Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
VI. The Superlative
  WHEN wrath and terror changed Jove’s regal port
And the rash-leaping thunderbolt fell short.

  FOR Art, for Music overthrilled,
The wine-cup shakes, the wine is spilled.

THE DOCTRINE 1 of temperance is one of many degrees. It is usually taught on a low platform, but one of great necessity,—that of meats and drinks, and its importance cannot be denied and hardly exaggerated. But it is a long way from the Maine Law to the heights of absolute self-command which respect the conservatism of the entire energies of the body, the mind, and the soul. I wish to point at some of its higher functions as it enters into mind and character.
  There is a superlative temperament which has no medium range, but swiftly oscillates from the freezing to the boiling point, and which affects the manners of those who share it with a certain desperation. Their aspect is grimace. They go tearing, convulsed through life,—wailing, praying, exclaiming, swearing. We talk, sometimes, with people whose conversation would lead you to suppose that they had lived in a museum, where all the objects were monsters and extremes. Their good people are phœnixes; their naughty are like the prophet’s figs. They use the superlative of grammar: “most perfect,” “most exquisite,” “most horrible.” Like the French, they are enchanted, they are desolate, because you have got or have not got a shoe-string or a wafer you happen to want,—not perceiving that superlatives are diminutives, and weaken; that the positive is the sinew of speech, the superlative the fat. If the talker lose a tooth, he thinks the universal thaw and dissolution of things has come. Controvert his opinion and he cries “Persecution!” and reckons himself with Saint Barnabas, who was sawn in two.  2
  Especially we note this tendency to extremes in the pleasant excitement of horror-mongers. Is there something so delicious in disasters and pain? Bad news is always exaggerated, and we may challenge Providence to send a fact so tragical that we cannot contrive to make it a little worse in our gossip.  3
  All this comes of poverty. We are unskilful definers. From want of skill to convey quality, we hope to move admiration by quantity. Language should aim to describe the fact. It is not enough to suggest it and magnify it. Sharper sight would indicate the true line. ’T is very wearisome, this straining talk, these experiences all exquisite, intense and tremendous,—“The best I ever saw;” “I never in my life!” One wishes these terms gazetted and forbidden. Every favorite is not a cherub, nor every cat a griffin, nor each unpleasing person a dark, diabolical intriguer; nor agonies, excruciations nor ecstasies our daily bread.  4
  Horace Walpole relates that in the expectation, current in London a century ago, of a great earthquake, some people provided themselves with dresses for the occasion. But one would not wear earthquake dresses or resurrection robes for a working jacket, nor make a codicil to his will whenever he goes out to ride; and the secrets of death, judgment and eternity are tedious when recurring as minute-guns. Thousands of people live and die who were never, on a single occasion, hungry or thirsty, or furious or terrified. The books say, “It made my hair stand on end!” Who, in our municipal life, ever had such an experience? Indeed, I believe that much of the rhetoric of terror,—“It froze my blood,” “It made my knees knock,” etc.—most men have realized only in dreams and nightmares.  5
  Then there is an inverted superlative, or superlative contrary, which shivers, like Demophoön, in the sun: wants fan and parasol on the cold Friday; is tired by sleep; feeds on drugs and poisons; finds the rainbow a discoloration; hates birds and flowers.  6
  The exaggeration of which I complain makes plain fact the more welcome and refreshing. It is curious that a face magnified in a concave mirror loses its expression. All this overstatement is needless. A little fact is worth a whole limbo of dreams, and I can well spare the exaggerations which appear to me screens to conceal ignorance. Among these glorifiers, the coldest stickler for names and dates and measures cannot lament his criticism and coldness of fancy. Think how much pains astronomers and opticians have taken to procure an achromatic lens. Discovery in the heavens has waited for it; discovery on the face of the earth not less. I hear without sympathy the complaint of young and ardent persons that they find life no region of romance, with no enchanter, no giant, no fairies, nor even muses. I am very much indebted to my eyes, and am content that they should see the real world, always geometrically finished without blur or halo. The more I am engaged with it, the more it suffices.  7
  How impatient we are, in these northern latitudes, of looseness and intemperance in speech! Our measure of success is the moderation and low level of an individual’s judgment. Doctor Channing’s piety and wisdom had such weight that, in Boston, the popular idea of religion was whatever this eminent divine held. But I remember that his best friend, a man of guarded lips, speaking of him in a circle of his admirers, said: “I have known him long, I have studied his character, and I believe him capable of virtue.” 2 An eminent French journalist paid a high compliment to the Duke of Wellington, when his documents were published: “Here are twelve volumes of military dispatches, and the word glory is not found in them.”  8
  The English mind is arithmetical, values exactness, likes literal statement; stigmatizes any heat or hyperbole as Irish, French, Italian, and infers weakness and inconsequence of character in speakers who use it. It does not love the superlative but the positive degree. Our customary and mechanical existence is not favorable to flights; long nights and frost hold us pretty fast to realities. The people of English stock, in all countries, are a solid people, wearing good hats and shoes, and owners of land whose title-deeds are properly recorded. Their houses are of wood, and brick, and stone, not designed to reel in earthquakes, nor blow about through the air much in hurricanes, nor to be lost under sand-drifts, nor to be made bonfires of by whimsical viziers; but to stand as commodious, rentable tenements for a century or two. All our manner of life is on a secure and moderate pattern, such as can last. Violence and extravagance are, once for all, distasteful; competence, quiet, comfort, are the agreed welfare.  9
  Ever a low style is best. “I judge by every man’s truth of his degree of understanding,” said Chesterfield. And I do not know any advantage more conspicuous which a man owes to his experience in markets and the Exchange, or politics, than the caution and accuracy he acquires in his report of facts. “Uncle Joel’s news is always true,” said a person to me with obvious satisfaction, and said it justly; for the old head, after deceiving and being deceived many times, thinks, “What’s the use of having to unsay to-day what I said yesterday? I will not be responsible; I will not add an epithet. I will be as moderate as the fact, and will use the same expression, without color, which I received; and rather repeat it several times, word for word, than vary it ever so little.” 3  10
  The first valuable power in a reasonable mind, one would say, was the power of plain statement, or the power to receive things as they befall, and to transfer the picture of them to another mind unaltered. ’T is a good rule of rhetoric which Schlegel gives,—“In good prose, every word is underscored;” which, I suppose, means, Never italicize.  11
  Spartans, stoics, heroes, saints and gods use a short and positive speech. They are never off their centres. As soon as they swell and paint and find truth not enough for them, softening of the brain has already begun. 4 It seems as if inflation were a disease incident to too much use of words, and the remedy lay in recourse to things. I am daily struck with the forcible understatement of people who have no literary habit. The low expression is strong and agreeable. The citizen dwells in delusions. His dress and draperies, house and stables, occupy him. The poor countryman, having no circumstance of carpets, coaches, dinners, wine and dancing in his head to confuse him, is able to look straight at you, without refraction or prismatic glories, and he sees whether you see straight also, or whether your head is addled by this mixture of wines.  12
  The common people diminish: “a cold snap;” “it rains easy;” “good haying weather.” When a farmer means to tell you that he is doing well with his farm, he says, “I don’t work as hard as I did, and I don’t mean to.” When he wishes to condemn any treatment of soils or of stock, he says, “It won’t do any good.” Under the Catskill Mountains the boy in the steamboat said, “Come up here, Tony; it looks pretty out-of-doors.” The farmers in the region do not call particular summits, as Killington, Camel’s Hump, Saddle-back, etc., mountains, but only “them ’ere rises,” and reserve the word mountains for the range.  13
  I once attended a dinner given to a great state functionary by functionaries,—men of law, state and trade. The guest was a great man in his own country and an honored diplomatist in this. His health was drunk with some acknowledgment of his distinguished services to both countries, and followed by nine cold hurrahs. There was the vicious superlative. Then the great official spoke and beat his breast, and declared that he should remember this honor to the latest moment of his existence. He was answered again by officials. Pity, thought I, they should lie so about their keen sensibility to the nine cold hurrahs and to the commonplace compliment of a dinner. Men of the world value truth, in proportion to their ability; not by its sacredness, but for its convenience. Of such, especially of diplomatists, one has a right to expect wit and ingenuity to avoid the lie if they must comply with the form. Now, I had been present, a little before, in the country at a cattle-show dinner, which followed an agricultural discourse delivered by a farmer: the discourse, to say the truth, was bad; and one of our village fathers gave at the dinner this toast: “The orator of the day: his subject deserves the attention of every farmer.” The caution of the toast did honor to our village father. I wish great lords and diplomatists had as much respect for truth.  14
  But whilst thus everything recommends simplicity and temperance of action; the utmost directness, the positive degree, we mean thereby that “rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument.” 5 Whenever the true objects of action appear, they are to be heartily sought. Enthusiasm is the height of man; it is the passing from the human to the divine.  15
  The superlative is as good as the positive, if it be alive. If man loves the conditioned, he also loves the unconditioned. We don’t wish to sin on the other side, and to be purists, nor to check the invention of wit or the sally of humor. ’T is very different, this weak and wearisome lie, from the stimulus to the fancy which is given by a romancing talker who does not mean to be exactly taken,—like the gallant skipper who complained to his owners that he had pumped the Atlantic Ocean three times through his ship on the passage, and ’t was common to strike seals and porpoises in the hold. Or what was similarly asserted of the late Lord Jeffrey, at the Scottish bar,—an attentive auditor declaring on one occasion after an argument of three hours, that he had spoken the whole English language three times over in his speech.  16
  The objection to unmeasured speech is its lie. All men like an impressive fact. The astronomer shows you in his telescope the nebula of Orion, that you may look on that which is esteemed the farthest-off land in visible nature. At that Bank of England they put a scrap of paper that is worth a million pounds sterling into the hands of the visitor to touch. Our travelling is a sort of search for the superlatives or summits of art,—much more the real wonders of power in the human form. The arithmetic of Newton, the memory of Magliabecchi or Mirandola, 6 the versatility of Julius Cæsar, the concentration of Bonaparte, the inspiration of Shakspeare, are sure of commanding interest and awe in every company of men.  17
  The superlative is the excess of expression. We are a garrulous, demonstrative kind of creatures, and cannot live without much outlet for all our sense and nonsense. And fit expression is so rare that mankind have a superstitious value for it, and it would seem the whole human race agree to value a man precisely in proportion to his power of expression; and to the most expressive man that has existed, namely, Shakspeare, they have awarded the highest place.  18
  The expressors are the gods of the world, but the men whom these expressors revere are the solid, balanced, undemonstrative citizens, who make the reserved guard, the central sense, of the world. For the luminous object wastes itself by its shining,—is luminous because it is burning up; and if the powers are disposed for display, there is all the less left for use and creation. The talent sucks the substance of the man. Superlatives must be bought by too many positives. Gardens of roses must be stripped to make a few drops of otto. And these raptures of fire and frost, which indeed cleanse pedantry out of conversation and make the speech salt and biting, would cost me the days of well-being which are now so cheap to me, yet so valued. I like no deep stakes. I am a coward at gambling. I will bask in the common sun a while longer.  19
  Children and thoughtless people like exaggerated event and activity; like to run to a house on fire, to a fight, to an execution; like to talk of a marriage, of a bankruptcy, of a debt, of a crime. The wise man shuns all this. I knew a grave man who, being urged to go to a church where a clergyman was newly ordained, said “he liked him very well, but he would go when the interesting Sundays were over.”  20
  All rests at last on the simplicity of nature, or real being. Nothing is for the most part less esteemed. We are fond of dress, of ornament, of accomplishments, of talents, but distrustful of health, of soundness, of pure innocence. Yet Nature measures her greatness by what she can spare, by what remains when all superfluity and accessories are shorn off.  21
  Nor is there in Nature itself any swell, any brag, any strain or shock, but a firm common sense through all her elephants and lions, through all her ducks and geese; a true proportion between her means and her performance. Semper sibi similis. 7 You shall not catch her in any anomalies, nor swaggering into any monsters. In all the years that I have sat in town and forest, I never saw a winged dragon, a flying man, or a talking fish, but ever the strictest regard to rule, and an absence of all surprises. No; Nature encourages no looseness, pardons no errors; freezes punctually at 32°, boils punctually at 212° crystallizes in water at one invariable angle, in diamond at one, in granite at one; and if you omit the smallest condition, the experiment will not succeed. 8 Her communication obeys the gospel rule, yea or nay. She never expatiates, never goes into the reasons. Plant beechmast and it comes up, or it does not come up. Sow grain, and it does not come up: put lime into the soil and try again, and this time she says yea. To every question an abstemious but absolute reply. The like staidness is in her dealings with us. Nature is always serious,—does not jest with us. Where we have begun in folly, we are brought quickly to plain dealing. Life could not be carried on except by fidelity and good earnest; and she brings the most heartless trifler to determined purpose presently. The men whom she admits to her confidence, the simple and great characters, are uniformly marked by absence of pretension and by understatement. The old and the modern sages of clearest insight are plain men, who have held themselves hard to the poverty of Nature. 9  22
  The firmest and noblest ground on which people can live is truth; the real with the real; a ground on which nothing is assumed, but where they speak and think and do what they must, because they are so and not otherwise. 10  23
  But whilst the basis of character must be simplicity, the expression of character, it must be remembered, is, in great degree, a matter of climate. In the temperate climates there is a temperate speech, in torrid climates an ardent one. Whilst in Western nations the superlative in conversation is tedious and weak, and in character is a capital defect, Nature delights in showing us that in the East it is animated, it is pertinent, pleasing, poetic. 11 Whilst she appoints us to keep within the sharp boundaries of form as the condition of our strength, she creates in the East the uncontrollable yearning to escape from limitation into the vast and boundless; to use a freedom of fancy which plays with all the works of Nature, great or minute, galaxy or grain of dust, as toys and words of the mind; inculcates the tenet of a beatitude to be found in escape from all organization and all personality, and makes ecstasy an institution.  24
  Religion and poetry are all the civilization of the Arab. “The ground of Paradise,” said Mohammed, “is extensive, and the plants of it are hallelujahs.” Religion and poetry: the religion teaches an inexorable destiny; it distinguishes only two days in each man’s history, the day of his lot, and the day of judgment. The religion runs into asceticism and fate. 12 The costume, the articles in which wealth is displayed, are in the same extremes. Thus the diamond and the pearl, which are only accidental and secondary in their use and value to us, are proper to the Oriental world. The diver dives a beggar, and rises with the price of a kingdom in his hand. A bag of sequins, a jewel, a balsam, a single horse, constitute an estate in countries where insecure institutions make every one desirous of concealable and convertible property. Shall I say, further, that the Orientals excel in costly arts, in the cutting of precious stones, in working in gold, in weaving on hand-looms costly stuffs from silk and wool, in spices, in dyes and drugs, henna, otto and camphor, and in the training of slaves, elephants and camels,—things which are the poetry and superlative of commerce.  25
  On the other hand,—and it is good illustration of the difference of genius,—the European nations, and, in general, all nations in proportion to their civilization, understand the manufacture of iron. One of the meters of the height to which any civility rose is the skill in the fabric of iron. Universally, the better gold, the worse man. The political economist defies us to show any gold-mine country that is traversed by good roads: or a shore where pearls are found on which good schools are erected. The European civility, or that of the positive degree, is established by coal-mines, by ventilation, by irrigation and every skill—in having water cheap and pure, by iron, by agriculture for bread-stuffs, and manufacture of coarse and family cloths. Our modern improvements have been in the invention of friction matches; of india-rubber shoes; of the famous two parallel bars of iron; then of the air-chamber of Watt, and of the judicious tubing of the engine, by Stephenson, in order to the construction of locomotives. 13  26
  Meantime, Nature, who loves crosses and mixtures, makes these two tendencies necessary each to the other, and delights to reinforce each peculiarity by imparting the other. The Northern genius finds itself singularly refreshed and stimulated by the breadth and luxuriance of Eastern imagery and modes of thinking, which go to check the pedantry of our inventions and the excess of our detail. There is no writing which has more electric power to unbind and animate the torpid intellect than the bold Eastern muse.  27
  If it come back, however, to the question of final superiority, it is too plain that there is no question that the star of empire rolls West: that the warm sons of the Southeast have bent the neck under the yoke of the cold temperament and the exact understanding of the North-Western races. 14  28
Note 1. In November, 1847, shortly after his arrival in England, Mr. Emerson gave a lecture on the Superlative, in his course of four before the Manchester Athenæum. Mr. Ireland says that it was also read in London. It underwent modification and received additions later. As it stands now, it was printed in the Century Magazine in February, 1882.
  In connection with this essay, it is pleasant to give this tribute to Mr. Emerson’s power of winning his way with hearers, taken from a newspaper article in the year 1879, apropos of his reading “The Superlative” at that time to the students at Amherst College:—
  “In truth there was something wonderful in the way his unaggressive mind has melted away all opposition. It was my privilege to hear him read … ‘The Superlative, or Mental Temperance,’ to an audience certainly as orthodox as can be had in Massachusetts. Years ago, when Mr. Emerson was announced to lecture in that place, only one room in the town was at his disposal, and a union prayer-meeting was appointed in the same building and at the same hour as the lecture, in order to keep the people away. At his last visit he occupied the platform of the College Hall, and President Julius H. Seelye introduced him, using very aptly and tenderly Emerson’s own words, ‘The hand that rounded Peter’s dome,’” etc. [back]
Note 2. This was Jonathan Phillips, an esteemed Bostonian whose words Mr. Emerson on several occasions noted in the journals. [back]
Note 3. The following is from one of the notebooks:—
  “The excellence of what I call the Low Superlative is shown in Newton’s praise of Cotes, ‘If he had lived, we should have known something,’ or in the mot which I found in D’Herbelot, ‘If the poems of Dhoair Fariabi fall into thy hands, steal them, though it were in the temple of Mecca;’ or in Tom Appleton’s speech about Shakspeare, ‘ He’ll do.’
  “‘The whistling of cannon-balls affected him so unpleasantly that he withdrew’ from the army.—Herr Von P. in Life of Carl Loewe, Dwight.” [back]
Note 4. The portion of the lecture about the temperance of the Greek mind is omitted from the essay. I give the following:—
  “To Beauty the positive degree is essential. Accuracy is essential to beauty; and the old Latin verse declares that ‘the Graces are slow to unbind their zone.’ Temperance seems the genius of the Greeks, who were the nation of beauty,—Temperance in rhetoric, painting, sculpture and architecture.
  “Temperance too in our partial sense; for Simonides said: ‘Bacchus rejoices in being mixed, himself the fourth, with three nymphs;’ i.e., wine with three parts water.
  “Observe the studied moderation of their phrases. In Athens the Pelasgicon was a strip of land under the western wall of the citadel. A curse had been pronounced on any who should tenant it, and the oracle declared it, ‘Better untrodden.’ Especially users of the positive degree were the Spartans, who wrote to be read, and spoke to be understood; whose laws were not written. The first Greek Olympiad is the boundary of fable and credible history. Nothing is more remarkable than the severe simplicity of their building, held aloft by just enough support, and all superfluity removed; translating the prose of a wall into the poetry of a colonnade.
  “They called Intellect the science of metes and bounds. Greek architecture is geometry. Its temples are diagrams in marble, and not appeals to the imagination, like the Gothic—they are powers of the square and cube. They are productions of the same mind that led Thales to show the Egyptians how to measure the height of their pyramid, by sticking his staff into the ground at the extremity of the shadow of the pyramid and computing it by the Rule of Three, or the famous 47th proposition by Pythagoras,—
  “‘When the famed lines Pythagoras devised
  For which a hecatomb he sacrificed,’—
and the beautiful command of the Delphian Apollo to the Athenians, that they should double his altar, which was a cube (and the doubling the cube being a test of mathematical skill).” [back]
Note 5. Hamlet, Act IV., Scene 4. [back]
Note 6. Antonio Maglibecchi (1633–1714), the son of a Florentine goldsmith, was a remarkable collector of books, and scholar, and became librarian to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to whom he left his great library, which the Duke gave to the city.
  Giovanni Pico, son of the prince of Mirandola (1463–94), a very remarkable and brilliant scholar. He was versed in Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldee, and devoted himself to sacred letters. He came under the influence of Savonarola, and in the later years of his short life showed great piety and beauty of character. [back]
Note 7. This was a saying of Linnæus, the great botanist. [back]
Note 8. In one of the manuscript sheets this sentence ends thus: “The most powerful means are the cheapest; fire, water, fresh air, bodily activity, the stroke of the hand, a kind eye, a serene face,—these are the drugs of Æsculapius and Galen, and these leave the apothecary’s shop to inferior and busier doctors. Peu de moyens, beaucoup d’effet.” [back]
Note 9. Two scraps from the lecture might here be given: “The legs of a throne are the plough, the oar, the anvil and the sewing-machine.” “I am sorry to find that among the Norse deities was the god Brage, celebrated for his eloquence and majestic mien.” [back]
Note 10. See in “Aristocracy,” “The terrible aristocracy that is in Nature. Real people dwelling with the real face to face undaunted,” etc. [back]
Note 11. The following is from the lecture-sheets on the subject of the Superlative:—
  “In India, it is colossal, and though occasionally confounding us from our want of all key to the apologue, often beautiful. The picture which the Mahabarat gives of the wars of the Suras and Asuras, of the churning the Ocean with the Meron mountain to obtain the drops of the Amreeta, or liquor of immortality, is in the gigantic taste, but is pleasing, and the terrible earnestness of the belief in Fate lends an energy to the picture of all conflicts, such as those of the enemies of Hari. What can be more tender than the assertion that ‘the flame of the funeral pile is cool to the widow,’ what more daring than the picture the Brahmins give of the beatitude of contemplative absorption when they declare, that ‘Heavenly fruition is an impediment to felicity’?
  “In the infancy of society, in barbarous nations, it is as pleasing as berries and game: in the Arabian Nights, we have the living Superlative; the fragments of Persian border poetry are gay, light and exhilarating.
  “Better yet when we come full on (that desirable person) Hafiz, the model of lyric grace and felicity, the Æolian harp hung in grapevines and harem windows,—Hafiz, the foam of the cup, the sheen of the waterfall,—all whose poetry is a superlative, yet in whom it is native.” [back]
Note 12. “It was quite coincident with this habit of thought, the alternative which the Arabians carried with them in their triumphant march, the Koran or the Sword. With the like extreme, the Prophet encouraged his followers: ‘By the God of Abu Taleb’s son I swear that a thousand beheadings were easier than one death-bed.’ ‘The saint’s best blush in Heaven is his heart’s blood red.’” [back]
Note 13. In the essay on Plato (Representative Men, pp. 52–54) the Oriental and Occidental habits of mind are contrasted, the East loving infinity, the West delighting in boundaries. [back]
Note 14. This passage followed in the lecture:—
  “Perhaps this dominion of the positive degree is to proceed much farther; that our life has at present far too much inflation. European history is the age of wine, age of miscellany, of appetite, of ponderous expense. I call it the age of wine. The age of water, the simpler and sublimer condition, when the wine is gone inward, or the constitution has powers of original chemistry and can draw the wine of wine from water, as the earth out of loam and silex educes the orange, the pomegranate, plum, peach, pineapple and grape, the Rus Ruris, the age of gardens, the age of Temperance, of bread-eaters and water-drinkers; of simple and sincere speech and dealing; the age of the users of the positive degree;—is yet in its coming.”
  Here is a fragment that did duty probably in “The Superlative,” though parts of it are now elsewhere printed:—
  “The rule of positive and superlative is this. As long as you deal with things from your common sense, or as other people in the street, call things by their right names. But every man may be (as some men are) raised to a platform whence he sees beyond sense to moral and spiritual truth; when he no longer sees snow as snow, or horses as horses, but only sees or names them representatively, for those interior facts which they signify. This is the way prophets, this is the way poets use them. And in that exaltation small and great are as one, the mind strings worlds like beads upon its thought. The success with which this is done can alone determine how genuine is the inspiration.” [back]

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