Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
BUT for ye speken of such gentillesse
As is descended out of old richesse,
That therfore shullen ye be gentilmen,
Such arrogance n is not worth a hen.
Look who that is most virtuous alway,
Prive and apert, and most entendeth aye
To do the gentil dedés that he can,
And take him for the greatest gentilman.
Take fire and beare it into the derkest hous
Betwixt this and the mount of Caucasus
And let men shut the dorés, and go thenne,
Yet wol the fire as faire lie and brenne
As twenty thousand men might it behold;
His office natural ay wol it hold,
Up peril of my lif, til that it die.
Here may ye see wel, how that genterie
Is not annexed to possession,
Sith folk ne don their operation
Alway, as doth the fire, lo, in his kind,
For God it wot, men may full often find
A lordes son do shame and vilanie.
And he that wol have prize of his genterie,
For he was boren of a gentil house,
And had his elders noble and virtuous,
And n ill hinselven do no gentil dedes,
Ne folwe his gentil auncestrie, that dead is,
He n is not gentil, be he duke or erl;
For vilaines sinful dedés make a churl.
Than cometh our very gentillesse of grace,
It was no thing bequethed us with our place.
CHAUCER, The Knightes Tale.
THERE1 is an attractive topic, which never goes out of vogue and is impertinent in no community,the permanent traits of the Aristocracy. It is an interest of the human race, and, as I look at it, inevitable, sacred and to be found in every country and in every company of men. My concern with it is that concern which all well-disposed persons will feel, that there should be model men,true instead of spurious pictures of excellence, and, if possible, living standards.
I observe that the word gentleman is gladly heard in all companies; that the cogent motive with the best young men who are revolving plans and forming resolutions for the future, is the spirit of honor, the wish to be gentlemen. They do not yet covet political power, nor any exuberance of wealth, wealth that costs too much; nor do they wish to be saints; for fear of partialism; but the middle term, the reconciling element, the success of the manly character, they find in the idea of gentleman. It is not to be a man of rank, but a man of honor, accomplished in all arts and generosities, which seems to them the right mark and the true chief of our modern society. A reference to society is part of the idea of culture; science of a gentleman; art of a gentleman; poetry in a gentleman: intellectually held, that is, for their own sake, for what they are; for their universal beauty and worth;not for economy, which degrades them, but not over-intellectually, that is, not to ecstasy, entrancing the man, but redounding to his beauty and glory.
In the sketches which I have to offer I shall not be surprised if my readers should fancy that I am giving them, under a gayer title, a chapter on Education. It will not pain me if I am found now and then to rove from the accepted and historic, to a theoretic peerage; or if it should turn out, what is true, that I am describing a real aristocracy, a chapter of Templars who sit indifferently in all climates and under the shadow of all institutions, but so few, so heedless of badges, so rarely convened, so little in sympathy with the predominant politics of nations, that their names and doings are not recorded in any Book of Peerage, or any Court Journal, or even Daily Newspaper of the world.
I find the caste in the man. The Golden Book of Venice, the scale of European chivalry, the Barons of England, the hierarchy of India with its impassable degrees, is each a transcript of the decigrade or centigraded Man. A many-chambered Aristocracy lies already organized in his moods and faculties. Room is found for all the departments of the state in the moods and faculties of each human spirit, with separate function and difference of dignity.
The terrible aristocracy that is in Nature. Real people dwelling with the real, face to face, undaunted: then, far down, people of taste, people dwelling in a relation, or rumor, or influence of good and fair, entertained by it, superficially touched, yet charmed by these shadows:and, far below these, gross and thoughtless, the animal man, billows of chaos, down to the dancing and menial organizations.
I observe the inextinguishable prejudice men have in favor of a hereditary transmission of qualities. It is in vain to remind them that Nature appears capricious. Some qualities she carefully fixes and transmits, but some, and those the finer, she exhales with the breath of the individual, as too costly to perpetuate. But I notice also that they may become fixed and permanent in any stock, by painting and repainting them on every individual, until at last Nature adopts them and bakes them into her porcelain.
At all events I take this inextinguishable persuasion in mens minds as a hint from the outward universe to man to inlay as many virtues and superiorities as he can into this swift fresco of the day, which is hardening to an immortal picture.2
If one thinks of the interest which all men have in beauty of character and manners; that it is of the last importance to the imagination and affection, inspiring as it does that loyalty and worship so essential to the finish of character,certainly, if culture, if laws, if primogeniture, if heraldry, if money could secure such a result as superior and finished men, it would be the interest of all mankind to see that the steps were taken, the pains incurred. No taxation, no concession, no conferring of privileges never so exalted would be a price too large.
The old French Revolution attracted to its first movement all the liberality, virtue, hope and poetry in Europe. By the abolition of kingship and aristocracy, tyranny, inequality and poverty would end. Alas! no; tyranny, inequality, poverty, stood as fast and fierce as ever. We likewise put faith in Democracy; in the Republican principle carried out to the extremes of practice in universal suffrage, in the will of majorities. The young adventurer finds that the relations of society, the position of classes, irk and sting him, and he lends himself to each malignant party that assails what is eminent. He will one day know that this is not removable, but a distinction in the nature of things; that neither the caucus, nor the newspaper, nor the Congress, nor the mob, nor the guillotine, nor fire, nor all together, can avail to outlaw, cut out, burn or destroy the offence of superiority in persons. The manners, the pretension, which annoy me so much, are not superficial, but built on a real distinction in the nature of my companion. The superiority in him is inferiority in me, and if this particular companion were wiped by a sponge out of Nature, my inferiority would still be made evident to me by other persons everywhere and every day.
No, not the hardest utilitarian will question the value of an aristocracy if he love himself. For every man confesses that the highest good which the universe proposes to him is the highest society. If a few grand natures should come to us and weave duties and offices between us and them, it would make our bread ambrosial.
I affirm that inequalities exist, not in costume, but in the powers of expression and action; a primitive aristocracy; and that we, certainly, have not come here to describe well-dressed vulgarity. I cannot tell how English titles are bestowed, whether on pure blood, or on the largest holder in the three-per-cents. The English government and people, or the French government may easily make mistakes; but Nature makes none. Every mark and scutcheon of hers indicates constitutional qualities. In science, in trade, in social discourse, as in the state, it is the same thing. Forever and ever it takes a pound to lift a pound.3
It is plain that all the deference of modern society to this idea of the Gentleman, and all the whimsical tyranny of Fashion which has continued to engraft itself on this reverence, is a secret homage to reality and love which ought to reside in every man. This is the steel that is hid under gauze and lace, under flowers and spangles. And it is plain that instead of this idolatry, a worship; instead of this impure, a pure reverence for character, a new respect for the sacredness of the individual man, is that antidote which must correct in our country the disgraceful deference to public opinion, and the insane subordination of the end to the means. From the folly of too much association we must come back to the repose of self-reverence and trust.
The game of the world is a perpetual trial of strength between man and events. The common man is the victim of events. Whatever happens is too much for him, he is drawn this way and that way, and his whole life is a hurry. The superior man is at home in his own mind. We like cool people, who neither hope nor fear too much, but seem to have many strings to their bow, and can survive the blow well enough if stock should rise or fall, if parties should be broken up, if their money or their family should be dispersed; who can stand a slander very well; indeed on whom events make little or no impression, and who can face death with firmness. In short, we dislike every mark of a superficial life and action, and prize whatever mark of a central life.4
What is the meaning of this invincible respect for war, here in the triumphs of our commercial civilization, that we can never quite smother the trumpet and the drum? How is it that the sword runs away with all the fame from the spade and the wheel? How sturdy seem to us in the history, those Merovingians, Guelphs, Dorias, Sforzas, Burgundies and Guesclins of the old warlike ages! We can hardly believe they were all such speedy shadows as we; that an ague or fever, a drop of water or a crystal of ice ended them. We give soldiers the same advantage to-day. From the most accumulated culture we are always running back to the sound of any drum and fife. And in any trade, or in law-courts, in orchard and farm, and even in saloons, they only prosper or they prosper best who have a military mind, who engineer in sword and cannon style, with energy and sharpness. Why, but because courage never loses its high price? Why, but because we wish to see those to whom existence is most adorned and attractive, foremost to peril it for their object, and ready to answer for their actions with their life.5
The existence of an upper class is not injurious, as long as it is dependent on merit. For so long it is provocation to the bold and generous. These distinctions exist, and they are deep, not to be talked or voted away. If the differences are organic, so are the merits, that is to say the power and excellence we describe are real. Aristocracy is the class eminent by personal qualities, and to them belongs without assertion a proper influence. Men of aim must lead the aimless; men of invention the uninventive. I wish catholic men, who by their science and skill are at home in every latitude and longitude, who carry the world in their thoughts; men of universal politics, who are interested in things in proportion to their truth and magnitude; who know the beauty of animals and the laws of their nature, whom the mystery of botany allures, and the mineral laws; who see general effects and are not too learned to love the Imagination, the power and the spirits of Solitude;men who see the dance in mens lives as well as in a ball-room, and can feel and convey the sense which is only collectively or totally expressed by a population;6 men who are charmed by the beautiful Nemesis as well as by the dire Nemesis, and dare trust their inspiration for their welcome; who would find their fellows in persons of real elevation of whatever kind of speculative or practical ability. We are fallen on times so acquiescent and traditionary that we are in danger of forgetting so simple a fact as that the basis of all aristocracy must be truth,the doing what elsewhere is pretended to be done. One would gladly see all our institutions rightly aristocratic in this wise.
1. A commanding talent. In every company one finds the best man; and if there be any question, it is decided the instant they enter into any practical enterprise. If the finders of glass, gunpowder, printing, electricity,if the healer of small-pox, the contriver of the safety-lamp, of the aqueduct, of the bridge, of the tunnel; if the finders of parallax, of new planets, of steam power for boat and carriage, the finder of sulphuric ether and the electric telegraph,if these men should keep their secrets, or only communicate them to each other, must not the whole race of mankind serve them as gods? It only needs to look at the social aspect of England and America and France, to see the rank which original practical talent commands.
Every survey of the dignified classes, in ancient or modern history, imprints universal lessons, and establishes a nobility of a prouder creation. And the conclusion which Roman Senators, Indian Brahmins, Persian Magians, European Nobles and great Americans inculcate,that which they preach out of their material wealth and glitter, out of their old war and modern land-owning, even out of sensuality and sneers, is, that the radical and essential distinctions of every aristocracy are moral. Do not hearken to the men, but to the Destiny in the institutions. An aristocracy is composed of simple and sincere men for whom Nature and ethics are strong enough, who say what they mean and go straight to their objects. It is essentially real.7
The multiplication of monarchs known by telegraph and daily news from all countries to the daily papers, and the effect of freer institutions in England and America, has robbed the title of king of all its romance, as that of our commercial consuls as compared with the ancient Roman. We shall come to add Kings in the Contents of the Directory, as we do Physicians, Brokers, etc. In simple communities, in the heroic ages, a man was chosen for his knack; got his name, rank and living for that; and the best of the best was the aristocrat or king. In the Norse Edda it appears as the curious but excellent policy of contending tribes, when tired of war, to exchange hostages, and in reality each to adopt from the other a first-rate man, who thus acquired a new country; was at once made a chief. And no wrong was so keenly resented as any fraud in this transaction. In the heroic ages, as we call them, the hero uniformly has some real talent. Ulysses in Homer is represented as a very skilful carpenter. He builds the boat with which he leaves Calypsos isle, and in his own palace carves a bedstead out of the trunk of a tree and inlays it with gold and ivory. Epeus builds the wooden horse. The English nation down to a late age inherited the reality of the Northern stock. In 1373, in writs of summons of members of Parliament, the sheriff of every county is to cause two dubbed knights, or the most worthy esquires, the most expert in feats of arms, and no others; and of every city, two citizens, and of every borough, two burgesses, such as have greatest skill in shipping and merchandising, to be returned.
The ancients were fond of ascribing to their nobles gigantic proportions and strength. The hero must have the force of ten men. The chief is taller by a head than any of his tribe. Douglas can throw the bar a greater cast. Richard can sever the iron bolt with his sword. The horn of Roland, in the romance, is heard sixty miles. The Cid has a prevailing health that will let him nurse the leper, and share his bed without harm.8 And since the body is the pipe through which we tap all the succors and virtues of the material world, it is certain that a sound body must be at the root of any excellence in manners and actions; a strong and supple frame which yields a stock of strength and spirits for all the needs of the day, and generates the habit of relying on a supply of power for all extraordinary exertions. When Nature goes to create a national man, she puts a symmetry between the physical and intellectual powers. She moulds a large brain, and joins to it a great trunk to supply it; as if a fine alembic were fed with liquor for its distillations from broad full vats in the vaults of the laboratory.
Certainly, the origin of most of the perversities and absurdities that disgust us is, primarily, the want of health. Genius is health and Beauty is health and Virtue is health. The petty arts which we blame in the half-great seem as odious to them also;the resources of weakness and despair. And the manners betray the like puny constitution. Temperament is fortune, and we must say it so often. In a thousand cups of life, only one is the right mixture,a fine adjustment to the existing elements.9 When that befalls, when the well-mixed man is born, with eyes not too dull nor too good, with fire enough and earth enough, capable of impressions from all things, and not too susceptible,then no gift need be bestowed on him, he brings with him fortune, followers, love, power.
Not the phrenologist but the philosopher may well say, Let me see his brain, and I will tell you if he shall be poet, king, founder of cities, rich, magnetic, of a secure hand, of a scientific memory, a right classifier; or whether he shall be a bungler, driveller, unlucky, heavy and tedious.
It were to dispute against the sun, to deny this difference of brain.11 I see well enough that when I bring one man into an estate, he sees vague capabilities, what others might, could, would or should do with it. If I bring another, he sees what he should do with it. He appreciates the water-privilege, land fit for orchard, tillage, pasturage, wood-lot, cranberry-meadow; but just as easily he foresees all the means, all the steps of the process, and could lay his hand as readily on one as on another point in that series which opens the capability to the last point. The poet sees wishfully enough the result; the well-built head supplies all the steps, one as perfect as the other, in the series. Seeing this working head in him, it becomes to me as certain that he will have the direction of estates, as that there are estates. If we see tools in a magazine, as a file, an anchor, a plough, a pump, a paint-brush, a cider-press, a diving-bell, we can predict well enough their destination; and the mans associations, fortunes, love, hatred, residence, rank, the books he will buy, the roads he will traverse are predetermined in is organism. Men will need him, and he is rich and eminent by nature. That man cannot be too late or too early.12 Let him not hurry or hesitate. Though millions are already arrived, his seat is reserved. Though millions attend, they only multiply his friends and agents. It never troubles the Senator what multitudes crack the benches and bend the galleries to hear. He who understands the art of war, reckons the hostile battalions and cities, opportunities and spoils.
An aristocracy could not exist unless it were organic. Men are born to command, andit is even socome into the world booted and spurred to ride.13 The blood royal never pays, we say. It obtains service, gifts, supplies, furtherance of all kinds from the love and joy of those who feel themselves honored by the service they render.
Dull people think it Fortune that makes one rich and another poor. Is it? Yes, but the fortune was earlier than they think, namely, in the balance or adjustment between devotion to what is agreeable to-day and the forecast of what will be valuable to-morrow.
Certainly I am not going to argue the merits of gradation in the universe; the existing order of more or less. Neither do I wish to go into a vindication of the justice that disposes the variety of lot. I know how steep the contrast of condition looks; such excess here and such destitution there; like entire chance, like the freaks of the wind, heaping the snow-drift in gorges, stripping the plain; such despotism of wealth and comfort in banquet-halls, whilst death is in the pots of the wretched,that it behooves a good man to walk with tenderness and heed amidst so much suffering.14 I only point in passing to the order of the universe, which makes a rotation,not like the coarse policy of the Greeks, ten generals, each commanding one day and then giving place to the next, or like our democratic politics, my turn now, your turn next,but the constitution of things has distributed a new quality or talent to each mind, and the revolution of things is always bringing the need, now of this, now of that, and is sure to bring home the opportunity to every one.
The only relief that I know against the invidiousness of superior position is, that you exert your faculty; for whilst each does that, he excludes hard thoughts from the spectator. All right activity is amiable. I never feel that any man occupies my place, but that the reason why I do not have what I wish, is, that I want the faculty which entitles. All spiritual or real power makes its own place.
We pass for what we are, and we prosper or fail by what we are. There are men who may dare much and will be justified in their daring. But it is because they know they are in their place. As long as I am in my place, I am safe. The best lightning-rod for your protection is your own spine.15 Let a mans social aims be proportioned to his means and power. I do not pity the misery of a man underplaced: that will right itself presently: but I pity the man overplaced. A certain quantity of power belongs to a certain quantity of faculty. Whoever wants more power than is the legitimate attraction of his faculty, is a politician, and must pay for that excess; must truckle for it. This is the whole game of society and the politics of the world. Being will always seem well;but whether possibly I cannot contrive to seem, without the trouble of being? Every Frenchman would have a career. We English are not any better with our love of making a figure. I told the Duke of Newcastle, says Bubb Dodington in his Memoirs, that it must end one way or another, it must not remain as it was; for I was determined to make some sort of a figure in life; I earnestly wished it might be under his protection, but if that could not be, I must make some figure; what it would be I could not determine yet; I must look round me a little and consult my friends, but some figure I was resolved to make.
It will be agreed everywhere that society must have the benefit of the best leaders. How to obtain them? Birth has been tried and failed. Caste in India has no good result. Ennobling of one family is good for one generation; not sure beyond. Slavery had mischief enough to answer for, but it had this good in it,the pricing of men. In the South a slave was bluntly but accurately valued at five hundred to a thousand dollars, if a good field-hand; if a mechanic, as carpenter or smith, twelve hundred or two thousand. In Rome or Greece what sums would not be paid for a superior slave, a confidential secretary and manager, an educated slave; a man of genius, a Moses educated in Egypt? I dont know how much Epictetus was sold for, or Æsop, or Toussaint lOuverture, and perhaps it was not a good market-day.16 Time was, in England, when the state stipulated beforehand what price should be paid for each citizens life, if he was killed. Now, if it were possible, I should like to see that appraisal applied to every man, and every man made acquainted with the true number and weight of every adult citizen, and that he be placed where he belongs, with so much power confided to him as he could carry and use.
In the absence of such anthropometer I have a perfect confidence in the natural laws. I think that the communityevery community, if obstructing laws and usages are removedwill be the best measure and the justest judge of the citizen, or will in the long run give the fairest verdict and reward; better than any royal patronage; better than any premium on race; better than any statute elevating families to hereditary distinction, or any class to sacerdotal education and power. The verdict of battles will best prove the general; the town-meeting, the Congress, will not fail to find out legislative talent. The prerogatives of a right physician are determined, not by his diplomas, but by the health he restores to body and mind; the powers of a geometer by solving his problem; of a priest by the act of inspiring us with a sentiment which disperses the grief from which we suffered. When the lawyer tries his case in court he himself is also on trial and his own merits appear as well as his clients. When old writers are consulted by young writers who have written their first book, they say, Publish it by all means; so only can you certainly know its quality.
But we venture to put any man in any place. It is curious how negligent the public is of the essential qualifications of its representatives. They ask if a man is a Republican, a Democrat? Yes. Is he a man of talent? Yes. Is he honest and not looking for an office or any manner of bribe? He is honest. Well then choose him by acclamation. And they go home and tell their wives with great satisfaction what a good thing they have done. But they forgot to ask the fourth question, not less important than either of the others, and without which the others do not avail. Has he a will? Can he carry his points against opposition? Probably not.17 It is not sufficient that your work follows your genius, or is organic, to give you the magnetic power over men. More than taste and talent must go to the Will. That must also be a gift of Nature. It is in some; it is not in others. But I should say, if it is not in you, you had better not put yourself in places where not to have it is to be a public enemy.
The expectation and claims of mankind indicate the duties of this class. Some service they must pay. We do not expect them to be saints, and it is very pleasing to see the instinct of mankind on this matter,how much they will forgive to such as pay substantial service and work energetically after their kind; but they do not extend the same indulgence to those who claim and enjoy the same prerogative but render no returns. The day is darkened when the golden river runs down into mud; when genius grows idle and wanton and reckless of its fine duties of being Saint, Prophet, Inspirer to its humble fellows, balks their respect and confounds their understanding by silly extravagances. To a right aristocracy, to Hercules, to Theseus, Odin, the Cid, Napoleon; to Sir Robert Walpole, to Fox, Chatham, Mirabeau, Jefferson, OConnell;to the men, that is, who are incomparably superior to the populace in ways agreeable to the populace, showing them the way they should go, doing for them what they wish done and cannot do;of course everything will be permitted and pardoned,gaming, drinking, fighting, luxury. These are the heads of party, who can do no wrong,everything short of infamous crime will pass. But if those who merely sit in their places and are not, like them, able; if the dressed and perfumed gentleman, who serves the people in no wise and adorns them not, is not even not afraid of them, if such an one go about to set ill examples and corrupt them, who shall blame them if they burn his barns, insult his children, assault his person, and express their unequivocal indignation and contempt? He eats their bread, he does not scorn to live by their labor, and after breakfast he cannot remember that there are human beings. To live without duties is obscene.18
2. Genius, what is so called in strictness,the power to affect the Imagination, as possessed by the orator, the poet, the novelist or the artist,has a royal right in all possessions and privileges, being itself representative and accepted by all men as their delegate. It has indeed the best right, because it raises men above themselves, intoxicates them with beauty. They are honored by rendering it honor, and the reason of this allowance is that Genius unlocks for all men the chains of use, temperament and drudgery, and gives them a sense of delicious liberty and power.
The first example that occurs is an extraordinary gift of eloquence. A man who has that possession of his means and that magnetism that he can at all times carry the convictions of a public assembly, we must respect, and he is thereby ennobled. He has the freedom of the city. He is entitled to neglect trifles. Like a great general, or a great poet, or a millionaire, he may wear his coat out at elbows, and his hat on his feet, if he will. He has established relation, representativeness. The best feat of genius is to bring all the varieties of talent and culture into its audience; the mediocre and the dull are reached as well as the intelligent. I have seen it conspicuously shown in a village. Here are classes which day by day have no intercourse, nothing beyond perhaps a surly nod in passing. But I have seen a man of teeming brain come among these men, so full of his facts, so unable to suppress them, that he has poured out a river of knowledge to all comers, and drawing all these men round him, all sorts of men, interested the whole village, good and bad, bright and stupid, in his facts; the iron boundary lines had all faded away; the stupid had discovered that they were not stupid; the coldest had found themselves drawn to their neighbors by interest in the same things. This was a naturalist.19
The more familiar examples of this power certainly are those who establish a wider dominion over mens minds than any speech can; who think, and paint, and laugh, and weep, in their eloquent closets, and then convert the world into a huge whispering-gallery, to report the tale to all men, and win smiles and tears from many generations. The eminent examples are Shakspeare, Cervantes, Bunyan, Burns, Scott, and now we must add Dickens. In the fine arts, I find none in the present age who have any popular power, who have achieved any nobility by ennobling the people.
3. Elevation of sentiment, refining and inspiring the manners, must really take the place of every distinction whether of material power or of intellectual gifts. The manners of course must have that depth and firmness of tone to attest their centrality in the nature of the man. I mean the things themselves shall be judges, and determine. In the presence of this nobility even genius must stand aside. For the two poles of nature are Beauty and Meanness, and noble sentiment is the highest form of Beauty.20 He is beautiful in face, in port, in manners, who is absorbed in objects which he truly believes to be superior to himself. Is there any parchment or any cosmetic or any blood that can obtain homage like that security of air presupposing so undoubtingly the sympathy of men in his designs? What is it that makes the true knight? Loyalty to his thought. That makes the beautiful scorn, the elegant simplicity, the directness, the commanding port which all men admire and which men not noble affect. For the thought has no debts, no hunger, no lusts, no low obligations or relations, no intrigue or business, no murder, no envy, no crime, but large leisures and an inviting future.21
The service we receive from the great is a mutual deference. If you deal with the vulgar, life is reduced to beggary indeed. The astronomers are very eager to know whether the moon has an atmosphere; I am only concerned that every man have one. I observe, however, that it takes two to make an atmosphere. I am acquainted with persons who go attended with this ambient cloud. It is sufficient that they come. It is not important what they say. The sun and the evening sky are not calmer. They seem to have arrived at the fact, to have got rid of the show, and to be serene. Their manners and behavior in the house and in the field are those of men at rest: what have they to conceal? what have they to exhibit? Others I meet, who have no deference, and who denude and strip one of all attributes but material values. As much health and muscle as you have, as much land, as much house-room and dinner, avails. Of course a man is a poor bag of bones. There is no gracious interval, not an inch allowed. Bone rubs against bone. Life is thus a Beggars Bush. I know nothing which induces so base and forlorn a feeling as when we are treated for our utilities, as economists do, starving the imagination and the sentiment. In this impoverishing animation, I seem to meet a Hunger, a wolf. Rather let us be alone whilst we live, than encounter these lean kine. Man should emancipate man. He does so, not by jamming him, but by distancing him. The nearer my friend, the more spacious is our realm, the more diameter our spheres have. It is a measure of culture, the number of things taken for granted. When a man begins to speak, the churl will take him up by disputing his first words, so he cannot come at his scope. The wise man takes all for granted until he sees the parallelism of that which puzzled him with his own view.22
I will not protract this discourse by describing the duties of the brave and generous. And yet I will venture to name one, and the same is almost the sole condition on which knighthood is to be won; this, namely, loyalty to your own order. The true aristocrat is he who is at the head of his own order, and disloyalty is to mistake other chivalries for his own.23 Let him not divide his homage, but stand for that which he was born and set to maintain. It was objected to Gustavus that he did not better distinguish between the duties of a carabine and a general, but exposed himself to all dangers and was too prodigal of a blood so precious. For a soul on which elevated duties are laid will so realize its special and lofty duties as not to be in danger of assuming through a low generosity those which do not belong to it.
There are all degrees of nobility, but amid the levity and giddiness of people one looks round, as for a tower of strength, on some self-dependent mind, who does not go abroad for an estimate, and has long ago made up its conclusion that it is impossible to fail.24 The great Indian sages had a lesson for the Brahmin, which every day returns to mind, All that depends on another gives pain; all that depends on himself gives pleasure; in these few words is the definition of pleasure and pain. The noble mind is here to teach us that failure is a part of success. Prosperity and pound-cake are for very young gentlemen, whom such things content; but a heros a mans success is made up of failures, because he experiments and ventures every day, and the more falls he gets, moves faster on;25 defeated all the time and yet to victory born. I have heard that in horsemanship he is not the good rider who never was thrown, but rather that a man never will be a good rider until he is thrown; them he will not be haunted any longer by the terror that he shall tumble, and will ride;that is his business,to ride, whether with falls or whether with none, to ride unto the place whither he is bound. And I know no such unquestionable badge and ensign of a sovereign mind, as that tenacity of purpose which, through all change of companions, of parties, of fortunes,changes never, bates no jot of heart or hope, but wearies out opposition, and arrives at its port. In his consciousness of deserving success, the caliph Ali constantly neglected the ordinary means of attaining it,26 and to the grand interests, a superficial success is of no account. It prospers as well in mistake as in luck, in obstruction and nonsense, as well as among the angels; it reckons fortunes mere paint; difficulty is its delight: perplexity is its noonday: minds that make their way without winds and against tides. But these are rare and difficult examples, we can only indicate them to show how high is the range of the realm of Honor.
I know the feeling of the most ingenious and excellent youth in America; I hear the complaint of the aspirant that we have no prizes offered to the ambition of virtuous young men; that there is no Theban Band; no stern exclusive Legion of Honor, to be entered only by long and real service and patient climbing up all the steps. We have a rich mens aristocracy, plenty of bribes for those who like them; but a grand style of culture, which, without injury, an ardent youth can propose to himself as a Pharos through long dark years, does not exist, and there is no substitute. The youth, having got through the first thickets that oppose his entrance into life, having got into decent society, is left to himself, and falls abroad with too much freedom. But in the hours of insight we rally against this skepticism. We then see that if the ignorant are around us, the great are much more near; that there is an order of men, never quite absent, who enroll no names in their archives but of such as are capable of truth. They are gathered in no one chamber; no chamber would hold them; but, out of the vast duration of mans race, they tower like mountains, and are present to every mind in proportion to its likeness to theirs. The solitariest man who shares their spirit walks environed by them; they talk to him, they comfort him, and happy is he who prefers these associates to profane companions. They also take shape in men, in women. There is no heroic trait, no sentiment or though that will not sometime embody itself in the form of a friend. That highest good of rational existence is always coming to such as reject mean alliances.
One trait more we must celebrate, the self-reliance which is the patent of royal natures. It is so prized a jewel that it is sure to be tested. The rules and discipline are ordered for that. The Golden Table never lacks members; all its seats are kept full; but with this strange provision, that the members are carefully withdrawn into deep niches, so that no one of them can see any other of them, and each believes himself alone. In the presence of the Chapter it is easy for each member to carry himself royally and well; but in the absence of his colleagues and in the presence of mean people he is tempted to accept the low customs of towns. The honor of a member consists in an indifferency to the persons and practices about him, and in the pursuing undisturbed the career of a Brother, as if always in their presence, and as if no other existed. Give up, once for all, the hope of approbation from the people in the street, if you are pursuing great ends. How can they guess your designs?
All reference to models, all comparison with neighboring abilities and reputations, is the road to mediocrity. The generous soul, on arriving in a new port, makes instant preparation for a new voyage. By experiment, by original studies, by secret obedience, he has made a place for himself in the world; stands there a real, substantial, unprecedented person, and when the great come by, as always there are angels walking in the earth, they know him at sight. Effectual service in his own legitimate fashion distinguishes the true man. For he is to know that the distinction of a royal nature is a great heart; that not Louis Quatorze, not Chesterfield, nor Byron, nor Bonaparte is the model of the Century, but, wherever found, the old renown attaches to the virtues of simple faith and stanch endurance and clear perception and pain speech, and that there is a master grace and dignity communicated by exalted sentiments to a human form, to which utility and even genius must do homage. And it is the sign and badge of this nobility, the drawing his counsel from his own breast. For to every gentleman grave and dangerous duties are proposed. Justice always wants champions. The world waits for him as its defender, for he will find in the well-dressed crowd, yes, in the civility of whole nations, vulgarity of sentiment. In the best parlors of modern society he will find the laughing devil, the civil sneer; in English palaces the London twist, derision, coldness, contempt of the masses, contempt of Ireland, dislike of the Chartist. The English House of Commons is the proudest assembly of gentlemen in the world, yet the genius of the House of Commons, its legitimate expression, is a sneer.27 In America he shall find deprecation of purism on all questions touching the morals of trade and of social customs, and the narrowest contraction of ethics to the one duty of paying money. Pay that, and you may play the tyrant at discretion and never look back to the fatal question,where had you the money that you paid?
I know the difficulties in the way of the man of honor. The man of honor is a man of taste and humanity. By tendency, like all magnanimous men, he is a democrat. But the revolution comes, and does he join the standard of Chartist and outlaw? No, for these have been dragged in their ignorance by furious chiefs to the Red Revolution; they are full of murder, and the student recoils,and joins the rich. If he cannot vote with the poor, he should stay by himself. Let him accept the position of armed neutrality, abhorring the crimes of the Chartist, abhorring the selfishness of the rich, and say, The time will come when these poor enfans perdus of revolution will have instructed their party, if only by their fate, and wiser counsels will prevail; the music and the dance of liberty will come up to bright and holy ground and will take me in also. Then I shall not have forfeited my right to speak and act for mankind.28 Meantime shame to the fop of learning and philosophy who suffers a vulgarity of speech and habit to blind him to the grosser vulgarity of pitiless selfishness, and to hide from him the current of Tendency; who abandons his right position of being priest and poet of these impious and unpoetic doers of Gods work. You must, for wisdom, for sanity, have some access to the mind and heart of the common humanity. The exclusive excludes himself. No great man has existed who did not rely on the sense and heart of mankind as represented by the good over-refinements and class prejudices of the lettered men of the world.
There are certain conditions in the highest degree favorable to the tranquillity of spirit and to that magnanimity we so prize. And mainly the habit of considering large interests, and things in masses, and not too much in detail. The habit of directing large affairs generates a nobility of thought in every mind of average ability. For affairs themselves show the way in which they should be handled; and a good head soon grows wise, and does not govern too much.
Now I believe in the closest affinity between moral and material power. Virtue and genius are always on the direct way to the control of the society in which they are found. It is the interest of society that good men should govern, and there is always a tendency so to place them. But, for the day that now is, a man of generous spirit will not need to administer public offices or to direct large interests of trade, or war, or politics, or manufacture, but he will use a high prudence in the conduct of life to guard himself from being dissipated on many things. There is no need that he should count the pounds of property or the numbers of agents whom his influence touches; it suffices that his aims are high, that the interest of intellectual and moral beings is paramount with him, that he comes into what is called fine society from higher ground, and he has an elevation of habit which ministers of empires will be forced to see and to remember.
I do not know whether that word Gentleman, although it signifies a leading idea in recent civilization, is a sufficiently broad generalization to convey the deep and grave fact of self-reliance. To many the word expresses only the outsides of cultivated men,only graceful manners, and independence in trifles; but the fountains of that thought are in the deeps of man, a beauty which reaches through and through, from the manners to the soul; an honor which is only a name for sanctity, a self-trust which is a trust in God himself. Call it man of honor, or call it Man, the American who would serve his country must learn the beauty and honor of perseverance, he must reinforce himself by the power of character, and revisit the margin of that well from which his fathers drew waters of life and enthusiasm, the fountain I mean of the moral sentiments, the parent fountain from which this goodly Universe flows as a wave.
Note 1. On his second visit to England, whither he had been invited by his friends, Alexander Ireland of Manchester and Thomas Carlyle, to give some lectures, Mr. Emerson wrote to his wife on February 10, 1848: I have written a lecture on Natural Aristocracy, which I am to read at Edinburgh to-morrow, and interpolated beside some old webs with patches of new tapestry, contrary to old law. The title Natural Aristocracy was given to make it the more intelligible to the English hearers; The New Aristocracy was at first contemplated. The lecture was the sixth and last of the course given in June, in London, before a somewhat select audience, including many titled persons, at the Portman Square Literary and Scientific Institution. Of this essay, Dr. Holmes said, Let him who wishes to know what the word means to an American whose life has come from New England soil, whose ancestors have breathed New England air for many generations, read it, and he will find a new interpretation of a very old and often greatly wronged appellation. With regard to the Portman Square audience, Mr. Cabot says in his Memoir: The English aristocracy, Emerson remarks in English Traits, have never been addicted to contemplation; and Emersons idealism, thus abruptly presented, was not calculated to win them to it . Emersons London audience, to be sure, would probably in any case have given themselves but little concern with his ideas; it was not the ideas, but the man, that attracted them, so far as they were attracted. The essay as here presented by no means represents the lecture read in England. The subject, under whatever name,Being versus Seeming, Heroism, Self-Reliance, Character, Greatness,was one that he continually wrote upon from the days when, a student at Harvard, he stood at his tall desk in Hollis Hall (number 15), writing his thoughts by the dawn of a winters morning. Much matter accumulated, and selections from many sheets were variously grouped, to be read in different years to differing companies under the title Aristocracy. Mr. Cabot skillfully incorporated the best later fragments with the substance of the English lecture. [back]
Note 2. Professor N. S. Shaler, in his Interpretation of Nature, well illustrates the point that the facts of Evolution and Heredity make morals more essential than does the Biblical account of Creation. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson said of Sir Walter Scott: His power on the public mind rests on the singular union of two influences. By nature, by his reading and taste an aristocrat, in a time and country which easily gave him that bias, he had the virtues and graces of that class, and by his eminent humanity and his love of labor escaped its harm.Walter Scott, Miscellanies. [back]
Note 4. This paragraph suggests Guy, the mortal mixed of middle clay, in the Poems. [back]
Note 7. Eight years after leaving England, when English Traits was published, Mr. Emerson wrote in his journal concerning our own country: The detachment of the Puritans without aristocracy must be as great a gain to mankind as the opening of that continent, and though tender people may object to us an aristocracy of wealth,if you think what that means,opportunity, free trade and bringing all the powers to the surface,it is what all aim at. It is needless to say that, writing in the simper days of the Republic, he had not in mind the overgrown fortunes of the present era of materialism. The wealth he had in mind was of the moderate sort that helps to well-being. [back]
Note 8. Southeys Chronicle of the Cid was a favorite book; Mr. Emerson liked to read fine passages from it to his children, and also from the old French Chanson de Roland the account of the hero, overwhelmed in the pass of Roncesvalles by the Moors through Ganelons treachery, though wounded to death, standing by his dying friend Oliver and blowing on the oliphant the
Note 11. In the journal of 1852 there is a passage on Fate which appears in statistics; exalts races by a cellule in their brain; that makes certain families miners, and others hunters, and levies her own tariffs by making dreadful boundaries of her own, etc. [back]
Beaumont and Fletcher, The Honest Mans Fortune, Epilogue. [back]
Note 13. This phrase is quoted from the speech on the scaffold by Richard Rumbold, one of Cromwells soldiers of extreme Republican views. He served at Dunbar and Worcester, and was one of the guard around the scaffold of Charles I. After the Restoration he was engaged in a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II. and the Duke of York. When the plot was discovered he escaped to Holland, but later, while serving in the army of the Duke of Argyll, was captured, tried and executed. On the scaffold he scoffed at the divine right of kinds, and said, I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another. [back]
Note 14. In a stray fragment of the beginning of Natural Aristocracy, as given in the United States, is the following sentence which also evidently appeared in the lecture as given in Boston: I am well aware that, in almost every town in the world but our towns, there would be a sort of insult and cruelty in speaking to a great mixed audience on the opportunities and duties of the favored class. [back]
Note 16. A good story relating to the price of men is given in Representative Men, p. 152. [back]
Note 17. The one serious and formidable thing in nature is a will. See Conduct of Life, p. 30. [back]
Note 18. Journal, 1831. He that does nothing is poorer than he that has nothing. See also p. 232 in Worship (Conduct of Life). Mr. Emerson wrote in his journal for 1866: Aristocracy is always timid. After I had read my lecture on Natural Aristocracy in London and had said, after describing the man without duties, Who can blame the peasant if he fires his barns? etc., Lord Morpeth came to see me at Chapmans, and hoped I would leave out that passage if I repeated the lecture. The aristocracy were much alarmed at this time. Across the Channel, in France, a revolution was going on, and in England the Chartist demonstrations caused grave anxiety. In a letter which Mr. Emerson wrote to his wife from London, March 23, 1848, he tells of this state of affairs, and adds: One thing is certain; that, if the peace of England should be broken up, the aristocracy hereor, I should say, the richare stout-hearted, and as ready to fight for their own as the poor; are not likely to run away. [back]
Note 19. This was Professor Louis Agassiz, who at that time was delighting the audiences of country lyceums, familiar enough with woodchucks, robins, pickerel and river-turtles, with his classifications and descriptions of radiates, mollusks and articulates. His charming presence, his interesting foreign accent, his enthusiasm and his ready drawing swept all before him. [back]
Note 20. It will not be doubted, that if a beautiful person is born into a family, a new career is opened for that person,an influence which no reasoning and no legislating could hinder, and which must remain a differencing, that is, an aristocratic quality.Stray sheet from Beauty. [back]
Note 21. I find this passage on a stray sheet, followed, however, by the sentence beginning the next paragraph here: Will any one question the uses of an aristocracy? Not while there is any remainder of the substance in the form. For the name is a verdict. The noble ennobles. That is his use. Can there be any greater? [back]
Note 22. After a parlor-lecture in a Western city, some metaphysicians with taste for dialectics undertook to make Mr. Emerson defend his thesis and prove his utterances. He said, with amused good nature, when he came home, Their logicians rolled me in the dust. [back]
Note 23. This was a counsel in accordance with his own practice, steadily urged upon all who sought his advice,Do not make the mistake of assuming chivalries not proper to you. [back]
Note 25. This was Mrs. Barbaulds line, in her poem The Brook:
And the more falls I get move faster on.
Mr. Emerson made it one of his mottoes in life. [back]
Note 26. Ali ben Abu Taleb, son-in-law of Mahomet, and fourth Caliph, called for his courage The Lion of God. Mahomet said him, I am the city of knowledge, but Ali is the gate. He is often mentioned in Mr. Emersons writings. Journal, 1845. The Caliph Ali is a fine example of character. He possessed a vein of poignant humour which led Soliman Farsy to say of a jest he one day indulged in, This it is which has kept you back to the fourth (Abu Beker Oman and Othman having been successively elected before him), for a reliance on his rights of sovereignty was the ruling feeling of that sacred person, and it is one which gives ascendance to the inner and individual nature in opposition to the suggestions of appearance and the observance of our relations with the many. Mahomet said, Various are the Virtues, O Ali, by which men are brought near to their Creator, but thou by thy intellect art created near, and standest before them by many degrees of approach. The quotations come from the Akhlak-i-Jalaly, translated by W. F. Thomson (London, 1839). It is a Persian work of the fifteenth century, tracing its origin to an Arabic work five centuries older, which was an effort to reconcile Greek Philosophy with the social and religious systems of the Mohammedans. Mr. Emerson alludes to this in Plato, Representative Men, p. 40. [back]
Note 27. The sneer was an impossibility to Mr. Emerson. In a note-book of 1827 he says of a man of the world: If his opinions shall turn out right, he betrays his imperfections of mind by a sneer. [back]
Note 28. He always guarded his independence on every question. He said, The relation of men of thought to society is always the same; they refuse that necessity of mediocre men, to take sides. [back]