Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Georae G.Hat^rap &^C9



EVER since I was a boy I have wished to
write a discourse on Compensation; for it
seemed to me when very young that on this sub-
ject Life was ahead of theology and the people
knew more than the preachers taught. The docu-
ments too from which the doctrine is to be drawn
charmed my fancy by their endless variety, and
lay always before me, even in sleep; for they are
the tools in our hands, the bread in our basket,
the transactions of the street, the farm and the
dwelhng-house ; the greetings, the relations, the
debts and credits, the influence of character, the
nature and endowment of all men. It seemed to
me also that in it might be shown men a ray of
divinity, the present action of the Soul of this
world, clean from all vestige of tradition; and so
the heart of man might be bathed by an inunda-
tion of eternal love, conversing with that which
he knows was always and always must be, because
it really is now. It appeared moreover that if
this doctrine could be stated in terms with any



resemblance to those bright intuitions in which
this truth is sometimes revealed to us, it would
be a star in many dark hours and crooked pas-
sages in our journey, that would not suffer us to
lose our way.

I was lately confirmed in these desires by hear-
ing a sermon at church. The preacher, a man
esteemed for his orthodoxy, unfolded in the ordi-
nary manner the doctrine of the Last Judgment.
He assumed that judgment is not executed in this
world; that the wicked are successful; that the
good are miserable; and then urged from reason
and from Scripture a compensation to be made
to both parties in the next life. No offence ap-
peared to be taken by the congregation at this
doctrine. As far as I could observe when the
meeting broke up they separated without remark
on the sermon.

Yet what was the import of this teaching?
What did the preacher mean by saying that the
good are miserable in the present life? Was it
that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress,
luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the
saints are poor and despised; and that a compen-
sation is to be made to these last hereafter, by
giving them the like gratifications another day, —
bank-stock and doubloons, venison and cham-


pagne ? This must be the compensation intended;
for what else? Is it that they are to have leave
to pray and praise ; to love and serve men ? Why,
that they can do now. The legitimate inference
the disciple would draw was, " We are to have
such a good time as the sinners have now " ; — or,
to push it to its extreme import, — " You sin now,
we shall sin by-and-by; we would sin now, if we
could ; not being successful we expect our revenge

The fallacy lay in the immense concession that
the bad are successful; that justice is not done now.
The blindness of the preacher consisted in defer-
ring to the base estimate of the market of what
constitutes a manly success, instead of confronting
and convicting the world from the truth; an-
nouncing the Presence of the Soul; the omnipo-
tence of the Will ; and so establishing the standard
of good and ill, of success and falsehood, and sum-
moning the dead to its present tribunal.

I find a similar base tone in the popular religious
works of the day and the same doctrines assumed
by the literary men when occasionally they treat
the related topics. I think that our popular theol-
ogy has gained in decorum, and not in principle,
over the superstitions it has displaced. But men
are better than this theology. Their daily life


gives it the lie. Every ingenuous and aspiring soul
leaves the doctrine behind him in his own experi-
ence, and all men feel sometimes the falsehood
which they cannot demonstrate. For men are
wiser than they know. That which they hear in
schools and pulpits without afterthought, if said
in conversation would probably be questioned in
silence. If a man dogmatize in a mixed company
on Providence and the divine laws, he is answered
by a silence which conveys well enough to an ob-
server the dissatisfaction of the hearer, but his in-
capacity to make his own statement.

I shall attempt in this and the following chapter
to record some facts that indicate the path of the
law of Compensation; happy beyond my expec-
tation if I shall truly draw the smallest arc of this

Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in
every part of nature ; in darkness and light, in heat
and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male
and female; in the inspiration and expiration of
plants and animals ; in the systole and diastole of
the heart; in the undulations of fluids and of sound;
in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in elec-
tricity, galvanism, and chemical aflinity. Super-
induce magnetism at one end of a needle, the op-
posite magnetism takes place at the other end. If


the south attracts, the north repels. To empty
here, you must condense there. An inevitable
dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half,
and suggests another thing to make it whole: as,
spirit, matter; man, woman; subjective, objective;
in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of
its parts. The entire system of things gets repre-
sented in every particle. There is somewhat that
resembles the ebb and flow of the sea, day and
night, man and woman, in a single needle of the
pine, in a kernel of com, in each individual of every
animal tribe. The reaction, so grand in the ele-
ments, is repeated within these small boundaries.
For example, in the animal kingdom the physiol-
ogist has observed that no creatures are favorites,
but a certain compensation balances every gift
and every defect. A surplusage given to one part
is paid out of a reduction from another part of
the same creature. If the head and neck are
enlarged, the trunk and extremities are cut short.

The theory of the mechanic forces is another ex-
ample. What we gain in power is lost in time, and
the converse. The periodic or compensating er-
rors of the planets is another instance. The in-
fluences of cHmate and soil in political history
are another. The cold climate invigorates. The


barren soil does not breed fevers, crocodiles, tigers,
or scorpions.

The same dualism underlies the nature and con-
dition of man. Every excess causes a defect;
every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour;
every evil its good. Every faculty which is a re-
ceiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its
abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its
life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of
folly. For every thing you have missed, you have
gained something else; and for every thing you
gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they
are increased that use them. If the gatherer
gathers too much, nature takes out of the man
what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but
kills the owner. Nature hates monopolies and
exceptions. The waves of the sea do not more
speedily seek a level from their loftiest tossing than
the varieties of condition tend to equalize them-
selves. There is always some levelling circum-
stance that puts down the overbearing, the strong,
the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same
ground with all others. Is a man too strong and
fierce for society and by temper and position a bad
citizen, — a morose ruffian, with a dash of the pirate
in him ? — nature sends him a troop of pretty sons
and daughters who are getting along in the dame's



classes at the village school, and love and fear for
them smooths his grim scowl to courtesy. Thus
she contrives to intenerate the granite and felspar,
takes the boar out and puts the lamb in and keeps
her balance true.

The farmer imagines power and place are fine
things. But the President has paid dear for his
White House. It has commonly cost him all his
peace, and the best of his manly attributes. To
preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appear-
ance before the world, he is content to eat dust
before the real masters who stand erect behind the
throne. Or do men desire the more substantial
and permanent grandeur of genius ? Neither has
this an immunity. He who by force of will or of
thought is great and overlooks thousands, has the
responsibility of overlooking. With every influx
of light comes new danger. Has he light? he
must bear witness to the light, and always outrun
that sjTnpathy which gives him such keen satis-
faction, by his fidelity to new revelations of the in-
cessant soul. He must hate father and mother,
wife and child. Has he all that the world loves
and admires and covets .f^ — he must cast behind
him their admiration and afflict them by faithful-
ness to his truth and become a byword and a



This Law writes the laws of the cities and na-
tions. It will not be baulked of its end in the
smallest iota. It is in vain to build or plot or com-
bine against it. Things refuse to be mismanaged
long. Res nolunt din male adminislrari. Though
no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist,
and will appear. If the government is cruel, the
governor's life is not safe. If you tax too high,
the revenue will yield nothing. If you make the
criminal code sanguinary, juries will not convict.
Nothing arbitrary, nothing artificial can endure.
The true life and satisfactions of man seem to elude
the utmost rigors or felicities of condition and to
establish themselves with great indifferency under
all varieties of circumstance. Under all govern-
ments the influence of character remains the same,
— in Turkey and New England about alike. Un-
der the primeval despots of Egypt, history honestly
confesses that man must have been as free as cult-
ure could make him.

These appearances indicate the fact that the
universe is represented in every one of its particles.
Every thing in nature contains all the powers of
nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff;
as the naturalist sees one type under every meta-
morphosis, and regards a horse as a running man,
a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a flying man,


a tree as a rooted man. Each new form repeats
not only the main character of the type, but part
for part all the details, all the aims, furtherances,
hindrances, energies and whole system of every
other. Every occupation, trade, art, transaction,
is a compend of the world and a correlative of
every other. Each one is an entire emblem of
human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its ene-
mies, its course and its end. And each one must
somehow accommodate the whole man and recite
all his destiny.

The world globes itself in a drop of dew. The
microscope cannot find the animalcule which is
less perfect for being little. Eyes, ears, taste,
smell, motion, resistance, appetite, and organs of
reproduction that take hold on eternity, — all find
room to consist in the small creature. So do we
put our life into every act. The true doctrine of
omnipresence is that God reappears \\ath all his
parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of
the universe contrives to throw itself into every
point. If the good is there, so is the evil; if the
afiinity, so the repulsion ; if the force, so the limi-

Thus is the universe alive. All things are moral.
That soul which within us is a sentiment, outside
of us is a law. We feel its inspirations; out there



in history we can see its fatal strength. It is
almighty. All nature feels its grasp. "It is in
the world, and the world was made by it." It is
eternal but it enacts itself in time and space.
Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity ad-
justs its balance in all parts of life. 01 kv^oi A to?
del eiyiriTTTovcn, The dice of God are always
loaded. The world looks like a multipHcation-
table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it
how you will, balances itself. Take what figure
you will, its exact value, nor more nor less, still
returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime
is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong
redressed, in silence and certainty. What we call
retribution is the universal necessity by which the
whole appears wherever a part appears. If you
see smoke, there must be fire. If you see a hand or
a limb, you know that the trunk to which it belongs
is there behind.

Every act rewards itself, or in other words inte-
grates itself, in a twofold manner : first in the thing,
or in real nature; and secondly in the circumstance,
or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance
the retribution. The casual retribution is in the
thing and is seen by the soul. The retribution in
the circumstance is seen by the understanding; it
is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread


over a long time and so does not become distinct
until after many years. The specific stripes may
follow late after the offence, but they follow be-
cause they accompany it. Crime and punishment
grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that
unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleas-
ure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means
and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for
the effect already blooms in the cause, the end
preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.

Whilst thus the world will be whole and refuses
to be disparted, we seek to act partially, to sunder,
to appropriate; for example, — to gratify the senses
we sever the pleasure of the senses from the needs
of the character. The ingenuity of man has been
dedicated to the solution of one problem, — how to
detach the sensual sweet, the sensual strong, the
sensual bright, etc., from the moral sweet, the
moral deep, the moral fair; that is, again, to con-
trive to cut clean off this upper surface so thin as
to leave it bottomless ; to get a one end, without an
other end. The soul says. Eat; the body would
feast. The soul says. The man and woman shall
be one flesh and one soul ; the body would join the
flesh only. The soul says. Have dominion over
all things to the ends of virtue; the body would
have the power over things to its own ends.


The soul strives amain to live and work through
all things. It would be the only fact. All things
shall be added unto it, — power, pleasure, knowl-
edge, beauty. The particular man aims to be
somebody; to set up for himself; to truck and higgle
for a private good; and, in particulars, to ride that
he may ride; to dress that he may be dressed; to
eat that he may eat; and to govern, that he may be
seen. Men seek to be great; they would have
offices, wealth, power, and fame. They think
that to be great is to get only one side of nature, —
the sweet, without the other side, — the bitter.

Steadily is this dividing and detaching counter-
acted. Up to this day it must be owned no pro-
jector has had the smallest success. The parted
water reunites behind our hand. Pleasure is taken
out of pleasant things, profit out of profitable
things, power out of strong things, the moment we
seek to separate them from the whole. We can no
more halve things and get the sensual good, by
itself, than we can get an inside that shall have no
outside, or a light without a shadow. " Drive out
nature with a fork, she comes running back."

Life invests itself with inevitable conditions,

which the unwise seek to dodge, which one and

another brags that he does not know, brags that

they do not touch him; — but the brag is on his lips,



the conditions are in his soul. If he escapes them
in one part they attack him in another more vital
part. If he has escaped them in form and in the
appearance, it is because he has resisted his life
and fled from himself, and the retribution is so
much death. So signal is the failure of all at-
tempts to make this separation of the good from
the tax, that the experiment would not be tried, —
since to try it is to be mad, — but for the circum-
stance that when the disease began in the will, of
rebelHon and separation, the intellect is at once
infected, so that the man ceases to see God whole
in each object, but is able to see the sensual allure-
ment of an object and not see the sensual hurt; he
sees the mermaid's head but not the dragon's tail,
and thinks he can cut off that which he would have
from that which he would not have. " How secret
art thou who dwellest in the highest heavens in
silence, O thou only great God, sprinkling with an
unwearied providence certain penal blindnesses
upon such as have unbridled desires ! " ^

The human soul is true to these facts in the
painting of fable, of history, of law, of proverbs, of
conversation. It finds a tongue in literature un-
awares. Thus the Greeks called Jupiter, Supreme
Mind; but having traditionally ascribed to him
^ St. Augustine, Confessions, B. I.


many base actions, they involuntarily made
amends to Reason by tying up the hands of so
bad a god. He is made as helpless as a king of
England. Prometheus knows one secret which
Jove must bargain for; Minerva, another. He
cannot get his own thunders; Minerva keeps the
key of them:

Of all the gods, I only know the keys

That ope the sohd doors within whose vaults

His thunders sleep.

A plain confession of the in-working of the All and
of its moral aim. The Indian mythology ends in
the same ethics; and indeed it would seem impos-
sible for any fable to be invented and get any cur-
rency which was not moral. Aurora forgot to ask
youth for her lover, and though so Tithonus is im-
mortal, he is old. Achilles is not quite invulner-
able; for Thetis held him by the heel when she
dipped him in the Styx and the sacred waters did
not wash that part. Siegfried, in the Nibelungen,
is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back
whilst he was bathing in the Dragon's blood, and
that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it
always is. There is a crack in every thing God
has made. Always it would seem there is this
vindictive circumstance stealing in at unawares


even into the wild poesy in which the human fancy
attempted to make bold holiday and to shake
itself free of the old laws, — this back-stroke, this
kick of the gun, certifying that the law is fatal;
that in nature nothing can be given, all things are

This is that ancient doctrine of Nemesis, who
keeps watch in the Universe and lets no offence go
unchastised. The Furies they said are attendants
on Justice, and if the sun in heaven should trans-
gress his path they would punish him. The poets
related that stone walls and iron swords and
leathern thongs had an occult sympathy with the
wrongs of their owners; that the belt which Ajax
gave Hector dragged the Trojan hero over the field
at the wheels of the car of Achilles, and the sword
which Hector gave Ajax was that on whose point
Ajax fell. They recorded that when the Thas-
ians erected a statue to Theogenes, a victor in the
games, one of his rivals went to it by night and en-
deavored to throw it down by repeated blows, until
at last he moved it from its pedestal and was
crushed to death beneath its fall.

This voice of fable has in it somewhat divine.

It came from thought above the \^^ll of the writer.

That is the best part of each writer which has

nothing private in it; that is the best part of each



which he does not know; that which flowed out of
his constitution and not from his too active in-
vention; that which in the study of a single artist
you might not easily find, but in the study of many
you would abstract as the spirit of them all. Phid-
ias it is not, but the work of man in that early
Hellenic world that I would know. The name
and circumstance of Phidias, however convenient
for history, embarrasses when we come to the
highest criticism. We are to see that which man
was tending to do in a given period, and was hin-
dered, or, if you will, modified in doing, by the in-
terfering volitions of Phidias, of Dante, of Shak-
speare, the organ whereby man at the moment

Still more striking is the expression of this fact in
the proverbs of all nations, which are always the
literature of Reason, or the statements of an abso-
lute truth without qualification. Proverbs, like
the sacred books of each nation, are the sanctuary
of the Intuitions. That which the droning world,
chained to appearances, will not allow the realist
to say in his own words, it will suffer him to say in
proverbs without contradiction. And this law of
laws, which the pulpit, the senate and the college
deny, is hourly preached in all markets and all
languages by flights of proverbs, whose teaching



is as true and as omnipresent as that of birds and

All things are double, one against another. — Tit
for tat; an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth;
blood for blood; measure for measure; love for
love. — Give, and it shall be given you. — He that
watereth shall be watered himself. — ^What will you
have? quoth God; pay for it and take it. — Noth-
ing venture, nothing have. — Thou shalt be paid
exactly for what thou hast done, no more, no less.
— Who doth not work shall not eat. — Harm watch,
harm catch. — Curses always recoil on the head of
him who imprecates them. — If you put a chain
around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens
itself around your own. — Bad counsel confounds
the adviser. — The devil is an ass.

It is thus written, because it is thus in life. Our
action is overmastered and characterized above
our will by the law of nature. We aim at a petty
end quite aside from the public good, but our act
arranges itself by irresistible magnetism in a line
with the poles of the world.

A man cannot speak but he judges himself.
With his will or against his will he draws his por-
trait to the eye of his companions by every word.
Every opinion reacts on him who utters it. It is a
thread-ball thrown at a mark, but the other end


remains in the thrower's bag. Or, rather, it is a
harpoon thrown at the whale, unwinding, as it
flies, a coil of cord in the boat, and, if the harpoon
is not good, or not well thrown, it will go nigh to
cut the steersman in twain or to sink the boat.

You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.
"No man had ever a point of pride that was not
injurious to him," said Burke. The exclusive in
fashionable life does not see that he excludes him-
self from enjoyment, in the attempt to appropriate
it. The exclusionist in religion does not see that
he shuts the door of heaven on himself, in striving
to shut out others. Treat men as pawns and nine-
pins and you shall suffer as well as they. If you
leave out their heart, you shall lose your own. The
senses would make things of all persons; of women,
of children, of the poor. The vulgar proverb, " I
will get it from his purse or get it from his skin,"
is sound philosophy.

All infractions of love and equity in our social
relations are speedily punished. They are pun-
ished by Fear. Whilst I stand in simple relations
to my fellow-man, I have no displeasure in meeting
him. We meet as water meets water, or as two
currents of air mix, with perfect diffusion and in-
terpenetration of nature. But as soon as there
is any departure from simplicity and attempt at


halfness, or good for me that is not good for him,
my neighbor feels the wrong; he shrinks from me
as far as I have shrunk from him ; his eyes no longer
seek mine; there is war between us; there is hate
in him and fear in me.

All the old abuses in society, the great and uni-
versal and the petty and particular, all unjust ac-
cumulations of property and power, are avenged
in the same manner. Fear is an instructor of great
sagacity and the herald of all revolutions. One
thing he always teaches, that there is rottenness
where he appears. He is a carrion crow, and
though you see not well what he hovers for, there
is death somewhere. Our property is timid, our
laws are timid, our cultivated classes are timid.
Fear for ages has boded and mowed and gibbered
over government and property. That obscene
bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great
wrongs which must be revised.

Of the like nature is that expectation of change
which instantly follows the suspension of our vol-
untary activity. The terror of cloudless noon, the


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