Showing posts with label The Transcendentalist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Transcendentalist. Show all posts

The Transcendentalist

Ralph Waldo Emerson

For More Information >>

        _A Lecture read at the Masonic Temple, Boston,
        January, 1842_

        The first thing we have to say respecting what are called _new
views_ here in New England, at the present time, is, that they are
not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these
new times.  The light is always identical in its composition, but it
falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first
revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in
theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it
classifies.  What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is
Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842.  As thinkers, mankind have
ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first
class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first
class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second
class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses
give us representations of things, but what are the things
themselves, they cannot tell.  The materialist insists on facts, on
history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man;
the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on
miracle, on individual culture.  These two modes of thinking are both
natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in
higher nature.  He concedes all that the other affirms, admits the
impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty,
and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that
things are as his senses represent them.  But I, he says, affirm
facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the
same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to
doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native
superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by
which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a
retirement from the senses to discern.  Every materialist will be an
idealist; but an idealist can never go backward to be a materialist.

        The idealist, in speaking of events, sees them as spirits.  He
does not deny the sensuous fact: by no means; but he will not see
that alone.  He does not deny the presence of this table, this chair,
and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the
reverse side of the tapestry, as the _other end_, each being a sequel
or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him.  This
manner of looking at things, transfers every object in nature from an
independent and anomalous position without there, into the
consciousness.  Even the materialist Condillac, perhaps the most
logical expounder of materialism, was constrained to say, "Though we
should soar into the heavens, though we should sink into the abyss,
we never go out of ourselves; it is always our own thought that we
perceive." What more could an idealist say?

        The materialist, secure in the certainty of sensation, mocks at
fine-spun theories, at star-gazers and dreamers, and believes that
his life is solid, that he at least takes nothing for granted, but
knows where he stands, and what he does.  Yet how easy it is to show
him, that he also is a phantom walking and working amid phantoms, and
that he need only ask a question or two beyond his daily questions,
to find his solid universe growing dim and impalpable before his
sense.  The sturdy capitalist, no matter how deep and square on
blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house
or Exchange, must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the
angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and
solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off
to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and
goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of
thousands of miles the hour, he knows not whither, -- a bit of
bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on
the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness.  And this wild balloon,
in which his whole venture is embarked, is a just symbol of his whole
state and faculty.  One thing, at least, he says is certain, and does
not give me the headache, that figures do not lie; the multiplication
table has been hitherto found unimpeachable truth; and, moreover, if
I put a gold eagle in my safe, I find it again to-morrow; -- but for
these thoughts, I know not whence they are.  They change and pass
away.  But ask him why he believes that an uniform experience will
continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his
figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on
just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of

        In the order of thought, the materialist takes his departure
from the external world, and esteems a man as one product of that.
The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons
the world an appearance.  The materialist respects sensible masses,
Society, Government, social art, and luxury, every establishment,
every mass, whether majority of numbers, or extent of space, or
amount of objects, every social action.  The idealist has another
measure, which is metaphysical, namely, the _rank_ which things
themselves take in his consciousness; not at all, the size or
appearance.  Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other
natures are better or worse reflectors.  Nature, literature, history,
are only subjective phenomena.  Although in his action overpowered by
the laws of action, and so, warmly cooperating with men, even
preferring them to himself, yet when he speaks scientifically, or
after the order of thought, he is constrained to degrade persons into
representatives of truths.  He does not respect labor, or the
products of labor, namely, property, otherwise than as a manifold
symbol, illustrating with wonderful fidelity of details the laws of
being; he does not respect government, except as far as it reiterates
the law of his mind; nor the church; nor charities; nor arts, for
themselves; but hears, as at a vast distance, what they say, as if
his consciousness would speak to him through a pantomimic scene.  His
thought, -- that is the Universe.  His experience inclines him to
behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing
perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself,
centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all
things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that
aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.

        From this transfer of the world into the consciousness, this
beholding of all things in the mind, follow easily his whole ethics.
It is simpler to be self-dependent.  The height, the deity of man is,
to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force.  Society is
good when it does not violate me; but best when it is likest to
solitude.  Everything real is self-existent.  Everything divine
shares the self-existence of Deity.  All that you call the world is
the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of
the powers of thought, of those that are dependent and of those that
are independent of your will.  Do not cumber yourself with fruitless
pains to mend and remedy remote effects; let the soul be erect, and
all things will go well.  You think me the child of my circumstances:
I make my circumstance.  Let any thought or motive of mine be
different from that they are, the difference will transform my
condition and economy.  I -- this thought which is called I, -- is
the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax.  The mould
is invisible, but the world betrays the shape of the mould.  You call
it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me.  Am I in
harmony with myself? my position will seem to you just and
commanding.  Am I vicious and insane? my fortunes will seem to you
obscure and descending.  As I am, so shall I associate, and, so shall
I act; Caesar's history will paint out Caesar.  Jesus acted so,
because he thought so.  I do not wish to overlook or to gainsay any
reality; I say, I make my circumstance: but if you ask me, Whence am
I?  I feel like other men my relation to that Fact which cannot be
spoken, or defined, nor even thought, but which exists, and will

        The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual
doctrine.  He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the
human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in
inspiration, and in ecstasy.  He wishes that the spiritual principle
should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible
applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything
unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal.  Thus,
the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and
never, who said it?  And so he resists all attempts to palm other
rules and measures on the spirit than its own.

        In action, he easily incurs the charge of antinomianism by his
avowal that he, who has the Lawgiver, may with safety not only
neglect, but even contravene every written commandment.  In the play
of Othello, the expiring Desdemona absolves her husband of the
murder, to her attendant Emilia.  Afterwards, when Emilia charges him
with the crime, Othello exclaims,

        "You heard her say herself it was not I."
        Emilia replies,
        "The more angel she, and thou the blacker devil."

        Of this fine incident, Jacobi, the Transcendental moralist,
makes use, with other parallel instances, in his reply to Fichte.
Jacobi, refusing all measure of right and wrong except the
determinations of the private spirit, remarks that there is no crime
but has sometimes been a virtue.  "I," he says, "am that atheist,
that godless person who, in opposition to an imaginary doctrine of
calculation, would lie as the dying Desdemona lied; would lie and
deceive, as Pylades when he personated Orestes; would assassinate
like Timoleon; would perjure myself like Epaminondas, and John de
Witt; I would resolve on suicide like Cato; I would commit sacrilege
with David; yea, and pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, for no other
reason than that I was fainting for lack of food.  For, I have
assurance in myself, that, in pardoning these faults according to the
letter, man exerts the sovereign right which the majesty of his being
confers on him; he sets the seal of his divine nature to the grace he