Jesus, Wist ye not that I must be about my Fathers business? Men interested him more than places: his New England village was enough for him. His journal of travel in 1833, the substance of which appears in the first chapter of English Traits, shows this. The verses, Written at Rome, 1833, in the Poems, end with a longing to find the true man, whom a few weeks later he sought out among the Scottish moors. [back]
Note 4. To the same purpose is a passage about the masses early in Considerations by the Way, in Conduct of Life, and in a more human and sympathetic tone in the last pages of the present essay. [back]
Note 6. As elsewhere this idealist concedesTreat men and women well. Treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are. [back]
Note 7. It is not easy for the generation who remember only the end of the nineteenth century to believe that the persons thus described abounded in New England at the time when this book was written. When the period of unrest is again followed by one of eager aspiration, the like may occur. [back]
Note 8. When young people brought their problems to Mr. Emerson, they may at first have experienced disappointment at not receiving the easy answers for which they hoped. His answer was a large one, more serviceable later, if they considered it. Their individualities were different from his, and scope must be left for these. He wrote in his journal, If we could speak the direct solving words, it would solve us too. Compare the last part of the Celestial Love in the Poems. [back]
Note 9. Jacob Behmen, or Boehme, a Silesian of humble birth in the sixteenth century, a mystic whose writings later attracted much attention. Mr. Emerson was early interested in his works and often mentions them. [back]
Note 10. He welcomed each discovery for its use and beauty, and more for its significance, which it was his delight to find. He said of Nature,
Day by day for her darlings to her much she added more;
In her hundred-gated Thebes every chamber was a door,
A door to something grander,loftier walls and vaster floor.
Note 11. Among other sentences in the original lecture which were pruned out of the essay because their substance occurs later, was this strong one: Man is a piece of the Universe made alive. [back]
Note 12. William Gilbert, the greatest man of science of Queen Elizabeths reign, especially noted for his discovery that the earth is a great magnet. Hans Christian Oersted of Denmark, who in 1820 announced his discovery of the identity of electricity and magnetism. [back]
Note 13. Journal, 1885 (compare passage, varied, in Nature, p. 27). Natural History by itself has no value: it is like a single sex, but marry it to human history and it is poetry. Whole floras, all Linnæuss or Buffons volumes, contain not one line of poetry; but the meanest natural fact, the habit of a plant, the organs, or work, or noise of an insect, applied to a fact in human nature, is beauty, is poetry, is truth at once. [back]
Note 19. In his afternoon walks through the Walden woods while he was writing this book, Mr. Emerson saw with respect the unprecedented days work of the newly imported Irishmen on the Fitchburg Railroad, then in process of construction. [back]
Note 20. This introductory chapter to the Representative Men may be compared with Carlyles Heroes and Hero-worship, published ten years earlier. In Mr. Emersons essay on Aristocracy, called Natural Aristocracy when read as a lecture in England, are several passages similar to the one on this page, sympathizing with the admiration for men who are incomparably superior to the populace in ways agreeable to the populace, showing them the way they shall go, doing for them what they wish done and cannot do;the steel hid under gauze and lace under flowers and spangles. [back]
Note 21. This was his own rulenever to talk down to others. When in 1834 he made his home in Concord, and began his new life as lecturer and writer, he entered in his journal this resolve: Henceforth I design not to utter any speech, poem or book that is not entirely and peculiarly my work. I will say at public lectures and the like those things which I have meditated for their own sake, and not for the first time with a view to that occasion. And again, Do not cease to utter them and make them as pure of all dross as if thou wert to speak to sages and demigods, and be no whit ashamed if not one, yea, not one in the assembly should give sign of intelligence. Is it not pleasant to youunexpected wisdom? depth of sentiment in middle life, persons that in the thick of the crowd are true kings and gentlemen without the harness and envy of the throne? [back]
Note 22. Mr. Emerson, in the lecture on Shakspeare in this volume, tells of such an experience while seeing Hamlet performed. [back]
Note 23. He did not believe that men could be forced or pledged to reform. When the way was made beautiful to them, they could not choose but take it. He wished no disciples. The poet, he said, is the liberator. [back]
Note 29. Journal, April, 1839. Yesterday I read Beaumont and Fletchers tragedy The False One, which, instead of taking its name from Septimius, ought to have been Cleopatra. A singular fortune is that of the man Cæsar, to have given name as he has to all that is heroic ambition in the imaginations of painters and poets. Cæsar must still be the speaking-trumpet through which this large wild commanding spirit must always be poured. The Poet would be a great man. His power is intellectual. Instantly he seizes these hollow puppets of Cæsar, of Tamerlane, of Boadicea, of Belisarius, and inflates them with his own vital air. If he can verily ascend to grandeur,if his soul is grand, behold his puppets attest his weight, they are no more puppets but instant vehicles of the wine of God: they shine and overflow with the streams of that universal energy that beamed from Cæsars eye, poised itself in Hectors spear, purer sat with Epaminondas, with Socrates, purest with thee, thou holy child Jesus. [back]
Note 38. Mr. Emersons frequent use of his classical education, not pedantically, but to secure the attention of the reader and make the expression exact and picturesque, is well shown in the choice of the world flagrant as if the human world were traced out in the general dimness by its blazing beacon lights. Federal errors, a few pages earlier, for mistake sanctioned by custom is another example. [back]
Note 39. Immortality in some form seems taken for granted by this expression. [back]
Note 41. The constant security of Mr. Emersons belief in Evolution in its highest sense appears here as everywhere in his prose and verse, and also his belief in the genius of mankind, which is another word for the Universal Mind. He wrote thus of the Poet in his journal of 1838: Morning and evening he blessed the world. Where he went the trees knew him, and the earth felt him to the roots of the grass. Yet a few things sufficed. One tree was to him as a grove; the eyes of one maiden taught him all charms; and by a single wise man he knew Jesus and Plato and Shakspeare and the angels. [back]