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

II. The Celebration of Intellect

An Address Delivered before the Students of Tufts College, July 10, 1861

  • BY Sybarites beguiled,
  • He shall no task decline;
  • Merlin’s mighty line
  • Extremes of nature reconciled—
  • Bereaved a tyrant of his will,
  • And made the lion mild.

  • I KNOW the mighty bards,
  • I listen when they sing,
  • And now I know
  • The secret store
  • Which these explore
  • When they with torch of genius pierce
  • The tenfold clouds that cover
  • The riches of the universe
  • From God’s adoring lover.
  • And if to me it is not given
  • To fetch one ingot hence
  • Of the unfading gold of Heaven
  • His merchants may dispense,
  • Yet well I know the royal mine
  • And know the sparkle of its ore,
  • Know Heaven’s truths from lies that shine—
  • Explored, they teach us to explore.

  • I CANNOT consent to wander from the duties of this day into the fracas of politics. The brute noise of cannon has, I know, a most poetic echo in these days when it is an instrument of freedom and the primal sentiments of humanity. Yet it is but representative and a far-off means and servant: but here in the college we are in the presence of the constituency and the principle itself. Here is, or should be, the majesty of reason and the creative cause; and it were a compounding of all gradation and reverence to suffer the flash of swords and the boyish strife of passion and the feebleness of military strength to intrude on this sanctity and omnipotence of Intellectual Law. Against the heroism of soldiers I set the heroism of scholars, which consists in ignoring the other. You shall not put up in your Academy the statue of Cæsar or Pompey, of Nelson or Wellington, of Washington or Napoleon, of Garibaldi, but of Archimedes, of Milton, of Newton. Archimedes disdained to apply himself to the useful arts, only to the liberal or the causal arts. Hiero the king reproached him with his barren studies. Like Thales, he was willing to show him that he was quite able in rude matters, if he could condescend to them, and he conducted the defence of Syracuse against the Romans. Then he returned to his geometry; and when the Roman soldier, at the sack of Syracuse, broke into his study, the philosopher could not rise from his chair and his diagram, and took his death without resistance. Michael Angelo gave himself to art, despising all meaner pursuits. When the war came to his own city, he lent his genius, and defended Florence as long as he was obeyed. Milton congratulates the Parliament that, whilst London is besieged and blocked, the Thames infested, inroads and excursions round, and battle oft rumored to be marching up to her walls and suburb trenches,—yet then are the people, or the greater part, more than at other times wholly taken up with the study of highest and most important matters to be reformed,—they reasoning, reading, inventing, discoursing, even to a rarity and admiration, things not before discoursed or written, and the fact argues a just confidence in the grandeur and self-subsistency of the cause of religious liberty which made all material war an impertinence.

    For either science and literature is a hypocrisy, or it is not. If it be, then resign your charter to the Legislature, turn your college into barracks and warehouses, and divert the funds of your founders into the stock of a rope-walk or a candle-factory, a tan-yard or some other undoubted conveniency for the surrounding population. But if the intellectual interest be, as I hold, no hypocrisy, but the only reality,—then it behooves us to enthrone it, obey it; and give it possession of us and ours; to give, among other possessions, the college into its hand casting down every idol, every pretender, every hoary lie, every dignified blunder that has crept into its administration.

    At this season, the colleges keep their anniversaries, and in this country where education is a primary interest, every family has a representative in their halls, a son, a brother, or one of our own kindred is there for his training. But even if we had no son or friend therein, yet the college is part of the community, and it is there for us, is training our teachers, civilizers and inspirers. It is essentially the most radiating and public of agencies, like, but better than, the light-house, or the alarm-bell, or the sentinel who fires a signal-cannon, or the telegraph which speeds the local news over the land. Besides, it deals with a force which it cannot monopolize or confine; cannot give to those who come to it and refuse to those outside. I have no doubt of the force, and for me the only question is, whether the force is inside.

    This power which it deals is dear to all. If the colleges were better, if they had any monopoly of it, nay, if they really had it, had the power of imparting valuable thought, creative principles, truths which become powers, thoughts which become talents,—if they could cause that a mind not profound should become profound,—we should all rush to their gates: instead of contriving inducements to draw students, you would need to set police at the gates to keep order in the in-rushing multitude.

    These are giddy times, and, you say, the college will be deserted. No, never was it so much needed. But I say, those were the giddy times which went before these, and the new times are the times of arraignment, times of trial and times of judgment. ’T is because the college was false to its trust, because the scholars did not learn and teach, because they were traders and left their altars and libraries and worship of truth and played the sycophant to presidents and generals and members of Congress, and gave degrees and literary and social honors to those whom they ought to have rebuked and exposed, incurring the contempt of those whom they ought to have put in fear; then the college is suicidal; ceases to be a school; power oozes out of it just as fast as truth does; and instead of overawing the strong, and upholding the good, it is a hospital for decayed tutors.

    This Integrity over all partial knowledge and skill, homage to truth—how rare! Few men wish to know how the thing really stands, what is the law of it without reference to persons. Other men are victims of their means—sanity consists in not being subdued by your means.

    Two men cannot converse together on any topic without presently finding where each stands in moral judgment; and each learns whether the other’s view commands, or is commanded by, his own. I presently know whether my companion has more candor or less, more hope for men or less, whether his sense of duty is more or less severe and his generosity larger than mine; whether he stands for ideal justice, or for a timorous expediency.

    Society is always idolatrous and exaggerates the merits of those who work to vulgar ends. But genius may be known by its probity. Never was pure valor—and almost I might say, never pure ability—shown in a bad cause. For ambition makes insane.

    Society is always taken by surprise at any new example of common sense and of simple justice, as at a wonderful discovery. Thus, at Mr. Rarey’s mode of taming a horse by kindness, or Garibaldi’s emancipation of Italy for Italy’s sake; at the introduction of gentleness into insane asylums, and of cleanliness and comfort into penitentiaries. A farmer wished to buy an ox. The seller told him how well he had treated the animal. “But,” said my farmer, “I asked the ox, and the ox showed me by marks that could not lie that he had been abused.” We affect to slight England and Englishmen. But I note that we had a vast self-esteem on the subject of Bunker Hill, Yorktown and New Orleans. We should not think it much to beat Indians or Mexicans,—but to beat English! The English newspapers and some writers of reputation disparage America. Meantime I note that the British people are emigrating hither by thousands, which is a very sincere, and apt to be a very seriously considered expression of opinion. The emigration into America of British, as well as of Continental people, is the eulogy of America by the most competent and sincere arbiters. The hater of property and of government takes care to have his warranty-deed recorded; and the book written against fame and learning has the author’s name on the title-page….

    Gentlemen, I too am an American, and value practical talent. I love results and hate abortions. I delight in people who can do things. I value talent,—perhaps no man more. I value dearly the poet who knows his art so well that, when his voice vibrates, it fills the hearer with sympathetic song, just as a powerful note of an organ sets all tuned strings in its neighborhood in accordant vibration,—the novelist with his romance, the architect with his palace, the composer with his score. I wish you to be eloquent, to grasp the bolt and to hurl it home to the mark. I wish to see that Mirabeau who knows how to seize the heart-strings of the people and drive their hands and feet in the way he wishes them to go, to fill them with himself, to enchant men so that their will and purpose is in abeyance and they serve him with a million hands just as implicitly as his own members obey him. But I value it more when it is legitimate, when the talent is in true order, subject to genius, subject to the total and native sentiment of the man, and therefore in harmony with the public sentiment of mankind. Such is the patriotism of Demosthenes, of Patrick Henry and of what was best in Cicero and Burke; not an ingenious special pleading, no the making a plausible case, but strong by the strength of the facts themselves. Then the orator is still one of the audience, persuaded by the same reasons which persuade them; not a ventriloquist, not a juggler, not a wire-puller paid to manage the lobby and caucus.

    In Demosthenes is this realism of genius. He wins his cause honestly. His doctrine is self-reliance. “If it please you to note it, my counsels to you are not such whereby I should grow great among you, and you becomes little among the Grecians; but they be of that nature as is sometimes not good for me to give, but are always good for you to follow.”

    You, gentlemen, are selected out of the great multitude of your mates, out of those who begun life with you, set apart through some strong persuasion of your own, or of your friends, that you were capable of the high privilege of thought. Need enough there is of such a band of priests of intellect and knowledge; and great is the office, and well deserving and well paying the last sacrifices and the highest ability. But I wish this were a needless task, to urge upon you scholars the claims of thought and learning. The order of the world educates with care the sense and the understanding.…

    Men are as they think. A certain quantity of power belongs to a certain quantity of truth. And the man who knows any truth not yet discerned by other men is master of all other men, so far as that truth and its wide relations are concerned. Do you suppose that the thunderbolt falls short? Do you imagine that a lie will nourish and work like a truth?… The whole battle is fought in few heads. A little finer order, a larger angle of vision, commands centuries of facts and millions of thoughtless people. It reverse all rank; “he who discriminates is the father of his father.”…

    And yet the world is not saved. With this divine oracle, we somehow do not get instructed. Here are still perverse millions full of passion, crime and blood. Here are bad governors and bad subjects. Nay, in the class called intellectual the men are no better than the uninstructed. They use their wit and learning in the service of the Devil. There are bad books and false teachers and corrupt judges; and in the institutions of education a want of faith in their own cause. Nay, it happens often that the well-bred and refined, the inhabitants of cities, dwelling amidst colleges, churches, and scientific museums, lecturers, poets, libraries, newspapers, and other aids supposed intellectual are more vicious and malignant than the rude country people, and need to have their corrupt voting and violence corrected by the cleaner and wiser suffrages of poor farmers. The poet does not believe in his poetry. Men are ashamed of their intellect.…

    Instinct is the name for the potential wit, that feeling which each has that what is done by any man or agent is done by the same wit as his. He looks at all men as his representatives, and is glad to see that his wit can work at that problem as it ought to be done, and better than he could do it; whether it be to build, engineer, carve, paint, sing, heal, or compute, or play chess, or ride, or swim. We feel as if one man wrote all the books, painted, built, in dark ages, and we are sure we can do more than ever was done. It was the same mind that built the world.

    The Understanding is the name we give to the low, limitary power working to short ends, to daily life in house and street. This is the power which the world of men adopt and educate. He is the calculator, he is the merchant, the politician, the worker in the useful; he works by shifts, by compromise, by statute, by brides. All his activities are to short. Personal ends, and he is apt to be a talker, a boaster, a busy-body.

    Will you let me say to you what I think is the organic law of learning? It is to observe the order, to keep down the talent, to enthrone the Instinct. There must be the perpetual rallying and self-recovery; each talent links itself so fast with self-love and with petty advantage that it loses sight of its obedience, which is beautiful, and sets up for itself, and makes confusion. Falsehood beings as soon as it disobeys, it works for show, and for the shop, and the greater it grows, the more is the mischief and misleading, so that presently all is wrong, talent is mistaken for genius, dogma or system for truth.…

    Now the idea of a college is an assembly of such men, obedient each to this pure light, and drawing from it illumination to that science or art to which his constitution and affections draw him. And the very highest advantage which a young man of good mind can meet is to find such a teacher. No books, no aids, laboratory, apparatus, prizes, can compare with this. Here is sympathy; here is an order that corresponds to that in his own mind, and in all sound minds, and the hope and impulse imparted. And education is what it should be, a delightful unfolding of the faculties in right order.

    I could heartily wish it were otherwise, but there is a certain shyness of genius, of free thought, of a master of art in college, which is as old as the rejection of Molière by the French Academy, of Bentley by the pedants of his time, and only the other day, of Arago; in Oxford, the recent rejection of Max Müller…. If the truth must be told, thought is as rare in colleges as in cities. The necessity of a mechanical system is not to be denied. Young men must be classed and employed, not according to the secret needs of each mind but by some available plan that will give weekly and annual results; and a little violence must be done to private genius to accomplish this. Then genius is always its own law, and must be a little impatient and rebellious to this rule, so that, of necessity, a certain hostility and jealousy of genius grows up in the masters of routine, and unless, by rare good fortune, the professor has a generous sympathy with genius and takes care to interpose a certain relief and cherishing and reverence for the wild poet and dawning philosopher he has detected in his classes, that will happen which has happened so often, that the best scholar, he for whom colleges exist, finds himself a stranger and an orphan therein. ’T is precisely analogous to what befalls in religious societies. In the romance Spiridion a few years ago, we had what it seems was a piece of accurate autobiography, the story of a young saint who comes into a convent for her education, and not falling into the system and the little parties in the convent, but inspired with an enthusiasm which finds nothing there to feed it, it turns out in a few days that every hand is against this young votary. Piety in a convent accuses every one, from the novice to the abbess. What right have you to be better than your neighbor? Piety comes to be regarded as a spy and a rebel…. And how often we have had repeated the trials of the young man who made no figure at college because his own methods were new and extraordinary, and who only prospered at last because he forsook theirs and took his own.

    It is true that the University and the Church, which should be counterbalancing institutions to our great material institutions of trade and of territorial power, do not express the sentiment of the popular politics and the popular optimism, whatever it be. Harvard College has no voice in Harvard College, but State Street votes it down on every ballot. Everything will be permitted there which goes to adorn Boston Whiggism,—is it geology, astronomy, poetry, antiquities, art, rhetoric. But that which it exists for, to be a fountain of novelties out of heaven, a Delphos uttering warning and ravishing oracles to lift and lead mankind,—that it shall not be permitted to do or to think of. On the contrary, every generosity of thought is suspect and gets and bad name. and all the youth come out decrepit citizens; not a prophet, not a poet, not a daimon, but is gagged and stifled or driven away. All that is sought in the instruction is drill; tutors, not inspirers.

    I conceive that a college should have no mean ambition, but should aim at a reverent discipline and invitation of the soul, that here, if nowhere else in the world, genius should find its home; here Imagination should be greeted with the problems in which it delights; the noblest tasks to the Muse proposed and the most cordial and honoring rewards; here the highest duties be urged, and enthusiasm for liberty and wisdom should breed enthusiasm and form heroes for the state. The College should hold the profound thought, and the Church the great heart to which the nation should turn, and these two should be counterbalancing to the bad politics and selfish trade. But there is but one institution, and not three. The Church and the College now take their tone from the City, and do not dictate their own. You all well know the downward tendency in literature, the facility with which men renounce their youthful aims and say, the labor is too severe, the prize too high for me; and they accept the employments of the market….

    Ah, gentlemen, it’s only a dream of mine, and perhaps never will be true,—but I thought a college was a place not to train talents, not to train attorneys, and those who say what they please, but to adorn Genius, which only speaks truth, and after the way which truth uses, namely, Beauty; a college was to teach you geometry, or the lovely laws of space and figure; chemistry, botany, zoölogy, the streaming of thought into form, and the precipitation of atoms which Nature is.

    This, then, is the theory of Education, the happy meeting of the young soul, filled with the desire, with the living teacher who has already made the passage from the centre forth, step by step, along the intellectual roads to the theory and practice of special science. Now if there be genius in the scholar, that is, a delicate sensibility to the laws of the world, and the power to express them again in some new form, he is made to find his own way. He will greet joyfully the wise teacher, but colleges and teachers are no wise essential to him; he will find teachers everywhere.

    I would have you rely on Nature ever,—wise, omnific, thousand-handed Nature, equal to each emergency, which can do very well without colleges, and, if the Latin, Greek, Algebra or Art were in the parents, it will be in the children, without being pasted on.

    If your college and your literature are not felt, it is because the truth is not in them. When you say the times, the persons are prosaic, where is the feudal, or the Saracenic, or Egyptian architecture? where the romantic manners? where the Romish or the Calvinistic religion, which made a kind of poetry in the air for Milton, or Byron, or Belzoni? but to us it is barren,—you expose your atheism. Is a railroad, or a shoe-factory, or an insurance office, bank or bakery outside of the system and connection of things, or further from God than a sheep-pasture or a clam-bank? Is chemistry suspended? Do not the electricities and the imponderable influences play with all their magic undulations? Do not gravity and polarity keep their unerring watch on a needle and thread, on a cobbler’s lapstone or a switchman’s turntable as on the moon’s orbit? Only bring a deep observer, and he will make light of the new shop or old cathedral—all one to him—or new circumstances that afflict you. He will find the circumstances not altered; as deep a cloud of mystery on the cause, as dazzling a glory on the invincible law. Is it so important whether a man wears a shoe-buckle or ties his shoe-lappet with a string?… Bring the insight, and he will find as many beauties and heroes and astounding strokes of genius close by him as Shakspeare or Æschylus or Dante beheld. It was in a beggarly heath farm, it was in a mean country inn that Burns found his fancy so sprightly. You find the times and places mean. My friend, stretch a few threads over a common Æolian harp, and put it in your window, and listen to what it says of times and the heart of Nature. I do not think that you will believe that the miracle of Nature is less, the chemical power worn out. Watch the breaking morning, the enchantments of the sunset.

    If I had young men to reach, I should say to them, Keep the intellect sacred. Revere it. Give all to it. Its oracles countervail all. Attention is its acceptable prayer. Sit low and wait long; and know that, next to being its minister, like Aristotle, and perhaps better than that, is the profound reception and sympathy, without ambition which secularizes and trades it. Go sit with the Hermit in you, who knows more than you do. You will find life enhanced, and doors opened to grander entertainments. Yet all comes easily that he does, as snow and vapor, heat, wind and light. Power costs nothing to the powerful. I should say to them, Do what you can do. He that draws on his own talent cannot be overshadowed or supplanted.… Homage to truth discriminates good and evil. Power never departs from it.

    Our colleges may differ much in the scale of requirements, and the examination for admission and the examination for degrees and honors may be lax in this college and severe in that, and you may find facilities, translations, syllabuses and tutors here or there to coach you through, but ’t is very certain that an examination is yonder before us and an examining committee that cannot be escaped nor deceived, that every scholar is to be put fairly on his own powers and must hear the questions proposed, and answer them by himself, and receive honor or dishonor according to the fidelity shown. For the men and women of your time, the circle of your friends and employers, your conditions, the invisible world, are the interrogators.…

    When the great painter was told by a dauber, “I have painted five pictures whilst you have made one,” he replied, “Pingo in æternitatem.” “Study for eternity smiled on me,” says Van Helmont. And it were a good rule to read some lines at least every day that shall not be of the day’s occasion or task, but of study for eternity.

    I have detained you too long; but it is the privilege of the moral sentiment to be every moment new and commanding, and old men cannot see the powers of society, the institutions, the laws under which they have lived, passing, or soon to pass, into the hands of you and your contemporaries, without an earnest wish that you have caught sight of your high calling, your vast possibilities and inspiring duties.