Notes on Emerson

Spiritual Laws:The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

=General belief in the goodness of the world.

+Melville’s response: “Nay, I do not oscillate to Emerson’s rainbow.”


On Art & Symbols

First trip to Europe: “the strong-winged sea gull & striped sheer water” are better works of art than any made by human hands.” [Nature as Artist]

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it behold, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” – Nature [cf. John Burroughs]

“Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive…The creation of beauty is Art….The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each is his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce.  Thus is Art, a nature passed through the alembic of man.”


On History

“First marvel at who you are, and then the history of the world will take on meaning – history’s true and only significance appears in the manifold illustrations of your life scatted since time began.” —“History”

“Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also.” —Nature

“this confidence in the unsearched might of man, belongs by al motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar.  We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.”

“What business have Washington or Jefferson in this age?” Journal, 1830s



Understanding is grasping the mere facts of the word.  Reason sees deeper in to the Truth of things.

Direct experience is better than knowledge or learnedness. “You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate life like a college professor.” (1846)

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.  Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.  The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood….I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.” –Nature


Transcendental Experience

“I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”


The American Scholar (1837)

Present at speech: James Russell Lowell, Wendell Phillips, Edward Everett, Edward Channing, Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes called it “our Intellectual Declaration of Independence”

“Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.” AS [cf. Thomas Cole, “Essay on the American Scenery,” & A.J. Downing & Declaration of Independence]

“In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect.  In the right state, he is, man Thinking.  In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” AS

…science is nothing but the finding of analogy, identity in the most remotest parts.” [ergo, Nature is the engine of metaphor]

“And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim.” [Irony of uniting his battle cry with the oldest bit of wisdom from Delphi]

Separateness and Wholeness

Journal 1836 “It is the constant tendency of the mind to Unify all it beholds, or to reduce the remotest facts to a single law. Hence all endeavors at classification….//…there is a tendency of the mind to separate particulars & magnify them to lose sight of the connexion of the object with the whole. Hence all false views, Sects;…”

“…the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.” – AS

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” —AS

“The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now for two hundred years.”—AS

Journal (1845) “It is sad to see people reading again their old books, merely because they don’t know what new books they want.”

“colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office,–to teach elements.  But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create, when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” – AS

“Life is our dictionary…Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.  Does he lack organ or medium to impart his truths?  He can still fall back on this elemental force of living them.  This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act…. Not out of those on whom systems of education have exhausted their culture, comes the helpful giant to destroy the old or to build the new, but out of the unhandselled savage nature, out of terrible Druids and Berserkirs, come at last Alfred and Shakspear.” [cf. John Erskine “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent”]

I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.” [cf. Whitman “Song of Myself”]


The Divinity School Address (1838)

Journal 1838 “’Miracles have ceased.’ Have they indeed? When? They had not ceased this afternoon when I walked into the wood & got into bright miraculous sunshine in shelter from the roaring wind.”


“The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”  –DSA

“There is  a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment.” –DSA

“That is always best which gives me to myself.  The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, ‘Obey thyself.’” –DSA

I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy. <–the new teacher / Whitman



“O circular philosopher”

Think lemniscate, the ouroboros, the infinity sign

“The eye is the first circle; the horizon from which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” –Circles [I and Eye; cf. post-structuralism; cf. Marx “all that is solid melts into air”; cf. Emerson “the universe is fluid and volatile.]

Letter (1840) “Nature—what is it but the circumference of which I am the centre, the outside of my inside, object whereof I am subject? … This external unity & kindred of production and producer is the account of that feeling of self recognition we always find in the landscape.” [cf. Paul Kane “Inner Landscapes as Sacred Landscapes”]

“Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows.  Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new.  The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.” [cf. Ezra Pound “Make it New;” Van Wyck Brooks “On Creating a Useable Past;” and “American Scholar”]

Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility. [Cf. American Trompe-L’oeil – Harnett, Peto, Haberle]

“A wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes.”

“Geoffrey draws on his boots to go through the woods, that his feet may be safer from the bite of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such a peril. In many years neither is harmed by such an accident. Yet it seems to me that with every precaution you take against such an evil you put yourself into the power of the evil.” [RWE on Homeland Security]

“One man’s justice is another’s injustice; one man’s beauty, another’s ugliness; one man’s wisdom, another’s folly; as one beholds the same objects from a higher point.” [cf. perspective; relativism]

“To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.”—Emerson on Writer’s Block

“Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false.  I unsettle all things.  No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” [cf. Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Useable Past”; cf. Whitman “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”]\

“People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled, is there any hope for them.”

“No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against higher love.”

“The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” [cf. Buddhism]


The Poet

“For poetry was all written before time was….word and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy.  Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”

“The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary.  For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem.”

“For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.”

“Language is fossil poetry.”

“We come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity. Every word was once a poem.  Every new relation a word.” [cf. Hemingway’s prose]

“The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation, and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs.”[cf. Vitruvius on the Architect]



“TO believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” <–Hawthorne wouldn’t have this for a second.

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” [empathic response]

“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.” [cf. Moby-Dick, Ahab, “joint-stock company”; Bartleby]

“the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” [cf. Moby-Dick, “Tahiti”; Thoreau Walden, Mary Shelly — Frankenstein34 “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility.”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

“…Whence then this worship of the past?”

“I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.” –> Whitman

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise…My giant goes with me wherever I go.” [cf. Tocqueville – Democracy in America “Wherever you go, there you are.”]

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” [Circles]


Thoreau’s Eulogy

Emerson in his journal remembered (1848) “H.D.T. when you talked of art, blotted a paper with ink, then doubled it over, & safely defied the artist to surpass his effect.”

Emerson, in his last years, when his memory had faded, would ask his wife Lidian, “what was the name of my best friend?”  Henry Thoreau,” she would answer. “Oh, yes, Henry Thoreau,” he would respond.

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