Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. VII. Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters
ONE thing is forever good;
That one thing is Success,
Dear to the Eumenides,
And to all the heavenly brood.
Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,
Carries the eagles and masters the sword.
BUT if thou do thy best,
Without remission, without rest,
And invite the sunbeam,
And abhor to feign or seem
Even to those who thee should love
And thy behavior approve;
If thou go in thine own likeness,
Be it health or be it sickness;
If thou go as thy fathers son,
If thou wear no mask or lie,
Dealing purely and nakedly;
* * * * *
OUR1 American people cannot be taxed with slowness in performance or in praising their performance. The earth is shaken by our engineries. We are feeling our youth and nerve and bone. We have the power of territory and of seacoast, and know the use of these. We count our census, we read our growing valuations, we survey our map, which becomes old in a year or two. Our eyes run approvingly along the lengthened lines of railroad and telegraph. We have gone nearest to the Pole. We have discovered the Antarctic continent. We interfere in Central and South America, at Canton and in Japan; we are adding to an already enormous territory. Our political constitution is the hope of the world, and we value ourselves on all these feats.
T is the way of the world; t is the law of youth, and of unfolding strength. Men are made each with some triumphant superiority, which, through some adaptation of fingers or ear or eye or ciphering or pugilistic or musical or literary craft, enriches the community with a new art; and not only we, but all men of European stock, value these certificates. Giotto could draw a perfect circle: Erwin of Steinbach could build a minster; Olaf, king of Norway, could run round his galley on the blades of the oars of the rowers when the ship was in motion; Ojeda2 could run out swiftly on a plank projected from the top of a tower, turn round swiftly and come back; Evelyn writes from Rome: Bernini, the Florentine sculptor, architect, painter and poet, a little before my coming to Rome, gave a public opera, wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy and built the theatre.
There is nothing in war, said Napoleon, which I cannot do by my own hands. If there is nobody to make gunpowder, I can manufacture it. The gun-carriages I know how to construct. If it is necessary to make cannons at the forge, I can make them. The details of working them in battle, if it is necessary to teach, I shall teach them. In administration, it is I alone who have arranged the finances, as you know.
It is recorded of Linnæus, among many proofs of his beneficent skill, that when the timber in the shipyards of Sweden was ruined by rot, Linnæus was desired by the government to find a remedy. He studied the insects that infested the timber, and found that they laid their eggs in the logs within certain days in April, and he directed that during ten days at that season the logs should be immersed under water in the docks; which being done, the timber was found to be uninjured.
Columbus at Veragua found plenty of gold; but leaving the coast, the ship full of one hundred and fifty skilful seamen,some of them old pilots, and with too much experience of their craft and treachery to him,the wise admiral kept his private record of his homeward path. And when he reached Spain he told the King and Queen that they may ask all the pilots who came with him where is Veragua. Let them answer and say if they know where Veragua lies. I assert that they can give no other account than that they went to lands where there was abundance of gold, but they do not know the way to return thither, but would be obliged to go on a voyage of discovery as much as if they had never been there before. There is a mode of reckoning, he proudly adds, derived from astronomy, which is sure and safe to any one who understands it.3
Hippocrates in Greece knew how to stay the devouring plague which ravaged Athens in his time, and his skill died with him. Dr. Benjamin Rush, in Philadelphia, carried that city heroically through the yellow fever of the year 1793. Leverrier carried the Copernican system in his head, and knew where to look for the new planet. We have seen an American woman write a novel of which a million copies were sold, in all languages, and which had one merit, of speaking to the universal heart, and was read with equal interest to three audiences, namely, in the parlor, in the kitchen and in the nursery of every house. We have seen women who could institute hospitals and schools in armies. We have seen a woman who by pure song could melt the souls of whole populations. And there is no limit to these varieties of talent.4
These are arts to be thankful for,each one as it is a new direction of human power. We cannot choose but respect them. Our civilization is made up of a million contributions of this kind. For success, to be sure we esteem it a test in other people, since we do first in ourselves. We respect ourselves more if we have succeeded. Neither do we grudge to each of these benefactors the praise or the profit which accrues from his industry.
Here are already quite different degrees of moral merit in these examples. I dont know but we and our race elsewhere set a higher value on wealth, victory and coarse superiority of all kinds, than other men,have less tranquillity of mind, are less easily contented. The Saxon is taught from his infancy to wish to be first. The Norseman was a restless rider, fighter, free-booter. The ancient Norse ballads describe him as afflicted with this inextinguishable thirst of victory. The mother says to her son:
These feats that we extol do not signify so much as we say. These boasted arts are of very recent origin. They are local conveniences, but do not really add to our stature. The greatest men of the world have managed not to want them. Newton was a great man, without telegraph, or gas, or steam-coach, or rubber shoes, or lucifer-matches, or ether for his pain; so was Shakspeare and Alfred and Scipio and Socrates. These are local conveniences, but how easy to go now to parts of the world where not only all these arts are wanting, but where they are despised. The Arabian sheiks, the most dignified people in the planet, do not want them; yet have as much self-respect as the English, and are easily able to impress the Frenchman or the American who visits them with the respect due to a brave and sufficient man.
These feats have to be sure great difference of merit, and some of them involve power of a high kind. But the public values the invention more than the inventor does. The inventor knows there is much more and better where this came from. The public sees in it a lucrative secret. Men see the reward which the inventor enjoys, and they think, How shall we win that? Cause and effect are a little tedious; how to leap to the result by short or by false means? We are not scrupulous. What we ask is victory, without regard to the cause; after the Rob Roy rule, after the Napoleon rule, to be the strongest to-day,the way of the Talleyrands, prudent people, whose watches go faster than their neighbors, and who detect the first moment of decline and throw themselves on the instant on the winning side. I have heard that Nelson used to say, Never mind the justice or the impudence, only let me succeed. Lord Broughams single duty of counsel is, to get the prisoner clear. Fuller says t is a maxim of lawyers that a crown once worn cleareth all defects of the wearer thereof. Rien ne réussit mieux que le succès. And we Americans are tainted with this insanity, as our bankruptcies and our reckless politics may show. We are great by exclusion, grasping and egotism. Our success takes from all what it gives to one. T is a haggard, malignant, careworn running for luck.6
Egotism is a kind of buckram that gives momentary strength and concentration to men, and seems to be much used in Nature for fabrics in which local and spasmodic energy is required. I could point to men in this country, of indispensable importance to the carrying on of American life, of this humor, whom we could ill spare; any one of them would be a national loss. But it spoils conversation. They will not try conclusions with you. They are ever thrusting this pampered self between you and them.7 It is plain they have a long education to undergo to reach simplicity and plain-dealing, which are what a wise man mainly cares for in his companion. Nature knows how to convert evil to good; Nature utilizes misers, fanatics, show-men, egotists, to accomplish her ends; but we must not think better of the foible for that. The passion for sudden success is rude and puerile, just as war, cannons and executions are used to clear the ground of bad, lumpish, irreclaimable savages, but always to the damage of the conquerors.
I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables, to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology, or skill without study, or mastery without apprenticeship, or the sale of goods through pretending that they sell, or power through making believe you are powerful, or through a packed jury or caucus, bribery and repeating votes, or wealth by fraud. They think they have got it, but they have got something else,a crime which calls for another crime, and another devil behind that; these are steps to suicide, infamy and the harming of mankind. We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing, advertisement and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.
There was a wise man, an Italian artist, Michel Angelo, who writes thus of himself: Meanwhile the Cardinal Ippolito, in whom all my best hopes were placed, being dead, I began to understand that the promises of this world are for the most part vain phantoms, and that to confide in ones self, and become something of worth and value, is the best and safest course. Now, though I am by no means sure that the reader will assent to all my propositions, yet I think we shall agree in my first rule for success,that we shall drop the brag and the advertisement, and take Michel Angelos course, to confide in ones self, and be something of worth and value.
Each man has an aptitude born with him. Do your work. I have to say this often, but Nature says it oftener. T is clownish to insist on doing all with ones own hands, as if every man should build his own clumsy house, forge his hammer, and bake his dough; but he is to dare to do what he can do best; not help others as they would direct him, but as he knows his helpful power to be. To do otherwise is to neutralize all those extraordinary special talents distributed among men. Yet whilst this self-truth is essential to the exhibition of the world and to the growth and glory of each mind, it is rare to find a man who believes his own thought or who speaks that which he was created to say.8 As nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing, so nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own. Any work looks wonderful to him, except that which he can do. We do not believe our own thought; we must serve somebody; we must quote somebody; we dote on the old and the distant; we are tickled by great names; we import the religion of other nations; we quote their opinions; we cite their laws. The gravest and learnedest courts in this country shudder to face a new question, and will wait months and years for a case to occur that can be tortured into a precedent, and thus throw on a bolder party the onus of an initiative. Thus we do not carry a counsel in our breasts, or do not know it; and because we cannot shake off from our shoes this dust of Europe and Asia, the world seems to be born old, society is under a spell, every man is a borrower and a mimic, life is theatrical and literature a quotation; and hence that depression of spirits, that furrow of care, said to mark every American brow.9
Self-trust is the first secret of success, the belief that if you are here the authorities of the universe put you here, and for cause, or with some task strictly appointed you in your constitution, and so long as you work at that you are well and successful. It by no means consists in rushing prematurely to a showy feat that shall catch the eye and satisfy spectators. It is enough if you work in the right direction. So far from the performance being the real success, it is clear that the success was much earlier than that, namely, when all the feats that make our civility were the thoughts of good heads.10 The fame of each discovery rightly attaches to the mind that made the formula which contains all the details, and not to the manufacturers who now make their gain by it; although the mob uniformly cheers the publisher, and not the inventor. It is the dulness of the multitude that they cannot see the house in the ground-plan; the working, in the model of the projector. Whilst it is a thought, though it were a new fuel, or a new food, or the creation of agriculture, it is cried down, it is a chimera; but when it is a fact, and comes in the shape of eight per cent., ten per cent., a hundred per cent., they cry, It is the voice of God.11 Horatio Greenough the sculptor said to me of Robert Fultons visit to Paris: Fulton knocked at the door of Napoleon with steam, and was rejected; and Napoleon lived long enough to know that he had excluded a greater power than his own.
Is there no loving of knowledge, and of art, and of our design, for itself alone? Cannot we please ourselves with performing our work, or gaining truth and power, without being praised for it? I gain my point, I gain all points, if I can reach my companion with any statement which teaches him his own worth. The sum of wisdom is, that the time is never lost that is devoted to work. The good workman never says, There, that will do; but, There, that is it: try it, and come again, it will last always. If the artist, in whatever art, is well at work on his own design, it signifies little that he does not yet find orders or customers. I pronounce that young man happy who is content with having acquired the skill which he had aimed at, and waits willingly when the occasion of making it appreciated shall arrive, knowing well that it will not loiter. The time your rival spends in dressing up his work for effect, hastily, and for the market, you spend in study and experiments towards real knowledge and efficiency. He has thereby sold his picture or machine, or won the prize, or got the appointment; but you have raised yourself into a higher school of art, and a few years will show the advantage of the real master over the short popularity of the showman. I know it is a nice point to discriminate this self-trust, which is the pledge of all mental vigor and performance, from the disease to which it is allied,the exaggeration of the part which we can play;yet they are two things. But it is sanity to know that, over my talent or knack, and a million times better than any talent, is the central intelligence which subordinates and uses all talents; and it is only as a door into this, that any talent or the knowledge it gives is of value. He only who comes into this central intelligence, in which no egotism or exaggeration can be, comes into self-possession.
My next point is that in the scale of powers it is not talent but sensibility which is best: talent confines, but the central life puts us in relation to all. How often it seems the chief good to be born with a cheerful temper and well adjusted to the tone of the human race. Such a man feels himself in harmony, and conscious by his receptivity of an infinite strength. Like Alfred, good fortune accompanies him like a gift of God.12 Feel yourself, and be not daunted by things. T is the fulness of man that runs over into objects, and makes his Bibles and Shakspeares and Homers so great. The joyful reader borrows of his own ideas to fill their faulty outline, and knows not that he borrows and gives.13
There is something of poverty in our criticism. We assume that there are few great men, all the rest are little; that there is but one Homer, but one Shakspeare, one Newton, one Socrates. But the soul in her beaming hour does not acknowledge these usurpations. We should know how to praise Socrates, or Plato, or Saint John, without impoverishing us. In good hours we do not find Shakspeare or Homer over-great, only to have been translators of the happy present, and every man and woman divine possibilities. T is the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss, in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear.14
The light by which we see in this world comes out from the soul of the observer. Wherever any noble sentiment dwelt, it made the faces and houses around to shine. Nay, the powers of this busy brain are miraculous and illimitable. Therein are the rules and formulas by which the whole empire of matter is worked. There is no prosperity, trade, art, city, or great material wealth of any kind, but if you trace it home, you will find it rooted in a thought of some individual man.
Is all life a surface affair? T is curious, but our difference of wit appears to be only a difference of impressionability, or power to appreciate faint, fainter and infinitely faintest voices and visions.15 When the scholar or the writer has pumped his brain for thoughts and verses, and then comes abroad into Nature, has he never found that there is a better poetry hinted in a boys whistle of a tune, or in the piping of a sparrow, than in all his literary results? We call it health. What is so admirable as the health of youth?with his long days because his eyes are good, and brisk circulations keep him warm in cold rooms, and he loves books that speak to the imagination; and he can read Plato, covered to his chin with a cloak in a cold upper chamber, though he should associate the Dialogues ever after with a woollen smell.16 T is the bane of life that natural effects are continually crowded out, and artificial arrangements substituted. We remember when in early youth the earth spoke and the heavens glowed; when an evening, any evening, grim and wintry, sleet and snow, was enough for us; the houses were in the air. Now it costs a rare combination of clouds and lights to overcome the common and mean. What is it we look for in the landscape, in sunsets and sunrises, in the sea and the firmament? what but a compensation for the cramp and pettiness of human performances?17 We bask in the day, and the mind finds somewhat as great as itself. In Nature all is large massive repose. Remember what befalls a city boy who goes for the first time into the October woods. He is suddenly initiated into a pomp and glory that brings to pass for him the dreams of romance. He is the king he dreamed he was; he walks through tents of gold, through bowers of crimson, porphyry and topaz, pavilion on pavilion, garlanded with vines, flowers and sunbeams, with incense and music, with so many hints to his astonished senses; the leaves twinkle and pique and flatter him, and his eye and step are tempted on by what hazy distances to happier solitudes.18 All this happiness he owes only to his finer perception. The owner of the wood-lot finds only a number of discolored trees, and says, They ought to come down; they are nt growing any better; they should be cut and corded before spring.
Wordsworth writes of the delights of the boy in Nature:
For never will come back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.19
But I have just seen a man, well knowing what he spoke of, who told me that the verse was not true for him; that his eyes opened as he grew older, and that every spring was more beautiful to him than the last.
We live among gods of our own creation. Does that deep-toned bell, which has shortened many a night of ill nerves, render to you nothing but acoustic vibrations? Is the old church which gave you the first lessons of religious life, or the village school, or the college where you first knew the dreams of fancy and joys of thought, only boards or brick and mortar?20 Is the house in which you were born, or the house in which your dearest friend lived, only a piece of real estate whose value is covered by the Hartford insurance? You walk on the beach and enjoy the animation of the picture. Scoop up a little water in the hollow of your palm, take up a handful of shore sand; well, these are the elements. What is the beach but acres of sand? what is the ocean but cubic miles of water? a little more or less signifies nothing. No, it is that this brute matter is part of somewhat not brute. It is that the sand floor is held by spheral gravity, and bent to be a part of the round globe, under the optical sky,part of the astonishing astronomy, and existing at last to moral ends and from moral causes.21
The world is not made up to the eye of figures, that is, only half; it is also made of color. How that element washes the universe with its enchanting waves! The sculptor had ended his work, and behold a new world of dream-like glory. T is the last stroke of Nature; beyond color she cannot go.22 In like manner, life is made up, not of knowledge only, but of love also. If thought is form, sentiment is color. It clothes the skeleton world with space, variety and glow. The hues of sunset make life great; so the affections make some little web of cottage and fireside populous, important, and filling the main space in our history.
The fundamental fact in our metaphysic constitution is the correspondence of man to the world, so that every change in that writes a record in the mind.23 The mind yields sympathetically to the tendencies or law which stream through things and make the order of Nature; and in the perfection of this correspondence or expressiveness, the health and force of man consist. If we follow this hint into our intellectual education, we shall find that it is not propositions, not new dogmas and a logical exposition of the world that are our first need; but to watch and tenderly cherish the intellectual and moral sensibilities, those fountains of right thought, and woo them to stay and make their home with us. Whilst they abide with us we shall not think amiss. Our perception far outruns our talent. We bring a welcome to the highest lessons of religion and of poetry out of all proportion beyond our skill to teach. And, further, the great hearing and sympathy of men is more true and wise than their speaking is wont to be. A deep sympathy is what we require for any student of the mind; for the chief difference between man and man is a difference of impressionability. Aristotle or Bacon or Kant propound some maxim which is the key-note of philosophy thenceforward. But I am more interested to know that when at last they have hurled out their grand word, it is only some familiar experience of every man in the street. If it be not, it will never be heard of again.24
Ah! if one could keep this sensibility, and live in the happy sufficing present, and find the day and its cheap means contenting, which only ask receptivity in you, and no strained exertion and cankering ambition, overstimulating to be at the head of your class and the head of society, and to have distinction and laurels and consumption! We are not strong by our power to penetrate, but by our relatedness.25 The world is enlarged for us, not by new objects, but by finding more affinities and potencies in those we have.
This sensibility appears in the homage to beauty which exalts the faculties of youth; in the power which form and color exert upon the soul; when we see eyes that are a compliment to the human race, features that explain the Phidian sculpture. Fontenelle said: There are three things about which I have curiosity, though I know nothing of them,music, poetry and love. The great doctors of this science are the greatest men,Dante, Petrarch, Michel Angelo and Shakspeare. The wise Socrates treats this matter with a certain archness, yet with very marked expressions. I am always, he says, asserting that I happen to know, I may say, nothing but a mere trifle relating to matters of love; yet in that kind of learning I lay claim to being more skilled than any one man of the past or present time. They may well speak in this uncertain manner of their knowledge, and in this confident manner of their will, for the secret of it is hard to detect, so deep it is; and yet genius is measured by its skill in this science.26
Who is he in youth or in maturity or even in old age, who does not like to hear of those sensibilities which turn curled heads round at church, and send wonderful eye-beams across assemblies, from one to one, never missing in the thickest crowd? The keen statist reckons by tens and hundreds; the genial man is interested in every slipper that comes into the assembly. The passion, alike everywhere, creeps under the snows of Scandinavia, under the fires of the equator, and swims in the seas of Polynesia. Lofn is as puissant a divinity in the Norse Edda as Camadeva in the red vault of India, Eros in the Greek, or Cupid in the Latin heaven. And what is specially true of love is that it is a state of extreme impressionability; the lover has more senses and finer senses than others; his eye and ear are telegraphs; he reads omens on the flower, and cloud, and face, and form, and gesture, and reads them aright. In his surprise at the sudden and entire understanding that is between him and the beloved person, it occurs to him that they might somehow meet independently of time and place. How delicious the belief that he could elude all guards, precautions, ceremonies, means and delays, and hold instant and sempiternal communication! In solitude, in banishment, the hope returned, and the experiment was eagerly tried. The supernal powers seem to take his part. What was on his lips to say is uttered by his friend. When he went abroad, he met, by wonderful casualties, the one person he sought.27 If in his walk he chanced to look back, his friend was walking behind him. And it has happened that the artist has often drawn in his pictures the face of the future wife whom he had not yet seen.
But also in complacencies nowise so strict as this of the passion, the man of sensibility counts it a delight only to hear a childs voice fully addressed to him, or to see the beautiful manners of the youth of either sex. When the event is past and remote, how insignificant the greatest compared with the piquancy of the present! To-day at the school examination the professor interrogates Sylvina in the history class about Odoacer and Alaric. Sylvina cant remember, but suggests that Odoacer was defeated; and the professor tartly replies, No, he defeated the Romans. But t is plain to the visitor that t is of no importance at all about Odoacer and t is a great deal of importance about Sylvina, and if she says he was defeated, why he had better a great deal have been defeated than give her a moments annoy. Odoacer, if there was a particle of the gentleman in him, would have said, Let me be defeated a thousand times.28
And as our tenderness for youth and beauty gives a new and just importance to their fresh and manifold claims, so the like sensibility gives welcome to all excellence, has eyes and hospitality for merit in corners. An Englishman of marked character and talent, who had brought with him hither one or two friends and a library of mystics, assured me that nobody and nothing of possible interest was left in England,he had brought all that was alive away. I was forced to reply: No, next door to you probably, on the other side of the partition in the same house, was a greater man than any you had seen.29 Every man has a history worth knowing, if he could tell it, or if we could draw it from him. Character and wit have their own magnetism. Send a deep man into any town, and he will find another deep man there, unknown hitherto to his neighbors. That is the great happiness of life,to add to our high acquaintances. The very law of averages might have assured you that there will be in every hundred heads, say ten or five good heads. Morals are generated as the atmosphere is. T is a secret, the genesis of either; but the springs of justice and courage do not fail any more than salt or sulphur springs.
The world is always opulent,30 the oracles are never silent; but the receiver must by a happy temperance be brought to that top of condition, that frolic health, that he can easily take and give these fine communications. Health is the condition of wisdom, and the sign is cheerfulness,an open and noble temper. There was never poet who had not the heart in the right place. The old trouveur, Pons Capdueil,31 wrote,
All beauty warms the heart, is a sign of health, prosperity and the favor of God. Everything lasting and fit for men the Divine Power has marked with this stamp. What delights, what emancipates, not what scars and pains us, is wise and good in speech and in the arts.32 For, truly, the heart at the centre of the universe with every throb hurls the flood of happiness into every artery, vein and veinlet, so that the whole system is inundated with the tides of joy. The plenty of the poorest place is too great: the harvest cannot be gathered. Every sound ends in music. The edge of every surface is tinged with prismatic rays.
One more trait of true success. The good mind chooses what is positive, what is advancing,embraces the affirmative. Our system is one of poverty. T is presumed, as I said, there is but one Shakspeare, one Homer, one Jesus,not that all are or shall be inspired. But we must begin by affirming. Truth and goodness subsist forevermore. It is true there is evil and good, night and day: but these are not equal. The day is great and final. The night is for the day, but the day is not for the night. What is this immortal demand for more, which belongs to our constitution? this enormous ideal? There is no such critic and beggar as this terrible Soul. No historical person begins to content us. We know the satisfactoriness of justice, the sufficiency of truth.33 We know the answer that leaves nothing to ask. We know the Spirit by its victorious tone. The searching tests to apply to every new pretender are amount and quality,what does he add? and what is the state of mind he leaves me in? Your theory is unimportant; but what new stock you can add to humanity, or how high you can carry life?34 A man is a man only as he makes life and nature happier to us.
I fear the popular notion of success stands in direct opposition in all points to the real and wholesome success. One adores public opinion, the other private opinion;35 one fame, the other desert; one feats, the other humility; one lucre, the other love; one monopoly, and the other hospitality of mind.
We may apply this affirmative law to letters, to manners, to art, to the decorations of our houses, etc. I do not find executions or tortures or lazar-houses, or grisly photographs of the field on the day after the battle, fit subjects for cabinet pictures. I think that some so-called sacred subjects must be treated with more genius than I have seen in the masters of Italian or Spanish art to be right pictures for houses and churches.36 Nature does not invite such exhibition. Nature lays the ground-plan of each creature accurately, sternly fit for all his functions; then veils it scrupulously. See how carefully she covers up the skeleton. The eye shall not see it; the sun shall not shine on it. She weaves her tissues and integuments of flesh and skin and hair and beautiful colors of the day over it, and forces death down underground, and makes haste to cover it up with leaves and vines, and wipes carefully out every trace by new creation. Who and what are you that would lay the ghastly anatomy bare?
Dont hang a dismal picture on the wall, and do not daub with sables and glooms in your conversation. Dont be a cynic and disconsolate preacher. Dont bewail and bemoan. Omit the negative propositions. Nerve us with incessant affirmatives. Dont waste yourself in rejection,37 nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good. When that is spoken which has a right to be spoken, the chatter and the criticism will stop. Set down nothing that will not help somebody;
The affirmative of affirmatives is love. As much love, so much perception. As caloric to matter, so is love to mind; so it enlarges, and so it empowers it. Good will makes insight, as one finds his way to the sea by embarking on a river. I have seen scores of people who can silence me, but I seek one who shall make me forget or overcome the frigidities and imbecilities into which I fall. The painter Giotto, Vasari tells us, renewed art because he put more goodness into his heads. To awake in man and to raise the sense of worth, to educate his feeling and judgment so that he shall scorn himself for a bad action, that is the only aim.
T is cheap and easy to destroy. There is not a joyful boy or an innocent girl buoyant with fine purposes of duty, in all the street full of eager and rosy faces, but a cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word. Despondency comes readily enough to the most sanguine. The cynic has only to follow their hint with his bitter confirmation, and they check that eager courageous pace and go home with heavier step and premature age. They will themselves quickly enough give the hint he wants to the cold wretch. Which of them has not failed to please where they most wished it? or blundered where they were most ambitious of success? or found themselves awkward or tedious or incapable of study, thought or heroism, and only hoped by good sense and fidelity to do what they could and pass unblamed? And this witty malefactor makes their little hope less with satire and skepticism, and slackens the springs of endeavor. Yes, this is easy; but to help the young soul, add energy, inspire hope and blow the coals into a useful flame; to redeem defeat by new thought, by firm action, that is not easy, that is the work of divine men.39
We live on different planes or platforms. There is an external life, which is educated at school, taught to read, write, cipher and trade; taught to grasp all the boy can get, urging him to put himself forward, to make himself useful and agreeable in the world, to ride, run, argue and contend, unfold his talents, shine, conquer and possess.
But the inner life sits at home, and does not learn to do things, nor value these feats at all. T is a quiet, wise perception. It loves truth, because it is itself real; it loves right, it knows nothing else; but it makes no progress; was as wise in our first memory of it as now; is just the same now in maturity and hereafter in age, it was in youth. We have grown to manhood and womanhood; we have powers, connection, children, reputations, professions: this makes no account of them all. It lives in the great present; it makes the present great. This tranquil, well-founded, wide-seeing soul is no express-rider, no attorney, no magistrate: it lies in the sun and broods on the world. A person of this temper once said to a man of much activity, I will pardon you that you do so much, and you me that I do nothing. And Euripides says that Zeus hates busybodies and those who do too much.40
Note 1. In the autumn of 1833, when he had laid aside, with his gown, the profession for which he was bred, and at the age of thirty was facing an unknown future as a scholar and public speaker, Mr. Emerson wrote in his diary: Were it not heroic venture in me to insist on being a popular speaker and run full tilt against the Fortune who, with such beautiful consistency, shows evermore her back? Charless naïf censure last night provoked me to show him a fact apparently entirely new to him, that my entire success, such as it is, is composed wholly of particular failures, every public work of mine of the least importance having been, probably without exception, noted at the time as a failure. The only success (agreeably to common ideas) has been in the country, and there founded on the false notion that here was a Boston preacher. I will take Mrs. Barbaulds line for my motto [of a brook],
And the more falls I get, move faster on.
In one of the earlier journals Mr. Emerson wrote of Osman, by which name he there called his ideal man: I will add to the portrait of Osman that he was never interrupted by success. He had never to look after his fame and his compliments, his claps and editions. In the middle of December, 1858, Mr. Emerson lectured on Success at Hartford, and in March, 1859, opened his course at the Freeman Place Chapel in Boston with The Law of Success. These lectures were, without doubt, essentially the same as the present essay. [back]
Note 2. It was known that Giotto had visited a fellow artist by the circle that he drew, as a visiting-card. Strassburg Cathedral bears witness to the mastery of Erwin of Steinbach. The feat of Olaf Trygvesson is told by Longfellow in his version of the Saga of King Olaf, in the Tales of a Wayside Inn. Ojeda was a Spanish cavalier who sailed with Columbus, and later with Vespucci. To Bernini St. Peters church in Rome owes its colonnade and the bronze canopy over the tomb of the Saint. [back]
Note 3. With Mr. Emersons love for the heavenly bodies, in their splendor, their majestic courses, and more for what these signified, it is safe to believe that he attributes to the words of Columbus a higher and oracular sense. [back]
Note 4. It is obvious that the writer of Uncle Toms Cabin, Mrs. Stowe, is referred to in this passage, and Jenny Lind, whose beautiful singing had a few years earlier delighted the people of two continents. Margaret Fuller had, for her sympathy and zeal in the cause of the Italian patriots, been put in charge of a hospital at Rome a few years before this essay was written, and before its publication the Civil War had called many devoted women to the military hospitals and to the schools for the newly freed negroes. [back]
Note 5. This verse, which Mr. Emerson liked to repeat to his children, and which serves for the motto of one of his journals, came from the rude but interesting Danish ballad translated by George Borrow. It describes the Berserker madness of the hero from whom it takes its name. [back]
Note 6. This passage from the journal of 1859 gives the offset to the lower view: Power even is not known to the pure. Power indicates weakness and opposition. Health exists and unfolds in the rose, in the sea, in the circular and endless astronomy. The electricity is not less present in my body and my joy, for twenty years, that I never saw or suspected it, than in the twenty-first, when I drew by art a spark from my knuckle. [back]
Note 7. Of the monotones, both of the aggressive reform and mystic type, Mr. Emerson had all too much experience, yet was always good-natured to them. The remark of his friend Mr. Channing on the conversation of one of the latter type amused him,Biographie universelle de moi-même. [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson had the strength and the skill to save himself for his own large mission in spite of the importunities that beset him to engage in causes, and yet kept the respect and good will of their advocates, and often helped bravely, but as a volunteer. [back]
Note 9. Henry James, Jr., in one of his novels speaks of the over-modelled American face. [back]
Note 11. Commerce is an apt illustration of the intellectual quality of the process of creating values, as much as is inventing, planting or manufacturing.From a sheet of the lecture. [back]
Note 12. The sentence about Alfred is followed in the lecture by this comment: Good fortune is another name for perception and good will. [back]
Note 13. Many an author, especially among Mr. Emersons friends, was a gainer by imputed righteousness, to borrow the phrase from the Church. His good will and his teeming mind sometimes read values into their work. Lecture sheets: Then for sensibility, I must add, that the great happiness of some of the best moments of life has been the enjoyment of books and works of art and science. And as Marcus Antoninus said, What matters it who found the truth, whether thyself or another, and where had been thy own intellect, if greater had not lived? And, though I hate to be in any manner wanting to the claims of stern and manly Intellect, I must say, that the delight in the superior powers of others is one of the best gifts of God. [back]
Note 14. Journal. What s a book? Everything or nothing. The eye that sees it is all. What is the heavens majestical roof fretted with golden fire to one man, but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors? Well, a book is to a paddy a fair page smutted over with black marks; to a boy, a goodly collection of words he can read; to a half-wise man, it is a lesson which he wholly accepts or wholly rejects; but a sage shall see in it secrets yet unrevealed; shall weigh, as he reads, the authors mind; shall see the predominance of ideas which the writer could not extricate himself from, and oversee. The Belfast Town and Country Almanack may be read by a sage; and wasteful as it would be in me to read Anti-Masonic or Jackson papers, yet whoso pierces through them to the deep Idea they embody, may well read them. [back]
Note 15. The motto of Culture, printed in the Poems, is on this theme. [back]
Note 20. Concord, 11 October, 1839. At Waltham, last Sunday, on the hill near the old meeting-house, I heard music so soft that I fancied it was a piano-forte in some neighboring farm-house; but on listening more attentively I found it was the church-bells in Boston, nine miles distant, which were playing for me this soft tune. [back]
Note 23. In the autumn of 1834, immediately after his return from Europe, Mr. Emerson began his new life as a lecturer by giving two lectures before the Society of Natural History in Boston. In the Introductory Lecture he urged the fitness for men of the study of Nature, and the second lecture was On the Relation of Man to the Globe, calling attention to the relation of use, but also to the relation of beauty. [back]
Note 28. Mr. Sanborn engaged a learned German, Dr. Solger, to give a course of lectures on History at his private school, and Mr. Emerson, with other residents of Concord, attended them. This incident appears to have been the fruit that he carried away from the course. [back]
Note 29. Mr. Charles Lane is here spoken of, one of the English gentlemen who returned with Mr. Alcott from England in 1844, bent upon trying in New England the experiment of a loftier and simpler method of living. The short-lived Fruitlands Community was the result. [back]
Note 30. This paragraph in the lecture began, The only Muse I know of is health, which is the timing, symmetry and coördination of all the faculties so that the nimble senses catch reports from things which in ordinary hours they do not render. [back]
Note 31. Pons Capdueil, a Provençal gentleman in the twelfth century, skilled in all the accomplishments of a knight and minstrel. [back]
Note 32. Couture, the eminent French painter, of the last generation, wrote, You, painter, you are born to make men love and understand Earths beauties, and not to startle us . Dare to be yourselfthere is light . Soften your heart. Before all things be humble. [back]
Note 33. This page on what is positive and abiding, from an old lecture, seems here appropriate: We find stability central amidst all this dismaying whirl. Life looks so petty and frivolous around us, men so rude and incapable, victims of vanity, victims of appetite, scorners and corrupters of each other, and nothing so high and sacred but you shall find mobs of ferocious and ignorant men ready to tear and trample it down for some paltry bribe, were it only a bottle of brandy; and their leaders, for a bribe only a little less paltry, hounding them on. We see the historic culture of the most enlightened populations threatened by barbaric masses. We see empires subverted and the historic progress of civilization threatened. We see religious systems on which nations have been reared, pass away. The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next. Judaism, Stoicisim, Mahometism, Buddhism, all discredited and ending. Nay, the venerable and beautiful traditions of Christianity, in which we were educated, losing their hold on human belief, day by day; but central in the whirl a faith abides, which does not pass, a central doctrine which Judaism, Stoicism, Mahometism, Buddhism, Christianity, all teach. [back]
Note 34. The test here mentioned, namely, the state of mind in which the new prophet or revelation leaves you, Mr. Emerson mentions in connection with so-called Spiritualism in the essay on Demonology in Lectures and Biographical Sketches. In the lecture Success the following anecdote was at this point introduced: When Campbell heard Joseph Gerald defend himself in the court in Edinburgh, he said to the stranger next him, By Heaven, sir, that is a great man! Yes, sir, he answered, he is not only a great man himself, but he makes every other man feel great who listens to him. [back]
Note 35. Mr. Emerson notes, in his journal, of Socrates, that he was more afraid of himself than of the people of Athens. At the end of this paragraph in the lecture Success followed this sentence: I value a mans trust in his fortune, when it is a hearing of voices that call him to his task. When he is conscious of a work laid on him to do, and that Nature cannot afford to lose him until it is done. [back]
Note 36. In the lecture Mr. Emerson wrote the picture of the crucifixion instead of some sacred subjects, and at the end of the sentence he added: and so dead Romeos, and smothered princes; Nature does not so. Nature lays the ground-plan, etc. [back]
Note 37. Like Byron, which stood in the lecture, is here omitted. [back]
Note 38. Wordsworth, Poems dedicated to National Independence. [back]
Note 39. From the Manuscripts: Be an opener of doors to those who come after you, and dont try to make the Universe a blind alley. [back]
Note 40. This passage is a fragment from the lost tragedy Philoctetes of Euripides. [back]