Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. VI. The Conduct of Life
VII. Considerations by the Way
  HEAR what British Merlin sung,
Of keenest eye and truest tongue.
Say not, the chiefs who first arrive
Usurp the seats for which all strive;
The forefathers this land who found
Failed to plant the vantage-ground;
Ever from one who comes to-morrow
Men wait their good and truth to borrow.
But wilt thou measure all thy road,
See thou lift the lightest load.
Who has little, to him who has less, can spare,
And thou, Cyndyllan’s son! beware
Ponderous gold and stuffs to bear,
To falter ere thou thy task fulfil,—
Only the light-armed climb the hill.
The richest of all lords is Use,
And ruddy Health the loftiest Muse.
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air’s salubrity:
Where the star Canope shines in May,
Shepherds are thankful, and nations gay.
The music that can deepest reach,
And cure all ill, is cordial speech:
Mask thy wisdom with delight,
Toy with the bow, yet hit the white.
Of all wit’s uses, the main one
Is to live well with who has none.
Cleave to thine acre; the round year
Will fetch all fruits and virtues here:
Fool and foe may harmless roam,
Loved and lovers bide at home.
A day for toil, an hour for sport,
But for a friend is life too short.

ALTHOUGH 1 this garrulity of advising is born with us, I confess that life is rather a subject of wonder than of didactics. So much fate, so much irresistible dictation from temperament and unknown inspiration enters into it, that we doubt we can say anything out of our own experience whereby to help each other. All the professions are timid and expectant agencies. The priest is glad if his prayers or his sermon meet the condition of any soul; if of two, if of ten, ’t is a signal success. But he walked to the church without any assurance that he knew the distemper, or could heal it. The physician prescribes hesitatingly out of his few resources the same tonic or sedative to this new and peculiar constitution which he has applied with various success to a hundred men before. If the patient mends he is glad and surprised. The lawyer advises the client, and tells his story to the jury and leaves it with them, and is as gay and as much relieved as the client if it turns out that he has a verdict. The judge weighs the arguments and puts a brave face on the matter, and, since there must be a decision, decides as he can, and hopes he has done justice and given satisfaction to the community; but is only an advocate after all. And so is all life a timid and unskilful spectator. We do what we must, and call it by the best names. We like very well to be praised for our action, but our conscience says, “Not unto us.” ’T is little we can do for each other. We accompany the youth with sympathy and manifold old sayings of the wise to the gate of the arena, but ’t is certain that not by strength of ours, or of the old sayings, but only on strength of his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall. That by which a man conquers in any passage is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him. What we have therefore to say of life, is rather description, or if you please, celebration, than available rules. 2
  Yet vigor is contagious, and whatever makes us either think or feel strongly, adds to our power and enlarges our field of action. We have a debt to every great heart, to every fine genius; to those who have put life and fortune on the cast of an act of justice; to those who have added new sciences; to those who have refined life by elegant pursuits. ’T is the fine souls who serve us, and not what is called fine society. Fine society is only a self-protection against the vulgarities of the street and the tavern. Fine society, in the common acceptation, has neither ideas nor aims. It renders the service of a perfumery or a laundry, not of a farm or factory. ’T is an exclusion and a precinct. Sydney Smith said, “A few yards in London cement or dissolve friendship.” It is an unprincipled decorum; an affair of clean linen and coaches, of gloves, cards and elegance in trifles. There are other measures of self-respect for a man than the number of clean shirts he puts on every day. Society wishes to be amused. I do not wish to be amused. I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred. I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant. Now we reckon them as bank-days, by some debt which is to be paid us or which we are to pay, or some pleasure we are to taste. Is all we have to do to draw the breath in and blow it out again? 3 Porphyry’s definition is better; “Life is that which holds matter together.” The babe in arms is a channel through which the energies we call fate, love and reason, visibly stream. See what a cometary train of auxiliaries man carries with him, of animals, plants, stones, gases and imponderable elements. Let us infer his ends from this pomp of means. Mirabeau said, “Why should we feel ourselves to be men, unless it be to succeed in everything, everywhere. You must say of nothing, That is beneath me, nor feel that anything can be out of your power. Nothing is impossible to the man who can will. Is that necessary? That shall be:—this is the only law of success.” Whoever said it, this is in the right key. But this is not the tone and genius of the men in the street. In the streets we grow cynical. The men we meet are coarse and torpid. The finest wits have their sediment. What quantities of fribbles, paupers, invalids, epicures, antiquaries, politicians, thieves and triflers of both sexes might be advantageously spared! Mankind divides itself into two classes,—benefactors and malefactors. The second class is vast, the first a handful. A person seldom falls sick but the bystanders are animated with a faint hope that he will die:—quantities of poor lives, of distressing invalids, of cases for a gun. Franklin said, “Mankind are very superficial and dastardly: they begin upon a thing, but, meeting with a difficulty, they fly from it discouraged; but they have capacities, if they would employ them.” Shall we then judge a country by the majority, or by the minority? By the minority surely. 4 ’T is pedantry to estimate nations by the census, or by square miles of land, or other than by their importance to the mind of the time.  2
  Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population. When it reaches its true law of action, every man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considerate vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience. 5 In old Egypt it was established law that the vote of a prophet be reckoned equal to a hundred hands. I think it was much underestimated. “Clay and clay differ in dignity,” as we discover by our preferences every day. What a vicious practice is this of our politicians at Washington pairing off! as if one man who votes wrong going away, could excuse you, who mean to vote right, for going away; or as if your presence did not tell in more ways than in your vote. Suppose the three hundred heroes at Thermopylæ had paired off with three hundred Persians; would it have been all the same to Greece, and to history? Napoleon was called by his men Cent Mille. Add honesty to him, and they might have called him Hundred Million.  3
  Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a dozen dessert apples; and she scatters nations of naked Indians and nations of clothed Christians, with two or three good heads among them. Nature works very hard, and only hits the white once in a million throws. In mankind she is contented if she yields one master in a century. The more difficulty there is in creating good men, the more they are used when they come. I once counted in a little neighborhood and found that every able-bodied man had say from twelve to fifteen persons dependent on him for material aid,—to whom he is to be for spoon and jug, for backer and sponsor, for nursery and hospital and many functions beside: nor does it seem to make much difference whether he is bachelor or patriarch; if he do not violently decline the duties that fall to him, this amount of helpfulness will in one way or another be brought home to him. This is the tax which his abilities pay. The good men are employed for private centres of use, and for larger influence. All revelations, whether of mechanical or intellectual or moral science, are made, not to communities but to single persons. 6 All the marked events of our day, all the cities, all the colonizations, may be traced back to their origin in a private brain. All the feats which make our civility were the thoughts of a few good heads.  4
  Meantime this spawning productivity is not noxious or needless. You would say this rabble of nations might be spared. But no, they are all counted and depended on. Fate keeps everything alive so long as the smallest thread of public necessity holds it on to the tree. The coxcomb and bully and thief class are allowed as proletaries, every one of their vices being the excess or acridity of a virtue. The mass are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee. But the units whereof this mass is composed, are neuters, every one of which may be grown to a queen-bee. The rule is, we are used as brute atoms until we think: then we use all the rest. Nature turns all malfeasance to good. Nature provided for real needs. No sane man at last distrusts himself. His existence is a perfect answer to all sentimental cavils. If he is, he is wanted, and has the precise properties that are required. That we are here, is proof we ought to be here. We have as good right, and the same sort of right to be here, as Cape Cod or Sandy Hook have to be there.  5
  To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad heart in the observer, but simply that the majority are unripe, and have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion. That, if they knew it, is an oracle for them and for all. But in the passing moment the quadruped interest is very prone to prevail; and this beast-force, whilst it makes the discipline of the world, the school of heroes, the glory of martyrs, has provoked in every age the satire of wits and the tears of good men. They find the journals, the clubs, the governments, the churches, to be in the interest and the pay of the devil. And wise men have met this obstruction in their times, like Socrates, with his famous irony; like Bacon, with lifelong dissimulation; like Erasmus, with his book, The Praise of Folly; like Rabelais, with his satire rending the nations. “They were the fools who cried against me, you will say,” wrote the Chevalier de Boufflers to Grimm; “aye, but the fools have the advantage of numbers, and ’t is that which decides. It is of no use for us to make war with them; we shall not weaken them; they will always be the masters. There will not be a practice or an usage introduced, of which they are not the authors.”  6
  In front of these sinister facts, the first lesson of history is the good of evil. Good is a good doctor but Bad is sometimes a better. The oppressions of William the Norman, savage forest laws and crushing despotism made possible the inspirations of Magna Charta under John. Edward I. wanted money, armies, castles, and as much as he could get. It was necessary to call the people together by shorter, swifter ways,—and the House of Commons arose. To obtain subsidies, he paid in privileges. In the twenty-fourth year of his reign he decreed “that no tax should be levied without consent of Lords and Commons;”—which is the basis of the English Constitution. Plutarch affirms that the cruel wars which followed the march of Alexander introduced the civility, language and arts of Greece into the savage East; introduced marriage; built seventy cities, and united hostile nations under one government. The barbarians who broke up the Roman Empire did not arrive a day too soon. Schiller says the Thirty Years’ War made Germany a nation. Rough, selfish despots serve men immensely, as Henry VIII. in the contest with the Pope; as the infatuations no less than the wisdom of Cromwell; as the ferocity of the Russian czars; as the fanaticism of the French regicides of 1789. The frost which kills the harvest of a year saves the harvests of a century, by destroying the weevil or the locust. Wars, fires, plagues, break up immovable routine, clear the ground of rotten races and dens of distemper, and open a fair field to new men. There is a tendency in things to right themselves, and the war or revolution or bankruptcy that shatters a rotten system, allows things to take a new and natural order. The sharpest evils are bent into that periodicity which makes the errors of planets and the fevers and distempers of men, self-limiting. 7 Nature is upheld by antagonism. Passions, resistance, danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no soldiers; without enemies, no hero. The sun were insipid if the universe were not opaque. And the glory of character is in affronting the horrors of depravity to draw thence new nobilities of power; 8 as Art lives and thrills in new use and combining of contrasts, and mining into the dark evermore for blacker pits of night. What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for crucifixions and hells? And evermore in the world is this marvellous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats. Not Antoninus, but a poor washer-woman said, “The more trouble, the more lion; that ’s my principle.”  7
  I do not think very respectfully of the designs or the doings of the people who went to California in 1849. It was a rush and a scramble of needy adventurers, and, in the western country, a general jail delivery of all the rowdies of the rivers. Some of them went with honest purposes, some with very bad ones, and all of them with the very commonplace wish to find a short way to wealth. But nature watches over all, and turns this malfeasance to good. California gets peopled and subdued, civilized in this immoral way, and on this fiction a real prosperity is rooted and grown. ’T is a decoy-duck; ’t is tubs thrown to amuse the whale; but real ducks, and whales that yield oil, are caught. And out of Sabine rapes, and out of robbers’ forays, real Romes and their heroisms come in fulness of time. 9  8
  In America the geography is sublime, but the men are not: the inventions are excellent, but the inventors one is sometimes ashamed of. The agencies by which events so grand as the opening of California, of Texas, of Oregon, and the junction of the two oceans, are effected, are paltry,—coarse selfishness, fraud and conspiracy; and most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means. 10  9
  The benefaction derived in Illinois and the great West from railroads is inestimable, and vastly exceeding any intentional philanthropy on record. What is the benefit done by a good King Alfred, or by a Howard, or Pestalozzi, or Elizabeth Fry, or Florence Nightingale, or any lover, less or larger, compared with the involuntary blessing wrought on nations by the selfish capitalists who built the Illinois, Michigan and the network of the Mississippi Valley roads; which have evoked not only all the wealth of the soil, but the energy of millions of men. It is a sentence of ancient wisdom that “God hangs the greatest weights on the smallest wires.”  10
  What happens thus to nations befalls every day in private houses. When the friends of a gentleman brought to his notice the follies of his sons, with many hints of their danger, he replied that he knew so much mischief when he was a boy, and had turned out on the whole so successfully, that he was not alarmed by the dissipation of boys; ’t was dangerous water, but he thought they would soon touch bottom, and then swim to the top. This is bold practice, and there are many failures to a good escape. Yet one would say that a good understanding would suffice as well as moral sensibility to keep one erect; the gratifications of the passions are so quickly seen to be damaging, and—what men like least—seriously lowering them in social rank. Then all talent sinks with character.  11
  “Croyez moi, l’erreur aussi a son mérite,” said Voltaire. We see those who surmount, by dint of some egotism or infatuation, obstacles from which the prudent recoil. The right partisan is a heady, narrow man, who, because he does not see many things, sees some one thing with heat and exaggeration, and if he falls among other narrow men, or on objects which have a brief importance, as some trade or politics of the hour, he prefers it to the universe, and seems inspired and a godsend to those who wish to magnify the matter and carry a point. Better, certainly, if we could secure the strength and fire which rude, passionate men bring into society, quite clear of their vices. But who dares draw out the linchpin from the wagon-wheel? ’T is so manifest that there is no moral deformity but is a good passion out of place; that there is no man who is not indebted to his foibles; that, according to the old oracle, “the Furies are the bonds of men;” 11 that the poisons are our principal medicines, which kill the disease and save the life. In the high prophetic phrase, He causes the wrath of man to praise him, and twists and wrenches our evil to our good. Shakspeare wrote,—
  “’T is said, best men are moulded of their faults;” 12
and great educators and lawgivers, and especially generals and leaders of colonies, mainly rely on this stuff, and esteem men of irregular and passional force the best timber. A man of sense and energy, the late head of the Farm School in Boston Harbor, said to me, “I want none of your good boys,—give me the bad ones.” And this is the reason, I suppose, why, as soon as the children are good, the mothers are scared, and think they are going to die. Mirabeau said, “There are none but men of strong passions capable of going to greatness; none but such capable of meriting the public gratitude.” Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring. Any absorbing passion has the effect to deliver from the little coils and cares of every day: ’t is the heat which sets our human atoms spinning, overcomes the friction of crossing thresholds and first addresses in society, and gives us a good start and speed, easy to continue when once it is begun. In short there is no man who is not at some time indebted to his vices, as no plant that is not fed from manures. We only insist that the man meliorate, and that the plant grow upward and convert the base into the better nature.
  The wise workman will not regret the poverty or the solitude which brought out his working talents. The youth is charmed with the fine air and accomplishments of the children of fortune. 13 But all great men come out of the middle classes. ’T is better for the head; ’t is better for the heart. Marcus Antoninus says that Fronto told him that “the so-called high-born are for the most part heartless;” whilst nothing is so indicative of deepest culture as a tender consideration of the ignorant. Charles James Fox said of England, “The history of this country proves that we are not to expect from men in affluent circumstances the vigilance, energy and exertion without which the House of Commons would lose its greatest force and weight. Human nature is prone to indulgence, and the most meritorious public services have always been performed by persons in a condition of life removed from opulence.” And yet what we ask daily, is to be conventional. Supply, most kind gods! this defect in my address, in my form, in my fortunes, which puts me a little out of the ring: supply it, and let me be like the rest whom I admire, and on good terms with them. But the wise gods say, No, we have better things for thee. By humiliations, by defeats, by loss of sympathy, by gulfs of disparity, learn a wider truth and humanity than that of a fine gentleman. 14 A Fifth Avenue landlord, a West End householder, is not the highest style of man; and though good hearts and sound minds are of no condition, yet he who is to be wise for many must not be protected. He must know the huts where poor men lie, and the chores which poor men do. The first-class minds, Æsop, Socrates, Cervantes, Shakspeare, Franklin, had the poor man’s feeling and mortification. A rich man was never insulted in his life; but this man must be stung. A rich man was never in danger from cold, or hunger, or war, or ruffians,—and you can see he was not, from the moderation of his ideas. ’T is a fatal disadvantage to be cockered and to eat too much cake. What tests of manhood could he stand? Take him out of his protections. He is a good book-keeper; or he is a shrewd adviser in the insurance office; perhaps he could pass a college examination, and take his degrees; perhaps he can give wise counsel in a court of law. Now plant him down among farmers, firemen, Indians and emigrants. Set a dog on him; set a highwayman on him; try him with a course of mobs; send him to Kansas, to Pike’s Peak, to Oregon; and if he have true faculty, this may be the element he wants, and he will come out of it with broader wisdom and manly power. 15 Æsop, Saadi, Cervantes, Regnard, have been taken by corsairs, left for dead, sold for slaves, and know the realities of human life.  13
  Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss. As we go gladly to Faneuil Hall to be played upon by the stormy winds and strong fingers of enraged patriotism, so is a fanatical persecution, civil war, national bankruptcy or revolution more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity. What had been, ever since our memory, solid continent, yawns apart and discloses its composition and genesis. We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains, upheaved plains and the dry bed of the sea.  14
  In our life and culture everything is worked up and comes in use,—passion, war, revolt, bankruptcy, and not less, folly and blunders, insult, ennui and bad company. 16 Nature is a rag-merchant, who works up every shred and ort and end into new creations; like a good chemist whom I found the other day in his laboratory, converting his old shirts into pure white sugar. Life is a boundless privilege, and when you pay for your ticket and get into the car, you have no guess what good company you shall find there. You buy much that is not rendered in the bill. Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim.  15
  If now in this connection of discourse we should venture on laying down the first obvious rules of life, I will not here repeat the first rule of economy, already propounded once and again, that every man shall maintain himself,—but I will say, get health. No labor, pains, temperance, poverty, nor exercise, that can gain it, must be grudged. For sickness is a cannibal which eats up all the life and youth it can lay hold of, and absorbs its own sons and daughters. I figure it as a pale, wailing, distracted phantom, absolutely selfish, heedless of what is good and great, attentive to its sensations, losing its soul, and afflicting other souls with meanness and mopings and with ministration to its voracity of trifles. Dr. Johnson said severely, “Every man is a rascal as soon as he is sick.” Drop the cant, and treat it sanely. In dealing with the drunken, we do not affect to be drunk. We must treat the sick with the same firmness, giving them of course every aid,—but withholding ourselves. 17 I once asked a clergyman in a retired town, who were his companions? what men of ability he saw? He replied that he spent his time with the sick and the dying. I said he seemed to me to need quite other company, and all the more that he had this; for if people were sick and dying to any purpose, we would leave all and go to them, but as far as I had observed they were as frivolous as the rest, and sometimes much more frivolous. Let us engage our companions not to spare us. I knew a wise woman who said to her friends, “When I am old, rule me.” And the best part of health is fine disposition. It is more essential than talent, even in the works of talent. Nothing will supply the want of sunshine to peaches, and to make knowledge valuable, you must have the cheerfulness of wisdom. Whenever you are sincerely pleased, you are nourished. The joy of the spirit indicates its strength. All healthy things are sweet-tempered. Genius works in sport, and goodness smiles to the last; and for the reason that whoever sees the law which distributes things, does not despond, but is animated to great desires and endeavors. He who desponds betrays that he has not seen it. 18  16
  ’T is a Dutch proverb that “paint costs nothing,” such are its preserving qualities in damp climates. Well, sunshine costs less, yet is finer pigment. And so of cheerfulness, or a good temper, the more it is spent, the more of it remains. The latent heat of an ounce of wood or stone is inexhaustible. You may rub the same chip of pine to the point of kindling a hundred times; and the power of happiness of any soul is not to be computed or drained. It is observed that a depression of spirits develops the germs of a plague in individuals and nations.  17
  It is an old commendation of right behavior, “Aliis lætus, sapiens sibi,” which our English proverb translates, “Be merry and wise.” I know how easy it is to men of the world to look grave and sneer at your sanguine youth and its glittering dreams. But I find the gayest castles in the air that were ever piled, far better for comfort and for use than the dungeons in the air that are daily dug and caverned out by grumbling, discontented people. I know those miserable fellows, and I hate them, who see a black star always riding through the light and colored clouds in the sky overhead; waves of light pass over and hide it for a moment, but the black star keeps fast in the zenith. But power dwells with cheerfulness; hope puts us in a working mood, whilst despair is no muse, and untunes the active powers. A man should make life and nature happier to us, or he had better never been born. When the political economist reckons up the unproductive classes, he should put at the head this class of pitiers of themselves, cravers of sympathy, bewailing imaginary disasters. An old French verse runs, in my translation:—
  “Some of your griefs you have cured,
  And the sharpest you still have survived;
But what torments of pain you endured
  From evils that never arrived!”
  There are three wants which never can be satisfied: that of the rich, who wants something more; that of the sick, who wants something different; and that of the traveller, who says, ‘Anywhere but here.’ The Turkish cadi said to Layard, “After the fashion of thy people, thou hast wandered from one place to another, until thou art happy and content in none.” My countrymen are not less infatuated with the rococo toy of Italy. All America seems on the point of embarking for Europe. But we shall not always traverse seas and lands with light purposes, and for pleasure, as we say. One day we shall cast out the passion for Europe by the passion for America. Culture will give gravity and domestic rest to those who now travel only as not knowing how else to spend money. Already, who provoke pity like that excellent family party just arriving in their well-appointed carriage, as far from home and any honest end as ever? Each nation has asked successively, ‘What are they here for?’ until at last the party are shamefaced, and anticipate the question at the gates of each town.  19
  Genial manners are good, and power of accommodation to any circumstance; but the high prize of life, the crowning fortune of a man, is to be born with a bias to some pursuit which finds him in employment and happiness,—whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statutes, or songs. I doubt not this was the meaning of Socrates, when he pronounced artists the only truly wise, as being actually, not apparently so.  20
  In childhood we fancied ourselves walled in by the horizon, as by a glass bell, and doubted not by distant travel we should reach the baths of the descending sun and stars. On experiment the horizon flies before us and leaves us on an endless common, sheltered by no glass bell. Yet ’t is strange how tenaciously we cling to that bell-astronomy of a protecting domestic horizon. I find the same illusion in the search after happiness which I observe every summer recommenced in this neighborhood, soon after the pairing of the birds. The young people do not like the town, do not like the sea-shore, they will go inland; find a dear cottage deep in the mountains, secret as their hearts. They set forth on their travels in search of a home: they reach Berkshire; they reach Vermont; they look at the farms;—good farms, high mountain-sides; but where is the seclusion? The farm is near this, ’t is near that; they have got far from Boston, but ’t is near Albany, or near Burlington, or near Montreal. They explore a farm, but the house is small, old, thin; discontented people lived there and are gone;—there’s too much sky, too much outdoors; too public. The youth aches for solitude. When he comes to the house he passes through the house. That does not make the deep recess he sought. ‘Ah! now I perceive,’ he says, ‘it must be deep with persons; friends only can give depth.’ Yes, but there is a great dearth, this year, of friends; hard to find, and hard to have when found: they are just going away; they too are in the whirl of the flitting world, and have engagements and necessities. They are just starting for Wisconsin; have letters from Bremen;—see you again, soon. Slow, slow to learn the lesson that there is but one depth, but one interior, and that is—his purpose. 19 When joy or calamity or genius shall show him it, then woods, then farms, then city shopmen and cabdrivers, indifferently with prophet or friend, will mirror back to him its unfathomable heaven, its populous solitude.  21
  The uses of travel are occasional, and short; but the best fruit it finds, when it finds it, is conversation; and this is a main function of life. What a difference in the hospitality of minds! Inestimable is he to whom we can say what we cannot say to ourselves. Others are involuntarily hurtful to us and bereave us of the power of thought, impound and imprison us. As, when there is sympathy, there needs but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so a blockhead makes a blockhead of his companion. 20 Wonderful power to benumb possesses this brother. When he comes into the office or public room, the society dissolves; one after another slips out, and the apartment is at his disposal. What is incurable but a frivolous habit? A fly is as untamable as a hyena. Yet folly in the sense of fun, fooling or dawdling can easily be borne; as Talleyrand said, “I find nonsense singularly refreshing;” but a virulent, aggressive fool taints the reason of a household. I have seen a whole family of quiet, sensible people unhinged and beside themselves, victims of such a rogue. For the steady wrongheadedness of one perverse person irritates the best; since we must withstand absurdity. But resistance only exasperates the acrid fool, 21 who believes that nature and gravitation are quite wrong, and he only is right. Hence all the dozen inmates are soon perverted, with whatever virtues and industries they have, into contradictors, accusers, explainers and repairers of this one malefactor; like a boat about to be overset, or a carriage run away with,—not only the foolish pilot or driver, but everybody on board is forced to assume strange and ridiculous attitudes, to balance the vehicle and prevent the upsetting. For remedy, whilst the case is yet mild, I recommend phlegm and truth: let all the truth that is spoken or done be at the zero of indifferency, or truth itself will be folly. 22 But when the case is seated and malignant, the only safety is in amputation; as seamen say, you shall cut and run. How to live with unfit companions?—for with such, life is for the most part spent; and experience teaches little better than our earliest instinct of self-defence, namely not to engage, not to mix yourself in any manner with them, but let their madness spend itself unopposed.  22
  Conversation is an art in which a man has all mankind for his competitors, for it is that which all are practising every day while they live. Our habit of thought—take men as they rise—is not satisfying; in the common experience I fear it is poor and squalid. The success which will content them is a bargain, a lucrative employment, an advantage gained over a competitor, a marriage, a patrimony, a legacy and the like. With these objects, their conversation deals with surfaces: politics, trade, personal defects, exaggerated bad news and the rain. This is forlorn, and they feel sore and sensitive. Now if one comes who can illuminate this dark house with thoughts, show them their native riches, what gifts they have, how indispensable each is, what magical powers over nature and men; what access to poetry, religion and the powers which constitute character,—he wakes in them the feeling of worth, his suggestions require new ways of living, new books, new men, new arts and sciences;—then we come out of our egg-shell existence into the great dome, and see the zenith over and the nadir under us. Instead of the tanks and buckets of knowledge to which we are daily confined, we come down to the shore of the sea, and dip our hands in its miraculous waves. ’T is wonderful the effect on the company. They are not the men they were. They have all been to California and all have come back millionaires. There is no book and no pleasure in life comparable to it. Ask what is best in our experience, and we shall say, a few pieces of plain dealing with wise people. Our conversation once and again has apprised us that we belong to better circles than we have yet beheld; that a mental power invites us whose generalizations are more worth for joy and for effect than anything that is now called philosophy or literature. In excited conversation we have glimpses of the universe, hints of power native to the soul, far-darting lights and shadows of an Andes landscape, such as we can hardly attain in lone meditation. Here are oracles sometimes profusely given, to which the memory goes back in barren hours.  23
  Add the consent of will and temperament, and there exists the covenant of friendship. Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can. This is the service of a friend. With him we are easily great. There is a sublime attraction in him to whatever virtue is in us. How he flings wide the doors of existence! 23 What questions we ask of him! what an understanding we have! how few words are needed! It is the only real society. An Eastern poet, Ali Ben Abu Taleb, writes with sad truth:—
  “He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,
And he who has one enemy shall meet him everywhere.”
But few writers have said anything better to this point than Hafiz, who indicates this relation as the test of mental health: “Thou learnest no secret until thou knowest friendship, since to the unsound no heavenly knowledge enters.” Neither is life long enough for friendship. That is a serious and majestic affair, like a royal presence, or a religion, and not a postilion’s dinner to be eaten on the run. There is a pudency about friendship as about love, and though fine souls never lose sight of it, yet they do not name it. 24 With the first class of men our friendship or good understanding goes quite behind all accidents of estrangement, of condition, of reputation. And yet we do not provide for the greatest good of life. We take care of our health; we lay up money; we make our roof tight, and our clothing sufficient; but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the best property of all,—friends? We know that all our training is to fit us for this, and we do not take the step towards it. How long shall we sit and wait for these benefactors?
  It makes no difference, in looking back five years, how you have been dieted or dressed; whether you have been lodged on the first floor or the attic; whether you have had gardens and baths, good cattle and horses, have been carried in a neat equipage or in a ridiculous truck: these things are forgotten so quickly, and leave no effect. But it counts much whether we have had good companions in that time,—almost as much as what we have been doing. And see the overpowering importance of neighborhood in all association. As it is marriage, fit or unfit, that makes our home, so it is who lives near us of equal social degree,—a few people at convenient distance, 25 no matter how bad company,—these, and these only, shall be your life’s companions; and all those who are native, congenial, and by many an oath of the heart sacramented to you, are gradually and totally lost. You cannot deal systematically with this fine element of society, and one may take a good deal of pains to bring people together and to organize clubs and debating-societies, and yet no result come of it. But it is certain that there is a great deal of good in us that does not know itself, and that a habit of union and competition brings people up and keeps them up to their highest point; that life would be twice or ten times life if spent with wise and fruitful companions. The obvious inference is, a little useful deliberation and preconcert when one goes to buy house and land.  25
  But we live with people on other platforms; we live with dependents; not only with the young whom we are to teach all we know and clothe with the advantages we have earned, but also with those who serve us directly, and for money. Yet the old rules hold good. Let not the tie be mercenary, though the service is measured by money. Make yourself necessary to somebody. Do not make life hard to any. This point is acquiring new importance in American social life. Our domestic service is usually a foolish fracas of unreasonable demand on one side and shirking on the other. A man of wit was asked, in the train, what was his errand in the city. He replied, “I have been sent to procure an angel to do cooking.” A lady complained to me that of her two maidens, one was absent-minded and the other was absent-bodied. And the evil increases from the ignorance and hostility of every ship-load of the immigrant population swarming into houses and farms. Few people discern that it rests with the master or the mistress what service comes from the man or the maid; that this identical hussy was a tutelar spirit in one house and a haridan in the other. All sensible people are selfish, and nature is tugging at every contract to make the terms of it fair. If you are proposing only your own, the other party must deal a little hardly by you. 26 If you deal generously, the other, though selfish and unjust, will make an exception in your favor, and deal truly with you. When I asked an ironmaster about the slag and cinder in railroad iron,—“O,” he said, “there ’s always good iron to be had: if there ’s cinder in the iron it is because there was cinder in the pay.”  26
  But why multiply these topics, and their illustrations, which are endless? Life brings to each his task, and whatever art you select, algebra, planting, architecture, poems, commerce, politics,—all are attainable, even to the miraculous triumphs, on the same terms of selecting that for which you are apt; begin at the beginning, proceed in order, step by step. ’T is as easy to twist iron anchors and braid cannons as to braid straw; to boil granite as to boil water, if you take all the steps in order. Wherever there is failure, there is some giddiness, some superstition about luck, some step omitted, which nature never pardons. The happy conditions of life may be had on the same terms. Their attraction for you is the pledge that they are within your reach. Our prayers are prophets. 27 There must be fidelity, and there must be adherence. How respectable the life that clings to its objects! Youthful aspirations are fine things, your theories and plans of life are fair and commendable:—but will you stick? Not one, I fear, in that Common full of people, or, in a thousand, but one: and when you tax them with treachery, and remind them of their high resolutions, they have forgotten that they made a vow. The individuals are fugitive, and in the act of becoming something else, and irresponsible. 28 The race is great, the ideal fair, but the men whiffling and unsure. The hero is he who is immovably centred. The main difference between people seems to be that one man can come under obligations on which you can rely,—is obligable; and another is not. As he has not a law within him, there’s nothing to tie him to.  27
  It is inevitable to name particulars of virtue and of condition, and to exaggerate them. But all rests at last on that integrity which dwarfs talent, and can spare it. Sanity consists in not being subdued by your means. Fancy prices are paid for position and for the culture of talent, but to the grand interests, superficial success is of no account. The man,—it is his attitude,—not feats, but forces,—not on set days and public occasions, but at all hours, and in repose alike as in energy, still formidable and not to be disposed of. The populace says, with Horne Tooke, “If you would be powerful, pretend to be powerful.” I prefer to say, with the old prophet, “Seekest thou great things? seek them not:” 29—or, what was said of a Spanish prince, “The more you took from him, the greater he looked.” Plus on lui ôte, plus il est grand.  28
  The secret of culture is to learn that a few great points steadily reappear, alike in the poverty of the obscurest farm and in the miscellany of metropolitan life, and that these few are alone to be regarded;—the escape from all false ties; courage to be what we are, and love of what is simple and beautiful; independence and cheerful relation, these are the essentials,—these, and the wish to serve, to add somewhat to the well-being of men. 30  29
Note 1. Among the persons who attended Mr. Emerson’s courses of lectures were many who were attracted by his personality, or by friendship, or by his growing fame. Some among these would have found it hard to follow his thoughts’ subtile thread, connecting his periods, or ascend to its higher levels. To these there would have been comfort in a lecture like the present, not professing to deal with an abstract theme,—Fate or Illusion or the like,—but, below the clouds, with the day and its chances, esteemed “good” or “evil,” yet all helpful in the end, human, and with a tone of cheerful health.
  Merlin, the Cymrian bard and enchanter in the legends, still had a charm for this poet and seer of the latter days, and all the fragmentary remains of the songs of the Bards Mr. Emerson read with keen interest. The power of the poet, because a transmitter of divine truth, often in veiled form, yet
  “Clothing the palpable and the familiar
With golden exhalations of the dawn,”
was the one beneficent magic for him.
  In his second volume of poems, May Day, appeared the “Song of Merlin,” which, though a paraphrase of some of the Bardic Fragments, and probably with no connection with the motto of this chapter, might precede it.
  Of Merlin wise I learned a song,—
Sing it low, or sing it loud,
It is mightier than the strong,
And punishes the proud.
I sing it to the surging crowd,—
Good men it will calm and cheer,
Bad men it will chain and cage.
In the heart of the Music peals a strain
Which only angels hear;
Whether it waken joy or rage,
Hushed myriads hark in vain,
Yet they who hear it shed their age,
And take their youth again.
  In the motto poem Merlin gives wise counsels to the son of the great chieftain Cyndyllan: The world is as open and fresh for you as for Adam; man’s hope lies in the better future; do not swaddle yourself with tradition or clog yourself with wealth; live close to nature for health and cheer; show this secret joyfully to others; your own spot of earth is best for you, and all things, including love, are there for you; in your work, if rightly chosen, is such joy that you will ask little time for play, but friendship implies eternity. [back]
Note 2. When you learn to steer by the compass of the Over-Soul, and that “every wave is charmed,” you are ready to “come into port bravely or sail with God the seas.” [back]
Note 3. Amusement, as such, had little attraction for Mr. Emerson, for his thought and reading and work called him, and his joy was in the study of nature and man. A day was a sacred gift, and to be accounted for by each person by some honest work of hand or brain or heart. For a person to devote a fresh morning to a novel or to a game seemed to him unworthy trifling with life. To go to the wood or the shore, especially if alone, was another matter: it might be an act of devotion, or a search for knowledge or inspiration.
  “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little.”
Tennyson, “Ulysses.”    
Note 4. Of this sentence, and of the next paragraph, Dr. Holmes says, in his Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Here we have the doctrine of the ‘saving remnant’ which we have since recognized in Mr. Matthew Arnold’s well-remembered lecture…. After reading what Emerson says about ‘the Masses’ one is tempted to ask whether a philosopher can ever have ‘a constituency’ and be elected to Congress. Certainly the essay … would not make a very promising campaign document.” [back]
Note 5. Here, after his wont, leaving the modifications to another paragraph or essay, Mr. Emerson gave his statement full swing. The bad politics of the day, and the stooping of public men to court the multitude which they should enlighten and lead, no doubt gave heat to the utterance. None the less he had faith in the Republic and in true democracy reconcilable with “natural aristocracy.” To give man his true dignity and scope he must be taken out of the herd that follows the bell-wether. His own work in life was to teach man his worth and possibilities, and that Mr. Emerson sincerely believed in these was shown by his daily attitude towards humble neighbors, or young people, or servants. Moreover, the service was reciprocal, for he said he found that every man could teach him something. His harshness is only for the man who sacrifices his manhood for the mass. Later in the essay he says that if a man is, he is wanted; that he is here is proof that he ought to be. “When I see the doors by which God enters into the mind; that there is no sot or fop, ruffian or pedant into whom thoughts do not enter by passages which the individual never left open, I can expect any revolution in character.”—“Education,” Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 6. In the preceding decade the influence of Fourier, Saint-Simon and others had given rise to many experiments in communistic life. Mr. Emerson had no faith in these. Solitude and self-help were a man’s best instructors and might fit him to “leaven the lump” of society. [back]
Note 7.
  Unit and Universe are round:
In vain produced, all rays return,
Evil will bless and ice will burn.
“Uriel,” Poems.    
Note 8.
  “But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a lover, and attired
With sudden brightness like a man inspired.”
Wordsworth, “Character of the Happy Warrior.”    
Note 9.
  The Cossack eats Poland
Like stolen fruit;
Her last noble is ruined,
Her last poet mute:
Straight, into double band
The victors divide;
Half for freedom strike and stand;—
The astonished Muse finds thousands at her side.
“Ode, inscribed to W. H. Channing,” Poems.    
Note 10. In the poem “Monadnoc” is a passage on the contrast of the rude population around with the uplifting grandeur of the mountain, but the poet presently finds that
  The World-soul knows his own affair,
Forelooking, when he would prepare
For the next ages men of mould.
Note 11. Chaldæan oracle, attributed to Zoroaster. [back]
Note 12. Shakspeare, Measure for Measure, Act V., Scene 1. [back]
Note 13. Compare “The Park” in the Poems. [back]
Note 14. In his journal of 1833. Mr. Emerson said that his brother “Charles’s naïf censure last night provoked me to show him a fact apparently entirely new to him, that my entire success, such as it is, is composed wholly of particular failures, every public work of mine of the least importance having been, probably without exception, noted at the time as a failure.”
  In the poem “Spiritual Laws” it is said,—
  The living Heaven …
*        *        *        *        *
Quarrying man’s rejected hours,
Builds therewith eternal towers;
*        *        *        *        *
Grows by decays,
And, by the famous might that lurks
In reaction and recoil,
Makes flame to freeze and ice to boil;
Forging, through swart arms of Offence,
The silver seat of Innocence.
Note 15. In the journal for 1856 these tests are more strikingly given. “Culture. Set a dog on him; set a highwayman on him; set a woman on him; try him with money. King Alfred, King Richard, Cromwell, George Borrow even, might stand these tests.” [back]
Note 16. In the motto to one of the early essays, Mr. Emerson, after enumerating the alarming Experiences, humanity’s disguised friends, says,—
  Little man, least of all,
Among the legs of his guardians tall,
Walked about with puzzled look.
Him by the hand dear Nature took,
Dearest Nature, strong and kind,
Whispered, “Darling, never mind!
To-morrow they will wear another face,
The founder thou; these are thy race!”
“Experience,” Poems.    
Note 17. Some persons have supposed that Mr. Emerson’s apparent want of sympathy with sickness was due to his having never known it. It is true that from the time he came to Concord his health was almost uniformly good, and he bore well severe exposure in his winter lecturing. But in his youth he had much suffering and interruption to his studies from rheumatism, bad eyes and especially a persistent and threatening cough, on account of which he had to spend the winter of 1827 in the South. By good fortune and timely good sense and a certain toughness of constitution he came through his period of weakness, but his quiet courage and patience were well tested. In the Appendix to the Poems is a juvenile scrap, written while ill at St. Augustine, beginning,—
  I bear in youth the sad infirmities
That use to undo the limb and sense of age.
In his view, to be sick was not the crime, except in so far as it resulted from broken laws, but to misbehave when sick and give way to selfishness and fear. Though hard for him to understand or reconcile himself to sickness, he was tender to sufferers from acute illness. Nervous troubles he could hardly understand or pardon. [back]
Note 18. In stanza v. of the “Fragments on The Poet” (see Poems, Appendix), beginning with lines which occur in the motto to this chapter, the joy and blessing of the poet’s lot remote from strife is told, as also in “Saadi.”
  The proverb from Holland with which the next paragraph opens was often in Mr. Emerson’s mouth, as to the preservative effect of beauty to all composition. [back]
Note 19. While studying at Divinity Hall in November, 1828, Mr. Emerson wrote: “Don’t you see you are the Universe to yourself? You carry your fortunes in your own hand. Change of place won’t mend the matter. You will weave the same web at Pernambuco as at Boston, if you have only learned to make one texture.” [back]
Note 20.
  If Thought unlock her mysteries,
  If Friendship on me smile,
I walk in marble galleries,
  I walk with kings the while.
“Walden,” Poems, Appendix.    
Note 21. The two consecutive texts in the Proverbs of King Solomon—
  “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
  “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit”—seem to have been in Mr. Emerson’s memory. He sometimes spoke very amusingly of the evidence in the Scriptures that the fools must have been prevalent and insistent in Ancient Judæa, as shown by the eager bitterness with which, when the fool is mentioned, the subject on hand is dropped for the moment to dwell on this calamitous interruption to the peace and pursuits of the righteous. [back]
Note 22. The Muse gave the poet an example of how truth should be spoken, impersonally and coldly, for she,—
  When she spread her dearest spells,
Feigned to speak to some one else.
I was free to overhear,
Or I might at will forbear;
Yet mark me well, that idle word
Thus at random overheard
Was the symphony of spheres,” etc.
“Fragments on The Poet,” Poems, Appendix.    
  Elsewhere Mr. Emerson said, “Truth ceased to be truth when polemically stated.” [back]
Note 23.
  My careful heart was free again,
O friend, my bosom said,
Through thee alone the sky is arched,
Through thee the rose is red;
All things through thee take nobler form,
And look beyond the earth,
The mill-round of our fate appears
A sun-path in thy worth.
“Friendship,” Poems.    
Note 24. The motto of this chapter ends with urging friendship as an argument for immortality. Like Immortality, Mr. Emerson says in his essay on “Friendship,” “it is too good to be believed.” In the Appendix to the Poems is printed the following verse, called Eros, from the Dial:
  They put their finger on their lip,
    The Powers above;
The seas their islands clip,
The moons in ocean dip,
They love, but name not love.
Note 25. This “convenient distance” was a carefully chosen word, two edged. For a man whose work specially called him to solitude, yet who needed and valued society, that distance had to be nicely graded. [back]
Note 26. He thought out the other party’s point of view so naturally and justly that he was always loved or respected by those about him. [back]
Note 27.
  And though thy knees were never bent,
To Heaven thy hourly prayers are sent,
And, whether formed for good or ill,
Are registered and answered still.
“Prayer,” Poems, Appendix.    
Note 28.
  All the forms are fugitive
But the substances survive.
Note 29. Jeremiah xlv. 5. [back]
Note 30.
  And ye shall succor men;
’T is nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve.
*        *        *        *        *
I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.
“Boston Hymn,” Poems.    

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