Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. VII. Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters
V. Domestic Life
I REACHED the middle of the mount
Up which the incarnate soul must climb,
And paused for them, and looked around,
With me who walked through space and time.
Five rosy boys with morning light
Had leaped from one fair mothers arms,
Fronted the sun with hope as bright,
And greeted God with childhoods psalms.
THOU shalt make thy house
The temple of a nations vows.
Spirits of a higher strain
Who sought thee once shall seek again.
I detected many a god
Forth already on the road,
Ancestors of beauty come
In thy breast to make a home.
THE PERFECTION1 of the providence for childhood is easily acknowledged. The care which covers the seed of the tree under tough husks and stony cases provides for the human plant the mothers breast and the fathers house. The size of the nestler is comic, and its tiny beseeching weakness is compensated perfectly by the happy patronizing look of the mother, who is a sort of high reposing Providence toward it. Welcome to the parents the puny struggler, strong in his weakness, his little arms more irresistible than the soldiers, his lips touched with persuasion which Chatham and Pericles in manhood had not. His unaffected lamentations when he lifts up his voice on high, or, more beautiful, the sobbing child,the face all liquid grief, as he tries to swallow his vexation,soften all hearts to pity, and to mirthful and clamorous compassion. The small despot asks so little that all reason and all nature are on his side.2 His ignorance is more charming than all knowledge, and his little sins more bewitching than any virtue. His flesh is angels flesh, all alive. Infancy, said Coleridge, presents body and spirit in unity: the body is all animated. All day, between his three or four sleeps, he coos like a pigeon-house, sputters and spurs and puts on his faces of importance; and when he fasts, the little Pharisee fails not to sound his trumpet before him. By lamplight he delights in shadows on the wall; by daylight, in yellow and scarlet. Carry him out of doors,he is overpowered by the light and by the extent of natural objects, and is silent.3 Then presently begins his use of his fingers, and he studies power, the lesson of his race. First it appears in no great harm, in architectural tastes. Out of blocks, thread-spools, cards and checkers, he will build his pyramid with the gravity of Palladio. With an acoustic apparatus of whistle and rattle he explores the laws of sound. But chiefly, like his senior countrymen, the young American studies new and speedier modes of transportation. Mistrusting the cunning of his small legs, he wishes to ride on the necks and shoulders of all flesh. The small enchanter nothing can withstand,no seniority of age, no gravity of character; uncles, aunts, grand-sires, grandams, fall an easy prey: he conforms to nobody, all conform to him; all caper and make mouths and babble and chirrup to him. On the strongest shoulders he rides, and pulls the hair of laurelled heads.4
The childhood, said Milton, shows the man, as morning shows the day. The child realizes to every man his own earliest remembrance, and so supplies a defect in our education, or enables us to live over the unconscious history with a sympathy so tender as to be almost personal experience.5
Fastalmost too fast for the wistful curiosity of the parents, studious of the witchcraft of curls and dimples and broken wordsthe little talker grows to a boy. He walks daily among wonders: fire, light, darkness, the moon, the stars, the furniture of the house, the red tin horse, the domestics, who like rude foster-mothers befriend and feed him, the faces that claim his kisses, are all in turn absorbing; yet warm, cheerful and with good appetite the little sovereign subdues them without knowing it; the new knowledge is taken up into the life of to-day and becomes the means of more. The blowing rose is a new event; the garden full of flowers is Eden over again to the small Adam; the rain, the ice, the frost, make epochs in his life. What a holiday is the first snow in which Twoshoes can be trusted abroad!6
What art can paint or gild any object in afterlife with the glow which Nature gives to the first baubles of childhood! St. Peters cannot have the magical power over us that the red and gold covers of our first picture-book possessed. How the imagination cleaves to the warm glories of that tinsel even now! What entertainments make every day bright and short for the fine freshman! The street is old as Nature; the persons all have their sacredness. His imaginative life dresses all things in their best. His fears adorn the dark parts with poetry. He has heard of wild horses and of bad boys, and with a pleasing terror he watches at his gate for the passing of those varieties of each species. The first ride into the country, the first bath in running water, the first time the skates are put on, the first game out of doors in moonlight, the books of the nursery, are new chapters of joy. The Arabian Nights Entertainments, the Seven Champions of Christendom, Robinson Crusoe and the Pilgrims Progress,what mines of thought and emotion, what a wardrobe to dress the whole world withal, are in this encyclopædia of young thinking!7 And so by beautiful traits, which without art yet seem the masterpiece of wisdom, provoking the love that watches and educates him, the little pilgrim prosecutes the journey through Nature which he has thus gayly begun. He grows up the ornament and joy of the house, which rings to his glee, to rosy boyhood.8
The household is the home of the man, as well as of the child.9 The events that occur therein are more near and affecting to us than those which are sought in senates and academies. Domestic events are certainly our affair. What are called public events may or may not be ours. If a man wishes to acquaint himself with the real history of the world, with the spirit of the age, he must not go first to the state-house or the court-room. The subtle spirit of life must be sought in facts nearer. It is what is done and suffered in the house, in the constitution, in the temperament, in the personal history, that has the profoundest interest for us. Fact is better than fiction, if only we could get pure fact. Do you think any rhetoric or any romance would get your ear from the wise gypsy who could tell straight on the real fortunes of the man; who could reconcile your moral character and your natural history; who could explain your misfortunes, your fevers, your debts, your temperament, your habits of thought, your tastes, and, in every explanation, not sever you from the whole, but unite you to it? Is it not plain that not in senates, or courts, or chambers of commerce, but in the dwelling-house must the true character and hope of the time be consulted? These facts are, to be sure, harder to read. It is easier to count the census, or compute the square extent of a territory, to criticise its polity, books, art, than to come to the persons and dwellings of men and read their character and hope in their way of life. Yet we are always hovering round this better divination. In one form or another we are always returning to it. The physiognomy and phrenology of to-day are rash and mechanical systems enough, but they rest on everlasting foundations. We are sure that the sacred form of man is not seen in these whimsical, pitiful and sinister masks (masks which we wear and which we meet), these bloated and shrivelled bodies, bald heads, bead eyes, short winds, puny and precarious healths and early deaths.10 We live ruins amidst ruins. The great facts are the near ones. The account of the body is to be sought in the mind. The history of your fortunes is written first in your life.
Let us come then out of the public square and enter the domestic precinct. Let us go to the sitting-room, the table-talk and the expenditure of our contemporaries. An increased consciousness of the soul, you say, characterizes the period. Let us see if it has not only arranged the atoms at the circumference, but the atoms at the core. Does the household obey an idea? Do you see the man,his form, genius and aspiration,in his economy? Is that translucent, thorough-lighted? There should be nothing confounding and conventional in economy, but the genius and love of the man so conspicuously marked in all his estate that the eye that knew him should read his character in his property, in his grounds, in his ornaments, in every expense. A mans money should not follow the direction of his neighbors money, but should represent to him the things he would willingliest do with it. I am not one thing and my expenditure another. My expenditure is me. That our expenditure and our character are twain, is the vice of society.
We ask the price of many things in shops and stalls, but some things each man buys without hesitation; if it were only letters at the post-office, conveyance in carriages and boats, tools for his work, books that are written to his condition, etc. Let him never buy anything else than what he wants, never subscribe at others instance, never give unwillingly. Thus, a scholar is a literary foundation. All his expense is for Aristotle, Fabricius, Erasmus and Petrarch. Do not ask him to help with his savings young drapers or grocers to stock their shops, or eager agents to lobby in legislatures, or join a company to build a factory or a fishing-craft. These things are also to be done, but not by such as he. How could such a book as Platos Dialogues have come down, but for the sacred savings of scholars and their fantastic appropriation of them?11
Another man is a mechanical genius, an inventor of looms, a builder of ships,a ship-building foundation, and could achieve nothing if he should dissipate himself on books or on horses. Another is a farmer, an agricultural foundation; another is a chemist, and the same rule holds for all. We must not make believe with our money, but spend heartily, and buy up and not down.
I am afraid that, so considered, our houses will not be found to have unity and to express the best thought. The household, the calling, the friendships, of the citizen are not homogeneous. His house ought to show us his honest opinion of what makes his well-being when he rests among his kindred, and forgets all affectation, compliance, and even exertion of will. He brings home whatever commodities and ornaments have for years allured his pursuit, and his character must be seen in them. But what idea predominates in our houses? Thrift first, then convenience and pleasure. Take off all the roofs, from street to street, and we shall seldom find the temple of any higher god than Prudence. The progress of domestic living has been in cleanliness, in ventilation, in health, in decorum, in countless means and arts of comfort, in the concentration of all the utilities of every clime in each house. They are arranged for low benefits. The houses of the rich are confectioners shops, where we get sweetmeats and wine; the houses of the poor are imitations of these to the extent of their ability. With these ends housekeeping is not beautiful; it cheers and raises neither the husband, the wife, nor the child; neither the host nor the guest; it oppresses women. A house kept to the end of prudence is laborious without joy; a house kept to the end of display is impossible to all but a few women, and their success is dearly bought.12
If we look at this matter curiously, it becomes dangerous. We need all the force of an idea to lift this load, for the wealth and multiplication of conveniences embarrass us, especially in northern climates. The shortest enumeration of our wants in this rugged climate appalls us by the multitude of things not easy to be done. And if you look at the multitude of particulars, one would say: Good housekeeping is impossible; order is too precious a thing to dwell with men and women. See, in families where there is both substance and taste, at what expense any favorite punctuality is maintained. If the children, for example, are considered, dressed, dieted, attended, kept in proper company, schooled and at home fostered by the parents,then does the hospitality of the house suffer; friends are less carefully bestowed, the daily table less catered. If the hours of meals are punctual, the apartments are slovenly. If the linens and hangings are clean and fine and the furniture good, the yard, the garden, the fences are neglected. If all are well attended, then must the master and mistress be studious of particulars at the cost of their own accomplishments and growth; or persons are treated as things.13
The difficulties to be overcome must be freely admitted; they are many and great. Nor are they to be disposed of by any criticism or amendment of particulars taken one at a time, but only by the arrangement of the household to a higher end than those to which our dwellings are usually built and furnished. And is there any calamity more grave, or that more invokes the best good will to remove it, than this?to go from chamber to chamber and see no beauty; to find in the housemates no aim; to hear an endless chatter and blast; to be compelled to criticise; to hear only to dissent and to be disgusted; to find no invitation to what is good in us, and no receptacle for what is wise:this is a great price to pay for sweet bread and warm lodging,being defrauded of affinity, of repose, of genial culture and the inmost presence of beauty.14
It is a sufficient accusation of our ways of living, and certainly ought to open our ear to every good-minded reformer, that our idea of domestic well-being now needs wealth to execute it. Give me the means, says the wife, and your house shall not annoy your taste nor waste your time. On hearing this we understand how these Means have come to be so omnipotent on earth. And indeed the love of wealth seems to grow chiefly out of the root of the love of the Beautiful. The desire of gold is not for gold. It is not the love of much wheat and wool and household stuff. It is the means of freedom and benefit. We scorn shifts; we desire the elegance of munificence; we desire at least to put no stint or limit on our parents, relatives, guests or dependents; we desire to play the benefactor and the prince with our townsmen, with the stranger at the gate, with the bard or the beauty, with the man or woman of worth who alights at our door. How can we do this, if the wants of each day imprison us in lucrative labors, and constrain us to a continual vigilance lest we be betrayed into expense?
Give us wealth, and the home shall exist. But that is a very imperfect and inglorious solution of the problem, and therefore no solution. Give us wealth. You ask too much. Few have wealth, but all must have a home. Men are not born rich; and in getting wealth the man is generally sacrificed, and often is sacrificed without acquiring wealth at last. Besides, that cannot be the right answer;there are objections to wealth. Wealth is a shift. The wise man angles with himself only, and with no meaner bait. Our whole use of wealth needs revision and reform. Generosity does not consist in giving money or moneys worth. These so-called goods are only the shadow of good. To give money to a sufferer is only a come-off. It is only a postponement of the real payment, a bribe paid for silence, a credit system in which a paper promise to pay answers for the time instead of liquidation. We owe to man higher succors than food and fire. We owe to man man.15 If he is sick, is unable, is mean-spirited and odious, it is because there is so much of his nature which is unlawfully withholden from him. He should be visited in this his prison with rebuke to the evil demons, with manly encouragement, with no mean-spirited offer of condolence because you have not money, or mean offer of money as the utmost benefit, but by your heroism, your purity and your faith. You are to bring with you that spirit which is understanding, health and self-help. To offer him money in lieu of these is to do him the same wrong as when the bridegroom offers his betrothed virgin a sum of money to release him from his engagements. The great depend on their heart, not on their purse. Genius and virtue, like diamonds, are best plain-set,set in lead, set in poverty. The greatest man in history was the poorest. How was it with the captains and sages of Greece and Rome, with Socrates, with Epaminondas? Aristides was made general receiver of Greece, to collect the tribute which each state was to furnish against the barbarian. Poor, says Plutarch, when he set about it, poorer when he had finished it. How was it with Æmilius and Cato? What kind of a house was kept by Paul and John, by Milton and Marvell, by Samuel Johnson, by Samuel Adams in Boston and Jean Paul Richter at Baireuth?
I think it plain that this voice of communities and ages, Give us wealth, and the good household shall exist, is vicious, and leaves the whole difficulty untouched. It is better, certainly, in this form, Give us your labor, and the household begins. I see not how serious labor, the labor of all and every day, is to be avoided; and many things betoken a revolution of opinion and practice in regard to manual labor that may go far to aid our practical inquiry. Another age may divide the manual labor of the world more equally on all the members of society, and so make the labors of a few hours avail to the wants and add to the vigor of the man. But the reform that applies itself to the household must not be partial. It must correct the whole system of our social living. It must come with plain living and high thinking; it must break up caste, and put domestic service on another foundation. It must come in connection with a true acceptance by each man of his vocation,not chosen by his parents or friends, but by his genius, with earnestness and love.
Nor is this redress so hopeless as it seems. Certainly, if we begin by reforming particulars of our present system, correcting a few evils and letting the rest stand, we shall soon give up in despair. For our social forms are very far from truth and equity. But the way to set the axe at the root of the tree is to raise our aim. Let us understand then that a house should bear witness in all its economy that human culture is the end to which it is built and garnished. It stands there under the sun and moon to ends analogous, and not less noble than theirs. It is not for festivity, it is not for sleep: but the pine and the oak shall gladly descend from the mountains to uphold the roof of men as faithful and necessary as themselves; to be the shelter always open to good and true persons;a hall which shines with sincerity, brows ever tranquil, and a demeanor impossible to disconcert; whose inmates know what they want; who do not ask your house how theirs should be kept. They have aims; they cannot pause for trifles.16 The diet of the house does not create its order, but knowledge, character, action, absorb so much life and yield so much entertainment that the refectory has ceased to be so curiously studied. With a change of aim has followed a change of the whole scale by which men and things were wont to be measured. Wealth and poverty are seen for what they are. It begins to be seen that the poor are only they who feel poor, and poverty consists in feeling poor. The rich, as we reckon them, and among them the very rich,in a true scale would be found very indigent and ragged. The great make us feel, first of all, the indifference of circumstances. They call into activity the higher perceptions and subdue the low habits of comfort and luxury; but the higher perceptions find their objects everywhere; only the low habits need palaces and banquets.
Let a man, then, say, My house is here in the country, for the culture of the county;an eating-house and sleeping-house for travellers it shall be, but it shall be much more. I pray you, O excellent wife, not to cumber yourself and me to get a rich dinner for this man or this woman who has alighted at our gate, nor a bed-chamber made ready at too great a cost. These things, if they are curious in them, they can get for a dollar at any village. But let this stranger, if he will, in your looks, in your accent and behavior, read your heart and earnestness, your thought and will, which he cannot buy at any price, in any village or city; and which he may well travel fifty miles, and dine sparely and sleep hard in order to behold. Certainly, let the board be spread and let the bed be dressed for the traveller; but let not the emphasis of hospitality lie in these things. Honor to the house where they are simple to the verge of hardship, so that there the intellect is awake and reads the laws of the universe, the soul worships truth and love, honor and courtesy flow into all deeds.17
There was never a country in the world which could so easily exhibit this heroism as ours; never any where the state has made such efficient provision for popular education, where intellectual entertainment is so within reach of youthful ambition.18 The poor mans son is educated. There is many a humble house in every city, in every town, where talent and taste and sometimes genius dwell with poverty and labor. Who has not seen, and who can see unmoved, under a low roof, the eager, blushing boys discharging as they can their household chores, and hastening into the sitting-room to the study of to-morrows merciless lesson, yet stealing time to read one chapter more of the novel hardly smuggled into the tolerance of father and mother,atoning for the same by some pages of Plutarch or Goldsmith; the warm sympathy with which they kindle each other in school-yard or in barn or wood-shed with scraps of poetry or song, with phrases of the last oration, or mimicry of the orator; the youthful criticism, on Sunday, of the sermons; the school declamation faithfully rehearsed at home, sometimes to the fatigue, sometimes to the admiration of sisters; the first solitary joys of literary vanity, when the translation or the theme has been completed, sitting alone near the top of the house; the cautious comparison of the attractive advertisement of the arrival of Macready, Booth or Kemble, or of the discourse of a well-known speaker, with the expense of the entertainment; the affectionate delight with which they greet the return of each one after the early separations which school or business require; the foresight with which, during such absences, they hive the honey which opportunity offers, for the ear and imagination of the others; and the unrestrained glee with which they disburden themselves of their early mental treasures when the holidays bring them again together? What is the hoop that holds them stanch? It is the iron band of poverty, of necessity, of austerity, which, excluding them from the sensual enjoyments which make other boys too early old, has directed their activity in safe and right channels, and made them, despite themselves, reverers of the grand, the beautiful and the good. Ah! short-sighted students of books, of Nature and of man! too happy, could they know their advantages.19 They pine for freedom from that mild parental yoke; they sigh for fine clothes, for rides, for the theatre and premature freedom and dissipation, which others possess. Woe to them if their wishes were crowned! The angels that dwell with them and are weaving laurels of life for their youthful brows, are Toil and Want, and Truth, and Mutual Faith.20
In many parts of true economy a cheering lesson may be learned from the mode of life and manners of the later Romans, as described to us in the letters of the younger Pliny. Nor can I resist the temptation of quoting so trite an instance as the noble housekeeping of Lord Falkland in Clarendon: His house being within little more than ten miles from Oxford, he contracted familiarity and friendship with the most polite and accurate men of that University, who found such an immenseness of wit and such a solidity of judgment in him, so infinite a fancy, bound in by a most logical ratiocination, such a vast knowledge that he was not ignorant in anything, yet such an excessive humility, as if he had known nothing, that they frequently resorted and dwelt with him, as in a college situated in a purer air; so that his house was a university in a less volume, whither they came, not so much for repose as study, and to examine and refine those grosser propositions which laziness and consent made current in vulgar conversation.
I honor that man whose ambition it is, not to win laurels in the state or the army, not to be a jurist or a naturalist, not to be a poet or a commander, but to be a master of living well, and to administer the offices of master or servant, of husband, father and friend. But it requires as much breadth of power for this as for those other functions,as much, or more,and the reason for the failure is the same. I think the vice of our housekeeping is that it does not hold man sacred. The vice of government, the vice of education, the vice of religion, is one with that of private life.
In the old fables we used to read of a cloak brought from fairy-land as a gift for the fairest and purest in Prince Arthurs court. It was to be her prize whom it would fit. Every one was eager to try it on, but it would fit nobody: for one it was a world too wide, for the next it dragged on the ground, and for the third it shrunk to a scarf. They, of course, said that the devil was in the mantle, for really the truth was in the mantle, and was exposing the ugliness which each would fain conceal. All drew back with terror from the garment. The innocent Venelas alone could wear it.21 In like manner, every man is provided in his thought with a measure of man which he applies to every passenger. Unhappily, not one in many thousands comes up to the stature and proportions of the model. Neither does the measurer himself; neither do the people in the street; neither do the select individuals whom he admires,the heroes of the race. When he inspects them critically, he discovers that their aims are low, that they are too quickly satisfied. He observes the swiftness with which life culminates, and the humility of the expectations of the greatest part of men. To each occurs, soon after the age of puberty, some event or society or way of living, which becomes the crisis of life and the chief fact in their history. In woman, it is love and marriage (which is more reasonable); and yet it is pitiful to date and measure all the facts and sequel of an unfolding life from such a youthful and generally inconsiderate period as the age of courtship and marriage. In men, it is their place of education, choice of an employment, settlement in a town, or removal to the East or to the West, or some other magnified trifle which makes the meridian moment, and all the after years and actions only derive interest from their relation to that. Hence it comes that we soon catch the trick of each mans conversation, and knowing his two or three main facts, anticipate what he thinks of each new topic that rises. It is scarcely less perceivable in educated men, so called, than in the uneducated. I have seen finely endowed men at college festivals, ten, twenty years after they had left the halls, returning, as it seemed, the same boys who went away. The same jokes pleased, the same straws tickled; the manhood and offices they brought thither at this return seemed mere ornamental masks; underneath they were boys yet. We never come to be citizens of the world, but are still villagers, who think that every thing in their petty town is a little superior to the same thing anywhere else. In each the circumstance signalized differs, but in each it is made the coals of an ever-burning egotism. In one, it was his going to sea; in a second, the difficulties he combated in going to college; in a third, his journey to the West, or his voyage to Canton; in a fourth, his coming out of the Quaker Society; in a fifth, his new diet and regimen; in a sixth, his coming forth from the abolition organizations; and in a seventh, his going into them. It is a life of toys and trinkets. We are too easily pleased.
I think this sad result appears in the manners. The men we see in each other do not give us the image and likeness of man. The men we see are whipped through the world; they are harried, wrinkled, anxious; they all seem the hacks of some invisible riders. How seldom do we behold tranquillity! We have never yet seen a man. We do not know the majestic manners that belong to him, which appease and exalt the beholder. There are no divine persons with us, and the multitude do not hasten to be divine. And yet we hold fast, all our lives long, a faith in a better life, in better men, in clean and noble relations, notwithstanding our total inexperience of a true society.22 Certainly this was not the intention of Nature, to produce, with all this immense expenditure of means and power, so cheap and humble a result. The aspirations in the heart after the good and true teach us better,nay, the men themselves suggest a better life.
Every individual nature has its own beauty. One is struck in every company, at every fireside, with the riches of Nature, when he hears so many new tones, all musical, sees in each person original manners, which have a proper and peculiar charm, and reads new expressions of face. He perceives that Nature has laid for each the foundations of a divine building, if the soul will build thereon. There is no face, no form, which one cannot in fancy associate with great power of intellect or with generosity of soul. In our experience, to be sure, beauty is not, as it ought to be, the dower of man and of woman as invariably as sensation. Beauty is, even in the beautiful, occasional,or, as one has said, culminating and perfect only a single moment, before which it is unripe, and after which it is on the wane. But beauty is never quite absent from our eyes. Every face, every figure, suggests its own right and sound estate. Our friends are not their own highest form. But let the hearts they have agitated witness what power has lurked in the traits of these structures of clay that pass and repass us!23 The secret power of form over the imagination and affections transcends all our philosophy. The first glance we meet may satisfy us that matter is the vehicle of higher powers than its own, and that no laws of line or surface can ever account for the inexhaustible expressiveness of form. We see heads that turn on the pivot of the spine,no more; and we see heads that seem to turn on a pivot as deep as the axle of the world,so slow, and lazily, and great, they move. We see on the lip of our companion the presence or absence of the great masters of thought and poetry to his mind. We read in his brow, on meeting him after many years, that he is where we left him, or that he has made great strides.
Whilst thus Nature and the hints we draw from man suggest a true and lofty life, a household equal to the beauty and grandeur of this world, especially we learn the same lesson from those best relations to individual men which the heart is always prompting us to form. Happy will that house be in which the relations are formed from character; after the highest, and not after the lowest order; the house in which character marries, and not confusion and a miscellany of unavowable motives. Then shall marriage be a covenant to secure to either party the sweetness and honor of being a calm, continuing, inevitable benefactor to the other. Yes, and the sufficient reply to the skeptic who doubts the competence of man to elevate and to be elevated is in that desire and power to stand in joyful and ennobling intercourse with individuals, which makes the faith and the practice of all reasonable men.
The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it. There is no event greater in life than the appearance of new persons about our hearth, except it be the progress of the character which draws them. It has been finely added by Landor to his definition of the great man, It is he who can call together the most select company when it pleases him. A verse of the old Greek Menander remains, which runs in translation:
It is the happiness which, where it is truly known, postpones all other satisfactions, and makes politics and commerce and churches cheap. For we figure to ourselves,do we not?that when men shall meet as they should, as states meet,each a benefactor, a shower of falling stars, so rich with deeds, with thoughts, with so much accomplishment,it shall be the festival of Nature, which all things symbolize; and perhaps Love is only the highest symbol of Friendship, as all other things seem symbols of love. In the progress of each mans character, his relations to the best men, which at first seem only the romances of youth, acquire a graver importance; and he will have learned the lesson of life who is skilful in the ethics of friendship.
1. Whatever brings the dweller into a finer life, what educates his eye, or ear, or hand, whatever purifies and enlarges him, may well find place there. And yet let him not think that a property in beautiful objects is necessary to his apprehension of them, and seek to turn his house into a museum. Rather let the noble practice of the Greeks find place in our society, and let the creations of the plastic arts be collected with care in galleries by the piety and taste of the people, and yielded as freely as the sunlight to all. Meantime, be it remembered, we are artists ourselves, and competitors, each one, with Phidias and Raphael in the production of what is graceful or grand. The fountain of beauty is the heart, and every generous thought illustrates the walls of your chamber.25 Why should we owe our power of attracting our friends to pictures and vases, to cameos and architecture? Why should we convert ourselves into showmen and appendages to our fine houses and our works of art? If by love and nobleness we take up into ourselves the beauty we admire, we shall spend it again on all around us. The man, the woman, needs not the embellishment of canvas and marble, whose every act is a subject for the sculptor, and to whose eye the gods and nymphs never appear ancient, for they know by heart the whole instinct of majesty.
I do not undervalue the fine instruction which statues and pictures give. But I think the public museum in each town will one day relieve the private house of this charge of owning and exhibiting them. I go to Rome and see on the walls of the Vatican the Transfiguration, painted by Raphael, reckoned the first picture in the world; or in the Sistine Chapel I see the grand sibyls and prophets, painted in fresco by Michel Angelo,which have every day now for three hundred years inflamed the imagination and exalted the piety of what vast multitudes of men of all nations! I wish to bring home to my children and my friends copies of these admirable forms, which I can find in the shops of the engravers; but I do not wish the vexation of owning them. I wish to find in my own town a library and museum which is the property of the town, where I can deposit this precious treasure, where I and my children can see it from time to time, and where it has its proper place among hundreds of such donations from other citizens who have brought thither whatever articles they have judged to be in their nature rather a public than a private property.
A collection of this kind, the property of each town, would dignify the town, and we should love and respect our neighbors more. Obviously, it would be easy for every town to discharge this truly municipal duty. Every one of us would gladly contribute his share; and the more gladly, the more considerable the institution had become.26
2. Certainly, not aloof from this homage to beauty, but in strict connection therewith, the house will come to be esteemed a Sanctuary. The language of a ruder age has given to common law the maxim that every mans house is his castle: the progress of truth will make every house a shrine.27 Will not man one day open his eyes and see how dear he is to the soul of Nature,how near it is to him? Will he not see, through all he miscalls accident, that Law prevails for ever and ever; that his private being is a part of it; that its home is in his own unsounded heart; that his economy, his labor, his good and bad fortune, his health and manners are all a curious and exact demonstration in miniature of the Genius of the Eternal Providence? When he perceives the Law, he ceases to despond. Whilst he sees it, every thought and act is raised, and becomes an act of religion. Does the consecration of Sunday confess the desecration of the entire week? Does the consecration of the church confess the profanation of the house? Let us read the incantation backward. Let the man stand on his feet. Let religion cease to be occasional; and the pulses of thought that go to the borders of the universe, let them proceed from the bosom of the Household.
These are the consolations,these are the ends to which the household is instituted and the roof-tree stands. If these are sought and in any good degree attained, can the state, can commerce, can climate, can the labor of many for one, yield anything better, or half as good? Beside these aims, Society is weak and the State an intrusion. I think that the heroism which at this day would make on us the impression of Epaminondas and Phocion must be that of a domestic conqueror. He who shall bravely and gracefully subdue this Gorgon of Convention and Fashion, and show men how to lead a clean, handsome and heroic life amid the beggarly elements of our cities and villages; whoso shall teach me how to eat my meat and take my repose and deal with men, without any shame following, will restore the life of man to splendor, and make his own name dear to all history.28
Note 1. Mr. Emerson seems to have first treated this subject in a lecture called Home in the course on Human Life given in Boston in the winter of 183839. A passage from this lecture survives in the present essay and another in that on Education, in Lectures and Biographical Sketches. Probably the same, with suitable changes for an English audience, was the lecture called Domestic Life, one of the three given in Exeter Hall. The lecture in its present form was read to Mr. Parkers Society in the Music Hall in Boston, November 13, 1859. Mr. Emerson was an eminently domestic man, more so than might be inferred from his writings, unless perhaps where in them he speaks of little children. In his home he was loved and loving, a good householder, if a poor farmer. His house-keeping was simple but hospitable. He was esteemed by his neighbors, and, though he served himself by preference, was cared for by servants with affectionate respect. But by force of character and will he succeeded in keeping to his task and avoiding domestic entanglement, although his study was close by the front door and separated but by thin doors from the parlor. To show the good school of domesticity in which Mr. Emerson was reared, this picture of the home after his fathers death may be given. The letter was written to his Aunt Mary when Ralph was not quite ten years old.
BOSTON, APRIL 16, 1813.
DEAR AUNT, I mean now to give you an account of what I do commonly in one day, if that is what you mean by giving an account of one single day in my life. Friday, 9th, I choose for the day of telling what I did. In the Morning I rose, as I commonly do, about five minutes before six. I then help Wm. in making the fire, after which I set the table for Prayers. I then call Mamma about quarter after six. We spell as we did before you went away. I confess I often feel an angry passion start in one corner of my heart when one of my Brothers gets above me, which I think sometimes they do by unfair means, after which we eat our breakfast; then I have from about quarter after seven to play or read. I think I am rather inclined to the former. I then go to school where I hope I can say I study more than I did a little while ago. I am in another book called Virgil, and our class are even with another which came to the Latin School one year before us. After attending this school I go to Mr. Webbs private school where I write and cipher. I go to this place at eleven and stay till one oclock. [He did not think it worth while to mention to his aunt that he found it pleasanter to spend these two hours on the Common until Discovery and Retribution overtook him.] After I come home I eat my dinner and at two oclock I resume my studies at the Latin School where I do the same except in studying grammar. After I come home I do Mamma her little errands if she has any; then I bring in my wood to supply the breakfast-room. I then have some time to play and eat my supper. After that we say our hymns or chapters, and then take our turns in reading Rollin, as we did before you went. [An abridged translation in five volumes of the Histoire Ancienne by Charles Rollin (16611741).] We retire to bed at different times. I go at a little after eight, and retire to my private devotions, and then close my eyes in sleep, and there end the toils of the day.
From Mr. Emersons note-book: On the back of Alexanders portrait of my mother, taken in 1825, at the age of 57, Edward B. E., who ordered the picture, wrote, Feminae, uxoris, viduae, matris optimae, laudatae, benedictae vita pulchra, similitudo tam similis pretiosa. Ipsa mulier ad coelum ibit: umbra picta inter amicos, Deo volente, numquam inter inimicos, quia tales non sunt, vivis descriptionem sine errore mortalis quondam, tunc angeli dabit. Charles C. E. proposes an improved reading of the second sentence: Ipsa mulier in coelum ibit: umbra picta inter amicos, Deo volente, non unquam, cum tales nulli sint, inter inimicos, errore purae mortalis quondam, tunc animae beatae imaginem servabit. [back]
Note 2. The babe in arms is a channel through which the energies we call fate, love and reason visibly stream.Considerations by the Way, Conduct of Life. Plinys charming and condensed description of a baby was noted by Mr. Emerson before he had children of his own: Flens animal, cæteris imperaturum, a crying creature which will give the law to others. [back]
Note 3. The last three sentences were written soon after the birth of Mr. Emersons first child, Waldo, who died when five years old. [back]
Note 4. The following is from an early journal: Blessed is the child: the unconscious is ever the act of God himself. Nobody can reflect upon his unconscious period, or any particular word or act in it, with regret or contempt. Bard or hero cannot look down upon the word or gesture of a child: it is as great as they. [back]
Note 5. The following is from an early journal: Blessed is the child: the unconscious is ever the act of God himself. Nobody can reflect upon his unconscious period, or any particular word or act in it, with regret or contempt. Bard or hero cannot look down upon the word or gesture of a child: it is as great as they. [back]
Note 6. Dr. Holmes wrote: Domestic Life begins with a picture of childhood so charming that it sweetens all the good counsel which follows like honey round the rim of the goblet which holds some tonic draught. [back]
Note 7. In the early poem Peters Field, only published after Mr. Emersons death, in the Appendix to the Poems, he told of the enchanted wood which the oaks and hemlocks behind the Ripley Hill in Concord seemed to him and his brothers. [back]
Note 8. 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.Uses of Great Men, Representative Men. [back]
Note 9. Journal, 1842. I was a little chubby boy trundling a hoop in Chauncy Place and spouting poetry from Scott and Campbell at the Latin School. But Time, the little gray man, has taken out of his vest pocket a great awkward house (in a corner of which I sit and write of him), some acres of land, several full grown and several very young persons, and seated them close beside me; then he has taken that chubbiness and that hoop quite away (to be sure he has left the declamation and the poetry) and here left a long lean person threatening soon to be a little gray man like himself. [back]
Note 10. A similar amusing passage is in the essay on Beauty (Conduct of Life, p. 298): But our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us, etc. [back]
Note 11. There are not in the world at any one time more than a dozen persons who read and understand Plato,never enough to pay for an edition of his works; yet to every generation these come duly down, for the sake of those few persons, as if God brought them in his hand.Spiritual Laws, Essays, First Series, p. 154. [back]
Note 14. Journal, 1850. Hear what the morning says and believe that. The house is full of noise and contradicts all that the morning hints. Also a passage on the unworthiness of much of our daily employment is called to mind in Lecture on the Times, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 15. In the concluding verses of The Celestial Love in the Poems this aspect of our debt to our kind is treated. In the journal of 1842, speaking of the self-denying ordinances of the reformers in abjuring flesh and wine and civic responsibilities, he concludes, By none of these ways can he free himself, no, nor by paying his debts with money; only by obedience to his own genius, only by the fresh activity in the way constitutional to him, does an angel seem to arise and lead him by the hand out of all wards of the prison. [back]
Note 16. His house gave hospitality, simple but comfortable, to the bodies of the many who came, but even more to the ideas. Sometimes the person did not come, only the earnest question or thought, and an answer giving light or refreshment returned. Mr. Emerson said, I will assume that a stranger is judicious and benevolent. If he is, I will thereby keep him so. If he is not, it will tend to instruct him. [back]
Note 18. On his return to his own country in 1848, from the conventional life and fixed standards of England, he felt the relief and the opportunity, and wrote: The dinner, the wine, the homes of England look attractive to the traveller, but they are the poor utmost that liberal wealth can perform. Alas! the halls of England are musty, the land is full of coal-smoke and carpet-smell: not a breath of mountain air dilates the languishing lungs. [back]
Note 19. The household is a school of power. There, within the door, learn the tragi-comedy of human life. Here is the sincere thing, the wondrous composition for which day and night go round. In that routine are the sacred relations, the passions that bind and sever. Here is poverty and all the wisdom its hated necessities can teach, here labor drudges, here affections glow, here the secrets of character are told, the guards of man, the guards of woman, the compensations which, like angels of justice, pay every debt: the opium of custom, whereof all drink and many go mad. Here is Economy, and Glee, and Hospitality, and Ceremony, and Frankness, and Calamity, and Death, and Hope.Education, Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 20. This picture of the home of Mr. Emersons childhood is well supplemented by those in Mr. Cabots Memoir, vol. i. chapter i., and in the pleasant little book written by his cousin, the Rev. David Greene Haskins. [Ralph Waldo Emerson; his Maternal Ancestors, with some Reminiscences of him. Boston: Cupples, Upham & Co., 1887.] The book of another kinsman, George Barrell Emerson, the distinguished teacher and a much valued friend, contains this account of the Emerson household: The longing for a home led me to apply to a very noble lady whom I had long known, and to beg her to let me become one of her family. She granted my request in the kindest manner possible. She was the widow of Rev. William Emerson, and among her sons I found William, whom I had long known and loved, the best reader, and with the sweetest voice I ever heard, and a pleasant talker; Ralph Waldo, whom I had known and admired, and whom all the world now knows almost as well as I do; Edward Bliss, the most modest and genial, the most beautiful and the most graceful speaker, a universal favorite; and Charles Chauncy, bright and ready, full of sense, ambitious of distinction, and capable of it. [Reminiscences of an Old Teacher. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1878.] Of the religious atmosphere in that home Mr. Emerson thus speaks in his journal of 1837: I cannot hear the young men whose theological instruction is exclusively owed to Cambridge and to public institutions without feeling how much happier was my star, which rained on me influences of ancestral religion. The depth of the religious sentiment which I knew in my Aunt Mary, imbuing all her genius and derived to her from such hoarded family traditions, from so many godly lives and godly deaths of sainted kindred, at Concord, at Malden, York, was itself a culture, an education. I heard with awe her tales. [back]
Note 21. In former editions this name has been printed Genelas, but I can learn of no authority for any other spelling than Venelas. The name does not appear in the common English ballad on the same theme, The Boy and the Mantle. Venelas appears in the Fabliau du Mantel mantaillé in the Collection by Montaiglon and Raynaud, and the Archæologia Cambrensis, 3d series, vol. ix. [back]
Note 22. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. We grant that human life is mean, but how did we find out that it was mean?The Over-Soul, Essays, First Series, P. 267. See also on the last page of Poetry and Imagination, in Letters and Social Aims, The grandeur of our life exists in spite of us, etc. Also the lines in Woodnotes, II., beginning,