Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
X. The Scholar
An Oration Delivered before the Washington and Jefferson Societies at the University of Virginia, 28 June, 1876
FOR thought, and not praise,
Thought is the wages
For which I sell days,
Will gladly sell ages,
And willing grow old,
Deaf and dumb, blind and cold,
Melting matter into dreams,
Panoramas which I saw,
And whatever glows or seems
Into substance, into Law.
THE SUN and moon shall fall amain
Like sowers seeds into his brain,
There quickened to be born again.
GENTLEMEN1 The Athenians took an oath, on a certain crisis in their affairs, to esteem wheat, the vine and the olive the bounds of Attica. The territory of scholars is yet larger. A stranger but yesterday to every person present, I find myself already at home, for the society of lettered men is a university which does not bound itself with the walls of one cloister or college, but gathers in the distant and solitary student into its strictest amity. Literary men gladly acknowledge these ties which find for the homeless and the stranger a welcome where least looked for. But in proportion as we are conversant with the laws of life, we have seen the like. We are used to these surprises. This is but one operation of a more general law. As in coming among strange faces we find that the love of letters makes us friends, so in strange thoughts, in the worldly habits which harden us, we find with some surprise that learning and truth and beauty have not let us go; that the spiritual nature is too strong for us; that those excellent influences which men in all ages have called the Muse, or by some kindred name, come in to keep us warm and true; that the face of Nature remains irresistibly alluring. We have strayed from the territorial monuments of Attica, but here still are wheat and olives and the vine.
I do not now refer to that intellectual conscience which forms itself in tender natures, and gives us many twinges for our sloth and unfaithfulness:the influence I speak of is of a higher strain. Stung by this intellectual conscience, we go to measure our tasks as scholars, and screw ourselves up to energy and fidelity, and our sadness is suddenly overshone by a sympathy of blessing. Beauty, the inspirer, the cheerful festal principle, the leader of gods and men, which draws by being beautiful, and not by considerations of advantage, comes in and puts a new face on the world.2 I think the peculiar office of scholars in a careful and gloomy generation is to be (as the poets were called in the Middle Ages) Professors of the Joyous Science, detectors and delineators of occult symmetries and unpublished beauties; heralds of civility, nobility, learning and wisdom; affirmers of the one law, yet as those who should affirm it in music and dancing;3 expressors themselves of that firm and cheerful temper, infinitely removed from sadness, which reigns through the kingdoms of chemistry, vegetation and animal life. Every natural power exhilarates; a true talent delights the possessor first. A celebrated musician was wont to say, that men knew not how much more he delighted himself with his playing than he did others; for if they knew, his hearers would rather demand of him than give him a reward. The scholar is here to fill others with love and courage by confirming their trust in the love and wisdom which are at the heart of all things; to affirm noble sentiments; to hear them wherever spoken, out of the deeps of ages, out of the obscurities of barbarous life, and to republish them:to untune nobody, but to draw all men after the truth, and to keep men spiritual and sweet.4
Language can hardly exaggerate the beatitude of the intellect flowing into the faculties. This is the power that makes the world incarnated in man, and laying again the beams of heaven and earth, setting the north and the south, and the stars in their places. Intellect is the science of metes and bounds; yet it sees no bound to the eternal proceeding of law forth into nature. All the sciences are only new applications, each translatable into the other, of the one law which his mind is.
This, gentlemen, is the topic on which I shall speak,the natural and permanent function of the Scholar, as he is no permissive or accidental appearance, but an organic agent in nature. He is here to be the beholder of the real; self-centred amidst the superficial; here to revere the dominion of a serene necessity and be its pupil and apprentice by tracing everything home to a cause; here to be sobered, not by the cares of life, as men say, no, but by the depth of his draughts of the cup of immortality.5
One is tempted to affirm the office and attributes of the scholar a little the more eagerly, because of a frequent perversity of the class itself. Men are ashamed of their intellect. The men committed by profession as well as by bias to study, the clergyman, the chemist, the astronomer, the metaphysician, the poet, talk hard and worldly, and share the infatuation of cities. The poet and the citizen perfectly agree in conversation on the wise life. The poet counsels his own son as if he were a merchant. The poet with poets betrays no amiable weakness. They all chime in, and are as inexorable as bankers on the subject of real life. They have no toleration for literature; art is only a fine word for appearance in default of matter. And they sit white over their stoves, and talk themselves hoarse over the mischief of books and the effeminacy of book-makers. But at a single strain of a bugle out of a grove, or at the dashing among the stones of a brook from the hills; at the sound of some subtle word that falls from the lips of an imaginative person, or even at the reading in solitude of some moving image of a wise poet, this grave conclusion is blown out of memory; the sun shines, and the worlds roll to music, and the poet replaces all this cowardly Self-denial and God-denial of the literary class with the conviction that to one poetic success the world will surrender on its knees. Instantly he casts in his lot with the pearl-diver and the diamond-merchant. Like them he will joyfully lose days and months, and estates and credit, in the profound hope that one restoring, all rewarding, immense success will arrive at last, which will give him at one bound a universal dominion. And rightly; for if his wild prayers are granted, if he is to succeed, his achievement is the piercing of the brass heavens of use and limitation, and letting in a beam of the pure eternity which burns up this limbo of shadows and chimeras in which we dwell. Yes, Nature is too strong for us; she will not be denied; she has balsams for our hurts, and hellebores for our insanities. She does not bandy words with us, but comes in with a new ravishing experience and makes the old time ridiculous. Every poet knows the unspeakable hope, and represents its audacity.6
I am not disposed to magnify temporary differences, but for the moment it appears as if in former times learning and intellectual accomplishments had secured to the possessor greater rank and authority. If this were only the reaction from excessive expectations from literature, now disappointed, it were a just censure. It was superstitious to exact too much from philosophers and the literary class. The Sophists, the Alexandrian grammarians, the wits of Queen Annes, the philosophers and diffusion-societies have not much helped us. Granted, freely granted. Men run out of one superstition into an opposite superstition, and practical people in America give themselves wonderful airs. The cant of the time inquires superciliously after the new ideas; it believes that ideas do not lead to the owning of stocks; they are perplexing and effeminating.
Young men, I warn you against the clamors of these self-praising frivolous activities,against these busy-bodies; against irrational labor; against chattering, meddlesome, rich and official people. If their doing came to any good end! Action is legitimate and good; forever be it honored! right, original, private, necessary action, proceeding new from the heart of man, and going forth to beneficent and as yet incalculable ends. Yes; but not a petty fingering and running, a senseless repeating of yesterdays fingering and running; an acceptance of the method and frauds of other men; an overdoing and busy-ness which pretends to the honors of action, but resembles the twitches of St. Vitus. The action of these men I cannot respect, for they do not respect it themselves. They were better and more respectable abed and asleep. All the best of this class, all who have any insight or generosity of spirit are frequently disgusted, and fain to put it behind them.7
Gentlemen, I do not wish to check your impulses to action: I would not hinder you of one swing of your arm. I do not wish to see you effeminate gownsmen, taking hold of the world with the tips of your fingers, or that life should be to you, as it is to many, optical, not practical. Far otherwise: I rather wish you to experiment boldly and give play to your energies, but not, if I could prevail with you, in conventional ways. I should wish your energy to run in works and emergencies growing out of your personal character. Nature will fast enough instruct you in the occasion and the need, and will bring to each of you the crowded hour, the great opportunity. Love, Rectitude, everlasting Fame, will come to each of you in loneliest places with their grand alternatives, and Honor watches to see whether you dare seize the palms.8
I have no quarrel with action, only I prefer no action to misaction, and I reject the abusive application of the term practical to those lower activities. Let us hear no more of the practical men, or I will tell you something of them,this, namely, that the scholar finds in them unlooked -for acceptance of his most paradoxical experience. There is confession in their eyes, and if they parade their business and public importance, it is by way of apology and palliation for not being the students and obeyers of those diviner laws. Talk frankly with them and you learn that you have little to tell them; that the Spirit of the Age has been before you with influences impossible to parry or resist. The dry-goods men, and the brokers, the lawyers and the manufacturers, are idealists, and only differ from the philosopher in the intensity of the charge. We are all contemporaries and bones of one body.
The shallow clamor against theoretic men comes from the weak. Able men may sometimes affect a contempt for thought, which no able man ever feels. For what alone in the history of this world interests all men in proportion as they are men? What but truth, and perpetual advance in knowledge of it, and brave obedience to it in right action? Every man or woman who can voluntarily or involuntarily give them any insight or suggestion on these secrets they will hearken after. The poet writes his verse on a scrap of paper, and instantly the desire and love of all mankind take charge of it, as if it were Holy Writ. What need has he to cross the sill of his door? Why need he meddle with politics? His idlest thought, his yesternights dream is told already in the Senate. What the Genius whispered him at night he reported to the young men at dawn. He rides in them, he traverses sea and land. The engineer in the locomotive is waiting for him; the steamboat is hissing at the wharf, and the wheels whirling to go.9 T is wonderful, t is almost scandalous, this extraordinary favoritism shown to poets. I do not mean to excuse it. I admit the enormous partiality. It only shows that such is the gulf between our perception and our painting, the eye is so wise, and the hand so clumsy, that all the human race have agreed to value a man according to his power of expression. For him arms, art, politics, trade, waited like menials, until the lord of the manor should arrive. Even the demonstrations of Nature for millenniums seem not to have attained their end, until this interpreter arrives. I, said the great-hearted Kepler, may well wait a hundred years for a reader, since God Almighty has waited six thousand years for an observer like myself.
Genius is a poor man and has no house, but see, this proud landlord who has built the palace and furnished it so delicately, opens it to him and beseeches him to make it honorable by entering there and eating bread. Where is the palace in England whose tenants are not too happy if it can make a home for Pope or Addison or Swift or Burke or Canning or Tennyson? Or if wealth has humors and wishes to shake off the yoke and assert itself,oh, by all means let it try! Will it build its fences very high, and make its Almacks too narrow for a wise man to enter?10 Will it be independent? I incline to concede the isolation which it asks, that it may learn that it is not independent but parasitical.
There could always be traced, in the most barbarous tribes, and also in the most character-destroying civilization, some vestiges of a faith in genius, as in the exemption of a priesthood or bards or artists from taxes and tolls levied on other men; or in civic distinction; or in enthusiastic homage; or in hospitalities; as if men would signify their sense that genius and virtue should not pay money for house and land and bread, because they have a royal right in these and in all things,a first mortgage that takes effect before the right of the present proprietor. For they are the First Good, of which Plato affirms that all things are for its sake, and it is the cause of everything beautiful.
This reverence is the reëstablishment of natural order; for as the solidest rocks are made up of invisible gases, as the world is made of thickened light and arrested electricity, so men know that ideas are the parents of men and things; there was never anything that did not proceed from a thought. The scholar has a deep ideal interest in the moving show around him. He knew the motley system in its egg. We havehave we not?a real relation to markets and brokers and currency and coin. Gold and silver, says one of the Platonists, grow in the earth from the celestial gods,an effluxion from them. The unmentionable dollar itself has at last a high origin in moral and metaphysical nature. Union Pacific stock is not quite private property, but the quality and essence of the universe is in that also. Have we less interest in ships or in shops, in manual work or in household affairs; in any object of Nature, or in any handiwork of man; in any relation of life or custom of society? The scholar is to show, in each, identity and connexion; he is to show its origin in the brain of man, and its secret history and issues. He is the attorney of the world, and can never be superfluous where so vast a variety of questions are ever coming up to be solved, and for ages.
I proceed to say that the allusions just now made to the extent of his duties, the manner in which every days events will find him in work, may show that his place is no sinecure. The scholar, when he comes, will be known by an energy that will animate all who see him. The labor of ambition and avarice will appear fumbling beside his. In the right hands, literature is not resorted to as a consolation, and by the broken and decayed, but as a decalogue. In this country we are fond of results and of short ways to them; and most in this department. In our experiences, learning is not learned, nor is genius wise. The name of the Scholar is taken in vain. We who should be the channel of that unweariable Power which never sleeps, must give our diligence no holidays. Other men are planting and building, baking and tanning, running and sailing, heaving and carrying, each that he may peacefully execute the fine function by which they all are helped. Shall he play, whilst their eyes follow him from far with reverence, attributing to him the delving in great fields of thought, and conversing with supernatural allies? If he is not kindling his torch or collecting oil, he will fear to go by a workshop; he will not dare to hear the music of a saw or plane; the steam-engine will reprimand, the steam-pipe will hiss at him; he cannot look a blacksmith in the eye; in the field he will be shamed by mowers and reapers. The speculative man, the scholar, is the right hero. He is brave, because he sees the omnipotence of that which inspires him. Is there only one courage and one warfare? I cannot manage sword and rifle; can I not therefore be brave? I thought there were as many courages as men. Is an armed man the only hero? Is a man only the breech of a gun or the haft of a bowie-knife? Men of thought fail in fighting down malignity, because they wear other armor than their own. Let them decline henceforward foreign methods and foreign courages. Let them do that which they can do. Let them fight by their strength, not by their weakness. It seems to me that the thoughtful man needs no armor but thisconcentration.11 One thing is for him settled, that he is to come at his ends. He is not there to defend himself, but to deliver his message; if his voice is clear, then clearly; if husky, then huskily; if broken, he can at least scream; gag him, he can still write it; bruise, mutilate him, cut off his hands and feet, he can still crawl towards his object on his stumps. It is the corruption of our generation that men value a long life, and do not esteem life simply as a means of expressing a sentiment.
The great English patriot Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from his prison a little before his execution: I have ever had in my mind that when God should cast me into such a condition as that I cannot save my life but by doing an indecent thing he shows me the time has come when I should resign it. Beauty belongs to the sentiment, and is always departing from those who depart out of that. The hero rises out of all comparison with contemporaries and with ages of men, because he disesteems old age, and lands, and money, and power, and will oppose all mankind at the call of that private and perfect Right and Beauty in which he lives.
Man is a torch borne in the wind. The ends I have hinted at made the scholar or spiritual man indispensable to the Republic or Commonwealth of Man. Nature could not leave herself without a seer and expounder. But he could not see or teach without organs. The same necessity then that would create him reappears in his splendid gifts. There is no power in the mind but in turn becomes an instrument. The descent of genius into talents is part of the natural order and history of the world. The incarnation must be. We cannot eat the granite nor drink hydrogen. They must be decompounded and recompounded into corn and water before they can enter our flesh. There is a great deal of spiritual energy in the universe, but it is not palpable to us until we can make it up into man. There is plenty of air, but it is worth nothing until by gathering it into sails we can get it into shape and service to carry us and our cargo across the sea. Then it is paid for by hundreds of thousands of our money. Plenty of water also, sea full, sky full; who cares for it? But when we can get it where we want it, and in measured portions, on a mill-wheel, or boat-paddle, we will buy it with millions. There is plenty of wild azote and carbon unappropriated, but it is nought till we have made it up into loaves and soup. So we find it in higher relations. There is plenty of wild wrath, but it steads not until we can get it racked off, shall I say? and bottled into persons; a little pure, and not too much, to every head. How many young geniuses we have known, and none but ourselves will ever hear of them for want in them of a little talent!
Ah, gentlemen, I own I love talents and accomplishments; the feet and hands of genius. As Burke said, it is not only our duty to make the right known, but to make it prevalent. So I delight to see the Godhead in distribution; to see men that can come at their ends.12 These shrewd faculties belong to man. I love to see them in play, and to see them trained: this memory carrying in its caves the pictures of all the past, and rendering them in the instant when they can serve the possessor;the craft of mathematical combination, which carries a working-plan of the heavens and of the earth in a formula. I am apt to believe, with the Emperor Charles V., that as many languages as a man knows, so many times is he a man. I like to see a man of that virtue that no obscurity or disguise can conceal, who wins all souls to his way of thinking. I delight in men adorned and weaponed with manlike arts, who could alone, or with a few like them, reproduce Europe and America, the result of our civilization.
It is excellent when the individual is ripened to that degree that he touches both the centre and the circumference, so that he is not only widely intelligent, but carries a council in his breast for the emergency of to-day; and alternates the contemplation of the fact in pure intellect, with the total conversion of the intellect into energy; Jove, and the thunderbolt launched from his hand. Perhaps I value power of achievement a little more because in America there seems to be a certain indigence in this respect. I think there is no more intellectual people than ours. They are very apprehensive and curious. But there is a sterility of talent. These iron personalities, such as in Greece and Italy and once in England were formed to strike fear into kings and draw the eager service of thousands, rarely appear. We have general intelligence, but no Cyclop arms. A very little intellectual force makes a disproportionately great impression, and when one observes how eagerly our people entertain and discuss a new theory, whether home-born or imported, and how little thought operates how great an effect, one would draw a favorable inference as to their intellectual and spiritual tendencies. It seems as if two or three persons coming who should add to a high spiritual aim great constructive energy, would carry the country with them.
In making this claim of costly accomplishments for the scholar, I chiefly wish to infer the dignity of his work by the lustre of his appointments. He is not cheaply equipped. The universe was rifled to furnish him. He is to forge out of coarsest ores the sharpest weapons. But if the weapons are valued for themselves, if his talents assume an independence, and come to work for ostentation, they cannot serve him. It was said of an eminent Frenchman, that he was drowned in his talents. The peril of every fine faculty is the delight of playing with it for pride. Talent is commonly developed at the expense of character, and the greater it grows, the more is the mischief and misleading; so that presently all is wrong, talent is mistaken for genius, a dogma or system for truth, ambition for greatness, ingenuity for poetry, sensuality for art; and the young, coming up with innocent hope, and looking around them at education, at the professions and employments, at religious and literary teachers and teaching,finding that nothing outside corresponds to the noble order in the soul, are confused, and become skeptical and forlorn.13 Hope is taken from youth unless there be, by the grace of God, sufficient vigor in their instinct to say, All is wrong and human invention. I declare anew from Heaven that truth exists new and beautiful and profitable forevermore. Order is heavens first law. These gifts, these senses, these facilities are excellent as long as subordinated; all wasted and mischievous when they assume to lead and not obey. What is the use of strength or cunning or beauty, or musical voice, or birth, or breeding, or money to a maniac? Yet society, in which we live, is subject to fits of frenzy; sometimes is for an age together a maniac, with birth, breeding, beauty, cunning, strength and money. And there is but one defence against this principle of chaos, and that is the principle of order, or brave return at all hours to an infinite common sense, to the mother-wit, to the wise instinct, to the pure intellect.
When a man begins to dedicate himself to a particular function, as his logical, or his remembering, or his oratorical, or his arithmetical skill, the advance of his character and genius pauses; he has run to the end of his line; seal the book; the development of that mind is arrested. The scholar is lost in the showman. Society is babyish, and is dazzled and deceived by the weapon, without inquiring into the cause for which it is drawn; like boys by the drums and colors of the troops.
The objection of men of the world to what they call the morbid intellectual tendency in our young men at present, is not a hostility to their truth, but to this, its shortcoming, that the idealistic views unfit their children for business in their sense, and do not qualify them for any complete life of a better kind. They threaten the validity of contracts, but do not prevail so far as to establish the new kingdom which shall supersede contracts, oaths and property. We have seen to weariness what you cannot do; now show us what you can and will do, asks the practical man, and with perfect reason.
We are not afraid of new truth,of truth never, new, or old,no, but of a counterfeit. Everybody hates imbecility and shortcoming, not new methods. The astronomer is not ridiculous inasmuch as he is an astronomer, but inasmuch as he is not an astronomer. Be that you are: be that cheerly and sovereignly. Plotinus makes no apologies, he says roundly, the knowledge of the senses is truly ludicrous. Body and its properties belong to the region of nonentity, as if more of body was necessarily produced where a defect of being happens in a greater degree. Matter, says Plutarch, is privation. Let the man of ideas at this hour be as direct, and as fully committed. Have you a thought in your heart? There was never such need of it as now. As we read the newspapers, as we see the effrontery with which money and power carry their ends and ride over honesty and good meaning, patriotism and religion seem to shriek like ghosts. We will not speak for them, because to speak for them seems so weak and hopeless. We will hold fast our opinion and die in silence. But a true orator will make us feel that the states and kingdoms, the senators, lawyers and rich men are caterpillars webs and caterpillars, when seen in the light of this despised and imbecile truth. Then we feel what cowards we have been. Truth alone is great. The orator too becomes a fool and a shadow before this light which lightens through him. It shines backward and forward, diminishes and annihilates everybody, and the prophet so gladly feels his personality lost in this victorious life. The spiritual nature exhibits itself so in its counteraction to any accumulation of material force. There is no mass that can be a counter-weight for it. This makes one man good against mankind.14 This is the secret of eloquence, for it is the end of eloquence in a half-hours discourse,perhaps by a few sentences,to persuade a multitude of persons to renounce their opinions, and change the course of life. They go forth not the men they came in, but shriven, convicted and converted.
We have many revivals of religion. We have had once what was called the Revival of Letters. I wish to see a revival of the human mind: to see mens sense of duty extend to the cherishing and use of their intellectual powers: their religion should go with their thought and hallow it. Whosoever looks with heed into his thoughts will find that our science of the mind has not got far. He will find there is somebody within him that knows more than he does, a certain dumb life in life; a simple wisdom behind all acquired wisdom; somewhat not educated or educable; not altered or alterable; a mother-wit which does not learn by experience or by books, but knew it all already; makes no progress, but was wise in youth as in age. More or less clouded it yet resides the same in all, saying Ay, ay, or No, no to every proposition. Yet its grand Ay and its grand No are more musical than all eloquence. Nobody has found the limit of its knowledge. Whatever object is brought before it is already well known to it. Its justice is perfect; its look is catholic and universal, its light ubiquitous like the sun. It does not put forth organs, it rests in presence: yet trusted and obeyed in happy natures it becomes active and salient, and makes new means for its great ends.
The scholar then is unfurnished who has only literary weapons. He ought to have as many talents as he can; memory, arithmetic, practical power, manners, temper, lion-heart, are all good things, and if he has none of them he can still manage, if he have the main-mast,if he is anything. But he must have the resource of resources, and be planted on necessity.15 For the sure months are bringing him to an examination-day in which nothing is remitted or excused, and for which no tutor, no book, no lectures, and almost no preparation can be of the least avail. He will have to answer certain questions, which, I must plainly tell you, cannot be staved off. For all men, all women, Time, your country, your condition, the invisible world, are the interrogators: Who are you? What do you? Can you obtain what you wish? Is there method in your consciousness? Can you see tendency in your life? Can you help any soul?
Can he answer these questions? can he dispose of them? Happy if you can answer them mutely in the order and disposition of your life! Happy for more than yourself, a benefactor of men, if you can answer them in works of wisdom, art or poetry; bestowing on the general mind of men organic creations, to be the guidance and delight of all who know them. These questions speak to Genius, to that power which is underneath and greater than all talent, and which proceeds out of the constitution of every man: to Genius, which is an emanation of that it tells of; whose private counsels are not tinged with selfishness, but are laws. Men of talent fill the eye with their pretension. They go out into some camp of their own, and noisily persuade society that this thing which they do is the needful cause of all men. They have talents for contention, and they nourish a small difference into a loud quarrel. But the world is wide, nobody will go there after to-morrow. The gun they have pointed can defend nothing but itself, nor itself any longer than the man is by. What is the use of artificial positions? But Genius has no taste for weaving sand, or for any trifling, but flings itself on real elemental things, which are powers, self-defensive; which first subsist, and then resist unweariably forevermore all that opposes. Genius has truth and clings to it, so that what it says and does is not in a by-road, visited only by curiosity, but on the great highways of Nature, which were before the Appian Way, and which all souls must travel. Genius delights only in statements which are themselves true, which attack and wound any who opposes them, whether he who brought them here remains here or not;which are live men, and do daily declare fresh war against all falsehood and custom, and will not let an offender go; which society cannot dispose of or forget, but which abide there and will not down at anybodys bidding, but stand frowning and formidable, and will and must be finally obeyed and done.
The scholar must be ready for bad weather, poverty, insult, weariness, repute of failure and many vexations. He must have a great patience, and ride at anchor and vanquish every enemy whom his small arms cannot reach, by the grand resistance of submission, of ceasing to do. He is to know that in the last resort he is not here to work, but to be worked upon. He is to eat insult, drink insult, be clothed and shod in insult until he has learned that this bitter bread and shameful dress is also wholesome and warm, is, in short, indifferent; is of the same chemistry as praise and fat living; that they also are disgrace and soreness to him who has them. I think much may be said to discourage and dissuade the young scholar from his career. Freely be that said. Dissuade all you can from the lists. Sift the wheat, frighten away the lighter souls. Let us keep only the heavy-armed. Let those come who cannot but come, and who see that there is no choice here, no advantage and no disadvantage compared with other careers. For the great Necessity is our patron, who distributes sun and shade after immutable laws.16
Yes, he has his dark days, he has weakness, he has waitings, he has bad company, he is pelted by storms of cares, untuning cares, untuning company. Well, let him meet them. He has not consented to the frivolity, nor to the dispersion. The practical aim is forever higher than the literary aim. He shall not submit to degradation, but shall bear these crosses with what grace he can. He is still to decline how many glittering opportunities, and to retreat, and wait. So shall you find in this penury and absence of thought a purer splendor than ever clothed the exhibitions of wit. I invite you not to cheap joys, to the flutter of gratified vanity, to a sleek and rosy comfort; no, but to bareness, to power, to enthusiasm, to the mountain of vision, to true and natural supremacy, to the society of the great, and to love. Give me bareness and poverty so that I know them as the sure heralds of the Muse. Not in plenty, not in a thriving, well-to-do condition, she delighteth. He that would sacrifice at her altar must not leave a few flowers, an apple, or some symbolic gift. No; he must relinquish orchards and gardens, prosperity and convenience; he may live on a heath without trees; sometimes hungry, and sometimes rheumatic with cold.17 The fire retreats and concentrates within into a pure flame, pure as the stars to which it mounts.
But, gentlemen, there is plainly no end to these expansions. I have exhausted your patience, and I have only begun. I had perhaps wiselier adhered to my first purpose of confining my illustration to a single topic, but it is so much easier to say many things than to explain one. Well, you will see the drift of all my thoughts, this, namelythat the scholar must be much more than a scholar, that his ends give value to every means, but he is to subdue and keep down his methods; that his use of books is occasional, and infinitely subordinate; that he should read a little proudly, as one who knows the original, and cannot therefore very highly value the copy.18 In like manner he is to hold lightly every tradition, every opinion, every person, out of his piety to that Eternal Spirit which dwells unexpressed with him. He shall think very highly of his destiny. He is here to know the secret of Genius; to become, not a reader of poetry, but Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, in the fountain, through that. If one man could impart his faith to another, if I could prevail to communicate the incommunicable mysteries, you should see the breadth of your realm;that ever as you ascend your proper and native path, you receive the keys of Nature and history, and rise on the same stairs to science and to joy.19
Note 1. At the time when the invitation came to Mr. Emerson from the Senior Class at the University of Virginia to address them on the occasion of their graduation,the first invitation which had come to him from any Southern college,he was no longer able to write an oration. But this call from the young men of the South was one of peculiar interest, one which it might seem ungracious to refuse, and all through life he had been writing to and for scholars. By Mr. Cabots kind and ready help a suitable arrangement was made of sheets on the subject, many of which had, of course, done duty in earlier college addresses. [back]
Note 2. In the journal of 1851, Mr. Emerson wrote of Beauty: It is a privilege . Indeed all privilege is that of Beauty, for there are many Beauties: I, of face; 2, of form; 3, of manner, not less prevailing; 4, of brain or methodthe sphere changes with the mode, and the sphere of brain or method is elemental, and lasts long,Shakspeares, Raphaels, Michel Angelos is the Beauty of Brain or Method. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Charles J. Woodbury relates that Mr. Emerson, talking with him in his student days of the American historians, commended their mastery of their subjects, but lamented their mechanical quality and lack of style. He said, They have no lilt in them. You noticed the marble we have just seen. You remember that marble is nothing but crystallized limestone? Well, some writers never get out of the limestone condition. Be airy. Let your characters breathe from you. Walk upon the ground, but not to sink. It is a fine power this. Some men have it, prominently the French. How it manifests itself in Montaigne and in Urquharts Rabelais! Grimm almost alone of the Germans has it; Borrow had it; Thoreau had it; and James Wilsonsometimes. [Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Baker & Taylor, 1890.] [back]
Note 4. It is a pleasure to give here Mr. Emersons words about another scholar of a far different type, yet who has written so well of himDr. Holmes: What shall I say of his delight in manners, in society, in elegance, in short, of his delight in Culture, which makes him a civilizer whom every man and woman secretly thanks for valuable hints? What then of his correction of popular errors in taste, in behaviour, in the uncertain sciences, and in theology, attested by the alarm of the synods, and this is only possible to the man who has the capital merit of healthy perception, who can draw all men to read him; whose thoughts leave such cheerful and perfumed memories, that when the newsboy enters the car, all over the wide wildernesses of America the tired traveller says, Here comes the Autocrat to bring me one half hours absolute relief from the vacant mind.Notes in Journal for speech at the dinner to Dr. Holmes on his Fiftieth Birthday, August 29, 1859. [back]
Note 5. This address cannot but recall others on the same theme. The following passage is from the Address Literary Ethics, given at Dartmouth College in 1838: Neither years nor books have availed to extirpate a prejudice then rooted in me, that a scholar is the favorite of Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men. His duties lead him directly into the holy ground where other mens aspirations only point. His successes are occasions of the purest joy to all men. Eyes is he to the blind; feet is he to the lame. His failures, if he is worthy, are inlets to higher advantages . The public can get public experience, but they wish the scholar to replace to them those private, sincere, divine experiences of which they have been defrauded by dwelling in the street. And the following sentence from Mr. Emersons Address to the Divinity Students, in the same month, may be added: What hinders that now, everywhere, in pulpits, in lecture-rooms, in houses, in fields, wherever the invitation of men or your own occasions lead you, you speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation? [back]
Note 6. For Natures method of teaching by allurements and surprises, see the two Nature poems and the quatrain thus called. [back]
Note 7. The poet, in utter solitude remembering his spontaneous thoughts and recording them, is found to have recorded that which men in crowded cities find true for them also. The orator distrusts at first the fitness of his frank confessions, his want of knowledge of the persons he addresses, until he finds that he is the complement of his hearers;that they drink his words because he fulfils for them their own nature; the deeper he dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public, and universally true. The people delight in it; the better part of every man feels, This is my music; this is myself. In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,free and brave.The American Scholar, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson copied as a motto this line of Ossian: Cathmore dwelt in the wood to avoid the voice of praise. He wrote in his journal, of his ideal man, I will add to the portrait of Osman that he had never to look after his fame and his compliments, his claps and his editions. [back]
Note 9. In the Fragments on the Poet, stanza IV., is told the far-reaching power of the random word which the listener hears from the Muse, feigning to speak to another. [back]
Note 10. Almacks was a suite of assembly-rooms in King Street, St. Jamess, London, built in 1765 by MacCaul, the valet of a Scottish nobleman, who reversed his name when he came to London and became a tavern-keeper. From 1765 to 1840 balls were held at Almacks under the management of a committee of ladies of rank. The circle having admission to balls at Almacks was, at the beginning of the century, regarded as the seventh heaven of the fashionable world. The rooms were not closed until 1890. [back]
Note 11. Compare what is said of the labor due from the Scholar in the essay on Greatness, Letters and Social Aims, p. 311. [back]
Note 12. Usually in his writings, as in this essay, two pages later, Mr. Emerson warns against talent, meaning thereby self-exhibition, but here the word seems used in the sense of successful expression. [back]
Note 13. Men of talent sometimes seem to me sepulchres in which vices are entombed with architecture and praise.Lecture-sheet. [back]
Note 14. The man whose part is taken and who does not wait for society in anything, has a power which society cannot choose but feel. The familiar experiment called the hydrostatic paradox, in which a capillary column of water balances the ocean, is a symbol of the relation of one man to the whole family of men.New England Reformers, Essays, Second Series. [back]
Note 15. Journal, 1841. No man can write anything who does not think that what he writes is for the time the history of the world, or do anything well who does not suppose his work to be of greatest importance. My work may be of none, but I must not think it of none, or I shall not do it with impunity. Whose does what he thinks mean is mean. [back]
Note 16. The scholar will feel that the richest romance, the noblest fiction that was ever woven, the heart and soul of beauty, lies enclosed in human life. Itself of surpassing value, it is also the richest material for his creations. How shall he know its secrets of tenderness, of terror, of will, and of fate? How can he catch and keep the strain of upper music that peals from it? Its laws are concealed under the details of daily action . He must bear his share of the common load . Out of love and hatred, out of earnings, and borrowings, and lendings, and losses; out of sickness and pain; out of wooing and worshipping; out of travelling, and voting, and watching, and caring; out of disgrace and contempt, comes our tuition in the serene and beautiful laws. Let him not slur his lesson; let him learn it by heart. Let him endeavor exactly, bravely, and cheerfully, to solve the problem of that life which is set before him. And this by punctual action, and not by promises or dreams.Literary Ethics, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 18. Mr. Emerson, in a letter to a friend, said: It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other: and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterward in the hope of being in Paradise again. But what better sign can the genius of our times show that the old creative force is ready to work again, than the universal indisposition of the best heads to touch the books even of name and fame? [back]
Note 19. Strength and spirits are wasted in rejection. But the strong spirits overpower those around them without effort. Their thought and emotion comes in like a flood, quite withdraws them from all notice of these carping critics; they surrender themselves with glad heart to the heavenly guide, and only by implication reject the clamorous nonsense of the hour. Grave seniors talk to the deaf,church and old book mumble and ritualize to an unheeding, preoccupied and advancing mind, and thus they, by happiness of greater momentum, lose no time, but take the right road at first.The Transcendentalist, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]