"The wise man is consistent in both his thoughts and actions."
-- Donald Robertson, How to think like a Roman emperor
The Meditations, by a Roman emperor who died in a plague named after him, has much to say about how to face fear, pain, anxiety and loss.
A great article from Donald Robertson, published by The Guardian:
Want to build-up resilience and will power? The stoics offer a daily dose of subjecting yourselves to the worst-case scenarios to your troubles. It’s a simple methodology where you focus on yourself and your immediate surroundings once the terrible event has befallen you. According to the stoics, factoring every tragedy in one’s life trajectory is key to letting nothing disturb your internal peace.
Here’s the vision of a stoic on the journey through Covid-19.
Everyday, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.
-- Dalai Lama
"True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not"
-- Lucius Annaeus Seneca, De Vita Beata
Sales of works by ancient Roman Marcus Aurelius have seen a sharp uptick in recent months.
According to Penguin Random House, print sales of Meditations are up 28% for the first quarter of 2020 vs 2019, while print sales of Letters from a Stoic are up 42% for the same period. In the last four weeks, its ebook sales rose by 356%"
1. Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events
by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is
possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own
aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As
a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp.
What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed,
consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.
2. No random actions, none not based on underlying
3. People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the
beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too.
Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of
interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have
other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it
is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of
So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew
yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be
enough to ward off all < . . . > and send you back ready to
face what awaits you.
What’s there to complain about? People’s misbehavior?
But take into consideration:
• that rational beings exist for one another;
• that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience;
• that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;
• and the number of people who have feuded and envied
and hated and fought and died and been buried.
. . . and keep your mouth shut.
Or are you complaining about the things the world assigns
you? But consider the two options: Providence or atoms.
And all the arguments for seeing the world as a city.
Or is it your body? Keep in mind that when the mind
detaches itself and realizes its own nature, it no longer has
anything to do with ordinary life—the rough and the smooth,
either one. And remember all you’ve been taught—and
accepted—about pain and pleasure.
Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at
how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that
swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.
The people who praise us—how capricious they are, how
arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The
whole earth a point in space—and most of it uninhabited.
How many people there will be to admire you, and who they
So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self.
Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look
at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a
mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two:
i. That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there
unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from
within—from our own perceptions.
ii. That everything you see will soon alter and cease to
exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen.
“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only
4. If thought is something we share, then so is reason—what
makes us reasoning beings.
If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not
to do is also shared.
And if so, we share a common law.
And thus, are fellow citizens.
And fellow citizens of something.
And in that case, our state must be the world. What other
entity could all of humanity belong to? And from it—from
this state that we share—come thought and reason and law.
Where else could they come from? The earth that
composes me derives from earth, the water from some other
element, the air from its own source, the heat and fire from
theirs—since nothing comes from nothing, or returns to it.
So thought must derive from somewhere else as well.
5. Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements
that split and recombine.
Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our
6. That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well
resent a fig tree for secreting juice. (Anyway, before very
long you’ll both be dead—dead and soon forgotten.)
7. Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.
Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
8. It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.
Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.
9. It was for the best. So Nature had no choice but to do it.
10. That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll
Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had
weighed it out with scales.
Keep looking closely like that, and embody it in your
actions: goodness—what defines a good person.
Keep to it in everything you do.
11. Not what your enemy sees and hopes that you will, but
what’s really there.
12. Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: (i) to do
only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the
good of human beings in mind; (ii) to reconsider your
position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to
his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction
that it’s right, or benefits others—nothing else. Not because
it’s more appealing or more popular.
13. You have a mind?
Well, why not use it? Isn’t that all you want—for it to do
14. You have functioned as a part of something; you will
vanish into what produced you.
Or be restored, rather.
To the logos from which all things spring.
By being changed.
15. Many lumps of incense on the same altar. One crumbles
now, one later, but it makes no difference.
16. Now they see you as a beast, a monkey. But in a week
they’ll think you’re a god—if you rediscover your beliefs
and honor the logos.
17. Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you.
Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be
18. The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what
they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is
this the right thing to do?)
< . . . > not to be distracted by their darkness. To run
straight for the finish line, unswerving.
19. People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that
the people who remember them will soon die too. And those
after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to
another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.
But suppose that those who remembered you were
immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do
you? And I don’t just mean when you’re dead, but in your
own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your
lifestyle a little more comfortable?
“ You’re out of step—neglecting the gifts of nature to hand
on someone’s words in the future. “
20. Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves
and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object
of praise remains what it was—no better and no worse. This
applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life—
physical objects, artworks.
Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No
more than justice does—or truth, or kindness, or humility.
Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by
contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires
it? Or gold, or ivory, or purple? Lyres? Knives? Flowers?
21. If our souls survive, how does the air find room for them
—all of them—since the beginning of time?
How does the earth find room for all the bodies buried in
it since the beginning of time? They linger for whatever
length of time, and then, through change and decomposition,
make room for others. So too with the souls that inhabit the
air. They linger a little, and then are changed—diffused and
kindled into fire, absorbed into the logos from which all
things spring, and so make room for new arrivals.
One possible answer.
But we shouldn’t think only of the mass of buried bodies.
There are the ones consumed, on a daily basis, by us and by
other animals. How many are swallowed up like that,
entombed in the bodies of those nourished by them, and yet
there is room for them all—converted into flesh and blood,
transformed to air and fire.
How is the truth of this determined?
Through analysis: material and cause.
22. Not to be driven this way and that, but always to behave
with justice and see things as they are.
23. To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you
choose is the right time. Not late, not early.
To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls
like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you,
return to you.
The poet says “dear city of Cecrops . . .” Can’t you bring
yourself to say “of Zeus”?
24. “If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately)
do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being
requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double
satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If
you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more
tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this
But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as
well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.
25. And then you might see what the life of the good man is
like—someone content with what nature assigns him, and
satisfied with being just and kind himself.
26. You’ve seen that. Now look at this.
Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.
Someone has done wrong . . . to himself.
Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by
nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.
Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can
from the present—thoughtfully, justly.
27. An ordered world or a mishmash. But still an order. Can
there be order within you and not in everything else? In
things so different, so dispersed, so intertwined?
28. Character: dark, womanish, obstinate. Wolf, sheep, child,
fool, cheat, buffoon, salesman, tyrant.
29. Alien: (n.) one who doesn’t know what the world
contains. Or how it operates.
Fugitive: (n.) one who evades his obligations to others.
Blind: (adj.) one who keeps the eyes of his mind shut tight.
Poor: (adj.) requiring others; not having the necessities of
life in one’s own possession.
Rebel: (n.) one who is rebellious, one who withdraws
from the logos of Nature because he resents its workings. (It
produced you; now it produces this.)
Schismatic: (n.) one who separates his own soul from
others with the logos. They should be one.
30. A philosopher without clothes and one without books. “I
have nothing to eat,” says he, as he stands there half-naked,
“but I subsist on the logos.” And with nothing to read, I
subsist on it too.
31. Love the discipline you know, and let it support you.
Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your
way through life—no one’s master and no one’s slave.
32. The age of Vespasian, for example. People doing the
exact same things: marrying, raising children, getting sick,
dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business,
farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping
others will die, complaining about their own lives, falling in
love, putting away money, seeking high office and power.
And that life they led is nowhere to be found.
Or the age of Trajan. The exact same things. And that life
Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others
gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the
elements that formed them.
But most of all, run through the list of those you knew
yourself. Those who worked in vain, who failed to do what
they should have—what they should have remained fixed on
and found satisfaction in.
A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness
varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving
the small things more time than they deserve.
33. Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the
names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus,
Dentatus . . . Scipio and Cato . . . Augustus . . . Hadrian and
Antoninus, and . . .
Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon
oblivion covers it.
And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown,
unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame?
Then what should we work for?
Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful
speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary
and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and
34. Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin
you into whatever she pleases.
35. Everything transitory—the knower and the known.
36. Constant awareness that everything is born from change.
The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to
alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists
is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only
seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.
37. On the verge of dying and still weighed down, still
turbulent, still convinced external things can harm you, still
rude to other people, still not acknowledging the truth: that
wisdom is justice.
38. Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they
39. Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you.
Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you.
—Then where is harm to be found?
In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything
will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep
quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or
stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another
way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad
and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens
in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor
40. The world as a living being—one nature, one soul. Keep
that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single
experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything
helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together.
41. “A little wisp of soul carrying a corpse.”—Epictetus.
42. There is nothing bad in undergoing change—or good in
emerging from it.
43. Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed
once and already carried past us, and another follows and is
44. Everything that happens is as simple and familiar as the
rose in spring, the fruit in summer: disease, death,
blasphemy, conspiracy . . . everything that makes stupid
people happy or angry.
45. What follows coheres with what went before. Not like a
random catalogue whose order is imposed upon it arbitrarily,
but logically connected. And just as what exists is ordered
and harmonious, what comes into being betrays an order too.
Not a mere sequence, but an astonishing concordance.
46. Remember Heraclitus: “When earth dies, it becomes
water; water, air; air, fire; and back to the beginning.”
“Those who have forgotten where the road leads.”
“They are at odds with what is all around them”—the alldirecting
logos. And “they find alien what they meet with
“Our words and actions should not be like those of
sleepers” (for we act and speak in dreams as well) “or of
children copying their parents”—doing and saying only what
we have been told.
47. Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die
tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete
coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was
—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the
difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as
48. Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died,
after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How
many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’
ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on
death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting
thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after
abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they
were themselves immortal.
How many whole cities have met their end: Helike,
Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.
And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. One
who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and
then the man who buried him—all in the same short space of
In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial.
Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.
To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give
it upwithout complaint.
Like an olive that ripens and falls.
Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.
49. To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It
stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
49a. —It’s unfortunate that this has happened.
No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained
unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of
the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not
everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the
one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can
you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate
human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against
nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is.
Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice,
generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility,
straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a
person’s nature to fulfill itself?
So remember this principle when something threatens to
cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to
endure it and prevail is great good fortune.
50. A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think
of the list of people who had to be pried away from life.
What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six
feet under—Caedicianus, Fabius, Julian, Lepidus, and all the
rest. They buried their contemporaries, and were buried in
Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these
circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to
get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite
future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the
51. Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to
speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of
pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.
1. Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less
and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be
sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world—to
the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge?
If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go
on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But
getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty
lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s
time to call it quits—all the things you need a healthy mind
for . . . all those are gone.
So we need to hurry.
Not just because we move daily closer to death but also
because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be
gone before we get there.
2. We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has
its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of
bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just byproducts
of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they
rouse our appetite without our knowing why.
Or how ripe figs begin to burst.
And olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay
gives them a peculiar beauty.
Stalks of wheat bending under their own weight. The
furrowed brow of the lion. Flecks of foam on the boar’s
And other things. If you look at them in isolation there’s
nothing beautiful about them, and yet by supplementing nature
they enrich it and draw us in. And anyone with a feeling for
nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure.
Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live
animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look
calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at
the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call
out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things
seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.
3. Hippocrates cured many illnesses—and then fell ill and
died. The Chaldaeans predicted the deaths of many others; in
due course their own hour arrived. Alexander, Pompey,
Caesar—who utterly destroyed so many cities, cut down so
many thousand foot and horse in battle—they too departed
this life. Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire.
But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared
with cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin,
Socrates by the human kind.
You boarded, you set sail, you’ve made the passage. Time
to disembark. If it’s for another life, well, there’s nowhere
without gods on that side either. If to nothingness, then you no
longer have to put up with pain and pleasure, or go on
dancing attendance on this battered crate, your body—so
much inferior to that which serves it.
One is mind and spirit, the other earth and garbage.
4. Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about
other people—unless it affects the common good. It will
keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too
preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and
what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what
they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and
keep you from focusing on your own mind.
You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought:
everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly
everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used
to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What
are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and
truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it
would be obvious at once from your answer that your
thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones—the
thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with
pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with
squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be
ashamed to be caught thinking.
Someone like that—someone who refuses to put off
joining the elect—is a kind of priest, a servant of the gods, in
touch with what is within him and what keeps a person
undefiled by pleasures, invulnerable to any pain, untouched
by arrogance, unaffected by meanness, an athlete in the
greatest of all contests—the struggle not to be overwhelmed
by anything that happens. With what leaves us dyed indelibly
by justice, welcoming wholeheartedly whatever comes—
whatever we’re assigned—not worrying too often, or with
any selfish motive, about what other people say. Or do, or
He does only what is his to do, and considers constantly
what the world has in store for him—doing his best, and
trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us
—and it carries us.
He keeps in mind that all rational things are related, and
that to care for all human beings is part of being human.
Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We
should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature.
And the others? He bears in mind what sort of people they
are—both at home and abroad, by night as well as day—and
who they spend their time with. And he cares nothing for
their praise—men who can’t even meet their own standards.
5. How to act:
Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.
Don’t gussy up your thoughts.
No surplus words or unnecessary actions.
Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen,
a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier
and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing
no oath or witness.
Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.
To stand up straight—not straightened.
6. If, at some point in your life, you should come across
anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage—
than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to
act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its
control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it
without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing
indeed—and enjoy it to the full.
But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit
that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual
desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that
has broken free of physical temptations (as Socrates used to
say), and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for
human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more
important or valuable than that . . .
. . . then don’t make room for anything but it—for anything
that might lead you astray, tempt you off the road, and leave
you unable to devote yourself completely to achieving the
goodness that is uniquely yours. It would be wrong for
anything to stand between you and attaining goodness—as a
rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of
the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of
them might seem to be compatible with it—for a while. But
suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
So make your choice straightforwardly, once and for all,
and stick to it. Choose what’s best.
—Best is what benefits me.
As a rational being? Then follow through. Or just as an
animal? Then say so and stand your ground without making a
show of it. (Just make sure you’ve done your homework
7. Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you
betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you
show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for
things best done behind closed doors. If you can privilege
your own mind, your guiding spirit and your reverence for its
powers, that should keep you clear of dramatics, of wailing
and gnashing of teeth. You won’t need solitude—or a cast of
thousands, either. Above all, you’ll be free of fear and
desire. And how long your body will contain the soul that
inhabits it will cause you not a moment’s worry. If it’s time
for you to go, leave willingly—as you would to accomplish
anything that can be done with grace and honor. And
concentrate on this, your whole life long: for your mind to be
in the right state—the state a rational, civic mind should be
8. The mind of one set straight and purified: no pus, no dirt,
And not a life cut short by death, like an actor who stops
before the play is done, the plot wound up.
Neither servility nor arrogance. Neither cringing nor
disdain. Neither excuses nor evasions.
9. Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect.
It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false
to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes
thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and
submission to the divine.
10. Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and
remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant.
The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The
span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in
which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed
from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant
alike of themselves and those long dead.
11. To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define
whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can
see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a
whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing
itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity
for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens
to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what
need it fulfills, and in what kind of world. And its value to
that world as a whole and to man in particular—as a citizen
of that higher city, of which all other cities are mere
What is it—this thing that now forces itself on my notice?
What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last?
And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—
tranquillity, courage, honesty, trustworthiness,
straightforwardness, independence or what?
So in each case you need to say: “This is due to God.” Or:
“This is due to the interweavings and intertwinings of fate, to
coincidence or chance.” Or: “This is due to a human being.
Someone of the same race, the same birth, the same society,
but who doesn’t know what nature requires of him. But I do.
And so I’ll treat them as the law that binds us—the law of
nature—requires. With kindness and with justice.
And in inconsequential things? I’ll do my best to treat them
as they deserve.”
12. If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence,
energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions,
and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might
have to give it back at any moment—
If you can embrace this without fear or expectation—can
find fulfillment in what you’re doing now, as Nature
intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every
utterance)—then your life will be happy.
No one can prevent that.
13. Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy,
for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready too—ready to
understand heaven and earth. In everything you do, even the
smallest thing, remember the chain that links them. Nothing
earthly succeeds by ignoring heaven, nothing heavenly by
ignoring the earth.
14. Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief
Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans,
the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint
for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being
matters to you, be your own savior while you can.
15. They don’t realize how much is included in stealing,
sowing, buying, resting, seeing to business (not with the
eyes, but another kind of sight).
16. Body. Soul. Mind.
Sensations: the body.
Desires: the soul.
Reasoning: the mind.
To experience sensations: even grazing beasts do that. To
let your desires control you: even wild animals do that—and
rutting humans, and tyrants (from Phalaris to Nero . . .).
To make your mind your guide to what seems best: even
people who deny the gods do that. Even people who betray
their country. Even people who do <. . .> behind closed
If all the rest is common coin, then what is unique to the
To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to
stain or disturb the spirit within him with a mess of false
beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by calmly obeying
God—saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if the
others don’t acknowledge it—this life lived with simplicity,
humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and
isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads: to the
end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in
acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.
ON THE RIVER GRAN, AMONG THE QUADI
1. When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The
people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful,
arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this
because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the
beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized
that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of
the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a
share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one
can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my
relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like
feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and
lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at
someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
2. Whatever this is that I am, it is flesh and a little spirit and
an intelligence. Throw away your books; stop letting yourself
be distracted. That is not allowed. Instead, as if you were
dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces
of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries. Consider
what the spirit is: air, and never the same air, but vomited out
and gulped in again every instant. Finally, the intelligence.
Think of it this way: You are an old man. Stop allowing your
mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to
kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.
3. What is divine is full of Providence. Even chance is not
divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of
things governed by Providence. Everything proceeds from it.
And then there is necessity and the needs of the whole world,
of which you are a part. Whatever the nature of the whole
does, and whatever serves to maintain it, is good for every
part of nature. The world is maintained by change—in the
elements and in the things they compose. That should be
enough for you; treat it as an axiom. Discard your thirst for
books, so that you won’t die in bitterness, but in cheerfulness
and truth, grateful to the gods from the bottom of your heart.
4. Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how
many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them.
At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you
belong to; what power rules it and from what source you
spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if
you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will
5. Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on
doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine
seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing
yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do
everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your
life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions
override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical,
self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to
do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage
this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.
6. Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul. But soon your
chance at dignity will be gone. Everyone gets one life. Yours
is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with
respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls
7. Do external things distract you? Then make time for
yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself
be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against
the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives
but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse
toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.
8. Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls—no one
ever came to grief that way. But if you won’t keep track of
what your own soul’s doing, how can you not be unhappy?
9. Don’t ever forget these things:
The nature of the world.
How I relate to the world.
What proportion of it I make up.
That you are part of nature, and no one can prevent you
from speaking and acting in harmony with it, always.
10. In comparing sins (the way people do) Theophrastus says
that the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones
committed out of anger: which is good philosophy. The angry
man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain
and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who
is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more selfindulgent,
less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and
philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of
pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed
out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of
wrongdoing, provoked by pain to anger. The other man
rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by
11. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what
you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then to abandon
human beings is not frightening; the gods would never subject
you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what
happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world
without gods or Providence? But they do exist, they do care
what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid
real harm they have placed within him. If there were anything
harmful on the other side of death, they would have made
sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn’t
harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature
would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to
recognize them, or because it saw them but was powerless to
prevent or correct them. Nor would it ever, through inability
or incompetence, make such a mistake as to let good and bad
things happen indiscriminately to good and bad alike. But
death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth
and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they
are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor
12. The speed with which all of them vanish—the objects in
the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real
nature of the things our senses experience, especially those
that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are
loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things—how
stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are—
that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to
understand what those people really amount to, whose
opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is—and
that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your
imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s
nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be
afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary
one.) And how man grasps God, with what part of himself he
does so, and how that part is conditioned when he does.
13. Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in
circles, “delving into the things that lie beneath” and
conducting investigations into the souls of the people around
them, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive
to the power inside you and worship it sincerely. To worship
it is to keep it from being muddied with turmoil and
becoming aimless and dissatisfied with nature—divine and
human. What is divine deserves our respect because it is
good; what is human deserves our affection because it is like
us. And our pity too, sometimes, for its inability to tell good
from bad—as terrible a blindness as the kind that can’t tell
white from black.
14. Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or
ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than
the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one
you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the
shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the
same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant
is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the
future; how could you lose what you don’t have?
Remember two things:
i. that everything has always been the same, and keeps
recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see
the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred,
or in an infinite period;
ii. that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest
lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give
up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have,
you cannot lose.
15. “Everything is just an impression.” —Monimus the
Cynic. And the response is obvious enough. But the point is a
useful one, if you take it for what it’s worth.
16. The human soul degrades itself:
i. Above all, when it does its best to become an
abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world. To be
disgruntled at anything that happens is a kind of
secession from Nature, which comprises the nature of
ii. When it turns its back on another person or sets out to
do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
iii. When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
iv. When it puts on a mask and does or says something
artificial or false.
v. When it allows its action and impulse to be without a
purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the
smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But
the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and law
of the most ancient of communities and states.
17. Human life.
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception:
dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around.
Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up:
The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and
mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting
reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Which means making sure that the power within stays safe
and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing
nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not
dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it.
And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is
dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And
above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing
but the dissolution of the elements from which each living
thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements
to change continually into one another, why are people afraid
of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing.
And nothing natural is evil.
A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays. THE MODERN LIBRARY
DEBTS AND LESSONS
1. MY GRANDFATHER VERUS
Character and self-control.
2. MY FATHER (FROM MY OWN MEMORIES AND HIS REPUTATION)
Integrity and manliness.
3. MY MOTHER
Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not
only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the
simple way she lived—not in the least like the rich.
4. MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER
To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers,
and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.
5. MY FIRST TEACHER
Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter
or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make
demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and
have no time for slanderers.
Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by
conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about
incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it. Not to be
obsessed with quail-fighting or other crazes like that. To hear
unwelcome truths. To practice philosophy, and to study with
Baccheius, and then with Tandasis and Marcianus. To write
dialogues as a student. To choose the Greek lifestyle—the
camp-bed and the cloak.
The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my
Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to
write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing
little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The
Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. To steer
clear of oratory, poetry and belles lettres.
Not to dress up just to stroll around the house, or things
like that. To write straightforward letters (like the one he
sent my mother from Sinuessa). And to behave in a
conciliatory way when people who have angered or annoyed
us want to make up.
To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting
the gist of it.” And not to fall for every smooth talker.
And for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and
loaning me his own copy.
Independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention
to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to
be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a
child, chronic illness. And to see clearly, from his example,
that a man can show both strength and flexibility.
His patience in teaching. And to have seen someone who
clearly viewed his expertise and ability as a teacher as the
humblest of virtues.
And to have learned how to accept favors from friends
without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.
An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it
means to live as nature requires.
Gravity without airs.
To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to
amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with
everyone: sharing his company was the highest of
compliments, and the opportunity an honor for those around
To investigate and analyze, with understanding and logic,
the principles we ought to live by.
Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of
passion and yet full of love.
To praise without bombast; to display expertise without
10. THE LITERARY CRITIC ALEXANDER
Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not
to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a
grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just
answer their question or add another example, or debate the
issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other
contribution to the discussion—and insert the right
To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power
produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by
people from “good families.”
12. ALEXANDER THE PLATONIST
Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I’m
too busy, unless I really am. Similarly, not to be always
ducking my responsibilities to the people around me because
of “pressing business.”
Not to shrug off a friend’s resentment—even unjustified
resentment—but try to put things right.
To show your teachers ungrudging respect (the Domitius
and Athenodotus story), and your children unfeigned love.
14. [MY BROTHER] SEVERUS
To love my family, truth and justice. It was through him that I
encountered Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion and Brutus, and
conceived of a society of equal laws, governed by equality
of status and of speech, and of rulers who respect the liberty
of their subjects above all else.
And from him as well, to be steady and consistent in
And to help others and be eager to share, not to be a
pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you.
And that when people incurred his disapproval, they always
knew it. And that his friends never had to speculate about his
attitude to anything: it was always clear.
Self-control and resistance to distractions.
Optimism in adversity—especially illness.
A personality in balance: dignity and grace together.
Doing your job without whining.
Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he
thought, and what he did was done without malice.
Never taken aback or apprehensive. Neither rash nor
hesitant—or bewildered, or at a loss. Not obsequious
—but not aggressive or paranoid either.
Generosity, charity, honesty.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than
being kept on it.
That no one could ever have felt patronized by him—or
in a position to patronize him.
A sense of humor.
16. MY ADOPTED FATHER
Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d
reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work.
Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public
His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.
A sense of when to push and when to back off.
Putting a stop to the pursuit of boys.
His altruism. Not expecting his friends to keep him
entertained at dinner or to travel with him (unless they
wanted to). And anyone who had to stay behind to take care
of something always found him the same when he returned.
His searching questions at meetings. A kind of singlemindedness,
almost, never content with first impressions, or
breaking off the discussion prematurely.
His constancy to friends—never getting fed up with them,
or playing favorites.
Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness.
And his advance planning (well in advance) and his
discreet attention to even minor things.
His restrictions on acclamations—and all attempts to
His constant devotion to the empire’s needs. His
stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take
responsibility—and blame—for both.
His attitude to the gods: no superstitiousness. And his
attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no
pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or
a prey to fads.
The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had
supplied him in such abundance—without arrogance and
without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of
them. If not, he didn’t miss them.
No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic.
They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life,
accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both
himself and them.
His respect for people who practiced philosophy—at
least, those who were sincere about it. But without
denigrating the others—or listening to them.
His ability to feel at ease with people—and put them at
their ease, without being pushy.
His willingness to take adequate care of himself. Not a
hypochondriac or obsessed with his appearance, but not
ignoring things either. With the result that he hardly ever
needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or
This, in particular: his willingness to yield the floor to
experts—in oratory, law, psychology, whatever—and to
support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill
That he respected tradition without needing to constantly
congratulate himself for Safeguarding Our Traditional
Not prone to go off on tangents, or pulled in all directions,
but sticking with the same old places and the same old things.
The way he could have one of his migraines and then go
right back to what he was doing—fresh and at the top of his
That he had so few secrets—only state secrets, in fact, and
not all that many of those.
The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds
—games, building projects, distributions of money and so on
—because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit
to be gained from doing it.
No bathing at strange hours, no self-indulgent building
projects, no concern for food, or the cut and color of his
clothes, or having attractive slaves. (The robe from his farm
at Lorium, most of the things at Lanuvium, the way he
accepted the customs agent’s apology at Tusculum, etc.)
He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or
turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was
to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a
calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose
You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that
he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most
people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy.
Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark
of a soul in readiness—indomitable.
17. THE GODS
That I had good grandparents, a good mother and father, a
good sister, good teachers, good servants, relatives, friends
—almost without exception. And that I never lost control of
myself with any of them, although I had it in me to do that,
and I might have, easily. But thanks to the gods, I was never
put in that position, and so escaped the test.
That I wasn’t raised by my grandfather’s girlfriend for
longer than I was. That I didn’t lose my virginity too early,
and didn’t enter adulthood until it was time—put it off, even.
That I had someone—as a ruler and as a father—who
could keep me from being arrogant and make me realize that
even at court you can live without a troop of bodyguards, and
gorgeous clothes, lamps, sculpture—the whole charade. That
you can behave almost like an ordinary person without
seeming slovenly or careless as a ruler or when carrying out
That I had the kind of brother I did. One whose character
challenged me to improve my own. One whose love and
affection enriched my life.
That my children weren’t born stupid or physically
That I wasn’t more talented in rhetoric or poetry, or other
areas. If I’d felt that I was making better progress I might
never have given them up.
That I conferred on the people who brought me up the
honors they seemed to want early on, instead of putting them
off (since they were still young) with the hope that I’d do it
That I knew Apollonius, and Rusticus, and Maximus.
That I was shown clearly and often what it would be like
to live as nature requires. The gods did all they could—
through their gifts, their help, their inspiration—to ensure that
I could live as nature demands. And if I’ve failed, it’s no
one’s fault but mine. Because I didn’t pay attention to what
they told me—to what they taught me, practically, step by
That my body has held out, especially considering the life
That I never laid a finger on Benedicta or on Theodotus.
And that even later, when I was overcome by passion, I
recovered from it.
That even though I was often upset with Rusticus I never
did anything I would have regretted later.
That even though she died young, at least my mother spent
her last years with me.
That whenever I felt like helping someone who was short
of money, or otherwise in need, I never had to be told that I
had no resources to do it with. And that I was never put in
that position myself—of having to take something from
That I have the wife I do: obedient, loving, humble.
That my children had competent teachers.
Remedies granted through dreams—when I was coughing
blood, for instance, and having fits of dizziness. And the one
That when I became interested in philosophy I didn’t fall
into the hands of charlatans, and didn’t get bogged down in
writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping, or
preoccupied with physics.
All things for which “we need the help of fortune and the
This text was first published in Emerson’s Essays collection in 1841. Emerson drew on his journals of 1832-40 for a number of ideas and passages he wrote here. Over the years, he delivered the text as speeches and lectures, so it evolved over time.
"Ne te quæsiveris extra."
"Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still."
-- Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune
"Cast the bantling on the rocks,
Suckle him with the she-wolf's teat;
Wintered with the hawk and fox,
Power and speed be hands and feet."
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,--and our first thought, is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,--"But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it,--else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;--though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked Dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,--as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,--under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,--the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean "the foolish face of praise," the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.
For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.
But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.--'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.'--Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza;--read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.
There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this. What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, which so fills the imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind. They shed an united light on the advancing actor. He is attended as by a visible escort of angels. That is it which throws thunder into Chatham's voice, and dignity into Washington's port, and America into Adams's eye. Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it to-day because it is not of to-day. We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.
I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you, and all men, and all events. Ordinarily, every body in society reminds us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation. The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design;--and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called "the height of Rome"; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.
Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him. But the man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a costly book have an alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seem to say like that, 'Who are you, Sir?' Yet they all are his, suitors for his notice, petitioners to his faculties that they will come out and take possession. The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke's house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke's bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince.
Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day's work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.
The world has been instructed by its kings, who have so magnetized the eyes of nations. It has been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from man to man. The joyful loyalty with which men have everywhere suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to walk among them by a law of his own, make his own scale of men and things, and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not with money but with honor, and represent the law in his person, was the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness of their own right and comeliness, the right of every man.
The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful actions and acquisitions are but roving;--the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect. Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind,--although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.
The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things; should fill the world with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from the centre of the present thought; and new date and new create the whole. Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,--means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it,--one as much as another. All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear. If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives. We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see,--painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the point of view which those had who uttered these sayings, they understand them, and are willing to let the words go; for, at any time, they can use words as good when occasion comes. If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish. When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.
And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;--the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. 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. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea,--long intervals of time, years, centuries,--are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.
Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric, when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.
This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry, hunting, whaling, war, eloquence, personal weight, are somewhat, and engage my respect as examples of its presence and impure action. I see the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.
Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions, by a simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate the poverty of nature and fortune beside our native riches.
But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how chaste the persons look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary! So let us always sit. Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men's. Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say,--'Come out unto us.' But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me, I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. "What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love."
If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,--but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.-- But so you may give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.
The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides. There are two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be shriven. You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbour, town, cat, and dog; whether any of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard, and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts, it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.
And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!
If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.
If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not `studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances. Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him,--and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.
It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.
1. In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity,--any thing less than all good,--is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. Caratach, in Fletcher's Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies, --
"His hidden meaning lies in our endeavours;
Our valors are our best gods."
Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to them who weep foolishly, and sit down and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own reason. The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him. "To the persevering mortal," said Zoroaster, "the blessed Immortals are swift."
As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect. They say with those foolish Israelites, 'Let not God speak to us, lest we die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey.' Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it prove a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! a new system. In proportion to the depth of the thought, and so to the number of the objects it touches and brings within reach of the pupil, is his complacency. But chiefly is this apparent in creeds and churches, which are also classifications of some powerful mind acting on the elemental thought of duty, and man's relation to the Highest. Such is Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgism. The pupil takes the same delight in subordinating every thing to the new terminology, as a girl who has just learned botany in seeing a new earth and new seasons thereby. It will happen for a time, that the pupil will find his intellectual power has grown by the study of his master's mind. But in all unbalanced minds, the classification is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe; the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung on the arch their master built. They cannot imagine how you aliens have any right to see,--how you can see; 'It must be somehow that you stole the light from us.' They do not yet perceive, that light, unsystematic, indomitable, will break into any cabin, even into theirs. Let them chirp awhile and call it their own. If they are honest and do well, presently their neat new pinfold will be too strait and low, will crack, will lean, will rot and vanish, and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million-colored, will beam over the universe as on the first morning.
2. It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.
I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.
Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
3. But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.
4. As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?
There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were. A singular equality may be observed between the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than Plutarch's heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race progressive. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but they leave no class. He who is really of their class will not be called by their name, but will be his own man, and, in his turn, the founder of a sect. The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume, and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass, discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena than any one since. Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat. It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor, and disencumbering it of all aids. The Emperor held it impossible to make a perfect army, says Las Casas, "without abolishing our arms, magazines, commissaries, and carriages, until, in imitation of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive his supply of corn, grind it in his hand-mill, and bake his bread himself."
Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.
And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, -- came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. "Thy lot or portion of life," said the Caliph Ali, "is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it." Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers. The political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the concourse, and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from Essex! The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! the young patriot feels himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes and arms. In like manner the reformers summon conventions, and vote and resolve in multitude. Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and inhabit you, but by a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town? Ask nothing of men, and in the endless mutation, thou only firm column must presently appear the upholder of all that surrounds thee. He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.
So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
Selected Criticism on "Self-Reliance"
- Pattee, Fred L. "Critical Studies in American Literature. II. An Essay: Emerson's Self-Reliance." Chautauquan 30 (March 1900): 628-33.
- Klammer, Enno. "The Spiral Staircase in 'Self-Reliance.'" Emerson Society Quarterly, no. 47 (II Quarter 1967): 81-83.
- Woodruff, Stuart. "Emerson's 'Self-Reliance' and 'Experience': A Comparison." Emerson Society Quarterly, no. 47 (II Quarter 1967): 48-50. Also in Rountree.
- Anderson, Quentin. The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
- Bottorf, William K. "'Whatever Inly Rejoices Me': The Paradox of 'Self-Reliance.'" ESQ 18 (IV Quarter 1972): 207-17.
- Bloom, Harold. "The Freshness of Transformation or Emerson on Influence." In Levin, pp. 129-48.
- Bloom, Harold. "Emerson: The Self-Reliance of American Romancism." In Figures of Capable Imagination, pp. 46-64. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.
- Wohlgelernter, Maurice. "Introduction. Joseph L. Blau: Four Ways of Religion and Philosophy." In History of Religion, and Spiritual Democracy, pp. xxiii-lxxiv. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
- Ramaswamy, S. "Emerson: The Ambivalence of His Self-Reliance," Literary Criterion, 18 (1983): 98-107.
- Joswick, Thomas P. "The Conversion Drama of 'Self-Reliance': A Logological Study." American Literature, 55 (Dec. 1983): 507-524.
- Hughes, Gertrude Reif. Emerson's Demanding Optimism. Baton Rouge: LSU P, 1984.
- Cavell, Stanley. "Being Odd, Getting Even: Threats to Individuality." In Reconstructing Individualism, Thomas C. Heller ed., pp. 278-312, 350-351. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986.
- Van Leer, David. "The revisions of self-reliance." Chapter 4.
- Jacobson, David. "Vision's Imperative: 'Self-Reliance' and the Command to See Things as They Are." Studies in Romanticism, 29 (Winter 1990): 555-570.
- Masur, Louis P. "'Age of the First Person Singular': The Vocabulary of the Self in New England, 1780-1850." Journal of American Studies, 25 (August 1991): 189-211.
- Hodder, Alan D. "'After a High Negative Way': Emerson's 'Self-Reliance' and the Rhetoric of Conversion." Harvard Theological Review, 84 (Oct 1991): 423-446.
- Harris, Kenneth Marc. "Emersonian Self-Reliance and Self-Deception Theory." Philosophy and Literature, 15 (Oct 1991): 286-294.
- Jacobson, David. "Vision's Imperative: ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Command to See Things as They Are." SIR 29 (1990): 555-70.
- Patell, Cyrus R. K. "Emersonian Strategies: Negative Liberty, Self-Reliance, and Democratic Individuality. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 48:4 (1994 Mar), 440-79.
- Kateb, George . Emerson and Self-Reliance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage P, 1995.
- Cavell, Stanley. "Betting Odd, Getting Even." In Rosenheim, Shawn (ed.) Rachman, Stephen (ed.).The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 3-36. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
- Stephenson, Will and Stephenson, Mimosa. "Emerson's 'Self-Reliance.'" Explicator, 53:2 (1995 Winter), 81-82.
- Lyttle, David. "Emerson’s Transcendental Individualism." CS 3 (1995): 89-103.
- Sloan, Gary. "Emerson's 'Self-Reliance.'" Explicator, 55:1 (1996 Fall), 19-22.
- Mitchell, Verner D. "Emerson's Self-Reliance." Explicator, 55:2 (1997 Winter), 79-80.
- Jin, Wenjun. "Cohesion and Emerson’s Prose Style." L&L 21 (1996): 17-28.
- Shirmeister, Pamela. In Less Legible Meanings., pp. 76-85, 109-112.
- Vallins, David. "Self-Reliance: Individualism in Emerson and Coleridge." Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, 5:1 (2001 Apr), 51-68.
- Buell, Lawrence. "Emersonian Self-Reliance in Theory and Practice." Chapter 4 of Emerson. Cambridge: Belknap, 2003.