Many years ago I had the chance of laying up an interesting reminiscence. Lowell took me to visit Emerson in his house at Concord, and, as it happened, had to leave me to perform the function of an interviewer by myself. But instead of recording an impression, I have to make a confession. I was young enough at that time to believe in great authors, and to desire to offer acceptable incense. Unluckily, I had not read a word of Emerson, and on the way I had innocently confided to Lowell that I took him to be a kind of Carlyle. I did not know that Lowell had drawn an inimitably witty contrast between the two, beginning—
There are persons mole-blind to the soul's make and style,
Who insist on a likeness 'twixt him and Carlyle.
Though he did not accuse me of 'mole-blindness,' Lowell managed to intimate courteously that I was somehow in the dark. The sense of my ignorance struck me dumb. The brilliant remark which was to show at once that I appreciated Emerson and that my appreciation was worth having, refused to present itself. What Emerson thought of the intruder I know not, but our conversation fell hopelessly flat; and I was a happy man when Lowell relieved guard. I came away, indeed, with a certain impression of my host's personal simplicity and dignity. If I had not offered homage he had not shown the least wish that I should fall upon my knees, and had received me as at least a human being—a claim upon his courtesy which he admitted like a true democrat. Still, I was left with a problem unsolved. Emerson's ablest countrymen, I found, were never tired of expressing their gratitude to him. He had pronounced their 'literary Declaration of Independence.' His first lectures had made an epoch. He had removed the scales from their eyes, revealed the barrenness of the intellectual wilderness in which they had been wandering, and given them a Pisgah-sight of a new land 'flowing with freedom's honey and milk.' The question remained: What was the secret of his power? Then and since I have tried to answer it, partly by the obvious expedient of reading his books, and partly by reading various criticisms. I hope that I have learnt something, in spite of grave disqualifications. I was not impressed at the impressible age, and do not in any case belong to the class which takes most freely the impression of the Emersonian stamp. Yet it may be of some interest to more congenial disciples to know how their prophet affects one of the profane vulgar. If some rays from the luminary can pierce the opaque medium of my Philistinism it will show their intrinsic brilliance.
Matthew Arnold characteristically explained to an American audience that Emerson was not a great poet, nor a great philosopher, nor even a great man of letters. For all that, he was the friend and aider 'of those who would live in the spirit.' Perhaps the phrase is a little vague, though it, no doubt, indicates the truth. Emerson was the founder and leader of the American 'Transcendentalists,' and Transcendentalists, I suppose, were people who professed to 'live in the spirit.' The name is alarming, but it represents a very harmless and a very commendable phenomenon. In Emerson's youth his countrymen were in need of a sharp intellectual shock. Their understanding, in Coleridgean phrase—the faculty which is useful in clearing forests and accumulating dollars—was thoroughly wide-awake; but their reason—the faculty which cultivates poetry and 'divine philosophy'—had somehow sunk into slumber. A vague craving for better things had been roused, though by no leader with authoritative credentials. There were no trained professors profoundly learned in the past history of thought to come forward and propound new solutions of the enigma of the universe. Active but superficially educated youths were ready to take for a beacon any light, ancient or modern, of which they happened to catch a glimpse. Some enthusiasts had vague impressions that there was such a thing as German philosophy, and had heard of Schelling through Cousin or Coleridge. One swore by Pythagoras; and others took up Plotinus, or found what they wanted in Swedenborg or in Jacob Behmen, or set up some mystic doctrine of their own. 'Transcendentalism' took its name from Kant, but implied no familiarity with Kant's special metaphysical system. It meant a 'wave of sentiment'—a vague desire for some kind of intellectual flying machine—some impulse that would lift you above the prosaic commonplace world into the charmed regions of philosophy and poetry. Emerson had no more academical training than his followers, and, in one sense, was certainly not a 'great philosopher.' If 'philosophy' means such a logical system as was worked out by Kant or Hegel, he was not a philosopher at all. He positively disliked such philosophies. 'Who,' he asked, 'has not looked into a metaphysical book? And what sensible man ever looked twice?' You may collate and distil all the systems, he declared, and you will get nothing by it. We have as yet nothing but 'tendency and indication.' Systems are merely the outside husk, worthless except as a temporary embodiment of the essential truth. Emerson, that is, is a denizen of the region where philosophy is not differentiated from poetry. 'I am,' he said, 'in all my theory, ethics, and politics, a poet'; and he ridicules the impression that his 'transcendentalism' was, as some people fancied, 'a known and fixed element, like salt or meal'—a rigid and definite creed. All the argument and all the wisdom, he declares, is not in the treatise on metaphysics, 'but in the sonnet or the play.' Transcendentalism, indeed, had its philosophical affinities: it represented idealism as against materialism; or, as Emerson occasionally puts it, takes the side of Plato against Locke. Lockism is the influx of 'decomposition and prose,' while Platonism means growth. The Platonic is the poetic tendency; the 'so-called scientific' is the negative and poisonous. Spenser, Burns, Byron, and Wordsworth will be Platonists; and 'the dull men will be Lockists.'
The average American had fallen into such 'Lockism,' and Emerson, when he came to England, found the fully-blown type flourishing and triumphant. The 'brilliant Macaulay,' he said, represented the spirit of the governing classes, and Macaulay had explicitly declared (in his essay on Bacon) that 'good' meant simply solid, sensual benefits—good food and good clothes and material comfort. Emerson does not argue with men in whom the faculty of vision is non-existent or clouded by want of use. He is content simply to see. One result is indicated in the charming correspondence with Carlyle. Each most cordially appreciated the merits of the other, and Carlyle, like Emerson, called himself a 'mystic,' and soared above 'Lockism.' But the visions of the two took a very different colouring. Emerson praises Sartor Resartus with a characteristic qualification. Carlyle's grim humour and daring flights of superabundant imagination cover a 'simple air,' he complains, with a 'volley of variations.' You are, he says, dispensing 'that which is rarest, the simplest truths, truths which lie next to consciousness, which only the Platos and the Goethes perceive,' and he hopes for the hour 'when the word will be as simple and so as resistless as the thought'; for the hour, that is, when a Carlyle will be an Emerson. To find effective utterance for these 'simplest truths' is, in fact, Emerson's special function. The difficulty of the task is proverbial. A simple truth is a very charming thing; but it has an uncomfortable trick of sinking into a truism. If you try to make it something more it is apt to collide with other simple truths. The function of the system-maker is to persuade the various truths to keep the peace by assigning to each its proper limits and stating it with due reserves and qualifications. But that is precisely what Emerson altogether declines to do. The most obvious peculiarity of his style corresponds. His lectures are a 'mosaic' of separate sentences; each, as he put it himself, an 'infinitely repellent particle.' Carlyle, praising the beauty and simplicity of his sentences, complains that the paragraph is not 'a beaten ingot,' but 'a beautiful square bag of duckshot held together by canvas.' Proverbs, says Emerson, are statements of an absolute truth, and thus the sanctuary of the intuitions. They are, indeed, absolute statements of truth; and for that reason, as Sancho Panza might have pointed out, you can always quote a proverb on each side of every alternative. Solomon tells us to answer and also not to answer a fool according to his folly. 'More haste, worse speed' is true; but it is equally true that 'the early bird catches the worm.' Emerson is a master of the gnomic utterances which are to the cultivated what proverbs are to the vulgar. He is well aware that they are not always reconcilable; but it is not his function to reconcile them. He cares nothing for consistency. He wishes to say what he feels to-day with 'the proviso that to-morrow, perhaps, I shall contradict it all.' 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. … With consistency a great soul has nothing whatever to do. … Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.' The peculiarity seems to have annoyed his friends with a turn for logic. Argument was for him an absurdity. He approved as a rule for a debating society (what often enough corresponds to the practice) that no one should reply to a previous speaker. You thought that you had contradicted him; he placidly accepted both your statements and his own. He is simply playing a different tune, not denying that yours may be harmonious. The region of simple truths would seem to be altogether above the sphere in which controversy is possible. You should never conform to a church or sect, or to public opinion or to your own past utterances. Leave the truths to assimilate by spontaneous affinity.
One charm of Emerson is due to this affable reception of all opinions. On his first appearance in a pulpit he is described as 'the most gracious of mortals, with a face all benignity,' and preached with an indefinite air of simplicity and wisdom. His lectures radiate benignity and simplicity. He has no dogmas to proclaim or heretics to denounce. He is simply uttering an inspiration which has come to him. He is not a mystagogue, affecting supernatural wisdom, and in possession of the only clue to the secret. If you sympathise, well and good; if you cannot, you may translate his truth into your own. The ascent into this serene region, above all the noise of controversy, has its disadvantages. Carlyle complains gently that his friend is in danger of parting from fact and soaring into perilous altitudes. He is 'soliloquising on the mountain tops.' It is easy to 'screw oneself up into high and ever higher altitudes of transcendentalism,' to see nothing beneath one but 'the everlasting snows of the Himalaya, the earth shrinking to a planet, and the indigo firmament sowing itself with stars.' Come back to the earth, he exclaims; and readers of Emerson must occasionally echo the exhortation. And yet, in his own way, Emerson was closer to the everyday world than Carlyle himself; and it is the curious union of the two generally inconsistent qualities which gives a peculiar flavour to Emersonian teaching. Lowell puts it admirably in his comparison of Emerson and Carlyle:—
C. gives nature and God his own fits of the blues,
And rims common-sense things with mystical hues;
E. sits in a mystery calm and intense,
And looks coolly round him with calm common-sense;
C. shows you how everyday matters unite,
With the dim trans-diurnal recesses of night;
While E., in a plain preternatural way,
Makes mysteries matters of mere every day.
Emerson's curious position of equilibrium between the two worlds of mystery and broad daylight comes out in his literary tastes. His reading was wide but desultory. He was entirely free from the superstition which besets the ordinary scholar, and makes him unhappy till he has read a book through and got it up as a student gets up a book for an examination. Emerson looks for inspiration, not for information. He puts a book down as soon as it bores him, and does not care a straw for its authenticity or for the place assigned to it in the orthodox literary tribunals. He is content if it 'makes his top spin'—as he says—if, that is, it stimulates thought or fires the imagination. 'What is best in literature,' he says, 'is the affirming, prophesying, spermatic words of men-making poets.' Shakespeare is to be valued not because he is so much greater than yourself, but because, by your receptivity of him, you become aware of the power of your own soul. To Emerson the value of a book is measured by its dynamic effect upon himself. For some great names he cared little. The list of uninteresting writers included Shelley, Aristophanes, Cervantes, Miss Austen, and Dickens. He thought Dante a prodigy, but fitter for a museum than for a welcome to your own study. In compensation he is sometimes strangely enthusiastic about very obscure people. In speaking of literature in England, his appreciation of his friend Carlyle is checked by his dislike of the Carlylian pessimism; but he finds one consolation. There is a writer whose mind has 'a long Atlantic roll not known except in the deepest water'; and who is elsewhere declared to have a 'vigour of understanding and imagination comparable only to Lord Bacon's.' This cheering exception to British stupidity turns out, to our surprise, to be a Mr. Wilkinson. I confess that I am not acquainted with his works, which, according to Emerson, 'had thrown all contemporary philosophy in England into the shade.' Wilkinson (a man of real ability, as a biographical dictionary informs me) had impressed Emerson by his exposition of Swedenborg. When Emerson made Swedenborg himself one of his representative men, Carlyle had to exclaim: 'Missed the consummate flower and divine ultimate elixir of philosophy, say you? By heaven, in clutching at it and almost getting it he has tumbled into Bedlam!' Emerson would apparently reply not by denying the truth of the remark, but by declaring it to be irrelevant. Swedenborg, like other prophets, fell into absurdities when he became a system-monger, and Emerson could condemn some of the results sharply enough. He was not the less grateful for the inspiration, because associated with absurdities, which might qualify the prophet for Bedlam. Swedenborg's leading thought, he says, is given in Milton's lines:—
What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven and things therein
Each to the other more like than on earth is thought?
Swedenborg, he thinks, was the first to give a scientific statement of the poetical doctrine of 'symbolism.' He had inverted the point of view of the 'poisonous' kind of science. The ideal world is the reality, and the material world should be regarded as merely a kind of 'picture language.' Emerson wonders that when this fruitful seed of thought was once sown men did not put by all other science to work out the results. Yet people continue to take more interest in examining every spider, or fossil, or fungus, than in trying to discover 'the meaning and upshot of the frame of things.' It may be, he thinks, that centuries will be required to elaborate so profound a conception.
The impression made upon Emerson by this doctrine appears both in his own teaching and in numerous references to Swedenborg as one of the greatest leaders of thought, to be classed with the Platos and Shakespeares; and yet Emerson is equally attracted by men to whom mysticism would be another name for nonsense. From his boyhood he had studied Montaigne, another of his 'representative men,' of whom he speaks with a kind of personal affection. Montaigne appears in the Representative Men as the typical 'sceptic'; and scepticism goes rather awkwardly with mysticism and the imperative claims of direct intuition of simple truths. Yet Emerson finds scepticism congenial so far as it implies toleration. It represents contempt for the formalism and exaggeration of 'bigots and blockheads'; and every superior mind must pass through this 'domain of equilibration.' He delights, therefore, in Montaigne's hospitable reception of every conceivable variety of opinion. Montaigne, it is true, not only begins, but ends with doubt. 'Que sçais-je!' is his last word. But then, it is his superlative merit to admit frankly that there are doubts, instead of trying to smother them. The difference seems to be that while Montaigne remains balanced between opposite opinions, Emerson seems to hold that, though opposed, they may both be true. If we can rise to a higher sphere we shall see that they are complementary instead of contradictory. But Montaigne has evidently another charm for Emerson. His amazing frankness, his delight in laying bare all his own weaknesses, makes his Essays an incomparable text-book for the student of human nature. Montaigne has no literary affectation; he talks rather than writes. 'Cut his words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.' Montaigne plays no antics; he is 'stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realise things, as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake.' If Emerson could soar into mystic regions, he is equally delighted with the broad daylight, in which you can see the actual everyday play of human nature, stripped bare of every sort of conventional disguise. The man of genius, he says, must draw strength from pure reason, and his aim from common-sense. The two poles are equally necessary, if he is not to be either too mean or too vague. That, again, is one of the merits which he sees in Plato. Plato is the 'balanced soul.' He combines the mystical and the practical element. He can be transcendental, and yet is at home in common life. He can illustrate his philosophy from the world which philosophers despise: 'from mares and puppies, from pitchers and soup-ladles; from cooks and criers; the shops of potters, horse-doctors, butchers, and fishmongers.' It is this synthesis or equal poise between two opposite poles of thought which stamps his genius as unique. Yet Emerson can be equally impressed by men who represent only one side of the antithesis. He makes, perhaps, more references to Napoleon than to any one except Swedenborg. Napoleon is 'the man of the world'; 'the idol of common men, because he had the common qualities in a transcendent degree. He hated sentiment and despised 'ideologists'; he had no moral scruples and no magnanimity. But his supreme practical ability, his 'enormous self-trust,' his power of seeing to the heart of things, his readiness to meet every emergency and 'two o'clock in the morning courage' command our respect. 'I find it easy,' says Emerson, 'to translate all his technics into all of mine.' There is more philosophy in his despatches than in the sermons of the Academy. 'We like everything to do its office, whether it be a milch-cow or a rattlesnake'; and Napoleon at least represents a stupendous natural force. Emerson was fond of reading books upon Napoleon. They were at any rate instructive documents in the study of character. The list of authors recommended in his lecture upon 'books' is characteristic. You must, of course, read the great poets. But his special favourites are, on one side, Plotinus and the Neoplatonists; and on the other, the books which give an insight into character. Plutarch, both the Lives and the Morals should be in the smallest library; Confessions and autobiographies, Augustine, Benvenuto Cellini, and Rousseau; the table-talks of Luther, or Selden, or Coleridge; and books of anecdotes are invaluable. Anybody, meanwhile, will do for history: Hume and Goldsmith as well as Gibbon. History represents merely the background in which the great lives are set; and what you should really want is to be brought into contact with inspiring minds, not to get up dates and external facts. Emerson is weak in criticism, if the critic is to give a judicial estimate of a man's proper position in the development of poetry or philosophy; but he can say most clearly and forcibly what is the message which any great writer has delivered to him personally.
This, I think, shows how one may approach one secret of reading Emerson himself. He combines Yankee shrewdness in singular fashion with the exaltation of the mystic. The mysticism is bewildering, if not simply nonsensical, to the poor 'Lockist' or the average common-sense mortal. If asked to accept it as a systematic creed, he will declare that it is mere theosophical moonshine: too vague to have any meaning, or meaning something which is palpably absurd. But, then, one may also read Emerson as Emerson read his predecessors: for stimulus or inspiration, not as a propounder of solid, substantial truths. We are not to take his philosophy for a system of truths, but for a series of vivid intuitions. His Declaration of Independence proclaims a truth which may be stated in many dialects. Like its political parallel, it asserts that every man has indisputable rights, to be abrogated by no human authority. But it is not aggressive or dogmatic. It does not remind us of Fourth of July celebrations, which treated George III. like a grotesque Guy Faux. The emancipation is to be effected, not by iconoclasm, but by rousing the slumbering faculties. It implies a duty to yourself, as well as a right against your rulers. The enemy to be overcome is the torpor which accepts traditions and conventions as ultimate. They benumb the soul, and make it a part of a dead mechanism, when it should be a part of the living force which moulds the world. You should be an active instead of a passive agent in that process; you must be, in his phrase, 'self-reliant'; you must develop your own powers and obey your instincts, without submitting to any external rule. You then become a 'ripple of the stream of tendency.' 'Beware,' he says, 'when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet.' The new thought represents a 'new influx of divinity into the mind.' The doctrine is sometimes expressed in language learnt from the mystics. The beautiful state of the soul is measured by its capacity for 'ecstasy.' Every man is capable of divine illumination, and can be elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world. The 'ecstasy' corresponds to the 'inner light' of the Quakers. It recalls, as he says, 'the trances of Socrates, Plotinus, Porphyry, Behmen, Fox, Bunyan, Pascal, Guion, and Swedenborg.' The 'rapt saint,' he declares, is the only logician; not exhortation, not argument, becomes our lips, but 'pæans of joy and praise.' He speaks of the ecstatic state with a kind of awe in the essay on Self-reliance as something which cannot be fully uttered. 'The soul raised over passion beholds identity and Eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of truth and right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well.'
Certainly Emerson is on the threshold of mysticism. His peculiarity is that he stops there. He does not lose his balance. He respects common-sense, and dreads to disturb his vague aspirations by translating them into a definite system. He does not wish us to swallow mystic formulas as necessary or sufficient keys to the puzzle. He is only saying with benevolent unction what corresponds to Carlyle's fierce denunciations of cants and shams; and may even be translated into the phraseology of the humble 'Lockist.' The Lockist, too, is aware of the evil of dead 'survivals,' and the importance of encouraging new intellectual variations. The difference between his prose and Emerson's poetry is great enough; but he may sympathise with the spirit, at least, of the rapture with which Emerson sets forth the blessings of intellectual independence, and the need that an individual be true to himself. Emerson's version was congenial to his audience at the time. One can understand the nature of the stimulus, even if we don't quite appreciate the merits of the 'ecstatic state.'
In one of its aspects Emerson's philosophy or poetry, whichever be its proper name, has scandalised his critics. His optimism, they think, is irritating. The most hopeless of all consolations is the denial that there is any need for consolation. The latter-day philosopher prefers thorough-going pessimism, and scornfully rejects Emerson's futile attempts to ignore the dark side of the world. Undoubtedly Emerson was an unequivocal optimist. 'My whole philosophy, which is very real,' he said to Carlyle, 'teaches acquiescence and optimism.' He laments his 'stammering tongue and fumbling fingers,' but he is not going to commit or recommend suicide. When men degrade each other, and desponding doctrines are spread, the 'scholar,' he said, in one of the early epoch-making lectures, 'must be a bringer of hope, and must reinforce man against himself.' 'Power,' he says elsewhere, 'dwells with cheerfulness. … A man should make life and 'nature happier to us or he had better have never been born.' All the talent in the world, he declares, cannot save a Schopenhauer from being odious. I confess that I do not altogether dislike this old-fashioned creed. It suited, no doubt, the time and place. America, it has been said, is the land of hope; and in Emerson's youth some symptoms which alarm modern observers were hardly perceptible. When he came to England in 1847 he was shocked by the 'tragic spectacles' of misery and degradation in the streets of the great towns; and thanked God that his children were being brought up in a land where such things were unknown. The external circumstances help to explain the difference between him and Carlyle, upon whom the English pauperism and squalor had impressed the opposite lesson. But, apart from the surroundings, optimism is clearly of the essence of Emerson's temperament and philosophy. It is the teaching of the 'ecstatic state.' Wordsworth's nature-worship lifted him to the 'blessed mood' in which the
Burthen of the mystery
Of all this unintelligible world
and enabled him to 'see into the life of things' and the harmony of the universe. With Emerson the 'blessed mood' becomes normal. The greatest teachers have seen that 'all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organising itself.' He frequently, it has been said, speaks as an evolutionist before Darwin. But for him evolution is rather emanation, and it does not mean a blind struggle for existence, but the regular unrolling of a divine and benevolent drama, implying steady progress to perfection. Evil, he can declare, is only privation. It has no real existence, and vanishes when you can see the whole instead of dwelling upon isolated facts. Many philosophers have used similar words, and their opponents reply that such sayings are words and nothing more. To declare that this is the best or the worst of all possible worlds, as the impartial cynic is accustomed to suggest against both sides, is in reality to declare the state of your own liver. Your universe is the other side of yourself, and to give a theory which shall be valid for every one is to claim omniscience. Emerson, at any rate, does not profess to argue; he simply asserts, and the assertion comes to this, that it is possible to take a cheerful view of things in general. That, at least, defines the point of view from which his writings may act as an inspiring source if not as revelations of fact. The essays in which he develops these doctrines most explicitly, the 'Oversoul,' 'Compensation,' 'Circles,' and the like, may be futile considered as philosophical dogmas; and there is not even a pretence of proving their truth. They may still be regarded as studies of the spirit in which a man may serenely front the trials of life and find comfort from forebodings. Emerson has been often compared to the great stoic moralists, and like them, he indulges in the hyperbolic and paradoxical. Macaulay in the essay upon Bacon, in which Emerson found the typical Lockist, suggests an 'amusing fiction' illustrative of the contrast. Two travellers find a village full of small-pox. The Baconian traveller vaccinates the sufferers. The Stoic assures the villagers that to the wise man disease and the loss of friends is no evil. A merchant has lost his ship. The Baconian makes a diving-bell and fishes up the cargo; while the Stoic exhorts him not to seek happiness in things outside himself. That is the difference, says Macaulay, between the 'philosophy of words' and the 'philosophy of works.' When Baconians have suppressed disease and disaster, the Stoic will doubtless have less call for his consolations. While such things remain with us some sort of moral discipline will have its uses; and if the Stoic paradoxes when taken literally are hard of acceptance by anybody who has had the toothache, they were exaggerations of principles which have formed noble characters and even had their utility in the world. The exhortations of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius have really encouraged men who had not yet been provided with diving-bells and vaccination. The wise man of the Stoics is to become independent of chance and change by identifying himself with reason; and Emerson's disciple is to perceive that in all evils there is compensation when we look upon the world as the evolution of divine ideas. He may remind us of another philosopher whom he resembled in frugality, dignity, and cheerful acceptance of life. They coincide in one significant saying. 'A free man,' says Spinoza, in what has been called 'one of the most weighty sayings ever uttered,' 'thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.' So Emerson tells us that 'a wise man in our time caused to be written on his tomb, "think on living."' We are not to waste life in doubts and fears; and one great mark of progress is that the old system of meditating upon death and surrounding the thought with terrors has gone out of fashion. That is Emerson's answer by anticipation to the charge that he has not spoken sufficiently of the terror of death.
That you should train yourself to take evil bravely and cheerfully is a maxim more likely to be condemned as commonplace than as paradoxical. The statement becomes paradoxical when we deny the existence of evil, and immoral if it be understood as advice to ignore instead of facing the inevitable. Emerson certainly accepts some rather startling positions. The first lesson of history, he says, is 'the good of evil': 'Good is a good doctor, but Bad is sometimes a better!' and he illustrates the point by some remarkable cases. The contrast of good and evil is expressed in art, and explains its powers. 'What would painter do, or what would poet or saint do but for the crucifixions and hells?' But for death, as Mr. Weller remarked, what would become of the undertakers? Emerson admires great men of all classes—'scourges of God and failings of the human race.' They are all parts of the general system:—
If plague or earthquake break not Heaven's design,
Why, then, a Borgia or a Catiline?
The knaves, he calmly observes, win in every political struggle and a change of government means delivering society from the hands of one to the hands of another set of criminals, and the march of civilisation is 'a train of felonies.' Yet a 'beneficent tendency' streams irresistibly through the centuries, even through evil agents. Once he knew a 'burly Boniface' in a rural capital. This gentleman 'introduced all the fiends into the town, and united in his own person the functions of bully, incendiary, bankrupt, and burglar, and yet he was the most public-spirited citizen. The 'Boss,' as he would be called in modern language, was, at the same time, 'a Man of Ross.' The moral is that his energy was good, and only wanted to be directed to the better objects. Such illustrations of the 'good of evil' are certainly rather startling, and may explain why Emerson has even been described as without a conscience. Emerson, like his mystic guides, has a tendency to what theologians call 'antinomianism.' The inner world is the whole real world, and a morality which takes outer consequences for a criterion becomes merely prudential. Moral goodness for him implies the harmony of the individual soul. The man approaches perfection so far as the eyes of his spirit are always open to the inner light, and his whole nature acts spontaneously in conformity with the divine will. Obedience to the moral law is equivocal or worthless so far as it depends upon any extrinsic motive. If imposed from without, it so far rather savours of evil. Virtue, to be genuine, must be the absolutely spontaneous efflux of the character, not a mere disguise for hopes of reward and fear of punishment. Emerson insists upon this aspect of the truth, till even spontaneous wickedness seems to be better than compulsory goodness. Each man, he says, should 'plant himself indomitably upon his instincts.' A 'valued adviser' warned him against trusting his instincts against venerable traditions. Your impulses, he said, may be from below, not from above. 'Well,' he replied, 'if I am the devil's child, I will live, then, from the devil.' No law, he adds, can be sacred to me but that of my nature. That is right which is according to my constitution, and that wrong which is against it. Emerson therefore accepts a thorough individualism. All associations impress limitation by others. Each man is 'cramped and diminished' by his associates. He distrusted even the movements encouraged by transcendentalism. 'Professed philanthropists, it is strange and horrible to say, are an altogether odious set of people, whom one would shun as the worst of liars and canters.' Temperance and anti-slavery, and so forth, are poor things when prosecuted for themselves as an end, though appealing to generous motives. The reason is that all associations must be a product of, not dependent upon, a bond. The 'union is only perfect when all the unities are isolated.' When each man sees the truth for himself, all will come together. Reform, therefore, even in the case of slavery, should proceed by the gradual elevation of the human spirit, not by direct legislation and outward agitation. When you trust to external means instead of acting upon the soul you become mechanical and take narrow and distorted views of the evil. The transcendentalists, so far as they accepted this view, were regarded as mere apostles of 'culture.' They were inclined to stand aside from active life, and leave things to be gradually improved by the slow infiltration of higher ideals. Emerson, says Lowell, was a truer follower of Goethe than Carlyle; his teaching tended to self-culture and the development of the individual man, till it seemed 'almost Pythagorean in its voluntary seclusion from commonwealth affairs.' Emerson, in his lecture upon the transcendentalists, accepts and apologises for this tendency. They can afford to stand aside from the world where even good causes are spoilt by compromise and associated with vulgar motives. There is, he admits, a difficulty in keeping upon the higher levels of thought, in retaining the faith which reveals itself in intuition and ecstasy. Yet the world may find room for 'some few persons of purer fire' to serve as 'collectors of the heavenly spark, with power to convey the electricity to others.' The thought which the hermit 'strove to proclaim by silence' will spread till it has reorganised society.
If Emerson were to be treated as a system-maker, we might suggest that he is only accentuating one aspect of a single truth. Virtue certainly is not obedience to an outward law, but the spontaneous outcome of the man's nature. It implies not the less the nature which fits a man for social life. 'Self-culture' does not imply retreat to a hermitage, for the most efficient culture is in the active discharge of duties. The simple truth requires to be limited by its correlatives. In any case, nothing could be really less chargeable against Emerson than an approach to ethical insensibility. It is precisely the keenness and delicacy of his moral sense which attracts us and gives point to his best sentences. He is not the man to retire to a palace of art or find in æsthetic indulgence an anodyne to dull his sympathies with human sorrow. He can indeed admire the teachers who, like Shakespeare and Montaigne, look upon morality with a certain impartiality. Shakespeare, he rather quaintly asserts, 'is our city of refuge if we tire of the saints.' But the critic ought to show the relation between Shakespeare and Swedenborg. Now Swedenborg's great merit is the 'immolation of genius and fame at the shrine of conscience.' The 'atmosphere of moral sentiment opens to every wretch that has reason the doors of the universe,' and 'all men are commanded by the saint.' If Emerson's optimism leads him to dwell upon the 'good of evil,' and to see the use of 'scourges of God' and vulgar political scoundrels, it is because they are for him the instruments of an essentially moral force. He can condemn a vulgar exaltation over mechanical continuous railways and telegraphs; but, instead of simply denouncing them, like Ruskin, he sees their good side, and believes that in time they will become instruments of the world spirit. His 'pantheism' is not belief in a power superior to or indifferent to morality, but one to which the true, the good, and the beautiful are identical. We want something beyond Shakespeare and Goethe. 'We, too, must write Bibles to unite again the heavenly and the earthly worlds.' The teacher who is to come will see into the ultimate laws; 'see to identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart,' and show that 'duty is one thing with science, with beauty, and with joy.'
This, no doubt, verges upon the poetical; it is hard of acceptance for the poor 'Lockist,' and can be fully appreciated only by those who have access to the 'ecstatic state.' Others must be content to take a lower point of view. The title of one of Emerson's books—The Conduct of Life—defines one less inaccessible aspect of his teaching. If he has not penetrated the secret of the universe, he can show by example what attitude and disposition of mind can make the universe tolerable. It may be suggested to the pessimist that as he cannot understand the general system of things, and certainly cannot alter it, he may as well learn how to make the best of it. Emerson may supply useful hints for such an enterprise. 'The true preacher,' he says, can 'be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life.' The phrase may explain his own secret. He had, for one thing, to depend upon popular lecturing, a trade which, it must be granted, has its drawbacks. He had, he complained, to go about 'peddling with his literary pack of notions,' dropping pearls before superficial hearers, who would turn them into twaddle and extravagance. Still, he took his mission simply and seriously, gave what he had, and tried to indicate 'the ideal and holy life,' … to 'celebrate the spiritual powers,' in contrast to the mechanical philosophy of the time, and 'appeal to the great optimism self-affirmed in all bosoms.' His simplicity and sincerity moved congenial hearers to aspire to regions of thought higher than those of the counting-house or the market, and impressed upon them at least the beauty and dignity of Emerson's own character. His aphorism—it has, I fear, a twang of the popular lecturer about it—'hitch your waggon to a star' sums up the moral, and the power depends as much upon the sweetness of disposition as upon the mystical doctrine. The charm appears in his best poetry, in spite of its admitted shortcomings. His characteristic want of continuity made him as incapable of evolving a central idea as of expounding an argument. As in prose, he often coins exquisite phrases, but he is abrupt and fragmentary and apt to break down both in grammar and rhythm. A true inspiration comes as it came to Blake in the midst of much incoherence and stammering utterance. Few poems are more touching than the 'Dirge' and the 'Threnody,' in which he commemorates his brothers and the son who died in infancy. The 'Threnody' recalls Wordsworth in the simplicity and in the concluding meditation where he finds soothing, if not fully consoling thought. What orthodox critics may say of it I know not, but, at any rate, few poems bring one into so close a contact with a perfectly sweet nature, or could show how a great sorrow should be met by a man equally brave and tender. In the essay upon 'Experience'—on which, it must be confessed, it is not easy to put any clear interpretation—he refers again to the loss of his son. 'Grief,' he says, 'makes us idealists. The world becomes a dream. Life is a train of moods;' the moods 'are many-coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue.' And yet the dream is somehow the reality. The facts, as he has learnt from Swedenborg, are only symbols. Life wears 'a visionary face.' It is hard, he admits, to keep ourselves at this mystical point of view. The poet who is to show us the truth under the outside world has not yet come. The prosaic person will refuse a consolation which proposes, according to him, to drop substantial facts for dreams and shadows. Yet he may allow that the emotion is in itself beautiful. If he cannot accept the optimist view of the world, he can, perhaps, learn from the optimist how to take the inevitable cheerfully. Emerson admits in one essay that Fate is a reality and has a very ugly side to it. Yet he ends by exhorting us to 'build altars to the beautiful necessity'; and, without bothering ourselves with metaphysical puzzles, to find comfort in the thought that 'all is made of one piece,' and that the Law which we dread is really 'Intelligence,' which vivifies nature, and somehow makes Fate identical with Freedom. This is not remarkable for lucidity, and to the prosaic reasoner may seem to amount to the statement that a man of fine moral nature may protect himself against harsh truth by cultivating pleasant illusions. Yet it shows how, without yielding to illusions, such a man can make his life beautiful. The secret is indicated in the beautiful essays upon 'Love' and 'Friendship.' In speaking of 'Friendship,' Emerson becomes a little too high-flown, because he is suspicious of even cementing friendship by actual services. The Stoics held that friendship was only possible for the wise man; and Emerson thinks that it requires such 'rare and costly' natures that it can seldom be realised. It is the product of the spontaneous affinity of the soul, which must be independent of all external circumstance or reciprocity of kind actions. In the essay, where he manages to give a new charm even to the ancient topic of Love, he puts a more acceptable theory. He speaks in a prose-poem, which reminds us of Mr. Meredith's 'Love in a Valley,' of the recollection 'of the days when happiness was not happy enough, but must be drugged with the rubbish of pain and fear; for he touched the secret of the writer who said of love—
All other pleasures are not worth its pains;
and when the day was not enough, but the night, too, must be consumed in keen recollections; when the head boiled all night on the pillow with the generous deed it resolved on; when the moonlight was a pleasing fever, and the stars were letters and the flowers ciphers, and the air was carved into song; when all business seemed an impertinence, and all the men and women running to and fro in the streets mere pictures.' Love may generate illusions; but it makes the strong gentle and gives the coward heart. The lover becomes a 'new man, with new perceptions, new and keener purposes, and a religious solemnity of character and aims.' And thus love, which is 'the deification of persons, becomes more impersonal every day'; and the passion of Romeo for Juliet 'puts us in training for a love which knows not sex nor person nor partiality, but which seeks virtue and wisdom to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom.'
I do Emerson injustice in taking a few sentences out of his fine rapture; and it would be out of place to consider the cold-blooded criticism that a Romeo sometimes fails to develop in this desirable fashion. I only refer to it to indicate the process by which, as I think, the prosaic person may get some profit even from Emerson's mysticism. It may be unintelligible or false if taken as a solid philosophy. It reveals, at any rate, the man himself, the pure, simple-minded, high-feeling man, made of the finest clay of human nature; the one man who to Carlyle uttered a genuine human voice, and soothed the profound glooms of dyspeptic misanthropy; a little too apt, no doubt, to fall into the illusion of taking the world to be as comfortably constituted as himself; and apt also to withdraw from the ugly drama, in which the graver passions are inextricably mixed up with the heroic and the rational, to the remote mountain-tops of mystical reflection. Yet nobody could be more fitted to communicate the 'electric shock' to his disciples, because of his keen perception of the noble elements of life, in superiority to all the vulgar motives and modes of thought, which were not the less attractive because he could not see his way to any harmonious or consistent system of thought.