Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
25 May 1803 – 27 April 1882

Uses of Great Men
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Representative Men, 1850

It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn
out to be heroes, and their condition regal it would not surprise us. All mythology opens
with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is
paramount. In the legends of the Gautama, the first men ate the earth and found it
deliciously sweet.

Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good
men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and
nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually
or ideally, we manage to live with superiors. We call our children and our lands by their
names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in
our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.

The search after the great man is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of
manhood. We travel into foreign parts to find his works,- if possible, to get a glimpse of
him. But we are put off with fortune instead. You say, the English are practical; the
Germans are hospitable; in Valencia the climate is delicious; and in the hills of the
Sacramento there is gold for the gathering. Yes, but I do not travel to find comfortable,
rich and hospitable people, or clear sky, or ingots that cost too much. But if there were
any magnet that would point to the countries and houses where are the persons who are
intrinsically rich and powerful, I would sell all and buy it, and put myself on the road

The race goes with us on their credit. The knowledge that in the city is a man who
invented the railroad, raises the credit of all the citizens. But enormous populations, if
they be beggars, are disgusting, like moving cheese, like hills of ants or of fleas,- the
more, the worse.

Our religion is the love and cherishing of these patrons. The gods of fable are the
shining moments of great men. We run all our vessels into one mould. Our colossal
theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism, are the necessary and structural
action of the human mind. The student of history is like a man going into a warehouse to
buy cloths or carpets. He fancies he has a new article. If he go to the factory, he shall
find that his new stuff still repeats the scrolls and rosettes which are found on the
interior walls of the pyramids of Thebes. Our theism is the purification of the human
mind. Man can paint, or make, or think, nothing but man. He believes that the great
material elements had their origin from his thought. And our philosophy finds one essence
collected or distributed.

If now we proceed to inquire into the kinds of service we derive from others, let us be
warned of the danger of modern studies, and begin low enough. We must not contend against
love, or deny the substantial existence of other people. I know not what would happen to
us. We have social strengths. Our affection toward others creates a sort of vantage or
purchase which nothing will supply. I can do that by another which I cannot do alone. I
can say to you what I cannot first say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we
read our own minds. Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as
are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest. The stronger the
nature, the more it is reactive. Let us have the quality pure. A little genius let us
leave alone. A main difference betwixt men is, whether they attend their own affair or
not. Man is that noble endogenous plant which grows, like the palm, from within outward.
His own affair, though impossible to others, he can open with celerity and in sport. It is
easy to sugar to be sweet and to nitre to be salt. We take a great deal of pains to waylay
and entrap that which of itself will fall into our hands. I count him a great man who
inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty;
he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst
they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error. His
service to us is of like sort. It costs a beautiful person no exertion to paint her image
on our eyes; yet how splendid is that benefit! It costs no more for a wise soul to convey
his quality to other men. And every one can do his best thing easiest. “Peu de moyens, beaucoup d’effet.” He is great who is what he is from nature, and who never
reminds us of others.

But he must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of
explanation. I cannot tell what I would know; but I have observed there are persons who,
in their character and actions, answer questions which I have not skill to put. One man
answers some question which none of his contemporaries put, and is isolated. The past and
passing religions and philosophies answer some other questions. Certain men affect us as
rich possibilities, but helpless to themselves and to their times,- the sport perhaps of
some instinct that rules in the air;- they do not speak to our want. But the great are
near; we know them at sight. They satisfy expectation and fall into place. What is good is
effective, generative; makes for itself room, food and allies. A sound apple produces
seed,- a hybrid does not. Is a man in his place, he is constructive, fertile, magnetic,
inundating armies with his purpose, which is thus executed. The river makes its own
shores, and each legitimate idea makes its own channels and welcome,- harvests for food,
institutions for expression, weapons to fight with and disciples to explain it. The true
artist has the planet for his pedestal; the adventurer, after years of strife, has nothing
broader than his own shoes.

Our common discourse respects two kinds of use or service from superior men. Direct
giving is agreeable to the early belief of men; direct giving of material or metaphysical
aid, as of health, eternal youth, fine senses, arts of healing, magical power and
prophecy. The boy believes there is a teacher who can sell him wisdom. Churches believe in
imputed merit. But, in strictness, we are not much cognizant of direct serving. Man is
endogenous, and education is his unfolding. The aid we have from others is mechanical
compared with the discoveries of nature in us. What is thus learned is delightful in the
doing, and the effect remains. Right ethics are central and go from the soul outward. Gift
is contrary to the law of the universe. Serving others is serving us. I must absolve me to
myself. “Mind thy affair,” says the spirit:- “coxcomb, would you meddle
with the skies, or with other people?” Indirect service is left. Men have a pictorial
or representative quality, and serve us in the intellect. Behmen (*1)
and Swedenborg saw that things were representative. Men are also representative; first, of
things, and secondly, of ideas.

As plants convert the minerals into food for animals, so each man converts some raw
material in nature to human use. The inventors of fire, electricity, magnetism, iron,
lead, glass, linen, silk, cotton; the makers of tools; the inventor of decimal notation;
the geometer; the engineer; the musician,- severally make an easy way for all, through
unknown and impossible confusions. Each man is by secret liking connected with some
district of nature, whose agent and interpreter he is; as Linnaeus, of plants; Huber, of
bees; Fries, of lichens; Van Mons, of pears; Dalton, of atomic forms; Euclid, of lines;
Newton, of fluxions.

A man is a centre for nature, running out threads of relation through every thing,
fluid and solid, material and elemental. The earth rolls; every clod and stone comes to
the meridian: so every organ, function, acid, crystal, grain of dust, has its relation to
the brain. It waits long, but its turn comes. Each plant has its parasite, and each
created thing its lover and poet. Justice has already been done to steam, to iron, to
wood, to coal, to loadstone, to iodine, to corn and cotton; but how few materials are yet
used by our arts The mass of creatures and of qualities are still hid and expectant. It
would seem as if each waited, like the enchanted princess in fairy tales, for a destined
human deliverer. Each must be disenchanted and walk forth to the day in human shape. In
the history of discovery, the ripe and latent truth seems to have fashioned a brain for
itself. A magnet must be made man in some Gilbert (*2) or
Swedenborg, or Oerstad, before the general mind can come to entertain its powers.

If we limit ourselves to the first advantages, a sober grace adheres to the mineral and
botanic kingdoms, which, in the highest moments, comes up as the charm of nature,- the
glitter of the spar, the sureness of affinity, the veracity of angles. Light and darkness,
heat and cold, hunger and food, sweet and sour, solid, liquid and gas, circle us round in
a wreath of pleasures, and, by their agreeable quarrel, beguile the day of life. The eye
repeats every day the first eulogy on things,- “He saw that they were good.” We
know where to find them; and these performers are relished all the more, after a little
experience of the pretending races. We are entitled also to higher advantages. Something
is wanting to science until it has been humanized. The table of logarithms is one thing,
and its vital play in botany, music, optics and architecture, another. There are
advancements to numbers, anatomy, architecture, astronomy, little suspected at first,
when, by union with intellect and will, they ascend into the life and reappear in
conversation, character and politics.

But this comes later. We speak now only of our acquaintance with them in their own
sphere and the way in which they seem to fascinate and draw to them some genius who
occupies himself with one thing, all his life long. The possibility of interpretation lies
in the identity of the observer with the observed. Each material thing has its celestial
side; has its translation, through humanity, into the spiritual and necessary sphere where
it plays a part as indestructible as any other. And to these, their ends, all things
continually ascend. The gases gather to the solid firmament: the chemic lump arrives at
the plant, and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives at the man, and thinks.
But also the constituency determines the vote of the representative. He is not only
representative, but participant. Like can only be known by like. The reason why he knows
about them is that he is of them; he has just come out of nature, or from being a part of
that thing. Animated chlorine knows of chlorine, and incarnate zinc, of zinc. Their
quality makes his career; and he can variously publish their virtues, because they compose
him. Man, made of the dust of the world, does not forget his origin; and all that is yet
inanimate will one day speak and reason. Unpublished nature will have its whole secret
told. Shall we say that quartz mountains will pulverize into innumerable Werners, Von
Buchs and Beaumonts, and the laboratory of the atmosphere holds in solution I know not
what Berzeliuses and Davys?

Thus we sit by the fire and take hold on the poles of the earth. This quasi
omnipresence supplies the imbecility of our condition. In one of those celestial days when
heaven and earth meet and adorn each other, it seems a poverty that we can only spend it
once: we wish for a thousand heads, a thousand bodies, that we might celebrate its immense
beauty in many ways and places. Is this fancy? Well, in good faith, we are multiplied by
our proxies. How easily we adopt their labors! Every ship that comes to America got its
chart from Columbus. Every novel is a debtor to Homer. Every carpenter who shaves with a
fore-plane borrows the genius of a forgotten inventor. Life is girt all round with a
zodiac of sciences, the contributions of men who have perished to add their point of light
to our sky. Engineer, broker, jurist, physician, moralist, theologian, and every man,
inasmuch as he has any science,- is a definer and map-maker of the latitudes and
longitudes of our condition. These roadmakers on every hand enrich us. We must extend the
area of life and multiply our relations. We are as much gainers by finding a new property
in the old earth as by acquiring a new planet.

We are too passive in the reception of these material or semi-material aids. We must
not be sacks and stomachs. To ascend one step,- we are better served through our sympathy.
Activity is contagious. Looking where others look, and conversing with the same things, we
catch the charm which lured them. Napoleon said, “You must not fight too often with
one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” Talk much with any man of
vigorous mind, and we acquire very fast the habit of looking at things in the same light,
and on each occurrence we anticipate his thought.

Men are helpful through the intellect and the affections. Other help I find a false
appearance. If you affect to give me bread and fire, I perceive that I pay for it the full
price, and at last it leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse: but all mental
and moral force is a positive good. It goes out from you, whether you will or not, and
profits me whom you never thought of. I cannot even hear of personal vigor of any kind,
great power of performance, without fresh resolution. We are emulous of all that man can
do. Cecil’s saying of Sir Walter Raleigh, “I know that he can toil terribly,” is
an electric touch. So are Clarendon’s portraits,- of Hampden, “who was of an industry
and vigilance not to be tired out or wearied by the most laborious, and of parts not to be
imposed on by the most subtle and sharp, and of a personal courage equal to his best
parts”;- of Falkland, “who was so severe an adorer of truth, that he could as
easily have given himself leave to steal, as to dissemble.” We cannot read Plutarch
without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: “A
sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid
become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.”

This is the moral of biography; yet it is hard for departed men to touch the quick like
our own companions, whose names may not last as long. What is he whom I never think of?
Whilst in every solitude are those who succor our genius and stimulate us in wonderful
manners. There is a power in love to divine another’s destiny better than that other can,
and, by heroic encouragements, hold him to his task. What has friendship so signal as its
sublime attraction to whatever virtue is in us? We will never more think cheaply of
ourselves, or of life. We are piqued to some purpose, and the industry of the diggers on
the railroad will not again shame us.

Under this head too falls that homage, very pure as I think, which all ranks pay to the
hero of the day, from Coriolanus and Gracchus down to Pitt, Lafayette, Wellington,
Webster, Lamartine. Hear the shouts in the street! The people cannot see him enough. They
delight in a man. Here is a head and a trunk! What a front! what eyes! Atlantean
shoulders, and the whole carriage heroic, with equal inward force to guide the great
machine! This pleasure of full expression to that which, in their private experience, is
usually cramped and obstructed, runs also much higher, and is the secret of the reader’s
joy in literary genius. Nothing is kept back. There is fire enough to fuse the mountain of
ore. Shakespeare’s principal merit may be conveyed in saying that he of all men best
understands the English language, and can say what he will. Yet these unchoked channels
and floodgates of expression are only health or fortunate constitution. Shakespeare’s name
suggests other and purely intellectual benefits.

Senates and sovereigns have no compliment, with their medals, swords and armorial
coats, like the addressing to a human being thoughts out of a certain height, and
presupposing his intelligence. This honor, which is possible in personal intercourse
scarcely twice in a lifetime, genius perpetually pays; contented if now and then in a
century the proffer is accepted. The indicators of the values of matter are degraded to a
sort of cooks and confectioners, on the appearance of the indicators of ideas. Genius is
the naturalist or geographer of the supersensible regions, and draws their map; and, by
acquainting us with new fields of activity, cools our affection for the old. These are at
once accepted as the reality, of which the world we have conversed with is the show.

We go to the gymnasium and the swimming-school to see the power and beauty of the body;
there is the like pleasure and a higher benefit from witnessing intellectual feats of all
kinds; as feats of memory, of mathematical combination, great power of abstraction, the
transmutings of the imagination, even versatility and concentration,- as these acts expose
the invisible organs and members of the mind, which respond, member for member, to the
parts of the body. For we thus enter a new gymnasium, and learn to choose men by their
truest marks, taught, with Plato, “to choose those who can, without aid from the eyes
or any other sense, proceed to truth and to being.” Foremost among these activities
are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. When this
wakes, a man seems to multiply ten times or a thousand times his force. It opens the
delicious sense of indeterminate size and inspires an audacious mental habit. We are as
elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in
conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and
our feet tread the floor of the Pit. And this benefit is real because we are entitled to
these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the
miserable pedants we were.

The high functions of the intellect are so allied that some imaginative power usually
appears in all eminent minds, even in arithmeticians of the first class, but especially in
meditative men of an intuitive habit of thought. This class serve us, so that they have
the perception of identity and the perception of reaction. The eyes of Plato, Shakespeare,
Swedenborg, Goethe, never shut on either of these laws. The perception of these laws is a
kind of metre of the mind. Little minds are little through failure to see them.

Even these feasts have their surfeit. Our delight in reason degenerates into idolatry
of the herald. Especially when a mind of powerful method has instructed men, we find the
examples of oppression. The dominion of Aristotle, the Ptolemaic astronomy, the credit of
Luther, of Bacon, of Locke;- in religion the history of hierarchies, of saints, and the
sects which have taken the name of each founder, are in point. Alas! every man is such a
victim. The imbecility of men is always inviting the impudence of power. It is the delight
of vulgar talent to dazzle and to blind the beholder. But true genius seeks to defend us
from itself. True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. If a
wise man should appear in our village he would create, in those who conversed with him, a
new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would
establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurances that we could not be
cheated; as every one would discern the checks and guaranties of condition. The rich would
see their mistakes and poverty, the poor their escapes and their resources.

But nature brings all this about in due time. Rotation is her remedy. The soul is
impatient of masters and eager for change. Housekeepers say of a domestic who has been
valuable, “She had lived with me long enough.” We are tendencies, or rather,
symptoms, and none of us complete. We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives.
Rotation is the law of nature. When nature removes a great man, people explore the horizon
for a successor; but none comes, and none will. His class is extinguished with him. In
some other and quite different field the next man will appear; not Jefferson, not
Franklin, but now a great salesman, then a road-contractor, then a student of fishes, then
a buffalo-hunting explorer, or a semi-savage Western general. Thus we make a stand against
our rougher masters; but against the best there is a finer remedy. The power which they
communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but
to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor.

I must not forget that we have a special debt to a single class. Life is a scale of
degrees. Between rank and rank of our great men are wide intervals. Mankind have in all
ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they
embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders
and law-givers. These teach us the qualities of primary nature,- admit us to the
constitution of things. We swim, day by day, on a river of delusions and are effectually
amused with houses and towns in the air, of which the men about us are dupes. But life is
a sincerity. In lucid intervals we say, “Let there be an entrance opened for me into
realities; (*3) I have worn the fool’s cap too long.” We
will know the meaning of our economies and politics. Give us the cipher, and if persons
and things are scores of a celestial music, let us read off the strains. We have been
cheated of our reason; yet there have been sane men, who enjoyed a rich and related
existence. What they know, they know for us. With each new mind, a new secret of nature
transpires; nor can the Bible be closed until the last great man is born. These men
correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate and engage us to new aims
and powers. The veneration of mankind selects these for the highest place. Witness the
multitude of statues, pictures and memorials which recall their genius in every city,
village, house and ship:-

“Ever their phantoms arise before us,
Our loftier brothers, but one in blood;
At bed and table they lord it o’er us
With looks of beauty and words of good.”

How to illustrate the distinctive benefit of ideas, the service rendered by those who
introduce moral truths into the general mind?- I am plagued, in all my living, with a
perpetual tariff of prices. If I work in my garden and prune an apple-tree, I am well
enough entertained, and could continue indefinitely in the like occupation. But it comes
to mind that a day is gone, and I have got this precious nothing done. I go to Boston or
New York and run up and down on my affairs: they are sped, but so is the day. I am vexed
by the recollection of this price I have paid for a trifling advantage. I remember the
peau d’ane on which whoso sat should have his desire, but a piece of the skin was gone for
every wish. I go to a convention of philanthropists. Do what I can, I cannot keep my eyes
off the clock. But if there should appear in the company some gentle soul who knows little
of persons or parties, of Carolina or Cuba, but who announces a law that disposes these
particulars, and so certifies me of the equity which checkmates every false player,
bankrupts every self-seeker, and apprises me of my independence on any conditions of
country, or time, or human body,- that man liberates me; I forget the clock. I pass out of
the sore relation to persons. I am healed of my hurts. I am made immortal by apprehending
my possession of incorruptible goods. Here is great competition of rich and poor. We live
in a market, where is only so much wheat, or wool, or land; and if I have so much more,
every other must have so much less. I seem to have no good without breach of good manners.
Nobody is glad in the gladness of another, and our system is one of war, of an injurious
superiority. Every child of the Saxon race is educated to wish to be first. It is our
system; and a man comes to measure his greatness by the regrets, envies and hatreds of his
competitors. But in these new fields there is room: here are no self-esteems, no

I admire great men of all classes, those who stand for facts, and for thoughts; I like
rough and smooth, “Scourges of God,” and “Darlings of the human race.”
I like the first Caesar; and Charles V, of Spain; and Charles XII, of Sweden; Richard
Plantagenet; and Bonaparte, in France. I applaud a sufficient man, an officer equal to his
office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron,
wellborn, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination
into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or
staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish
himself and all heroes, by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons,
this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thought, destroying individualism;
the power so great that the potentate is nothing. Then he is a monarch who gives a
constitution to his people; a pontiff who preaches the equality of souls and releases his
servants from their barbarous homages; an emperor who can spare his empire.

But I intended to specify, with a little minuteness, two or three points of service.
Nature never spares the opium or nepenthe, but wherever she mars her creature with some
deformity or defect, lays her poppies plentifully on the bruise, and the sufferer goes
joyfully through life, ignorant of the ruin and incapable of seeing it, though all the
world point their finger at it every day. The worthless and offensive members of society,
whose existence is a social pest, invariably think themselves the most ill-used people
alive, and never get over their astonishment at the ingratitude and selfishness of their
contemporaries. Our globe discovers its hidden virtues, not only in heroes and archangels,
but in gossips and nurses. Is it not a rare contrivance that lodged the due inertia in
every creature, the conserving, resisting energy, the anger at being waked or changed?
Altogether independent of the intellectual force in each is the pride of opinion, the
security that we are right. Not the feeblest grandame, not a mowing idiot, but uses what
spark of perception and faculty is left, to chuckle and triumph in his or her opinion over
the absurdities of all the rest. Difference from me is the measure of absurdity. Not one
has a misgiving of being wrong. Was it not a bright thought that made things cohere with
this bitumen, fastest of cements? But, in the midst of this chuckle of self-gratulation,
some figure goes by which Thersites too can love and admire. This is he that should
marshal us the way we were going. There is no end to his aid. Without Plato we should
almost lose our faith in the possibility of a reasonable book. We seem to want but one,
but we want one. We love to associate with heroic persons, since our receptivity is
unlimited; and, with the great, our thoughts and manners easily become great. We are all
wise in capacity, though so few in energy. There needs but one wise man in a company and
all are wise, so rapid is the contagion.

Great men are thus a collyrium to clear our eyes from egotism and enable us to see
other people and their works. But there are vices and follies incident to whole
populations and ages. Men resemble their contemporaries even more than their progenitors.
It is observed in old couples, or in persons who have been housemates for a course of
years, that they grow like, and if they should live long enough we should not be able to
know them apart. Nature abhors these complaisances which threaten to melt the world into a
lump, and hastens to break up such maudlin agglutinations. The like assimilation goes on
between men of one town, of one sect, of one political party; and the ideas of the time
are in the air, and infect all who breathe it. Viewed from any high point, this city of
New York, yonder city of London, the Western civilization, would seem a bundle of
insanities. We keep each other in countenance and exasperate by emulation the frenzy of
the time. The shield against the stingings of conscience is the universal practice, or our
contemporaries. Again, it is very easy to be as wise and good as your companions. We learn
of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of the
skin. We catch it by sympathy, or as a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral
elevations of her husband. But we stop where they stop. Very hardly can we take another
step. The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to
universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, (*4) and
defend us from our contemporaries. They are the exceptions which we want, where all grows
like. A foreign greatness is the antidote for cabalism.

Thus we feed on genius, and refresh ourselves from too much conversation with our
mates, and exult in the depth of nature in that direction in which he leads us. What
indemnification is one great man for populations of pigmies! Every mother wishes one son a
genius, though all the rest should be mediocre. But a new danger appears in the excess of
influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become
underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;- other great
men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. We cloy of the honey of each
peculiar greatness. Every hero becomes a bore at last. Perhaps Voltaire was not
bad-hearted, yet he said of the good Jesus, even, “I pray you, let me never hear that
man’s name again.” They cry up the virtues of George Washington,- “Damn George
Washington!” is the poor Jacobin’s whole speech and confutation. But it is human
nature’s indispensable defence. The centripetence augments the centrifugence. We balance
one man with his opposite, and the health of the state depends on the see-saw.

There is however a speedy limit to the use of heroes. Every genius is defended from
approach by quantities of unavailableness. They are very attractive, and seem at a
distance our own: but we are hindered on all sides from approach. The more we are drawn,
the more we are repelled. There is something not solid in the good that is done for us.
The best discovery the discoverer makes for himself. It has something unreal for his
companion until he too has substantiated it. It seems as if the Deity dressed each soul
which he sends into nature in certain virtues and powers not communicable to other men,
and sending it to perform one more turn through the circle of beings, wrote, “Not
transferable” and “Good for this trip only,” on these garments of the soul.
There is somewhat deceptive about the intercourse of minds. The boundaries are invisible,
but they are never crossed. There is such good will to impart, and such good will to
receive, that each threatens to become the other; but the law of individuality collects
its secret strength: you are you, and I am I, and so we remain.

For nature wishes every thing to remain itself; and whilst every individual strives to
grow and exclude and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to
impose the law of its being on every other creature, Nature steadily aims to protect each
against every other. Each is self-defended. Nothing is more marked than the power by which
individuals are guarded from individuals, in a world where every benefactor becomes so
easily a malefactor only by continuation of his activity into places where it is not due;
where children seem so much at the mercy of their foolish parents, and where almost all
men are too social and interfering. We rightly speak of the guardian angels of children.
How superior in their security from infusions of evil persons, from vulgarity and second
thought! They shed their own abundant beauty on the objects they behold. Therefore they
are not at the mercy of such poor educators as we adults. If we huff and chide them they
soon come not to mind it and get a self-reliance; and if we indulge them to folly, they
learn the limitation elsewhere.

We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the
great. Stick at no humiliation. Grudge no office thou canst render. Be the limb of their
body, the breath of their mouth. Compromise thy egotism. Who cares for that, so thou gain
aught wider and nobler? Never mind the taunt of Boswellism: the devotion may easily be
greater than the wretched pride which is guarding its own skirts. Be another: not thyself,
but a Platonist; not a soul, but a Christian; not a naturalist, but a Cartesian; not a
poet, but a Shakespearean. In vain, the wheels of tendency will not stop, nor will all the
forces of inertia, fear, or of love itself hold thee there. On, and forever onward! The
microscope observes a monad or wheel-insect among the infusories circulating in water.
Presently a dot appears on the animal, which enlarges to a slit, and it becomes two
perfect animals. The ever-proceeding detachment appears not less in all thought and in
society. Children think they cannot live without their parents. But, long before they are
aware of it, the black dot has appeared and the detachment taken place. Any accident will
now reveal to them their independence.

But great men:- the word is injurious. Is there caste? Is there fate? What becomes of
the promise to virtue? The thoughtful youth laments the superfoetation of nature.
“Generous and handsome,” he says, “is your hero; but look at yonder poor
Paddy, whose country is his wheelbarrow; look at his whole nation of Paddies.” Why
are the masses, from the dawn of history down, food for knives and powder? The idea
dignifies a few leaders, who have sentiment, opinion, love, self-devotion; and they make
war and death sacred;- but what for the wretches whom they hire and kill? The cheapness of
man is every day’s tragedy. It is as real a loss that others should be as low as that we
should be low; for we must have society.

Is it a reply to these suggestions to say, Society is a Pestalozzian school: all are
teachers and pupils in turn? We are equally served by receiving and by imparting. Men who
know the same things are not long the best company for each other. But bring to each an
intelligent person of another experience, and it is as if you let off water from a lake by
cutting a lower basin. It seems a mechanical advantage, and great benefit it is to each
speaker, as he can now paint out his thought to himself. We pass very fast, in our
personal moods, from dignity to dependence. And if any appear never to assume the chair,
but always to stand and serve, it is because we do not see the company in a sufficiently
long period for the whole rotation of parts to come about. As to what we call the masses,
and common men,- there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is
only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere. Fair play
and an open field and freshest laurels to all who have won them! But heaven reserves an
equal scope for every creature. Each is uneasy until he has produced his private ray unto
the concave sphere and beheld his talent also in its last nobility and exaltation.

The heroes of the hour are relatively great; of a faster growth; or they are such in
whom, at the moment of success, a quality is ripe which is then in request. Other days
will demand other qualities. Some rays escape the common observer, and want a finely
adapted eye. Ask the great man if there be none greater. His companions are; and not the
less great but the more that society cannot see them. Nature never sends a great man into
the planet without confiding the secret to another soul.

One gracious fact emerges from these studies,- that there is true ascension in our
love. The reputations of the nineteenth century will one day be quoted to prove its
barbarism. The genius of humanity is the real subject whose biography is written in our
annals. We must infer much, and supply many chasms in the record. The history of the
universe is symptomatic, and life is mnemonical. No man, in all the procession of famous
men, is reason or illumination or that essence we were looking for; but is an exhibition,
in some quarter, of new possibilities. Could we one day complete the immense figure which
these flagrant (*5) points compose! The study of many individuals
leads us to an elemental region wherein the individual is lost, or wherein all touch by
their summits. Thought and feeling that break out there cannot be impounded by any fence
of personality. This is the key to the power of the greatest men,- their spirit diffuses
itself. A new quality of mind travels by night and by day, in concentric circles from its
origin, and publishes itself by unknown methods: the union of all minds appears intimate;
what gets admission to one, cannot be kept out of any other; the smallest acquisition of
truth or of energy, in any quarter, is so much good to the commonwealth of souls. If the
disparities of talent and position vanish when the individuals are seen in the duration
which is necessary to complete the career of each, even more swiftly the seeming injustice
disappears when we ascend to the central identity of all the individuals, and know that
they are made of the substance which ordaineth and doeth.

The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the
men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on
another brow. No experience is more familiar. Once you saw phoenixes: they are gone; the
world is not therefore disenchanted. The vessels on which you read sacred emblems turn out
to be common pottery; but the sense of the pictures is sacred, and you may still read them
transferred to the walls of the world. For a time our teachers serve us personally, as
metres or milestones of progress. Once they were angels of knowledge and their figures
touched the sky. Then we drew near, saw their means, culture and limits; and they yielded
their place to other geniuses. Happy, if a few names remain so high that we have not been
able to read them nearer, and age and comparison have not robbed them of a ray. But at
last we shall cease to look in men for completeness, and shall content ourselves with
their social and delegated quality. All that respects the individual is temporary and
prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a
catholic existence. We have never come at the true and best benefit of any genius so long
as we believe him an original force. In the moment when he ceases to help us as a cause,
he begins to help us more as an effect. Then he appears as an exponent of a vaster mind
and will. The opaque self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause.

Yet, within the limits of human education and agency, we may say great men exist that
there may be greater men. The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can
tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to
scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder,
and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied. (*6)

[Notes from the Centenary Edition of Emerson’s Complete Works, edited by his son,
Edward Waldo Emerson:]

*(1) Jacob Behmen, or Boehme, a Silesian of humble birth in the sixteenth
century, a mystic whose writings later attracted much attention. Mr. Emerson was early
interested in his works and often mentions them.

*(2) William Gilbert (1540-1603), the greatest man of science of Queen
Elizabeth’s reign, especially noted for his discovery that the earth is a great magnet.

*(3) That is, the ideal, instead of the outward shows of things.

*(4) federal errors: a Latinism for mistakes sanctioned by custom.

*(5) flagrant: a Latinism suggesting that, in the general dimness, the
outlines of the human world may be found in its blazing beacon lights.

*(6) The constant security of Mr Emerson’s belief in Evolution in its
highest sense appears hear as elsewhere in his prose and verse, and also his belief in the
genius of mankind, which is another word for Universal Mind.

* * *