Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
IX. The Man of Letters
An Address Delivered before the Literary Societies of Dartmouth and Waterville Colleges, 1863
ON bravely through the sunshine and the showers,
Time hath his work to do, and we have ours.
GENTLEMEN1 of the Literary Societies: Some of you are to-day saying your farewells to each other, and to-morrow will receive the parting honors of the College. You go to be teachers, to become physicians, lawyers, divines; in due course, statesmen, naturalists, philanthropists; I hope, some of you, to be the men of letters, critics, philosophers; perhaps the rare gift of poetry already sparkles, and may yet burn. At all events, before the shadows of these times darken over your youthful sensibility and candor, let me use the occasion which your kind request gives me, to offer you some counsels which an old scholar may without pretension bring to youth, in regard to the career of letters,the power and joy that belong to it, and its high office in evil times. I offer perpetual congratulation to the scholar; he has drawn the white lot in life. The very disadvantages of his condition point at superiorities. He is too good for the world; he is in advance of his race; his function is prophetic. He belongs to a superior society, and is born one or two centuries too early for the rough and sensual population into which he is thrown. But the Heaven which sent him hither knew that well enough, and sent him as a leader to lead. Are men perplexed with evil times? The inviolate soul is in perpetual telegraphic communication with the source of events. He has earlier information, a private despatch which relieves him of the terror which presses on the rest of the community. He is a learner of the laws of Nature and the experiences of history; a prophet surrendered with self-abandoning sincerity to the Heaven which pours through him its will to mankind. This is the theory, but you know how far this is from the fact, that nothing has been able to resist the tide with which the material prosperity of America in years past has beat down the hope of youth, the piety of learning.2 The country was full of activity, with its wheat, coal, iron, cotton; the wealth of the globe was here, too much work and not men enough to do it. Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia sent millions of laborers; still the need was more. Every kind of skill was in demand, and the bribe came to men of intellectual culture,Come, drudge in our mill. America at large exhibited such a confusion as California showed in 1849, when the cry of gold was first raised. All the distinctions of profession and habit ended at the mines. All the world took off their coats and worked in shirt-sleeves. Lawyers went and came with pick and wheelbarrow; doctors of medicine turned teamsters; stray clergymen kept the bar in saloons; professors of colleges sold cigars, mince-pies, matches, and so on. It is the perpetual tendency of wealth to draw on the spiritual class, not in this coarse way, but in plausible and covert ways. It is charged that all vigorous nations, except our own, have balanced their labor by mental activity, and especially by the imagination,the cardinal human power, the angel of earnest and believing ages. The subtle Hindoo, who carried religion to ecstasy and philosophy to idealism, produced the wonderful epics of which, in the present century, the translations have added new regions to thought. The Egyptian built Thebes and Karnak on a scale which dwarfs our art, and by the paintings on their interior walls invited us into the secret of the religious belief whence he drew such power. The Greek was so perfect in action and in imagination, his poems, from Homer to Euripides, so charming in form and so true to the human mind, that we cannot forget or outgrow their mythology.3 The Hebrew nation compensated for the insignificance of its members and territory by its religious genius, its tenacious belief; its poems and histories cling to the soil of this globe like the primitive rocks. On the south and east shores of the Mediterranean Mahomet impressed his fierce genius how deeply into the manners, language and poetry of Arabia and Persia! See the activity of the imagination in the Crusades: the front of morn was full of fiery shapes; the chasm was bridged over; heaven walked on earth, and Earth could see with eyes the Paradise and the Inferno. Dramatic mysteries were the entertainment of the people. Parliaments of Love and Poesy served them, instead of the House of Commons, Congress and the newspapers. In Puritanism, how the whole Jewish history became flesh and blood in those men, let Bunyan show.4 Now it is agreed that we are utilitarian; that we are skeptical, frivolous; that with universal cheap education we have stringent theology, but religion is low. There is much criticism, not on deep grounds, but an affirmative philosophy is wanting. Our profoundest philosophy (if it were not contradiction in terms) is skepticism. The great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust,of which the Festus of Bailey and the Paracelsus of Browning are English variations.5 We have superficial sciences, restless, gossiping, aimless activity. We run to Paris, to London, to Rome, to Mesmerism, Spiritualism, to Pusey, to the Catholic Church, as if for the want of thought, and those who would check and guide have a dreary feeling that in the change and decay of the old creeds and motives there was no offset to supply their place. Our industrial skill, arts ministering to convenience and luxury, have made life expensive, and therefore greedy, careful, anxious; have turned the eyes downward to the earth, not upward to thought.
Ernest Renan finds that Europe has thrice assembled for exhibitions of industry, and not a poem graced the occasion; and nobody remarked the defect.6 A French prophet of our age, Fourier, predicted that one day, instead of by battles and cumenical Councils, the rival portions of humanity would dispute each others excellence in the manufacture of little cakes.
In my youth, said a Scotch mountaineer, a Highland gentleman measured his importance, by the number of men his domain could support. After some time the question was, to know how many great cattle it would feed. To-day we are come to count the number of sheep. I suppose posterity will ask how many rats and mice it will feed.
Dickens complained that in America, as soon as he arrived in any of the Western towns, a committee waited on him and invited him to deliver a temperance lecture. Bowditch translated Laplace, and when he removed to Boston, the Hospital Life Assurance Company insisted that he should make their tables of annuities. Napoleon knows the art of war, but should not be put on picket duty. Linnæus or Robert Brown must not be set to raise gooseberries and cucumbers, though they be excellent botanists. A shrewd broker out of State Street visited a quiet countryman possessed of all the virtues, and in his glib talk said, With your character now I could raise all this money at once, and make an excellent thing of it.
There is an oracle current in the world, that nations die by suicide. The sign of it is the decay of thought. Niebuhr has given striking examples of that fatal portent; as in the loss of power of thought that followed the disasters of the Athenians in Sicily.
I cannot forgive a scholar his homeless despondency. He represents intellectual or spiritual force. I wish him to rely on the spiritual arm; to live by his strength, not by his weakness. A scholar defending the cause of slavery, of arbitrary government, of monopoly, of the oppressor, is a traitor to his profession. He has ceased to be a scholar. He is not company for clean people.7 The worst times only show him how independent he is of times; only relieve and bring out the splendor of his privilege. Disease alarms the family; but the physician sees in it a temporary mischief, which he can check and expel. The fears and agitations of men who watch the markets, the crops, the plenty or scarcity of money, or other superficial events, are not for him. He knows that the world is always equal to itself; that the forces which uphold and pervade it are eternal. Air, water, fire, iron, gold, wheat, electricity, animal fibre, have not lost a particle of power, and no decay has crept over the spiritual force which gives bias and period to boundless Nature. Bad times,what are bad times? Nature is rich, exuberant, and mocks at the puny forces of destruction. Man makes no more impression on her wealth than the caterpillar or the cankerworm whose petty ravage, though noticed in an orchard or a village, is insignificant in the vast exuberance of the summer. There is no unemployed force in Nature. All decomposition is recomposition. War disorganizes, but it is to reorganize. Weeks, months passa new harvest; trade springs up, and there stand new cities, new homes, all rebuilt and sleepy with permanence. Italy, Francea hundred times those countries have been trampled with armies and burned over: a few summers, and they smile with plenty and yield new men and new revenues.
If churches are effete, it is because the new Heaven forms. You are here as the carriers of the power of Nature,as Roger Bacon, with his secret of gunpowder, with his secret of the balloon and of steam; as Copernicus, with his secret of the true astronomy; as Columbus, with America in his log-book; as Newton, with his gravity; Harvey, with his circulation; Smith, with his law of trade; Franklin, with lightning; Adams, with Independence; Kant, with pure reason; Swedenborg, with his spiritual world. You are the carriers of ideas which are to fashion the mind and so the history of this breathing world, so as they shall be, and not otherwise.8
Coleridge traces three silent revolutions, of which the first was when the clergy fell from the Church. A scholar was once a priest. But the Church clung to ritual, and the scholar clung to joy, low as well as high, and thus the separation was a mutual fault. But I think it is a schism which must be healed. The true scholar is the Church. Only the duties of Intellect must be owned. Down with these dapper trimmers and sycophants! let us have masculine and divine men, formidable lawgivers, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, who warp the churches of the world from their traditions, and penetrate them through and through with original perception. The intellectual man lives in perpetual victory. As certainly as water falls in rain on the tops of mountains and runs down into valleys, plains and pits, so does thought fall first on the best minds, and run down, from class to class, until it reaches the masses, and works revolutions.
Nature says to the American: I understand mensuration and numbers; I compute the ellipse of the moon, the ebb and flow of waters, the curve and the errors of planets, the balance of attraction and recoil. I have measured out to you by weight and tally the powers you need. I give you the land and sea, the forest and the mine, the elemental forces, nervous energy. When I add difficulty, I add brain. See to it that you hold and administer the continent for mankind. One thing you have rightly done. You have offered a patch of land in the wilderness to every son of Adam who will till it. Other things you have begun to do,to strike off the chains which snuffling hypocrites had bound on the weaker race.10 You are to imperil your lives and fortunes for a principle. The ambassador is held to maintain the dignity of the Republic which he represents. But what does the scholar represent? The organ of ideas, the subtle force which creates Nature and men and states;consoler, upholder, imparting pulses of light and shocks of electricity, guidance and courage. So let his habits be formed, and all his economies heroic; no spoiled child, no drone, no epicure, but a stoic, formidable, athletic, knowing how to be poor, loving labor, and not flogging his youthful wit with tobacco and wine; treasuring his youth. I wish the youth to be an armed and complete man; no helpless angel to be slapped in the face, but a man dipped in the Styx of human experience, and made invulnerable so,self-helping. A redeeming trait of the Sophists of Athens, Hippias and Gorgias, is that they made their own clothes and shoes. Learn to harness a horse, to row a boat, to camp down in the woods, to cook your supper. I chanced lately to be at West Point, and, after attending the examination in scientific classes, I went into the barracks.11 The chamber was in perfect order; the mattress on the iron camp-bed rolled up, as if ready for removal. I asked the first Cadet, Who makes your bed? I do. Who fetches your water? I do. Who blacks your shoes? I do. It was so in every room. These are first steps to power. Learn of Samuel Johnson or David Hume, that it is a primary duty of the man of letters to secure his independence.
Stand by your order. T is some thirty years since the days of the Reform Bill in England, when on the walls in London you read everywhere placards, Down with the Lords. At that time, Earl Grey, who was leader of Reform, was asked, in Parliament, his policy on the measures of the Radicals. He replied, I shall stand by my order. Where there is no vision, the people perish. The fault lies with the educated class, the men of study and thought. There is a very low feeling of duty: the merchant is true to the merchant, the noble in England and Europe stands by his order, the politician believes in his arts and combinations; but the scholar does not stand by his order, but defers to the men of this world.12
Gentlemen, I am here to commend to you your art and profession as thinkers. It is real. It is the secret of power. It is the art of command. All superiority is this, or related to this. All that the world admires comes from within. Thought makes us men; ranks us; distributes society; distributes the work of the world; is the prolific source of all arts, of all wealth, of all delight, of all grandeur. Men are as they believe. Men are as they think, and the man who knows any truth not yet discerned by other men, is master of all other men so far as that truth and its wide relations are concerned.
Intellect measures itself by its counteraction to any accumulation of material force. There is no mass which it cannot surmount and dispose of. The exertions of this force are the eminent experiences,out of a long life all that is worth remembering. These are the moments that balance years. Does any one doubt between the strength of a thought and that of an institution? Does any one doubt that a good general is better than a park of artillery? See a political revolution dogging a book. See armies, institutions, literatures, appearing in the train of some wild Arabians dream.
There is a proverb that Napoleon, when the Mameluke cavalry approached the French lines, ordered the grenadiers to the front, and the asses and the savans to fall into the hollow square. It made a good story, and circulated in that day. But how stands it now? The military expedition was a failure. Bonaparte himself deserted, and the army got home as it could, all fruitless; not a trace of it remains. All that is left of it is the researches of those savans on the antiquities of Egypt, including the great work of Denon, which led the way to all the subsequent studies of the English and German scholars on that foundation. Pytheas of Ægina was victor in the Pancratium of the boys, at the Isthmian games. He came to the poet Pindar and wished him to write an ode in his praise, and inquired what was the price of a poem. Pindar replied that he should give him one talent, about a thousand dollars of our money. A talent! cried Pytheas; why, for so much money I can erect a statue of bronze in the temple. Very likely. On second thoughts, he returned and paid for the poem. And now not only all the statues of bronze in the temples of Ægina are destroyed, but the temples themselves, and the very walls of the city are utterly gone, whilst the ode of Pindar, in praise of Pytheas, remains entire.
The treachery of scholars! They are idealists, and should stand for freedom, justice, and public good. The scholar is bound to stand for all the virtues and all the liberties,liberty of trade, liberty of the press, liberty of religion,and he should open all the prizes of success and all the roads of Nature to free competition.
The country complains loudly of the inefficiency of the army. It was badly led. But, before this, it was not the army alone, it was the population that was badly led. The clerisy, the spiritual guides, the scholars, the seers have been false to their trust.13
Rely on yourself. There is respect due to your teachers, but every age is new, and has problems to solve, insoluble by the last age. Men over forty are no judges of a book written in a new spirit. Neither your teachers, nor the universal teachers, the laws, the customs or dogmas of nations, neither saint nor sage, can compare with that counsel which is open to you. No, it is not nations, no, nor even masters, not at last a few individuals or any heroes, but himself only, the large equality to truth of a single mind,as if, in the narrow walls of a human heart, the wide realm of truth, the world of morals, the tribunal by which the universe is judged, found room to exist.
Our people have this levity and complaisance,they fear to offend, do not wish to be misunderstood; do not wish, of all things, to be in the minority. God and Nature are altogether sincere, and Art should be as sincere. It is not enough that the work should show a skilful hand, ingenious contrivance and admirable polish and finish; it should have a commanding motive in the time and condition in which it was made. We should see in it the great belief of the artist, which caused him to make it so as he did, and not otherwise; nothing frivolous, nothing that he might do or not do, as he chose, but somewhat that must be done then and there by him; he could not take his neck out of that yoke, and save his soul. And this design must shine through the whole performance.14 Sincerity is, in dangerous times, discovered to be an immeasurable advantage. I distrust all the legends of great accomplishments or performance of unprincipled men. Very little reliance must be put on the common stories that circulate of this great senators or that great barristers learning, their Greek, their varied literature. That ice wont bear. Reading!do you mean that this senator or this lawyer, who stood by and allowed the passage of infamous laws, was a reader of Greek books? That is not the question; but to what purpose did they read? I allow them the merit of that reading which appears in their opinions, tastes, beliefs and practice. They read that they might know, did they not? Well, these men did not know. They blundered; they were utterly ignorant of that which every boy or girl of fifteen knows perfectly,the rights of men and women. And this big-mouthed talker, among his dictionaries and Leipzig editions of Lysias, had lost his knowledge. But the President of the Bank nods to the President of the Insurance Office, and relates that at Virginia Springs this idol of the forum exhausted a trunkful of classic authors. There is always the previous question, How came you on that side? You are a very elegant writer, but you cant write up what gravitates down.15
It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. All of us have shared the new enthusiasm of country and of liberty which swept like a whirlwind through all souls at the outbreak of war, and brought, by ennobling us, an offset for its calamity.16
War, seeking for the roots of strength, comes upon the moral aspects at once. In quiet times, custom stifles this discussion as sentimental, and brings in the brazen devil, as by immemorial right. The war uplifted us into generous sentiments. War ennobles the age. We do not often have a moment of grandeur in these hurried, slipshod lives, but the behavior of the young men has taught us much. We will not again disparage America, now that we have seen what men it will bear. Battle, with the sword, has cut many a Gordian knot in twain which all the wit of East and West, of Northern and Border statesmen could not untie.
I learn with joy and with deep respect that this college has sent its full quota to the field. I learn with grief, but with honoring pain, that you have had your sufferers in the battle, and that the noble youth have returned wounded and maimed. The times are dark, but heroic. The times develop the strength they need. Boys are heroes. Women have shown a tender patriotism and inexhaustible charity. And on each new threat of faction, the ballot of the people has been unexpectedly right. But the issues already appearing overpay the cost. Slavery is broken, and, if we use our advantage, irretrievably. For such a gain, to end once for all that pest of all our free institutions, one generation might well be sacrificed; perhaps it will; that this continent be purged and a new era of equal rights dawn on the universe. Who would not, if it could be made certain that the new morning of universal liberty should rise on our race by the perishing of one generation,who would not consent to die?
Note 1. On July 22, 1863, Mr. Emerson, by the invitation of the literary societies of Dartmouth College, read an address on a theme always dear and fresh to him, the happiness and privilege of the Scholar, who, he said there, has drawn the white lot in life. On August 11, he repeated the address at Waterville College in Maine. The essay here published is that address, with a new title to distinguish it from the next, which is of the same character. Its length shows that it is only a portion of the address as delivered, having been plundered of its sheets for the benefit of other essays. Probably The Scholar contains some of them. [back]
Note 2. In his Williams College address in 1854, speaking of the practical man of trade, the walking ledger, Mr. Emerson said: He knows the conditions of vulgar success,that a devotion to means without reference to any end is the sole safe method. But he has not been able to hide from himself that this is an absurdity,he is prescribing amputation for headache,is, for a livelihood, to defeat the ends of living; and it is out of the wish to preserve sanity in time to come; to find out how the minor propositions may be established without throwing overboard the major proposition; that he has said, Let there be schools, a clergy, art, music and poetry. [back]
Note 4. Of the Puritan fathers Mr. Emerson says, in his lecture Boston, Natural History of Intellect, They were precisely the idealists of England; the most religious in a religious era. An old lady who remembered these pious people said of them that they had to hold on hard to the huckleberry bushes to hinder themselves from being translated. [back]
Note 5. Compare what is said of Faust in the chapter on Goethe, in Representative Men. [back]
Note 6. Life should not be prosaic. The reason why it is, because it is false and violates the laws of the mind. Life tends ever to be picturesque, and, on the entrance of a genial and superior friend, becomes so.Stray sheet on Beauty. [back]
Note 7. Journal, 1856. Whats the use of this prostitution of literature? Art lies not in trying to make an obscure thing prominent, but in choosing what is really eminent, and showing its eminence. You cant write up what gravitates down. [back]
Note 8. Journal, 1832. I teach by degrees, says Landors Epicurus. It is not the will, but the necessity of the wise. None are wise enow to teach otherwise. All this pedantry about the peoples not bearing the whole truth,what else does it mean, than that the teacher has not yet arrived at the safe, that is, the true statement of the particular doctrine which he would oppose to the ruling error. He knows in general there is an error; he has not yet found its boundary lines. [back]
Note 11. In the year 1863 Mr. Emerson was appointed a member of the committee to visit and report on the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was greatly pleased with all he saw there, especially the manly and honorable tone of the cadets, and the simple life and self-help required by the discipline of the Academy. [back]
Note 12. Journal, 1837. I thought, as I rode through the sloughs yesterday, that nothing is more untrue, as well as unfavorable to power, than that the thinker should open his mind to fear of the people among whom he works. Rather let him exult in his force. Whichever way he turns, he sees the pleasure and deference which these faculties of writing and speaking excite. [back]
Note 13. In the decadence of public morality during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars, Mr. Emersons note-books had many entries tracing the lapses in literature, art, the learned professions, especially among the clergy, and in citizenship and statesmanship all to one rootskepticism, abandonment of the ideal. [back]
Note 14. The man of genius is he who has received a larger portion of the common nature. He apprises us not so much of his wealth as of the common wealth. Are his thoughts profound? So much the less are they his, so much the more the property of all.Lecture on Society, course of 183637. [back]
Note 15. To stand for the private verdict against popular clamor is the office of the noble. If a humane measure is propounded in behalf of the slave, or of the Irishman, or the Catholic, or for the succor of the poor; that sentiment, that project, will have the homage of the hero. That is his nobility, his oath of knighthood, to succor the helpless and oppressed; always to throw himself on the side of weakness, of youth, of hope; on the liberal, on the expansive side, never on the defensive, the conserving, the timorous, the lock-and-bolt system. More than our good will we may not be able to give. We have our own affairs, our own genius, which chains each to his proper work. We cannot give our life to the cause of the debtor, of the slave, or the pauper, as another is doing; but to one thing we are bound, not to blaspheme the sentiment and the work of that man, not to throw stumbling-blocks in the way of the abolitionist, the philanthropist; as the organs of influence and opinion are swift to do.The Young American, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 16. Yet with all his interest, as citizen and patriot, in the political struggles of his day, and the War for Freedom and Union that resulted, he never let the dust of party strife obscure the sidereal heavens, and he feared lest the youth, in the strife over transient issues in their day, lose a true sense of perspective for the great laws. The following is from a sheet which has done duty in lectures like the present: The true question is, how to reach and detain truth,and the quite secondary question is the position of affairs to-day. I say, Beware of the last question. Give it no thought; leave it to the journals and the gossips. The only firm ground is, What truth interests you, attracts you, how far have you penetrated it. Happy is he whose thought interests him,whose book is sweet to him, and makes him forget the time,forget or despise the cold, the smoke, or whatever inconvenience. Our real benefactors are not those who gave us money or hospitality, but those who brought us acquainted with Plato, with Milton, with Herbert, Antoninus, Taylor, with the great lords of the spiritual world, whether intellectual or ethical; who spoke to the conscience and to the reason, imagination; who made our ears and memories rich with imperishable thoughts. [back]