The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Philosophy V.

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By Professor Chester Noyes Greenough

" HE IS," said Matthew Arnold of Emerson, "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." These well-known words are perhaps the best expression of the somewhat vague yet powerful and inspiring effect of Emerson's courageous but disjointed philosophy.


Descended from a long line of New England ministers, Emerson, finding himself fettered by even the most liberal ministry of his day, gently yet audaciously stepped down from the pulpit and, with little or no modification in his interests or utterances, became the greatest lay preacher of his time. From the days of his undergraduate essay upon "The Present State of Ethical Philosophy" he continued to be preoccupied with matters of conduct: whatever the object of his attention—an ancient poet, a fact in science, or an event in the morning newspaper—he contrives to extract from it a lesson which in his ringing, glistening style he drives home as an exhortation to a higher and more independent life.


Historically, Emerson marks one of the largest reactions against the Calvinism of his ancestors. That stern creed had taught the depravity of man, the impossibility of a natural, unaided growth toward perfection, and the necessity of constant and anxious effort to win the unmerited reward of being numbered among the elect. Emerson starts with the assumption that the individual, if he can only come into possession of his natural excellence, is the most god-like of creatures. Instead of believing with the Calvinist that as a man grows better he becomes more unlike his natural self (and therefore can become better only by an act of divine mercy), Emerson believes that as a man grows in excellence he becomes more like his natural self. It is common to hear the expression, when one is deeply stirred, as by sublime music or a moving discourse: "That fairly lifted me out of myself." Emerson would have said that such influences lift us into ourselves.


For one of Emerson's most fundamental and frequently recurring ideas[1] is that of a "great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere," an "Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other," which "evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty."[2] This is the incentive - the sublime incentive of approaching the perfection which is ours by nature and by divine intention - that Emerson holds out when he asks us to submit us to ourselves to all instructive influences. These instructive influences, according to Emerson, are chiefly Nature, the Past, and Society. Let us notice how Emerson bids us use these influences to help us into our higher selves.


Nature, which he says[3] "is loved by what is best in us," is all about us, inviting our perception of its remotest and most cosmic principles by surrounding us with its simpler manifestations. "A man does not tie his shoe without recognizing laws which bind the farthest regions of nature."[4] Thus man "carries the world in his head."[5] Whether he be a great scientist, proving by his discovery of a sweeping physical law that he has some such constructive sense as that which guides the universe, or whether he be a poet beholding trees as "imperfect men," who "seem to bemoan their imprisonment, rooted in the ground,"[6] he is being brought into his own by perceiving "the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind of material objects, whether inorganic or organized."[7]


Ranging over time and space with astonishing rapidity and binding names and things together that no ordinary vision could connect, Emerson calls the Past also to witness the need of self-reliance and a steadfast obedience to intuition.[8] The need of such independence, he thought, was particularly great for the student, who so easily becomes overawed by the great names of the Past and reads "to believe and take for granted."[9] This should not be, nor can it be if we remember what we are. "Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books."[10] When we sincerely find, therefore, that we cannot agree with the Past, then, says Emerson, we must break with it, no matter how great the prestige of its messengers. But often the Past does not disappoint us; often it assists us in our quest to become our highest selves. For in the Past there have been many men of genius; and, inasmuch as the man of genius has come nearer to being continually conscious of his relation to the Over-Soul, it follows that the genius is actually more ourselves than we are. So we often have to fall back upon more gifted souls to interpret for us what we mean but cannot say. Any supreme triumph of expression, therefore, should arouse in us not humility, still less discouragement, but renewed consciousness that "one nature wrote and the same reads."[11] So it is in travel or in any other form of contact with the Past: we cannot derive any profit or see any new thing except we remember that "the world is nothing, the man is all."[12]


Similar are the uses of Society. More clearly than in Nature or in the Past, we see in certain other people such likeness to ourselves, and receive from the perception of that likeness such inspiration, that a real friend "may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature."[13] Yet elsewhere Emerson has more than once urged us not to be "too much acquainted"[14] : all our participation in the life of our fellows, though rich with courtesy and sympathy, must be free from bending and copying. We must use the fellowship of Society to freshen, and never to obscure, "the recollection of the grandeur of our destiny."[15]


Such, in some attempt at an organization, are a few of Emerson's favorite ideas, which occur over and over again, no matter what may be the subject of the essay. Though Emerson was to some degree identified, in his own time, with various movements which have had little or no permanent effect, yet as we read him now we find extraordinarily little that suggests the limitations of his time and locality. Often there are whole paragraphs which if we had read them in Greek would have seemed Greek. The good sense which kept him clear of Brook Farm because he thought Fourier "had skipped no fact but one, namely life," kept him clear from many similar departures into matters which the twenty-first century will probably not remember. This is as it should be in the essay, which by custom draws the subjects for its "dispersed meditations" from the permanent things of this world, such as Friendship, Truth, Superstition, and Honor. One of Emerson's sources of strength, therefore, is his universality.


Another source of Emerson's strength is his extraordinary compactness of style and his range and unexpectedness of illustration. His gift for epigram is, indeed, such as to make us long for an occasional stretch of leisurely commonplace. But Emerson always keeps us up—not less by his memorable terseness than by his startling habit of illustration. He loves to dart from the present to the remotest past, to join names not usually associated, to link pagan with Christian, or human with divine, in single rapid sentences, such as that[16] about "Scipio, and the Cid, and Sir Philip Sidney, and Washington, and every pure and valiant heart, who worshiped Beauty by word or by deed."

Not less notable than his universality of thought, his compactness of style, and his swiftness and range of illustration, is Emerson's delightful benignity of tone. It would be hard to find any one whose opposition is so high minded, whose refusal is so gentle, whose good will—though perhaps never anxious—is so uniformly evident. The sweetness of Emerson's face, as we know it from his most famous portrait, is to be felt throughout his work.

If, in spite of all these admirable qualities, Emerson's ideas seem too vague and unsystematic to satisfy those who feel that they could perhaps become Emersonians if there were only some definite articles to sign, it must be remembered that Emerson wishes to develop independence rather than apostleship, and that when men revolt from a system because they believe it to be too definite and oppressive, they are likely to go to the other extreme. That Emerson did go so far toward this extreme identifies him with a period notable for its enthusiastic expansion of thought. That he did not systematize or restrict means that he was obedient to the idea that what really matters is not that by exact terminology, clever tactics, and all the niceties of reasoning a system of philosophy shall be made tight and impregnable for others to adopt, but rather that each of us may be persuaded to hitch his own particular wagon to whatever star for him shines brightest.

  1. Perhaps most clearly put in "The Over-Soul," Harvard Classics, v, 133ff.
  2. H. C., v, 134.
  3. H. C., v, 227.
  4. H. C., v, 230.
  5. H. C. v, 230.
  6. H. C.', v, 229.
  7. H. C., v, 237.
  8. The uses of the past and the right spirit in which to approach it, are finely set forth in "The American Scholar" (H. C., v, 5ff).
  9. Bacon, "Of Studies" (H. C., iii, 122).
  10. H. C., v, 9.
  11. H. C., v, 10, 11.
  12. H. C., v, 22.
  13. H. C., v, 112.
  14. H. C., v, 208.
  15. H. C., v, 209.
  16. H. C., v, 213.