"Society and Solitude" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, List 1

March 10, 2023
In this collection of twelve essays, the leader of New England's transcendentalist movement shares his philosophical ideas on different aspects of mid-nineteenth-century life. Read the full text here.

This list covers "Society and Solitude" and "Civilization."

Here are links to our lists for the book: List 1, List 2, List 3, List 4, List 5, List 6
He had good abilities, a genial temper, and no vices; but he had one defect,—he could not speak in the tone of the people.
“Do you think,” he said, “I am in such great terror of being shot,—I, who am only waiting to shuffle off my corporeal jacket, to slip away into the back stars, and put diameters of the solar system and sidereal orbits between me and all souls,—there to wear out ages in solitude, and forget memory itself, if it be possible?”
“Do you think,” he said, “I am in such great terror of being shot,—I, who am only waiting to shuffle off my corporeal jacket, to slip away into the back stars, and put diameters of the solar system and sidereal orbits between me and all souls,—there to wear out ages in solitude, and forget memory itself, if it be possible?”
Such are the talents determined on some specialty, which a culminating civilization fosters in the heart of great cities and in royal chambers. Nature protects her own work. To the culture of the world, an Archimedes, a Newton is indispensable; so she guards them by a certain aridity.
Yet each of these potentates saw well the reason of his exclusion. Solitary was he? Why, yes; but his society was limited only by the amount of brain Nature appropriated in that age to carry on the government of the world.
The co-operation is involuntary, and is put upon us by the Genius of Life, who reserves this as a part of his prerogative.
Though the stuff of tragedy and of romances is in a moral union of two superior persons, whose confidence in each other for long years, out of sight, and in sight, and against all appearances, is at last justified by victorious proof of probity to gods and men, causing joyful emotions, tears and glory,—though there be for heroes this moral union, yet, they, too, are as far off as ever from an intellectual union, and the moral union is for comparatively low and external purposes...
But how insular and pathetically solitary are all the people we know!
We have a fine right, to be sure, to taunt men of the world with superficial and treacherous courtesies!
We must infer that the ends of thought were peremptory, if they were to be secured at such ruinous cost.
But this banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable.
A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light. Never his lands or his rents, but the power to charm the disguised soul that sits veiled under this bearded and that rosy visage is his rent and ration.
Society cannot do without cultivated men. As soon as the first wants are satisfied, the higher wants become imperative.
It by no means follows that we are not fit for society, because soirées are tedious, and because the soirée finds us tedious.
A backwoodsman, who had been sent to the university, told me that, when he heard the best-bred young men at the law-school talk together, he reckoned himself a boor; but whenever he caught them apart, and had one to himself alone, then they were the boors, and he the better man.
And if we recall the rare hours when we encountered the best persons, we then found ourselves, and then first society seemed to exist. That was society, though in the transom of a brig, or on the Florida Keys.
Animal spirits constitute the power of the present, and their feats are like the structure of a pyramid. Their result is a lord, a general, or a boon companion.
Before these, what a base mendicant is Memory with his leathern badge!
But this genial heat is latent in all constitutions, and is disengaged only by the friction of society.
Conversation will not corrupt us, if we come to the assembly in our own garb and speech, and with the energy of health to select what is ours and reject what is not.
The best are accused of exclusiveness. It would be more true to say, they separate as oil from water, as children from old people, without love or hatred in the matter, each seeking his like; and any interference with the affinities would produce constraint and suffocation.
I know that my friend can talk eloquently; you know that he cannot articulate a sentence: we have seen him in different company.
Put Stubbs and Coleridge, Quintilian and Aunt Miriam, into pairs, and you make them all wretched. ’Tis an extempore Sing-Sing built in a parlor.
A certain degree of progress from the rudest state in which man is found,—a dweller in caves, or on trees, like an ape,—a cannibal, and eater of pounded snails, worms, and offal,—a certain degree of progress from this extreme is called Civilization.
It implies the evolution of a highly organized man, brought to supreme delicacy of sentiment, as in practical power, religion, liberty, sense of honor, and taste.
And after many arts are invented or imported, as among the Turks and Moorish nations, it is often a little complaisant to call them civilized.
The division of labor, the multiplication of the arts of peace, which is nothing but a large allowance to each man to choose his work according to his faculty,—to live by his better hand,—fills the State with useful and happy laborers; and they, creating demand by the very temptation of their productions, are rapidly and surely rewarded by good sale: and what a police and ten commandments their work thus becomes.
Another measure of culture is the diffusion of knowledge, overrunning all the old barriers of caste, and, by the cheap press, bringing the university to every poor man’s door in the newsboy’s basket.
The skill that pervades complex details; the man that maintains himself; the chimney taught to burn its own smoke; the farm made to produce all that is consumed on it; the very prison compelled to maintain itself and yield a revenue, and, better still, made a reform school, and a manufactory of honest men out of rogues, as the steamer made fresh water out of salt,—all these are examples of that tendency to combine antagonisms, and utilize evil, which is the index of high civilization.
Climate has much to do with this melioration. The highest civility has never loved the hot zones. Wherever snow falls, there is usually civil freedom.
Where the banana grows, the animal system is indolent and pampered at the cost of higher qualities: the man is sensual and cruel.
There can be no high civility without a deep morality, though it may not always call itself by that name, but sometimes the point of honor, as in the institution of chivalry; or patriotism, as in the Spartan and Roman republics; or the enthusiasm of some religious sect which imputes its virtue to its dogma; or the cabalism, or esprit de corps, of a masonic or other association of friends.
The evolution of a highly-destined society must be moral; it must run in the grooves of the celestial wheels. It must be catholic in aims. What is moral? It is the respecting in action catholic or universal ends.
Thus, on a planet so small as ours, the want of an adequate base for astronomical measurements is early felt, as, for example, in detecting the parallax of a star.
But the astronomer, having by an observation fixed the place of a star, by so simple an expedient as waiting six months, and then repeating his observation, contrived to put the diameter of the earth’s orbit, say two hundred millions of miles, between his first observation and his second, and this line afforded him a respectable base for his triangle.
We are dapper little busybodies, and run this way and that way superserviceably; but they swerve never from their foreordained paths,—neither the sun, nor the moon, nor a bubble of air, nor a mote of dust.
But it is not New York streets built by the confluence of workmen and wealth of all nations, though stretching out towards Philadelphia until they touch it, and northward until they touch New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston,—not these that make the real estimation.
The appearance of the Hebrew Moses, of the Indian Buddh,—in Greece, of the Seven Wise Masters, of the acute and upright Socrates, and of the Stoic Zeno,—in Judæa, the advent of Jesus,—and in modern Christendom, of the realists Huss, Savonarola, and Luther, are causal facts which carry forward races to new convictions, and elevate the rule of life.
In the presence of these agencies, it is frivolous to insist on the invention of printing or gunpowder, of steam-power or gas-light, percussion-caps and rubber-shoes, which are toys thrown off from that security, freedom, and exhilaration which a healthy morality creates in society.
But if there be a country which cannot stand any one of these tests,—a country where knowledge cannot be diffused without perils of mob-law and statute-law,—where speech is not free,—where the post-office is violated, mail-bags opened, and letters tampered with,—where public debts and private debts outside of the State are repudiated,—where liberty is attacked in the primary institution of social life...that country is, in all these respects, not civil, but barbarous...

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