Home  »  The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson  »  I. Natural History of Intellect. II. Instinct and Inspiration

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The Complete Works. 1904.
Vol. I. Nature, Addresses and Lectures

I. Natural History of Intellect. II. Instinct and Inspiration

IN reckoning the sources of our mental power, it were fatal to omit that one which pours all the others into mould—that unknown country in which all the rivers of our knowledge have their fountains, which by its qualities and structure determines both the nature of the waters, and the direction in which they flow. We have a certain blind wisdom, a brain of the brain, a seminal brain, which has not yet put forth organs, which rests in oversight and presence, but which seems to sheathe a certain omniscience; and which, in the despair of language, is commonly called Instinct.

This is that which never pretends: nothing seems less, nothing is more. Ask what the Instinct declares, and we have little to say; he is no newsmonger, no disputant, no talker. Consciousness is but a taper in the great night; but the taper at which all the illumination of human arts and sciences was kindled. And in each man’s experience, from this spark torrents of light have once and again streamed and revealed the dusky landscape of his life. ’T is very certain that a man’s whole possibility is contained in that habitual first look which he casts on all objects. Here alone is the field of metaphysical discovery, yes, and of every religion and civil order that has been or shall be. All that we know is flakes and grains detached from this mountain. None of the metaphysicians have prospered in describing this power, which constitutes sanity; and is the corrector of private excesses and mistakes; public in all its regards, and of a balance which is never lost, not even in the insane.

All men are, in respect to this source of truth, on a certain footing of equality, equal in original science, though against appearance; and ’t is incredible to them. There is a singular credulity which no experience will cure us of, that another man has seen or may see somewhat more than we, of the primary facts; as, for example, of the continuity of the individual, and, eye for eye, object for object, their experience is invariably identical in a million individuals. I know, of course, all the grounds on which any man affirms the immortality of the Soul. Fed from one spring, the water-tank is equally full in all the gardens: the difference is in the distribution by pipes and pumps (difference in the aqueduct), and fine application of it. Its property is absolute science and an implicit reliance is due to it.

All true wisdom of thought and of action comes of deference to this instinct, patience with its delays.

To make a practical use of this instinct in every part of life constitutes true wisdom, and we must form the habit of preferring in all cases this guidance, which is given as it is used. To indicate a few examples of our recurrence to instinct instead of to the understanding: we can only judge safely of a discipline, of a book, of a man, or other influence, by the frame of mind it induces, as whether that be large and serene, or dispiriting and degrading. Then we get a certain habit of the mind as the measure; as Haydon found Voltaire’s tales left him melancholy. The eye and ear have a logic which transcends the skill of the tongue. The ear is not to be cheated. A continuous effect cannot be produced by discontinuous thought, and when the eye cannot detect the juncture of the skilful mosaic, the spirit is apprised of disunion, simply by the failure to affect the spirit. Objection and loud denial not less prove the reality and conquests of an idea than the friends and advocates it finds. One often sees in the embittered acuteness of critics snuffing heresy from afar, their own unbelief, that they pour forth on the innocent promulgator of new doctrine their anger at that which they vainly resist in their own bosom. Again, if you go to a gallery of pictures, or other works of fine art, the eye is dazzled and embarrassed by many excellences. The marble imposes on us; the exquisite details, we cannot tell if they be good or not: but long after we have quitted the place, the objects begin to take a new order; the inferior recede or are forgotten and the truly noble forms reappear to the imagination.

The Instinct begins at this low point at the surface of the earth, and works for the necessities of the human being; then ascends, step by step, to suggestions, which are, when expressed, the intellectual and moral laws.

And what is Inspiration? It is this Instinct, whose normal state is passive, at last put in action. We attributed power and science and good will to the Instinct, but we found it dumb and inexorable. If it would but impart itself! To coax and woo the strong Instinct to bestir itself, and work its miracle, is the end of all wise endeavor. It is resistless, and knows the way, is the inventor of all arts, and is melodious, and at all points a god. Could we prick the sides of this slumberous giant; could we break the silence of this oldest angel, who was with God when the worlds were made! The whole art of man has been an art of excitation, to provoke, to extort speech from the drowsy genius. We ought to know the way to our nectar. We ought to know the way to insight and prophecy as surely as the plant knows its way to the light; the cow and sheep to the running brook; or the feaster to his wine. We believe (the drop of blood has latent power and organs) that the rudest mind has a Delphi and Dodona—predictions of Nature and history—in itself, though now dim and hard to read. All depends on some instigation, some impulse. Where is the yeast that will leaven this lump? Where the wine that will warm and open these silent lips? Where the fire that will light this combustible pile? That force or flame is alone to be considered; ’t is indifferent on what it is fed.

Here are we with all our world of facts and experience, the spontaneous impressions of Nature and men, and original oracles,—all ready to be uttered, if only we could be set aglow. How much material lies in every man! Who knows not the insufficiency of our forces, the solstice of genius? The star climbs for a time the heaven, but never reaches the zenith; it culminates low, and goes backward whence it came.

The human faculty only warrants inceptions. Even those we call great men build substructures, and, like Cologne Cathedral, these are never finished. Lord Bacon begins; Behmen begins; Goethe, Fourier, Schelling, Coleridge, they all begin: we, credulous bystanders, believe, of course, that they can finish as they begun. If you press them, they fly to a new topic, and here, again, open a magnificent promise, which serves the turn of interesting us once more, and silencing reproaches, but they never complete their work. Inspiration is vital and continuous. It is also a public or universal light, and not particular. But genius is as weary of his personality as others are, and he has the royal expedient to thrust Nature between him and you, and perpetually to divert attention from himself, by the stream of thoughts, laws and images.

In the healthy mind, the thought is not a barren thesis, but expands, varies, recruits itself with relations to all Nature, paints itself in wonderful symbols, appears in new men, in institutions, in social arrangements, in wood, in stone, in art, in books. The mark and sign of it is newness. The divine energy never rests or repeats itself, but casts its old garb, and reappears, another creature; the old energy in a new form, with all the vigor of the earth; the Ancient of Days in the dew of the morning.

Novelty in the means by which we arrive at the old universal ends is the test of the presence of the highest power, alike in intellectual and in moral action. How incomparable beyond all price seems to us a new poem—say Spenser—or true work of literary genius! In five hundred years we shall not have a second. We brood on the words or works of our companion, and ask in vain the sources of his information. He exhibits an exotic culture, as if he had his education in another planet. The poet is incredible, inexplicable.

The poet works to an end above his will, and by means, too, which are out of his will. Every part of the poem is therefore a true surprise to the reader, like the parts of the plant, and legitimate as they. The muse may be defined, Supervoluntary ends effected by supervoluntary means. No practical rules for the poem, no working-plan was ever drawn up. It is miraculous at all points. The poetic state given, a little more or a good deal more or less performance seems indifferent. It is as impossible for labor to produce a sonnet of Milton, or a song of Burns, as Shakspeare’s Hamlet, or the Iliad. There is much loss, as we say on the railway, in the stops, but the running time need be but little increased, to add great results. One master could so easily be conceived as writing all the books of the world. They are all alike. For it is a power to convert all Nature to his use. It is a tap-root that sucks all the juices of the earth.

It is this employment of new means—of means not mechanical, but spontaneously appearing for the new need, and as good as the end—that denotes the inspired man. This is equally obvious in all the fine arts; and in action as well as in fine arts. We must try our philanthropists so. The reformer comes with many plans of melioration, and the basis on which he wishes to build his new world, a great deal of money. But what is gained? Certain young men or maidens are thus to be screened from the evil influences of trade by force of money. Perhaps that is a benefit, but those who give the money must be just so much more shrewd, and worldly, and hostile, in order to save so much money. I see not how any virtue is thus gained to society. It is a mere transference. But he will instruct and aid us who shows us how the young may be taught without degrading the old; how the daily sunshine and sap may be made to feed wheat instead of moss and Canada thistle; and really the capital discovery of modern agriculture is that it costs no more to keep a good tree than a bad one.

But how, cries my reformer, is this to be done? How could I do it, who have wife and family to keep? The question is most reasonable,—yet proves that you are not the man to do the feat. The mark of the spirit is to know its way, to invent means. It has been in the universe before, of old and from everlasting, and knows its way up and down. Power is the authentic mark of spirit….

What a revelation of power is music! Yet, when we consider who and what the professors of that art usually are, does it not seem as if music falls accidentally and superficially on its artists? Is it otherwise with poetry?… Here is a famous Ode, which is the first performance of the British mind and lies in all memories as the high-water mark in the flood of thought in this age. What does the writer know of that? Converse with him, learn his opinions and hopes. He has long ago passed out of it, and perhaps his only concern with it is some copyright of an edition in which certain pages, so and so entitled, are contained. When a young man asked old Goethe about Faust, he replied. “What can I know of this? I ought rather to ask you, who are young, and can enter much better into that feeling.” Indeed, I believe it is true in the experience of all men,—for all are inspirable, and sometimes inspired,—that, for the memorable moments of life, we were in them, and not they in us. “… How they entered into me, let them say if they can; for I have gone over all the avenues of my flesh, and cannot find by which they entered,” said Saint Augustine. And the ancient Proclus seems to signify his sense of the same fact, by saying, “The parts in us are more the property of wholes, and of things above us, than they are our property.”

Yes, this wonderful source of knowledge remains a mystery; and its arts and methods of working remain a mystery: it is untamable; the ship of heaven guides itself, and will not accept a wooden rudder. It must be owned that what we call Inspiration is coy and capricious; we must lose many days to gain one; and in order to win infallible verdicts from the inner mind, we must indulge and humor it in every way, and not too exactly task and harness it. Also its communication from one to another follows its own law, and refuses our intrusion. It is one, it belongs to all: yet how to impart it? This makes the perpetual problem of education. How shall I educate my children? Shall I indulge, or shall I control them? Philosophy replies, Nature is stronger than your will, and were you never so vigilant, you may rely on it, your nature and genius will certainly give your vigilance the slip though it had delirium tremens, and will educate the children by the inevitable infusions of its quality. You will do as you can. Why then cumber yourself about it, and make believe be better than you are? Our teaching is indeed hazardous and rare. Our only security is in our rectitude, whose influences must be salutary. That virtue which was never taught us, we cannot teach others. They must be taught by the same schoolmaster. And in spite of our imbecility and terrors, in spite of Boston and London, and universal decay of religion, etc., etc., the moral sense reappears forever with the same angelic newness that has been from of old the fountain of poetry and beauty and strength. Nature is forever over education; our famous orchardist once more: Van Mons of Belgium, after all his experiments at crossing and refining his fruit, arrived at last at the most complete trust in the native power. “My part is to sow, and sow, and re-sow, and in short do nothing but sow.”

It is not in our will. That is the quality of it, that it commands, and is not commanded. And rarely, and suddenly, and without desert, we are let into the serene upper air. Is it that we are such mountains of conceit that Heaven cannot enough mortify and snub us,—I know not; but there seems a settled determination to break our spirit. We shall not think of ourselves too highly. We cannot even see what or where our stars of destiny are.… The inexorable Laws, the Ideas, the private Fate, the Instinct, the Intellect, Memory, Imagination, Fancy, Number, Inspiration, Nature, Duty;—’t is very certain that these things have been hid as under towels and blankets, most part of our days, and, at certain privileged moments, they emerge unaccountably into light. I know not why, but our thoughts have a life of their own, independent of our will. We call genius, in all our popular and proverbial language, divine; to signify its independence of our will. Intellect is universal not individual.… I think this pathetic,—not to have any wisdom at our own terms, not to have any power of organizing victory. The only comfort I can lay to my own sorrow is that we have a higher than a personal interest, which, in the ruin of the personal, is secured. I see that all beauty of discourse or of manners lies in launching on the thought, and forgetting ourselves; and though the beatitude of the Intellect seems to lie out of our volition, and to be unattainable as the sky, yet we can take sight beforehand of a state of being wherein the will shall penetrate and control what it cannot now reach. The old law of science, Imperat parendo, we command by obeying, is forever true; and by faithful serving, we shall complete our noviciate to this subtle art. Yes, and one day, though far off, you will attain the control of these states; you will enter them at will; you will do what now the muses only sing. That is the nobility and high prize of the world.

And this reminds me to add one more trait of the inspired state, namely, incessant advance,—the forward foot. For it is the curious property of truth to be uncontainable and ever enlarging. Truth indeed! We talk as if we had it, or sometimes said it, or knew anything about it,—that terrified re-agent. ’T is a gun with a recoil which will knock down the most nimble artillerists, and therefore is never fired. The ideal is as far ahead of the videttes of the van as it is of the rear. And before the good we aim at, all history is symptomatic, and only a good omen.

And the practical rules of literature ought to follow from these views, namely, that all writing is by the grace of God; that none but a writer should write; that he should write affirmatively, not polemically, or should write nothing that will not help somebody,—as I knew of a good man who held conversations, and wrote on the wall, “that every person might speak to the subject, but no allusion should be made to the opinions of other speakers;”—that we must affirm and affirm, but neither you nor I know the value of what we say; that we must be openers of doors and not a blind alley; that we must hope and strive, for despair is no muse, and vigor always liberates.

The whole ethics of thought is of this kind, flowing out of reverence of the source, and is a sort of religious office. If there is inspiration let there be only that. You shall not violate its conditions, but we will by all means invite it. It is a sort of rule in Art that you shall not speak of any work of art except in its presence; then you will continue to learn something, and will make no blunder. It is not less the rule of this kingdom that you shall not speak of the mount except on the mount; that there are certain problems one would not willingly open, except when the irresistible oracles broke silence. He needs all his health and the flower of his faculties for that. All men are inspirable. Whilst they say only the beautiful and sacred words of necessity, there is no weakness, and no repentance. But the moment they attempt to say these things by memory, charlatanism begins. I am sorry that we do not receive the higher gifts justly and greatly. The reception should be equal. The thoughts which wander through our mind, we do not absorb and make flesh of, but we report them as thoughts; we retail them as news, to our lovers and to all Athenians. At a dreadful loss we play this game; for the secret Power will not impart himself to us for tea-table talk; he frowns on moths and puppets, passes by us, and seeks a solitary and religious heart.

All intellectual virtue consists in a reliance on Ideas. It must be carried with a certain magnificence. We must live by our strength, not by our weakness. It is the exhortation of Zoroaster, “Let the depth, the immortal depth of your soul lead you.” It was the saying of Pythagoras, “Remember to be sober, and to be disposed to believe; for these are the nerves of wisdom.”

Why should we be the dupes of our senses, the victims of our own works, and always inferior to ourselves. We do not yet trust the unknown powers of thought. The whole world is nothing but an exhibition of the powers of this principle, which distributes men. Whence came all these tools, inventions, books, laws, parties, kingdoms? Out of the invisible world, through a few brains. Nineteen twentieths of their substance do trees draw from the air. Plant the pitch-pine in a sand-bank, where is no food, and it thrives, and presently makes a grove, and covers the sand with a soil by shedding its leaves. Not less are the arts and institutions of men created out of thought. The power that make the capitalist are metaphysical, the force of method and the force of will makes trade, and builds towns. “All conquests that history tells of will be found to resolve themselves into the superior mental powers of the conquerors,” and the real credentials by which man takes precedence of man, and lays his hand on those advantages which confirm and consolidate rank, are intellectual and moral. The men are all drugged with this liquor of thought, and thereby secured to their several works. It is easy to see that the races of men rise our of the ground preoccupied with a thought which rules them, divided beforehand into parties ready armed and angry to fight for they know not what. They all share, to the rankest Philistines, the same belief. The haberdashers and brokers and attorneys and idealists and only differ in the amount and clearness of their perception. Whether Whiggery, or Chartism, or Church, or a dream of Wealth, fashioned all these resolute bankers, merchants, lawyers, landlords, who administer the world of to-day, as leaves and wood are made of air, an idea fashioned them, and one related to yours. A stronger idea will subordinate them. Yours, if you see it to be nearer and truer. A man of more comprehensive view can always see with good humor the seeming opposition of a powerful talent which has less comprehension. ’T is a strong paddy, who, with his burly elbows, is making place and way for him. Trust entirely the thought. Lean upon it, it will bear up thee and thine, and society, and systems, like a scrap of down.

The world is intellectual; and the man is. Every man comes into Nature impressed with his own polarity or bias, in obeying which his power, opportunity and happiness reside…. He is strong by his genius, gets all his knowledge only through that aperture. Society is unanimous against this project. He never hears it as he knows it. Nevertheless he is right; right against the world. All excellence is only an inflamed personality. If he is wrong, increase his determination to his aim, and he is right again. What is the use of trying to be somewhat else? He has a facility, which costs him nothing, to do somewhat admirable to all men. He is strong by his genius, and happy also by the same. The secret of power is delight in one’s work. He takes delight in working, not in having wrought. His workbench he finds everywhere, and his workbench is home, education, power and patron. Whilst he serves his genius, he works when he stands, when he sits, when he eats and when he sleeps. The dream which lately floated before the eyes of the French nation—that every man shall do that which of all things he prefers, and shall have three francs a day for doing that—is the real law of the world; and all good labor, by which society is really served, will be found to be of that kind.

All we ask of any man is to be contented with his own work. An enthusiastic workman dignifies his art and arrives at results. Him we account the fortunate man whose determination to his aim is sufficiently strong to leave him no doubt. I am aware that Natures does not always pronounce early on this point. Many men are very slow in finding their vocation. It does not at once appear what they were made for. Nature has not made up her mind in regard to her young friend, and when this happens, we feel life to be some failure. Life is not quite desirable to themselves. It uniformly suggests in the conversation of men the presumption of continued life, of which the present is only one term. We must suppose life to such is a kind of hibernation, and ’t is to be hoped they will be very fat and energetic in the spring. They ripen too slowly than that the determination should appear in this brief life. As with our Catawbas and Isabellas at the eastward, the season is not quite long enough for them.

This determination of Genius in each is so strong that, if it were not guarded with powerful checks, it would have made society impossible. As it is, men and best and most by themselves: and always work in society with great loss of power. They are not timed each to the other: they cannot keep step, and life requires too much compromise. Men go through the world each musing on a great fable dramatically pictured and rehearsed before him. If you speak to the man, he turns his eyes from his own scene, and, slower of faster, endeavors to comprehend what you say. When you have done speaking, he returns to his private music. Men generally attempt, early in life, to make their brothers, afterwards their wives, acquainted with what is going forward in their private theatre; but they soon desist from the attempt, in finding that they also have some farce, or, perhaps, some ear- and heart-rending tragedy forward on their secret boards, on which they are intent; and all parties acquiesce, at last, each in a private box, with the whole play performed before himself solus.

The source of thought evolves its won rules, its own virtues, its own religion. Its whole equipment is new, and it can only fight with its own weapons. Is there only one courage, one gratitude, one benevolence? No, but as many as there are men. Every constitution has its own health and diseases. A new constitution, a new fever, say the physicians. I think the reason why men fail in their conflicts is because they wear other armor than their own. Each must have all, but by no means need to have it in your form. Each must be rich, but not only in money or lands, he may have instead the riches of riches,—creative supplying power.

Within this magical power derived from fidelity to his nature, he adds also the mechanical force of perseverance. He shall keep the law which shall keep him…. In persistency, he knows the strength of Nature, and the immortality of man to lie. A man must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. That you have done long ago helps you now. No rival can rival backward. What you have learned and done, is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in barren days, in days of depression and calamity. “There is but one only liberator in this life from the demons that invade us, and that is, Endeavor,—earnest, entire, perennial endeavor.”

Follow this leading, not ask too curiously whither. To follow it is thy part. And what if it lead, as men say, to an excess, to partiality, to individualism? Follow it still. His art shall suffice this artist, his flame this lover, his inspiration this poet. The artist must be sacrificed. Take if sadly home to thy heart,—the artist must pay for his learning and doing with his life. The old Herschel must choose between the night and the day, and draw on his nightcap when the sun rises, and defend his eyes for nocturnal use. Michael Angelo must paint Sistine ceiling till he can no longer read, except by holding the book over his head. Nature deals with all her children so. See the poor flies, lately so wanton, now fixed to the wall or the tree, exhausted and presently blown away. Men likewise, they put their lives into their deed.…

There is a probity of the Intellect, which demands, if possible, virtues more costly than any Bible has consecrated. It consists in an absolute devotion to truth, founded in a faith in truth.… The virtue of the Intellect is its own, as its courage is of its own kind: and at last, it will be justified, though for the time it seem hostile to that which it most reveres…. I will speak the truth in my heart, or think the truth against what is called God.…

One polarity is impressed on the universe and on its particles. As the whole has its law, so each individual has his genius. Obedience to its genius (to speak a little scholastically) is the particular of faith; perception that the tendency of the whole is to the benefit of the individual is the universal of faith. Do not truck for your private immortality. If immortality, in the sense in which you seek it, is best, you shall be immortal. If it is up to the dignity of that order of things you know, it is secure. The sky, the sea, the plants, the rocks, astronomy, chemistry, keep their word. Morals and the genius of humanity will also. In short, the whole moral of modern science is the transference of that trust which is felt in Nature’s admired arrangements, to the sphere of freedom and of rational life.…

These studies seem to me to derive an importance from their bearing on the universal question of modern times, the question of Religion. It seems to me, as if men stood craving a more stringent creed than any of the pale and enervating systems to which they have had recourse. The Buddhist who finds gods masked in all his friends and enemies, and reads the issue of the conflict beforehand in the rank of the actors, is calm. The Old Greek was respectable and we are not yet able to forget his dramas,—who found the genius of tragedy in the conflict between Destiny and the strong should, and not like the moderns, in the weak would.

Our books are full of generous biographies of Saints, who knew not that they were such; of men and of women who lived for the benefit and healing of nature. But one fact I read in them all,—that there is a religion which survives immutably all persons and fashions, and is worshipped and pronounced with emphasis again and again by some holy person;—and men, with their weak incapacity for principles, and their passion for persons, have run mad for the pronouncer, and forgot the religion. But there is surely enough for the heart and the imagination in the religion itself.

The joy of knowledge, the late discovery that the veil which hid all things form him is really transparent, transparent everywhere to pure eyes, and the heart of trust which every perception fortifies,—renew life for him. He finds that events spring from the same root as persons; the universe understands itself, and all the parts play with a sure harmony.