Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XVIII. Editors Address
Massachusetts Quarterly Review, December, 1847
THE OLD men studied magic in the flowers,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Preferring things to names, for these were men,
Were unitarians of the united world,
And, wheresoever their clear eye-beams fell,
They caught the footsteps of the Same. Our eyes
Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,
And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
And strangers to the plant and to the mine.
The injured elements say, Not in us;
And night and day, ocean and continent,
Fire, plant and mineral say, Not in us;
And haughtily return us stare for stare.
For we invade them impiously for gain;
We devastate them unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love.
Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
Only what to our griping toil is due;
But the sweet affluence of love and song,
The rich results of the divine consents
Of man and earth, of world beloved and loved,
The nectar and ambrosia are withheld.
THE AMERICAN1 people are fast opening their own destiny. The material basis is of such extent that no folly of man can quite subvert it; for the territory is a considerable fraction of the planet, and the population neither loath nor inexpert to use their advantages. Add, that this energetic race derive an unprecedented material power from the new arts, from the expansions effected by public schools, cheap postage and a cheap press, from the telescope, the telegraph, the railroad, steamship, steam-ferry, steam-mill; from domestic architecture, chemical agriculture, from ventilation, from ice, ether, caoutchouc, and innumerable inventions and manufactures.
A scholar who has been reading of the fabulous magnificence of Assyria and Persia, of Rome and Constantinople, leaves his library and takes his seat in a railroad-car, where he is importuned by newsboys with journals still wet from Liverpool and Havre, with telegraphic despatches not yet fifty minutes old from Buffalo and Cincinnati. At the screams of the steam-whistle, the train quits city and suburbs, darts away into the interior, drops every man at his estate as it whirls along, and shows our traveller what tens of thousands of powerful and weaponed men, science-armed and society-armed, sit at large in this ample region, obscure from their numbers and the extent of the domain. He reflects on the power which each of these plain republicans can employ; how far these chains of intercourse and travel reach, interlock and ramify; what levers, what pumps, what exhaustive analyses are applied to Nature for the benefit of masses of men. Then he exclaims, What a negro-fine royalty is that of Jamschid and Solomon! What a substantial sovereignty does my townsman possess! A man who has a hundred dollars to dispose ofa hundred dollars over his breadis rich beyond the dreams of the Cæsars.
Keep our eyes as long as we can on this picture, we cannot stave off the ulterior question,the famous question of Cineas to Pyrrhus,2the WHERE TO of all this power and population, these surveys and inventions, this taxing and tabulating, mill-privilege, roads, and mines. The aspect this country presents is a certain maniacal activity, an immense apparatus of cunning machinery which turns out, at last, some Nuremberg toys. Has it generated, as great interests do, any intellectual power? Where are the works of the imaginationthe surest test of a national genius? At least as far as the purpose and genius of America is yet reported in any book, it is a sterility and no genius.
One would say there is nothing colossal in the country but its geography and its material activities; that the moral and intellectual effects are not on the same scale with the trade and production. There is no speech heard but that of auctioneers, newsboys, and the caucus. Where is the great breath of the New World, the voice of aboriginal nations opening new eras with hymns of lofty cheer? Our books and fine arts are imitations; there is a fatal incuriosity and disinclination in our educated men to new studies and the interrogation of Nature. We have taste, critical talent, good professors, good commentators, but a lack of male energy. What more serious calamity can befall a people than a constitutional dulness and limitation? The moral influence of the intellect is wanting. We hearken in vain for any profound voice speaking to the American heart, cheering timid good men, animating the youth, consoling the defeated, and intelligently announcing duties which clothe life with joy, and endear the face of land and sea to men.3 It is a poor consideration that the country wit is precocious, and, as we say, practical; that political interests on so broad a scale as ours are administered by little men with some saucy village talent, by deft partisans, good cipherers; strict economists, quite empty of all superstition.
Conceding these unfavorable appearances, it would yet be a poor pedantry to read the fates of this country from these narrow data. On the contrary, we are persuaded that moral and material values are always commensurate. Every material organization exists to a moral end, which makes the reason of its existence. Here are no books, but who can see the continent with its inland and surrounding waters, its temperate climates, its west-wind breathing vigor through all the year, is confluence of races so favorable to the highest energy, and the infinite glut of their production, without putting new queries to Destiny as to the purpose for which this muster of nations and this sudden creation of enormous values is made?
This is equally the view of science and of patriotism. We hesitate to employ a word so much abused as patriotism, whose true sense is almost the reverse of its popular sense. We have no sympathy with that boyish egotism, hoarse with cheering for one side, for one state, for one town: the right patriotism consists in the delight which springs from contributing our peculiar and legitimate advantages to the benefit of humanity. Every foot of soil has its proper quality; the grape on two sides of the same fence has new flavors; and so every acre on the globe, every family of men, every point of climate, has its distinguishing virtues. Certainly then this country does not lie here in the sun causeless; and though it may not be easy to define its influence, men feel already its emancipating quality in the careless self-reliance of the manners, in the freedom of thought, in the direct roads by which grievances are reached and redressed, and even in the reckless and sinister politics, not less than in purer expressions. Bad as it is, this freedom leads onward and upward,to a Columbia of thought and art, which is the last and endless end of Columbuss adventure.
Lovers of our country, but not always approvers of the public counsels, we should certainly be glad to give good advice in politics. We have not been able to escape our national and endemic habit, and to be liberated from interest in the elections and in public affairs. Nor have we cared to disfranchise ourselves. We are more solicitous than others to make our politics clear and healthful, as we believe politics to be nowise accidental or exceptional, but subject to the same laws with trees, earths and acids. We see that reckless and destructive fury which characterizes the lower classes of American society, and which is pampered by hundreds of profligate presses. The young intriguers who drive in bar-rooms and town-meetings the trade of politics, sagacious only to seize the victorious side, have put the country into the position of an overgrown bully, and Massachusetts finds no heart or head to give weight and efficacy to her contrary judgment. In hours when it seemed only to need one just word from a man of honor to have vindicated the rights of millions, and to have given a true direction to the first steps of a nation, we have seen the best understandings of New England, the trusted leaders of her counsels, constituting a snivelling and despised opposition, clapped on the back by comfortable capitalists from all sections, and persuaded to say, We are too old to stand for what is called a New England sentiment any longer. Rely on us for commercial representatives, but for questions of ethics,who knows what markets may be opened? We are not well, we are not in our seats, when justice and humanity are to be spoken for.
We have a bad war, many victories, each of which converts the country into an immense chanticleer; and a very insincere political opposition.4 The country needs to be extricated from its delirium at once. Public affairs are chained in the same law with private; the retributions of armed states are not less sure and signal than those which come to private felons. The facility of majorities is no protection from the natural sequence of their own acts. Men reason badly, but Nature and Destiny are logical.5
But, whilst we should think our pains well bestowed if we could cure the infatuation of statesmen, and should be sincerely pleased if we could give a direction to the Federal politics, we are far from believing politics the primal interest of men. On the contrary, we hold that the laws and governors cannot possess a commanding interest for any but vacant or fanatical people; for the reason that this is simply a formal and superficial interest; and men of a solid genius are only interested in substantial things.
The State, like the individual, should rest on an ideal basis. Not only man but Nature is injured by the imputation that man exists only to be fattened with bread, but he lives in such connection with Thought and Fact that his bread is surely involved as one element thereof, but is not its end and aim. So the insight which commands the laws and conditions of the true polity precludes forever all interest in the squabbles of parties. As soon as men have tasted the enjoyment of learning, friendship and virtue, for which the State exists, the prizes of office appear polluted, and their followers outcasts.
A journal that would meet the real wants of this time must have a courage and power sufficient to solve the problems which the great groping society around us, stupid with perplexity, is dumbly exploring. Let it now show its astuteness by dodging each difficult question and arguing diffusely every point on which men are long ago unanimous. Can it front this matter of Socialism, to which the names of Owen and Fourier have attached, and dispose of that question? Will it cope with the allied questions of Government, Nonresistance, and all that belongs under that category? Will it measure itself with the chapter on Slavery, in some sort the special enigma of the time, as it has provoked against it a sort of inspiration and enthusiasm singular in modern history? There are literary and philosophical reputations to settle. The name of Swedenborg has in this very time acquired new honors, and the current year has witnessed the appearance, in their first English translation, of his manuscripts. Here is an unsettled account in the book of Fame; a nebula to dim eyes, but which great telescopes may yet resolve into a magnificent system. Here is the standing problem of Natural Science, and the merits of her great interpreters to be determined; the encyclopædical Humboldt, and the intrepid generalizations collected by the author of the Vestiges of Creation. Here is the balance to be adjusted between the exact French school of Cuvier, and the genial catholic theorists, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Goethe, Davy and Agassiz. Will it venture into the thin and difficult air of that school where the secrets of structure are discussed under the topics of mesmerism and the twilights of demonology?
What will easily seem to many a far higher question than any other is that which respects the embodying of the Conscience of the period. Is the age we live in unfriendly to the highest powers; to that blending of the affections with the poetic faculty which has distinguished the Religious Ages? We have a better opinion of the economy of Nature than to fear that those varying phases which humanity presents ever leave out any of the grand springs of human action. Mankind for the moment seem to be in search of a religion. The Jewish cultus is declining; the Divine, or, as some will say, the truly Human, hovers, now seen, now unseen, before us. This period of peace, this hour when the jangle of contending churches is hushing or hushed, will seem only the more propitious to those who believe that man need not fear the want of religion, because they know his religious constitution,that he must rest on the moral and religious sentiments, as the motion of bodies rests on geometry. In the rapid decay of what was called religion, timid and unthinking people fancy a decay of the hope of man. But the moral and religious sentiments meet us everywhere, alike in markets as in churches. A God starts up behind cotton bales also. The conscience of man is regenerated as is the atmosphere, so that society cannot be debauched. The health which we call Virtue is an equipoise which easily redresses itself, and resembles those rocking stones which a childs finger can move, and a weight of many hundred tons cannot overthrow.
With these convictions, a few friends of good letters have thought fit to associate themselves for the conduct of a new journal. We have obeyed the custom and convenience of the time in adopting this form of a Review, as a mould into which all metal most easily runs. But the form shall not be suffered to be an impediment. The name might convey the impression of a book of criticism, and that nothing is to be found here which was not written expressly for the Review; but good readers know that inspired pages are not written to fill a space, but for inevitable utterance; and to such our journal is freely and solicitously open, even though everything else be excluded. We entreat the aid of every lover of truth and right, and let these principles entreat for us. We rely on the talents and industry of good men known to us, but much more on the magnetism of truth, which is multiplying and educating advocates for itself and friends for us. We rely on the truth for and against ourselves.
Note 1. Mr. Cabot, in his Memoir, says that just before Mr. Emerson sailed for Europe in 1847, Theodore Parker, Dr. S. G. Howe and others (Mr. Cabot was one of these) met to consider whether there could not be a new quarterly review which should be more alive than was the North American to the questions of the day. Charles Sumner and Thoreau are mentioned as having been present. Colonel Higginson says that Mr. Parker wished it to be the Dial with a beard. It was decided that the undertaking should be made. Mr. Parker wished Mr. Emerson to be editor, but he declined. A committee was chosenEmerson, Parker and Howeto draft a manifesto to the public. Mr. Emerson wrote the paper here printed, but when the first number of the Review came to him in England, was annoyed at finding his name set down as one of the editors. I think that the only paper he ever wrote for it, beyond the Address to the Public, was a notice of Some Oxford Poetry,the recently published poems of John Sterling and Arthur Hugh Clough. Theodore Parker was the real editor. During its three years of life the Massachusetts Quarterlynow hard to obtainwas a brave, independent and patriotic magazine, and, like the Dial, gives the advancing thought of the time in literary and social matters, and also in religion and politics. [back]
Note 2. Plutarch tells that Cineas, the wise counsellor of Pyrrhus, king of the Epirots, asked his monarch when he set forth to conquer Rome what he should do afterwards. Pyrrhus said he could then become master of Sicily. And then? asked Cineas. The king told of further dreams of conquest of Carthage and Libya. But when we have conquered all that, what are we to do then? Why then, my friend, said Pyrrhus, laughing, we will take our ease, and drink and be merry. Cineas, having brought him thus far, replied, And what hinders us from drinking and taking our ease now, when we have already those things in our hands at which we propose to arrive through seas of blood, through infinite toils and dangers, innumerable calamities which we must both cause and suffer? [back]
Note 3. To live without duties is obscene.Aristocracy, Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 4. This was shortly after the annexation of Texas, and during the successful progress of the Mexican War. The slave power, although awakening opposition by its insatiable demands, was still on the increase. Charles Summer, though a rising statesman, had not yet entered Congress. [back]