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Ralph Waldo Emerson - American Leader

Written by: Charles William Eliot

Ralph Waldo Emerson - American Leader

Emerson was not a logician or reasoner, and not a rhetorician, in the common sense. He was a poet, who wrote chiefly in prose, but also in verse. His verse was usually rough, but sometimes finished and melodious; it was always extraordinarily concise and expressive. During his engagement to the lady who became his second wife, he wrote thus to her: "I am born a poet,—of a low class without doubt, yet a poet; that is my nature and vocation. My singing, be sure, is very husky, and is, for the most part, in prose. Still, I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondences between these and those."

This husky poet had his living to get. His occupations in life were those of the teacher, minister, lecturer, and author. He was a teacher at various times between 1818 and 1826; but he never liked teaching. He was a preacher at intervals from 1826 to 1847, but a settled minister only from 1829 to 1832. His career as a lecturer began in the autumn of 1833; and his first book, "Nature," was published in 1836, when he was thirty-three years old. His lectures for money were given as a rule during the winter and early spring; and for thirty years the travelling he was obliged to do in search of audiences was often extremely fatiguing, and not without serious hardships and exposures. These occupations usually gave him an income sufficient for his simple wants; but there were times when outgo exceeded income. The little property his first wife left him ($1200 a year) relieved him from serious pecuniary anxiety by 1834; although it did not relieve him from earning by his own labor the livelihood of his family.

In 1834 he went to live in Concord, where his grandfather had been the minister at the time of the Revolution, and in 1835 he bought the house and grounds there which were his home for the rest of his days. Before settling in Concord, he had spent one winter and spring (1826-27) in the Southern states, and seven months of 1833 in Europe. Both of these absences were necessitated by the state of his health, which was precarious during his young manhood. With these exceptions, he had lived in Boston or its immediate neighborhood, until he settled in Concord. His progenitors on both sides were chiefly New England ministers. His formal education was received in the Boston Latin School and Harvard College, and was therefore purely local. How narrow and provincial seems his experience of life! A little city, an isolated society, a country village! Yet through books, and through intercourse with intelligent persons, he was really "set in a large place." The proof of this largeness, and of the keenness of his mental and moral vision, is that, in regard to some of the chief concerns of mankind, he was a seer and a fore-seer. This prophetic quality of his I hope to demonstrate to-night in three great fields of thought—education, social organization, and religion.

Although a prophet and inspirer of reform, Emerson was not a reformer. He was but a halting supporter of the reforms of his day; and the eager experimenters and combatants in actual reforms found him a disappointing sort of sympathizer. His visions were far-reaching, his doctrines often radical, and his exhortations fervid; but when it came to action, particularly to habitual action, he was surprisingly conservative. With an exquisite candor, and a gentle resolution of rarest quality he broke his strong ties to the Second Church of Boston before he was thirty years old, abandoning the profession for which he had been trained, and which, in many of its aspects, he honored and enjoyed; yet he attended church on Sundays all his life with uncommon regularity. He refused to conduct public prayer, and had many things to say against it; but when he was an Overseer of Harvard College, he twice voted to maintain the traditional policy of compelling all the students to attend morning prayers, in spite of the fact that a large majority of the Faculty urgently advocated abandoning that policy. He manifested a good deal of theoretical sympathy with the community experiments at Brook Farm and Fruitlands; but he declined to take part in them himself. He was intimate with many of the leading abolitionists; but no one has described more vividly their grave intellectual and social defects. He laid down principles which, when applied, would inevitably lead to progress and reform; but he took little part in the imperfect step-by-step process of actual reforming. He probably would have been an ineffective worker in any field of reform; and, at any rate, strenuous labor on applications of his philosophy would have prevented him from maintaining the flow of his philosophic and prophetic visions. The work of giving practical effect to his thought was left for other men to do,—indeed for generations of other serviceable men, who, filled with his ideals, will slowly work them out into institutions, customs, and other practical values.

When we think of Emerson as a prophet, we at once become interested in the dates at which he uttered certain doctrines, or wrote certain pregnant sentences; but just here the inquirer meets a serious difficulty. He can sometimes ascertain that a given doctrine or sentence was published at a given date; but he may be quite unable to ascertain how much earlier the doctrine was really formulated, or the sentence written. Emerson has been dead twenty-one years, and it is thirty years since he wrote anything new; but his whole philosophy of life was developed by the time he was forty years old, and it may be doubted if he wrote anything after 1843, the germinal expression of which may not be found in his journals, sermons, or lectures written before that date. If, therefore, we find in the accepted thought, or established institutions, of to-day recent developments of principles and maxims laid down by Emerson, we may fairly say that his thought outran his times certainly by one, and probably by two generations of men.


I take up now the prophetic teachings of Emerson with regard to education. In the first place, he saw, with a clearness to which very few people have yet attained, the fundamental necessity of the school as the best civilizing agency, next to steady labor, and the only sure means of permanent and progressive reform. He says outright: "We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education. What we call our root-and-branch reforms, of slavery, war, gambling, intemperance, is only medicating the symptoms. We must begin higher up—namely, in education." He taught that if we hope to reform mankind, we must begin not with adults, but with children: we must begin in the school. There are some signs that this doctrine has now at last entered the minds of the so-called practical men. The Cubans are to be raised in the scale of civilization and public happiness; so both they and we think they must have more and better schools. The Filipinos, too, are to be developed after the American fashion; so we send them a thousand teachers of English. The Southern states are to be rescued from the persistent poison of slavery; and, after forty years of failure with political methods, we at last accept Emerson's doctrine, and say: We must begin earlier,—at school. The city slums are to be redeemed; and the scientific charity workers find the best way is to get the children into kindergartens and manual training schools.

Since the Civil War, a whole generation of educational administrators has been steadily at work developing what is called the elective system in the institutions of education which deal with the ages above twelve. It has been a slow, step-by-step process, carried on against much active opposition and more sluggish obstruction. The system is a method of educational organization which recognizes the immense expansion of knowledge during the nineteenth century, and takes account of the needs and capacities of the individual child and youth. Now, Emerson laid down in plain terms the fundamental doctrines on which this elective system rests. He taught that the one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil, dissipation. He said: "You must elect your work: you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest." To this exhortation he added the educational reason for it,—only by concentration can the youth arrive at the stage of doing something with his knowledge, or get beyond the stage of absorbing, and arrive at the capacity for producing. As Emerson puts it, "Only so can that amount of vital force accumulate which can make the step from knowing to doing." The educational institutions of to-day have not yet fully appreciated this all-important step from knowing to doing. They are only beginning to perceive that, all along the course of education, the child and the youth should be doing something as well as learning something; should be stimulated and trained by achievement; should be constantly encouraged to take the step beyond seeing and memorizing to doing,—the step, as Emerson says, "out of a chalk circle of imbecility into fruitfulness." Emerson carried this doctrine right on into mature life. He taught that nature arms each man with some faculty, large or small, which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, and thus makes him necessary to society; and that this faculty should determine the man's career. The advocates of the elective system have insisted that its results were advantageous for society as a whole, as well as for the individual. Emerson put this argument in a nutshell at least fifty years ago: "Society can never prosper, but must always be bankrupt, until every man does that which he was created to do."

Education used to be given almost exclusively through books. In recent years there has come in another sort of education through tools, machines, gardens, drawings, casts, and pictures. Manual training, shop-work, sloyd, and gardening have come into use for the school ages; the teaching of trades has been admitted to some public school systems; and, in general, the use of the hands and eyes in productive labor has been recognized as having good educational effects. The education of men by manual labor was a favorite doctrine with Emerson. He had fully developed it as early as 1837, and he frequently recurred to it afterwards. In December of that year, in a course of lectures on Human Culture, he devoted one lecture to The Hands. He saw clearly that manual labor might be made to develop not only good mental qualities, but good moral qualities. To-day, it is frequently necessary for practical teachers, who are urging measures of improvement, to point this out, and to say, just as Emerson said two generations ago, that any falseness in mechanical work immediately appears; that a teacher can judge of the moral quality of each boy in the class before him better and sooner from manual work than from book-work. Emerson taught that manual labor is the study of the external world; that the use of manual labor never grows obsolete, and is inapplicable to no person. He said explicitly that "a man should have a farm or a mechanical craft for his culture"; that there is not only health, but education in garden work; that when a man gets sugar, hominy, cotton, buckets, crockery ware, and letter paper by simply signing his name to a cheque, it is the producers and carriers of these articles that have got the education they yield, he only the commodity; and that labor is God's education. This was Emerson's doctrine more than sixty years ago. It is only ten years since the Mechanic Arts High School was opened in Boston.

We are all of us aware that within the last twenty years there has been a determined movement of the American people toward the cultivation of art, and toward the public provision of objects which open the sense of beauty and increase public enjoyment. It is curious to see how literally Emerson prophesied the actual direction of these efforts:—

"On the city's paved street
Plant gardens lined with lilac sweet;
Let spouting fountains cool the air,
Singing in the sun-baked square;
Let statue, picture, park, and hall,
Ballad, flag, and festival
The past restore, the day adorn,
And make to-morrow a new morn!"

We have introduced into our schools, of late years, lessons in drawing, modelling, and designing,—not sufficiently, but in a promising and hopeful way. Emerson taught that it is the office of art to educate the perception of beauty; and he precisely describes one of the most recent of the new tendencies in American education and social life, when he says: "Beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten." That sentence is the inspiration of one of the most recent of the efforts to improve the arts and crafts, and to restore to society the artistic craftsman. But how slow is the institutional realization of this ideal of art education! We are still struggling in our elementary and secondary schools to get a reasonable amount of instruction in drawing and music, and to transfer from other subjects a fair allotment of time to these invaluable elements of true culture, which speak a universal language. Yet the ultimate object of art in education is to teach men to see nature to be beautiful and at the same time useful, beautiful because alive and reproductive, useful while symmetrical and fair. Take up to-day the last essays on education, the last book on landscape architecture, or the freshest teachings of the principles of design, and you will find them penetrated with Emerson's doctrine of art as teacher of mankind. Emerson insists again and again that true culture must open the sense of beauty; that "a man is a beggar who only lives to the useful." It will probably require several generations yet to induce the American people to accept his doctrine that all moments and objects can be embellished, and that cheerfulness, serenity, and repose in energy are the "end of culture and success enough."

It has been clearly perceived of late that a leading object in education is the cultivation of fine manners. On this point the teachings of Emerson are fundamental; but the American institutions of education are only beginning to appreciate their significance. He teaches that genius or love invents fine manners, "which the baron and the baroness copy very fast, and by the advantage of a palace better the instruction. They stereotype the lesson they have learned into a mode." There is much in that phrase, "by the advantage of a palace." For generations, American institutions of education were content with the humblest sort of shelters, with plain wooden huts and brick barracks, and unkempt grounds about the buildings. They are only lately beginning to acquire fine buildings with pleasing surroundings; that is, they are just beginning to carry into practice Emerson's wisdom of sixty years ago. The American cities are beginning to build handsome houses for their High Schools. Columbia University builds a noble temple for its library. The graduates and friends of Harvard like to provide her with a handsome fence round the Yard, with a fair array of shrubs within the fence, with a handsome stadium instead of shabby, wooden seats round the football gridiron, and to take steps for securing in the future broad connections between the grounds of the University and the Cambridge parks by the river. They are just now carrying into practice Emerson's teaching; by the advantage of a palace they mean to better Harvard's instruction in manners. They are accepting his doctrine that "manners make the fortune of the ambitious youth; that for the most part his manners marry him, and, for the most part, he marries manners. When we think what keys they are, and to what secrets; what high lessons, and inspiring tokens of character they convey, and what divination is required in us for the reading of this fine telegraph,—we see what range the subject has, and what relations to convenience, power, and beauty."

In Emerson's early days there was nothing in our schools and colleges which at all corresponded to what we now know too much about under the name of athletic sports. The elaborate organization of these sports is a development of the last thirty years in our schools and colleges; but I find in Emerson the true reason for the athletic cult, given a generation before it existed among us. Your boy "hates the grammar and Gradus, and loves guns, fishing-rods, horses, and boats. Well, the boy is right, and you are not fit to direct his bringing-up, if your theory leaves out his gymnastic training.... Football, cricket, archery, swimming, skating, climbing, fencing, riding are lessons in the art of power, which it is his main business to learn.... Besides, the gun, fishing-rod, boat, and horse constitute, among all who use them, secret free-masonries." We shall never find a completer justification of athletic sports than that.

In his memorable address on The American Scholar, which was given at Cambridge in 1837, Emerson pointed out that the function of the scholar should include creative action, or, as we call it in these days, research, or the search for new truth. He says: "The soul active ... utters truth, or creates.... In its essence it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius.... They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward. Man hopes: genius creates. Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his;—cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame." And more explicitly still, he says: "Colleges have their indispensable office,—to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create." When Emerson wrote this passage, the spirit of research, or discovery, or creation had not yet breathed life into the higher institutions of learning in our country; and to-day they have much to do and to acquire before they will conform to Emerson's ideal.

There are innumerable details in which Emerson anticipated the educational experiences of later generations. I can cite but two of them. He taught that each age must write its own books; "or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this." How true that is in our own day when eighty thousand new books come from the press of the civilized world in a single year! Witness the incessant remaking or re-casting of the books of the preceding generation! Emerson himself has gone into thousands of books in which his name is never mentioned. Even history has to be re-written every few years, the long-surviving histories being rather monuments of style and method than accepted treasuries of facts. Again, contrary to the prevailing impression that the press has, in large measure, stripped eloquence of its former influence, Emerson taught that "if there ever was a country where eloquence was a power, it is the United States." He included under eloquence the useful speech, all sorts of political persuasion in the great arena of the Republic, and the lessons of science, art, and religion which should be "brought home to the instant practice of thirty millions of people," now become eighty. The colleges and universities have now answered in the affirmative Emerson's question, "Is it not worth the ambition of every generous youth to train and arm his mind with all the resources of knowledge, of method, of grace, and of character to serve such a constituency?" But then Emerson's definition of eloquence is simple, and foretells the practice of to-day rather than describes the practice of Webster, Everett, Choate, and Winthrop, his contemporaries: "Know your fact; hug your fact. For the essential thing is heat, and heat comes of sincerity.... Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak."


I turn next to some examples of Emerson's anticipation of social conditions, visible to him as seer in his own day, and since become plain to the sight of the ordinary millions. When he accumulated in his journals the original materials of his essay on Worship, there were no large cities in the United States in the present sense of that term. The great experiment of democracy was not far advanced, and had not developed many of its sins and dangers; yet how justly he presented them in the following description: "In our large cities, the population is godless, materialized,—no bond, no fellow-feeling, no enthusiasm. These are not men, but hungers, thirsts, fevers, and appetites walking. How is it people manage to live on, so aimless as they are?... There is faith in chemistry, in meat and wine, in wealth, in machinery, in the steam-engine, galvanic battery, turbine wheels, sewing-machines, and in public opinion, but not in divine causes."

In Emerson's day, luxury in the present sense had hardly been developed in our country; but he foresaw its coming, and its insidious destructiveness. "We spend our incomes for paint and paper, for a hundred trifles, I know not what, and not for the things of a man. Our expense is almost all for conformity. It is for cake that we run in debt; it is not the intellect, not the heart, not beauty, not worship, that costs us so much. Why needs any man be rich? Why must he have horses, fine garments, handsome apartments, access to public houses and places of amusement? Only for want of thought.... We are first thoughtless, and then find that we are moneyless. We are first sensual and then must be rich." He foresaw the young man's state of mind to-day about marriage—I must have money before I can marry; and deals with it thus: "Give us wealth and the home shall exist. But that is a very imperfect and inglorious solution of the problem, and therefore no solution. Give us wealth! You ask too much. Few have wealth; but all must have a home. Men are not born rich; in getting wealth the man is generally sacrificed, and often is sacrificed without acquiring wealth at last."

We have come to understand by experience that the opinion of masses of men is a formidable power which can be made safe and useful. In earlier days this massed opinion was either despised or dreaded; and it is dreadful, if either confined or misdirected. Emerson compares it to steam. Studied, economized, and directed, steam has become the power by which all great labors are done. Like steam is the opinion of political masses! If crushed by castles, armies, and police, dangerously explosive; but if furnished with schools and the ballot, developing "the most harmless and energetic form of a state." His eyes were wide open to some of the evil intellectual effects of democracy. The individual is too apt to wear the time-worn yoke of the multitude's opinions. No multiplying of contemptible units can produce an admirable mass. "If I see nothing to admire in a unit, shall I admire a million units?" The habit of submitting to majority rule cultivates individual subserviency. He pointed out two generations ago that the action of violent political parties in a democracy might provide for the individual citizen a systematic training in moral cowardice.

It is interesting, at the stage of industrial warfare which the world has now reached, to observe how Emerson, sixty years ago, discerned clearly the absurdity of paying all sorts of service at one rate, now a favorite notion with some labor unions. He points out that even when all labor is temporarily paid at one rate, differences in possessions will instantly arise: "In one hand the dime became an eagle as it fell, and in another hand a copper cent. For the whole value of the dime is in knowing what to do with it." Emerson was never deceived by a specious philanthropy, or by claims of equality which find no support in the nature of things. He was a true democrat, but still could say: "I think I see place and duties for a nobleman in every society; but it is not to drink wine and ride in a fine coach, but to guide and adorn life for the multitude by forethought, by elegant studies, by perseverance, self-devotion, and the remembrance of the humble old friend,—by making his life secretly beautiful." How fine a picture of the democratic nobility is that!

In his lecture on Man the Reformer, which was read before the Mechanics' Apprentices' Association in Boston in January, 1841, Emerson described in the clearest manner the approaching strife between laborers and employers, between poor and rich, and pointed out the cause of this strife in the selfishness, unkindness, and mutual distrust which ran through the community. He also described, with perfect precision, the only ultimate remedy,—namely, the sentiment of love. "Love would put a new face on this weary old world in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too long.... The virtue of this principle in human society in application to great interests is obsolete and forgotten. But one day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine." It is more than sixty years since those words were uttered, and in those years society has had large experience of industrial and social strife, of its causes and consequences, and of many attempts to remedy or soften it; but all this experience only goes to show that there is but one remedy for these ills. It is to be found in kindness, good fellowship, and the affections. In Emerson's words, "We must be lovers, and at once the impossible becomes possible." The world will wait long for this remedy, but there is no other.

Like every real seer and prophet whose testimony is recorded, Emerson had intense sympathy with the poor, laborious, dumb masses of mankind, and being a wide reader in history and biography, he early arrived at the conviction that history needed to be written in a new manner. It was long before Green's History of the English People that Emerson wrote: "Hence it happens that the whole interest of history lies in the fortunes of the poor." In recent years this view of history has come to prevail, and we are given the stories of institutions, industries, commerce, crafts, arts, and beliefs, instead of the stories of dynasties and wars. For Emerson it is always feats of liberty and wit which make epochs of history. Commerce is civilizing because "the power which the sea requires in the sailor makes a man of him very fast." The invention of a house, safe against wild animals, frost, and heat, gives play to the finer faculties, and introduces art, manners, and social delights. The discovery of the post office is a fine metre of civilization. The sea-going steamer marks an epoch; the subjection of electricity to take messages and turn wheels marks another. But, after all, the vital stages of human progress are marked by steps toward personal, individual freedom. The love of liberty was Emerson's fundamental passion:—

"For He that ruleth high and wise,
Nor pauseth in His plan,
Will take the sun out of the skies
Ere freedom out of man."

The new National League of Independent Workmen of America has very appropriately taken its motto from Emerson:—

"For what avail the plough or sail
Or land or life, if freedom fail?"

The sympathetic reader of Emerson comes often upon passages written long ago which are positively startling in their anticipation of sentiments common to-day and apparently awakened by very recent events. One would suppose that the following passage was written yesterday. It was written fifty-six years ago. "And so, gentlemen, I feel in regard to this aged England, with the possessions, honors, and trophies, and also with the infirmities of a thousand years gathering around her, irretrievably committed as she now is to many old customs which cannot be suddenly changed; pressed upon by the transitions of trade, and new and all incalculable modes, fabrics, arts, machines, and competing populations,—I see her not dispirited, not weak, but well remembering that she has seen dark days before;—indeed with a kind of instinct that she sees a little better in a cloudy day, and that in storm of battle and calamity, she has a secret vigor and a pulse like a cannon."

Before the Civil War the Jew had no such place in society as he holds to-day. He was by no means so familiar to Americans as he is now. Emerson speaks twice of the Jew in his essay on Fate, in terms precisely similar to those we commonly hear to-day: "We see how much will has been expended to extinguish the Jew, in vain.... The sufferance which is the badge of the Jew has made him in these days the ruler of the rulers of the earth." Those keen observations were made certainly more than forty years ago, and probably more than fifty.

Landscape architecture is not yet an established profession among us, in spite of the achievements of Downing, Cleveland, and Olmsted and their disciples; yet much has been accomplished within the last twenty-five years to realize the predictions on this subject made by Emerson in his lecture on The Young American. He pointed out in that lecture that the beautiful gardens of Europe are unknown among us, but might be easily imitated here, and said that the landscape art "is the Fine Art which is left for us.... The whole force of all arts goes to facilitate the decoration of lands and dwellings.... I look on such improvement as directly tending to endear the land to the inhabitant." The following sentence might have been written yesterday, so consistent is it with the thought of to-day: "Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and infuse into them the passion for country life and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art the native but hidden graces of the landscape." In regard to books, pictures, statues, collections in natural history, and all such refining objects of nature and art, which heretofore only the opulent could enjoy, Emerson pointed out that in America the public should provide these means of culture and inspiration for every citizen. He thus anticipated the present ownership by cities, or by endowed trustees, of parks, gardens, and museums of art or science, as well as of baths and orchestras. Of music in particular he said: "I think sometimes could I only have music on my own terms; could I ... know where I could go whenever I wished the ablution and inundation of musical waves,—that were a bath and a medicine." It has been a long road from that sentence, written probably in the forties, to the Symphony Orchestra in this Hall, and to the new singing classes on the East Side of New York City.

For those of us who have attended to the outburst of novels and treatises on humble or squalid life, to the copious discussions on child-study, to the masses of slum literature, and to the numerous writings on home economics, how true to-day seems the following sentence written in 1837: "The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life are the topics of the time."


I pass now to the last of the three topics which time permits me to discuss,—Emerson's religion. In no field of thought was Emerson more prophetic, more truly a prophet of coming states of human opinion, than in religion. In the first place, he taught that religion is absolutely natural,—not supernatural, but natural:—

"Out from the heart of Nature rolled
The burdens of the Bible old."

He believed that revelation is natural and continuous, and that in all ages prophets are born. Those souls out of time proclaim truth, which may be momentarily received with reverence, but is nevertheless quickly dragged down into some savage interpretation which by and by a new prophet will purge away. He believed that man is guided by the same power that guides beast and flower. "The selfsame power that brought me here brought you," he says to beautiful Rhodora. For him worship is the attitude of those "who see that against all appearances the nature of things works for truth and right forever." He saw good not only in what we call beauty, grace, and light, but in what we call foul and ugly. For him a sky-born music sounds "from all that's fair; from all that's foul:"—

"'Tis not in the high stars alone,
Nor in the cups of budding flowers,
Nor in the redbreast's mellow tone,
Nor in the bow that smiles in showers,
But in the mud and scum of things
There alway, alway something sings."

The universe was ever new and fresh in his eyes, not spent, or fallen, or degraded, but eternally tending upward:—

"No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew."

When we come to his interpretation of historical Christianity, we find that in his view the life and works of Jesus fell entirely within the field of human experience. He sees in the deification of Jesus an evidence of lack of faith in the infinitude of the individual human soul. He sees in every gleam of human virtue not only the presence of God, but some atom of His nature. As a preacher he had no tone of authority. A true non-conformist himself, he had no desire to impose his views on anybody. Religious truth, like all other truth, was to his thought an unrolling picture, not a deposit made once for all in some sacred vessel. When people who were sure they had drained that vessel, and assimilated its contents, attacked him, he was irresponsive or impassive, and yielded to them no juicy thought; so they pronounced him dry or empty. Yet all of Emerson's religious teaching led straight to God,—not to a withdrawn creator, or anthropomorphic judge or king, but to the all-informing, all-sustaining soul of the universe.

It was a prophetic quality of Emerson's religious teaching that he sought to obliterate the distinction between secular and sacred. For him all things were sacred, just as the universe was religious. We see an interesting fruition of Emerson's sowing in the nature of the means of influence, which organized churches and devout people have, in these later days, been compelled to resort to. Thus the Catholic Church keeps its hold on its natural constituency quite as much by schools, gymnasiums, hospitals, entertainments, and social parades as it does by its rites and sacraments. The Protestant Churches maintain in city slums "settlements," which use the secular rather than the so-called sacred methods. The fight against drunkenness, and the sexual vice and crimes of violence which follow in its train, is most successfully maintained by eliminating its physical causes and providing mechanical and social protections.

For Emerson inspiration meant not the rare conveyance of supernatural power to an individual, but the constant incoming into each man of the "divine soul which also inspires all men." He believed in the worth of the present hour:—

"Future or Past no richer secret folds,
O friendless Present! than thy bosom holds."

He believed that the spiritual force of human character imaged the divine:—

"The sun set, but set not his hope:
Stars rose; his faith was earlier up:
Fixed on the enormous galaxy,
Deeper and older seemed his eye."

Yet man is not an order of nature, but a stupendous antagonism, because he chooses and acts in his soul. "So far as a man thinks, he is free." It is interesting to-day, after all the long discussion of the doctrine of evolution, to see how the much earlier conceptions of Emerson match the thoughts of the latest exponents of the philosophic results of evolution.

The present generation of scholars and ministers has been passing through an important crisis in regard to the sacred books of Judaism and Christianity. All the features of the contest over "the higher criticism" are foretold by Emerson in "The American Scholar." "The poet chanting was felt to be a divine man; henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit; henceforward it is settled the book is perfect. Colleges are built on it; books are written on it.... Instantly the book becomes noxious; the guide is a tyrant." This is exactly what has happened to Protestantism, which substituted for infallible Pope and Church an infallible Book; and this is precisely the evil from which modern scholarship is delivering the world.

In religion Emerson was only a nineteenth-century non-conformist instead of a fifteenth or seventeenth century one. It was a fundamental article in his creed that, although conformity is the virtue in most request, "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist." In the midst of increasing luxury, and of that easygoing, unbelieving conformity which is itself a form of luxury, Boston, the birthplace of Emerson, may well remember with honor the generations of non-conformists who made her, and created the intellectual and moral climate in which Emerson grew up. Inevitably, to conformists and to persons who still accept doctrines and opinions which he rejected, he seems presumptuous and consequential. In recent days we have even seen the word "insolent" applied to this quietest and most retiring of seers. But have not all prophets and ethical teachers had something of this aspect to their conservative contemporaries? We hardly expect the messages of prophets to be welcome; they imply too much dissatisfaction with the present.

The essence of Emerson's teaching concerning man's nature is compressed into the famous verse:—

"So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can."

The cynic or the fall-of-man theologian replies—Grandeur indeed, say rather squalor and shame. To this ancient pessimism Emerson makes answer with a hard question—"We grant that human life is mean, but how did we find out that it was mean?" To this question no straight answer has been found, the common answer running in a circle. It is hard indeed to conceive of a measure which will measure depths but not heights; and besides, every measure implies a standard.


I have endeavored to set before you some of the practical results of Emerson's visions and intuitions, because, though quite unfit to expound his philosophical views, I am capable of appreciating some of the many instances in which his words have come true in the practical experience of my own generation. My own work has been a contribution to the prosaic, concrete work of building, brick by brick, the new walls of old American institutions of education. As a young man I found the writings of Emerson unattractive, and not seldom unintelligible. I was concerned with physical science, and with routine teaching and discipline; and Emerson's thinking seemed to me speculative and visionary. In regard to religious belief, I was brought up in the old-fashioned Unitarian conservatism of Boston, which was rudely shocked by Emerson's excursions beyond its well-fenced precincts. But when I had got at what proved to be my lifework for education, I discovered in Emerson's poems and essays all the fundamental motives and principles of my own hourly struggle against educational routine and tradition, and against the prevailing notions of discipline for the young; so when I was asked to speak to you to-night about him, although I realized my unfitness in many respects for such a function, I could not refuse the opportunity to point out how many of the sober, practical undertakings of to-day had been anticipated in all their principles by this solitary, shrewd, independent thinker, who, in an inconsecutive and almost ejaculatory way, wrought out many sentences and verses which will travel far down the generations.

I was also interested in studying in this example the quality of prophets in general. We know a good deal about the intellectual ancestors and inspirers of Emerson; and we are sure that he drank deep at many springs of idealism and poetry. Plato, Confucius, Shakespeare, and Milton were of his teachers; Oken, Lamarck, and Lyell lent him their scientific theories; and Channing stirred the residuum which came down to him through his forbears from Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. All these materials he transmuted and moulded into lessons which have his own individual quality and bear his stamp. The precise limits of his individuality are indeterminable, and inquiry into them would be unprofitable. In all probability the case would prove to be much the same with most of the men that the world has named prophets, if we knew as much of their mental history as we know of Emerson's. With regard to the Semitic prophets and seers, it is reasonable to expect that as Semitic exploration and discovery advance, the world will learn much about the historical and poetical sources of their inspiration. Then the Jewish and Christian peoples may come nearer than they do now to Emerson's conceptions of inspiration and worship, of the naturalness of revelation and religion, and of the infinite capacities of man. Meantime, it is an indisputable fact that Emerson's thought has proved to be consonant with the most progressive and fruitful thinking and acting of two generations since his working time. This fact, and the sweetness, fragrance, and loftiness of his spirit, prophesy for him an enduring power in the hearts and lives of spiritually-minded men.




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