Book Notes: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Below are my favorite excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first collection of essays. I really enjoyed the collection. Buried within each essay there are a bounty of famous Emerson quotes that we normally read in isolation. It’s fun and stimulating to ponder them in context. Note: just line breaks separate each quote, they are not continuous.

By the way, Emerson: Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson is a good biography if you’re looking to learn more about the man behind the wisdom.

On Being Bold With Your Thoughts:

Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow 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.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.

Human character evermore publishes itself. The most fugitive deed and word, the mere air of doing a thing, the intimated purpose, expresses character. If you act you show character; if you sit still, if you sleep, you show it. You think because you have spoken nothing when others spoke, and have given no opinion on the times, on the church, on slavery, on marriage, on socialism, on secret societies, on the college, on parties and persons, that your verdict is still expected with curiosity as a reserved wisdom. Far otherwise; your silence answers very loud. You have no oracle to utter, and your fellow-men have learned that you cannot help them; for oracles speak. Doth not Wisdom cry and Understanding put forth her voice?

On Solitude and Reflection:

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.”

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.

When the act of reflection takes place in the mind, when we look at ourselves in the light of thought, we discover that our life is embosomed in beauty. Behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do far off. Not only things familiar and stale, but even the tragic and terrible are comely as they take their place in the pictures of memory. The river-bank, the weed at the water-side, the old house, the foolish person, however neglected in the passing, have a grace in the past. Even the corpse that has lain in the chambers has added a solemn ornament to the house.

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.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

On Travel:

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.

On Telling Secrets:

It is vain to attempt to keep a secret from one who has a right to know it. It will tell itself.

On Intelligence:

Show us an arc of the curve, and a good mathematician will find out the whole figure. We are always reasoning from the seen to the unseen. Hence the perfect intelligence that subsists between wise men of remote ages.

There are all degrees of proficiency in knowledge of the world. It is sufficient to our present purpose to indicate three. One class live to the utility of the symbol, esteeming health and wealth a final good. Another class live above this mark to the beauty of the symbol, as the poet and artist and the naturalist and man of science. A third class live above the beauty of the symbol to the beauty of the thing signified; these are wise men. The first class have common sense; the second, taste; and the third, spiritual perception.

On Having a Heart and Feeling:

…It expands the sentiment; it makes the clown gentle and gives the coward heart. Into the most pitiful and abject it will infuse a heart and courage to defy the world,

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,—and forthwith troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

I have been told that in some public discourses of mine my reverence for the intellect has made me unjustly cold to the personal relations.

On Writing:

Sidney’s maxim:— “Look in thy heart, and write.” He that writes to himself writes to an eternal public.

It is a fact often observed, that men have written good verses under the inspiration of passion, who cannot write well under any other circumstances.

We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience.

Each truth that a writer acquires is a lantern, which he turns full on what facts and thoughts lay already in his mind, and behold, all the mats and rubbish which had littered his garret become precious.

On Retrospective Dot-Connecting:

The great man knew not that he was great. It took a century or two for that fact to appear. What he did, he did because he must; it was the most natural thing in the world, and grew out of the circumstances of the moment. But now, every thing he did, even to the lifting of his finger or the eating of bread, looks large, all-related, and is called an institution.

On Friendship:

…the only way to have a friend is to be one.

The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world.

It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion.

give a high nature the refreshment and satisfaction of resistance, of plain humanity, of even companionship and of new ideas. They leave them wiser and superior men. Souls like these make us feel that sincerity is more excellent than flattery.

Random Nuggets:

“A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” – Oliver Cromwell

We love characters in proportion as they are impulsive and spontaneous. The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues the better we like him.

His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers. The height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base.

“Paradise is under the shadow of swords.” – Mahomet.

“Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.

Plato said that “poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.”

A mind might ponder its thought for ages and not gain so much self-knowledge as the passion of love shall teach it in a day.

Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind…We know that the ancestor of every action is a thought.

He hears the commendation, not of himself, but, more sweet, of that character he seeks,….

Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know.

5 comments on “Book Notes: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Good times. I am currently reading Henry David Thoreau’s Collected Works and I have been intending to read the Emerson afterwards. Unlike in the US, neither Thoreau nor Emerson count as foundational in South Africa. Correcting for such gaps privately is such a pleasure.

  • Nice choice, Ben, except for the quote from Oliver Cromwell. Never thought I’d see that here.

    Fortunately the very same English Lit teacher who tortured us with Dickens’ Great Expectations and Longfellow’s Evangeline was a devotee of the Transcendentalists.

    Thus her students acquired more than a passing familiarity with William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis, Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, and Emerson’s essays.

    Emerson’s words were like oracular statements from an I Ching ‘heaven’ to some of us existentially challenged seekers after truth.

    They showed us that we could be spiritual without being religious, and yet remain individualists. That meshed well with our rebellious counterculture ethic.

    At the same time we were independently discovering the works of Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts.

    LSD, peyote, magic mushrooms, and the books we read, even Colin Wilson’s, were catalysts for our inquiries into the meaning of life.

    I think we all eventually came to the conclusion that whatever essential spirit pervaded the universe, if indeed such existed (I never doubted God was goofing on me personally), was a cosmic joker, and there were no answers.

    I left home (my parting words were “I’m queeeer!” as I ran screaming down the street) and went to live on a hippie communal farm, where we tended a garden and indulged in all that clichéd sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

    We lived that life, saw the good and the bad manifestations of human character, and came to realize that psychedelic drugs are simply tools to attain a higher state of consciousness, not an end in themselves, and depending on them to get there is just another form of materialism.

    We just had to be loved by our beautiful gods and knocked down by our cruel demons to appreciate it.

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