Sunday, March 29, 2015

Emerson's Essays

I read these, bit by bit, on Sunday mornings and other lazy days, over a period of a year or so. There is something about Emerson that makes him wonderful to begin the day with -- I think because his work brims over with hope and power and possibility. Some call him America's first philosopher, and he certainly embodies the spirit of American independence. For years I have admired the many Emerson quotes I would run into here and there -- and so I was very much looking forward to reading this collection of his essays. In some ways, they were a bit disappointing, however. His writing is not exactly clear and lucid, and there are times I am not sure at all what he is talking about. He certainly seems quite sure of himself, but I would sometimes read a passage three times, only to have to give up on it. The structure, such as it is, of his essays is peculiar as well -- often more meandering, than anything else. But it is all worth it for the many wise epigrams that turn up on almost every page. It is easy for me to see how much Elbert Hubbard was influenced by Emerson, and much of my writing has been influenced by Hubbard, especially in those places that Hubbard was at his most Emersonian. I was very flattered when Bruce Sterling wrote a book review of Art of Game Design where he describes the book as "Emersonian in its cheery disorganization." Because, yes, Emerson's work is crazy and disorganized -- but he simply doesn't care, because is doing his best, and in his heart, he is sure he is doing God's work. And that's about the best any of us can do, I think.

I'd comment on the individual essays, but really, they all kind of run together in my mind. I generally found I was disappointed by the ones I looked forward to, like "Reality," but the ones I dreaded, like "New England Reformers," were full of insights. Generally, though, it isn't facts, or arguments that come through in these essays, it is a certain spirit, and I am glad that I have this well to return to again and again when I need more of that Emersonian spirit, for it is the spirit when I am at my best self. Here is a collection of thirty quotes I took from these essays.

  1. Write in your heart that every day is the best day of the year.
  2. What you do speaks so loud, I cannot hear what you say.
  3. Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
  4. The soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night.
  5. When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.
  6. Let the stoics say what they please, we do not eat for the good of living, but because the meat is savory and the appetite is keen.
  7. This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.
  8. Nothing arbitrary, nothing artificial, can endure.
  9. A man is what he thinks about all day long.
  10. Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer them and incorporate them in my own conscious domain.
  11. Every burned book enlightens the world.
  12. He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
  13. What your heart thinks is great, is great. The soul’s emphasis is always right.
  14. Accept your genius, and say what you think.
  15. What we do not call education is more precious than that which we call so.
  16. The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues, the better we like him.
  17. It is strange how painful is the actual world – the painful kingdom of time and place.
  18. Each man sees over his own experience a certain slime of error, whilst that of other men looks fair and ideal.
  19. Ideas must work through the brains and the arms of good and brave men, or they are no better than dreams.
  20. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.
  21. Better to be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.
  22. The condition which high friendship demands, is, the ability to do without it.
  23. Life is a festival only to the wise.
  24. New arts destroy the old.
  25. The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer.
  26. Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet.
  27. Our moods do not believe in each other.
  28. Beauty without expression is boring.
  29. So now you must labor with your brains, and now you must forbear your activity, and see what the great Soul showeth.
  30. Every artist was first an amateur.
Would that I could be full of Emersonian boldness all the time! On the other hand, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation." Or is that the same hand? Despite what Stevenson had to say, It is clear to me that my book might not exist had Emerson not done his great work. When we think and write, and do so boldly, we influence others in ways that alters the universe into the future for all eternity. That, simply put, may be Emerson's central message: What we do is important. 

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