Divinity School Address Emerson

An exerpt:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the
soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject
to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are
instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean
deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on
purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the
immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man
dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.
A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so
downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself. [from Emerson Central]

Full text:

Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening,
July 15, 1838

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass
grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.
The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and
the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the
transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a
young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river,
and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never
displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and
the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one
word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which
our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to
every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its navigable sea; in its mountains of
metal and stone; in its forests of all woods; in its animals; in its chemical ingredients;
in the powers and path of light, heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and
heart of great men to subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the
astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to honor.

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make
things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and
fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity
new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect
apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these
infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I
would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human
spirit in all ages.

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind
open to the sentiment of virtue. Then he is instructed in what is above him. He learns
that his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he
now lies in evil and weakness. That which he venerates is still his own, though he has not
realized it yet. He ought. He knows the sense of that grand word, though his
analysis fails entirely to render account of it. When in innocency, or when by
intellectual perception, he attains to say, — `I love the Right; Truth is beautiful
within and without, forevermore. Virtue, I am thine: save me: use me: thee will I serve,
day and night, in great, in small, that I may be not virtuous, but virtue;’ — then is the
end of the creation answered, and God is well pleased.

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine
laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish
details, principles that astonish. The child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of
light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear,
justice, appetite, man, and God, interact. These laws refuse to be adequately stated. They
will not be written out on paper, or spoken by the tongue. They elude our persevering
thought; yet we read them hourly in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions, in our
own remorse. The moral traits which are all globed into every virtuous act and thought,
— in speech, we must sever, and describe or suggest by painful enumeration of many
particulars. Yet, as this sentiment is the essence of all religion, let me guide your eye
to the precise objects of the sentiment, by an enumeration of some of those classes of
facts in which this element is conspicuous.

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the
soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject
to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are
instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean
deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on
purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the
immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man
dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.
A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so
downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting
appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its operation in life,
though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the soul. By it, a man is made the
Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is
always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone
walls. The least admixture of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least
attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the
effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected
furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very
roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness. See
again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the affections, and becomes the
law of society. As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the
vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into
hell.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the
product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere
active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that
will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.
Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the
privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and
real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out
of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its
different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores
which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with
it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far
as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being
shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until
absolute badness is absolute death.

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the
religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to
charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh
and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the
silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable, not by
science or power. Thought may work cold and intransitive in things, and find no end or
unity; but the dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance
that Law is sovereign over all natures; and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to
break out into joy.

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him
illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of
the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive
advantages from another, — by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself,
and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason. When he says,
"I ought;" when love warms him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good
and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom. Then he
can worship, and be enlarged by his worship; for he can never go behind this sentiment. In
the sublimest flights of the soul, rectitude is never surmounted, love is never outgrown.

This sentiment lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates all forms of
worship. The principle of veneration never dies out. Man fallen into superstition, into
sensuality, is never quite without the visions of the moral sentiment. In like manner, all
the expressions of this sentiment are sacred and permanent in proportion to their purity.
The expressions of this sentiment affect us more than all other compositions. The
sentences of the oldest time, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant.
This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative
East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in
Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine
impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true. And the
unique impression of Jesus upon mankind, whose name is not so much written as ploughed
into the history of this world, is proof of the subtle virtue of this infusion.

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man,
and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this,
namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is
not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces,
I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he
may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the
presence of degradation. As is the flood so is the ebb. Let this faith depart, and the
very words it spake, and the things it made, become false and hurtful. Then falls the
church, the state, art, letters, life. The doctrine of the divine nature being forgotten,
a sickness infects and dwarfs the constitution. Once man was all; now he is an appendage,
a nuisance. And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit cannot wholly be got rid of, the
doctrine of it suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two
persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury. The doctrine of inspiration is
lost; the base doctrine of the majority of voices, usurps the place of the doctrine of the
soul. Miracles, prophecy, poetry; the ideal life, the holy life, exist as ancient history
merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspiration of society; but, when suggested,
seem ridiculous. Life is comic or pitiful, as soon as the high ends of being fade out of
sight, and man becomes near-sighted, and can only attend to what addresses the senses.

These general views, which, whilst they are general, none will contest, find abundant
illustration in the history of religion, and especially in the history of the Christian
church. In that, all of us have had our birth and nurture. The truth contained in that,
you, my young friends, are now setting forth to teach. As the Cultus, or established
worship of the civilized world, it has great historical interest for us. Of its blessed
words, which have been the consolation of humanity, you need not that I should speak. I
shall endeavor to discharge my duty to you, on this occasion, by pointing out two errors
in its administration, which daily appear more gross from the point of view we have just
now taken.

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of
the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had
his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true
to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes
forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion,
`I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see
thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and
memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of
the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught
this high chant from the poet’s lips, and said, in the next age, `This was Jehovah come
down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’ The idioms of his language,
and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not
built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic
teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life
was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the
character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a
false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling
rain.

He felt respect for Moses and the prophets; but no unfit tenderness at postponing their
initial revelations, to the hour and the man that now is; to the eternal revelation in the
heart. Thus was he a true man. Having seen that the law in us is commanding, he would not
suffer it to be commanded. Boldly, with hand, and heart, and life, he declared it was God.
Thus is he, as I think, the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man.

1. In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect of historical
Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts
to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not
the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual.
It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The
soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe,
and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy
of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the
injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were
once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all
generous sympathy and liking. All who hear me, feel, that the language that describes
Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and
noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the
Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early
catachetical instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they
did not wear the Christian name. One would rather be

`A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,’

than to be defrauded of his manly right in coming into nature, and finding not names
and places, not land and professions, but even virtue and truth foreclosed and
monopolized. You shall not be a man even. You shall not own the world; you shall not dare,
and live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty
which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms; but you must subordinate your
nature to Christ’s nature; you must accept our interpretations; and take his portrait as
the vulgar draw it.

That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great
stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows
God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my
being. Already the long shadows of untimely oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease
forever.

The divine bards are the friends of my virtue, of my intellect of my strength. They
admonish me, that the gleams which flash across my mind, are not mine, but God’s; that
they had the like, and were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. So I love them. Noble
provocations go out from them, inviting me to resist evil; to subdue the world; and to Be.
And thus by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us, and thus only. To aim to convert a man by
miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as
always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments. It is true that a great and
rich soul, like his, falling among the simple, does so preponderate, that, as his did, it
names the world. The world seems to them to exist for him, and they have not yet drunk so
deeply of his sense, as to see that only by coming again to themselves, or to God in
themselves, can they grow forevermore. It is a low benefit to give me something; it is a
high benefit to enable me to do somewhat of myself. The time is coming when all men will
see, that the gift of God to the soul is not a vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity,
but a sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites thine
and mine to be and to grow.

The injustice of the vulgar tone of preaching is not less flagrant to Jesus, than to
the souls which it profanes. The preachers do not see that they make his gospel not glad,
and shear him of the locks of beauty and the attributes of heaven. When I see a majestic
Epaminondas, or Washington; when I see among my contemporaries, a true orator, an upright
judge, a dear friend; when I vibrate to the melody and fancy of a poem; I see beauty that
is to be desired. And so lovely, and with yet more entire consent of my human being,
sounds in my ear the severe music of the bards that have sung of the true God in all ages.
Now do not degrade the life and dialogues of Christ out of the circle of this charm, by
insulation and peculiarity. Let them lie as they befel, alive and warm, part of human
life, and of the landscape, and of the cheerful day.

2. The second defect of the traditionary and limited way of using the mind of Christ is
a consequence of the first; this, namely; that the Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose
revelations introduce greatness, — yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored
as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the
revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith
throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and
inarticulate voice.

It is very certain that it is the effect of conversation with the beauty of the soul,
to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and love. If utterance
is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man. Always the seer is a sayer. Somehow
his dream is told: somehow he publishes it with solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on
canvas; sometimes with chisel on stone; sometimes in towers and aisles of granite, his
soul’s worship is builded; sometimes in anthems of indefinite music; but clearest and most
permanent, in words.

The man enamored of this excellency, becomes its priest or poet. The office is coeval
with the world. But observe the condition, the spiritual limitation of the office. The
spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave
can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man on whom the
soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love,
wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring
him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as
the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.

To this holy office, you propose to devote yourselves. I wish you may feel your call in
throbs of desire and hope. The office is the first in the world. It is of that reality,
that it cannot suffer the deduction of any falsehood. And it is my duty to say to you,
that the need was never greater of new revelation than now. From the views I have already
expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of
the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached.
The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. On this occasion, any
complaisance would be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach
the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached.

It is time that this ill-suppressed murmur of all thoughtful men against the famine of
our churches; this moaning of the heart because it is bereaved of the consolation, the
hope, the grandeur, that come alone out of the culture of the moral nature; should be
heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din of routine. This great and
perpetual office of the preacher is not discharged. Preaching is the expression of the
moral sentiment in application to the duties of life. In how many churches, by how many
prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and
heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God? Where now
sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its
own origin in heaven? Where shall I hear words such as in elder ages drew men to leave all
and follow, — father and mother, house and land, wife and child? Where shall I hear these
august laws of moral being so pronounced, as to fill my ear, and I feel ennobled by the
offer of my uttermost action and passion? The test of the true faith, certainly, should be
its power to charm and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the
hands, — so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying. The faith should blend
with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and
the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is
unlovely; we are glad when it is done; we can make, we do make, even sitting in our pews,
a far better, holier, sweeter, for ourselves.

Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and
disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and
offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude
that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church
no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple
in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the
preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then
out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain.
He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had
been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the
wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he
had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his
doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had
read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and
suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived
at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by
this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of
thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the
world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a
pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It
seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed as if their houses were
very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor. It shows that there
is a commanding attraction in the moral sentiment, that can lend a faint tint of light to
dulness and ignorance, coming in its name and place. The good hearer is sure he has been
touched sometimes; is sure there is somewhat to be reached, and some word that can reach
it. When he listens to these vain words, he comforts himself by their relation to his
remembrance of better hours, and so they clatter and echo unchallenged.

I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There
is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent
nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of
sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard; for, each is some select
expression that broke out in a moment of piety from some stricken or jubilant soul, and
its excellency made it remembered. The prayers and even the dogmas of our church, are like
the zodiac of Denderah, and the astronomical monuments of the Hindoos, wholly insulated
from anything now extant in the life and business of the people. They mark the height to
which the waters once rose. But this docility is a check upon the mischief from the good
and devout. In a large portion of the community, the religious service gives rise to quite
other thoughts and emotions. We need not chide the negligent servant. We are struck with
pity, rather, at the swift retribution of his sloth. Alas for the unhappy man that is
called to stand in the pulpit, and not give bread of life. Everything that
befalls, accuses him. Would he ask contributions for the missions, foreign or domestic?
Instantly his face is suffused with shame, to propose to his parish, that they should send
money a hundred or a thousand miles, to furnish such poor fare as they have at home, and
would do well to go the hundred or the thousand miles to escape. Would he urge people to a
godly way of living; — and can he ask a fellow-creature to come to Sabbath meetings, when
he and they all know what is the poor uttermost they can hope for therein? Will he invite
them privately to the Lord’s Supper? He dares not. If no heart warm this rite, the hollow,
dry, creaking formality is too plain, than that he can face a man of wit and energy, and
put the invitation without terror. In the street, what has he to say to the bold village
blasphemer? The village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the minister.

Let me not taint the sincerity of this plea by any oversight of the claims of good men.
I know and honor the purity and strict conscience of numbers of the clergy. What life the
public worship retains, it owes to the scattered company of pious men, who minister here
and there in the churches, and who, sometimes accepting with too great tenderness the
tenet of the elders, have not accepted from others, but from their own heart, the genuine
impulses of virtue, and so still command our love and awe, to the sanctity of character.
Moreover, the exceptions are not so much to be found in a few eminent preachers, as in the
better hours, the truer inspirations of all, — nay, in the sincere moments of every man.
But with whatever exception, it is still true, that tradition characterizes the preaching
of this country; that it comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul; that it aims at
what is usual, and not at what is necessary and eternal; that thus, historical
Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of
the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and
power. What a cruel injustice it is to that Law, the joy of the whole earth, which alone
can make thought dear and rich; that Law whose fatal sureness the astronomical orbits
poorly emulate, that it is travestied and depreciated, that it is behooted and behowled,
and not a trait, not a word of it articulated. The pulpit in losing sight of this Law,
loses its reason, and gropes after it knows not what. And for want of this culture, the
soul of the community is sick and faithless. It wants nothing so much as a stern, high,
stoical, Christian discipline, to make it know itself and the divinity that speaks through
it. Now man is ashamed of himself; he skulks and sneaks through the world, to be
tolerated, to be pitied, and scarcely in a thousand years does any man dare to be wise and
good, and so draw after him the tears and blessings of his kind.

Certainly there have been periods when, from the inactivity of the intellect on certain
truths, a greater faith was possible in names and persons. The Puritans in England and
America, found in the Christ of the Catholic Church, and in the dogmas inherited from
Rome, scope for their austere piety, and their longings for civil freedom. But their creed
is passing away, and none arises in its room. I think no man can go with his thoughts
about him, into one of our churches, without feeling, that what hold the public worship
had on men is gone, or going. It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good, and the
fear of the bad. In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off,
— to use the local term. It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to
withdraw from the religious meetings. I have heard a devout person, who prized the
Sabbath, say in bitterness of heart, "On Sundays, it seems wicked to go to
church." And the motive, that holds the best there, is now only a hope and a waiting.
What was once a mere circumstance, that the best and the worst men in the parish, the poor
and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, young and old, should meet one day as fellows
in one house, in sign of an equal right in the soul, — has come to be a paramount motive
for going thither.

My friends, in these two errors, I think, I find the causes of a decaying church and a
wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of
worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or
the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted
by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when
men die, we do not mention them.

And now, my brothers, you will ask, What in these desponding days can be done by us?
The remedy is already declared in the ground of our complaint of the Church. We have
contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought.
Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution. The old is for slaves. When a man comes, all
books are legible, all things transparent, all religions are forms. He is religious. Man
is the wonderworker. He is seen amid miracles. All men bless and curse. He saith yea and
nay, only. The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is
past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by
representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our
theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He
speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity, — a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of
man, — is lost. None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and
departed. Ah me! no man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet,
avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in
public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their
soul, is wiser than the whole world. See how nations and races flit by on the sea of time,
and leave no ripple to tell where they floated or sunk, and one good soul shall make the
name of Moses, or of Zeno, or of Zoroaster, reverend forever. None assayeth the stern
ambition to be the Self of the nation, and of nature, but each would be an easy secondary
to some Christian scheme, or sectarian connection, or some eminent man. Once leave your
own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul’s, or
George Fox’s, or Swedenborg’s, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary
form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men
can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those
which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.
Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins,
Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.’ Imitation
cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor
did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator,
something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of
another man’s.

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and
acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom,
authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes,
that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind. Not too
anxious to visit periodically all families and each family in your parish connection,
— when you meet one of these men or women, be to them a divine man; be to them thought and
virtue; let their timid aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be
genially tempted out in your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and
their wonder feel that you have wondered. By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more
confidence in other men. For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to
habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men value the
few real hours of life; they love to be heard; they love to be caught up into the vision
of principles. We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the
dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what
we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.
Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be followed with
their love as by an angel.

And, to this end, let us not aim at common degrees of merit. Can we not leave, to such
as love it, the virtue that glitters for the commendation of society, and ourselves pierce
the deep solitudes of absolute ability and worth? We easily come up to the standard of
goodness in society. Society’s praise can be cheaply secured, and almost all men are
content with those easy merits; but the instant effect of conversing with God, will be, to
put them away. There are persons who are not actors, not speakers, but influences; persons
too great for fame, for display; who disdain eloquence; to whom all we call art and
artist, seems too nearly allied to show and by-ends, to the exaggeration of the finite and
selfish, and loss of the universal. The orators, the poets, the commanders encroach on us
only as fair women do, by our allowance and homage. Slight them by preoccupation of mind,
slight them, as you can well afford to do, by high and universal aims, and they instantly
feel that you have right, and that it is in lower places that they must shine. They also
feel your right; for they with you are open to the influx of the all-knowing Spirit, which
annihilates before its broad noon the little shades and gradations of intelligence in the
compositions we call wiser and wisest.

In such high communion, let us study the grand strokes of rectitude: a bold
benevolence, an independence of friends, so that not the unjust wishes of those who love
us, shall impair our freedom, but we shall resist for truth’s sake the freest flow of
kindness, and appeal to sympathies far in advance; and, — what is the highest form in
which we know this beautiful element, — a certain solidity of merit, that has nothing to
do with opinion, and which is so essentially and manifestly virtue, that it is taken for
granted, that the right, the brave, the generous step will be taken by it, and nobody
thinks of commending it. You would compliment a coxcomb doing a good act, but you would
not praise an angel. The silence that accepts merit as the most natural thing in the
world, is the highest applause. Such souls, when they appear, are the Imperial Guard of
Virtue, the perpetual reserve, the dictators of fortune. One needs not praise their
courage, — they are the heart and soul of nature. O my friends, there are resources in us
on which we have not drawn. There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to
whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyzes the majority, — demanding not the faculties
of prudence and thrift, but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifice,
— comes graceful and beloved as a bride. Napoleon said of Massena, that he was not himself
until the battle began to go against him; then, when the dead began to fall in ranks
around him, awoke his powers of combination, and he put on terror and victory as a robe.
So it is in rugged crises, in unweariable endurance, and in aims which put sympathy out of
question, that the angel is shown. But these are heights that we can scarce remember and
look up to, without contrition and shame. Let us thank God that such things exist.

And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the
altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall
we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms,
seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All
attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to
the goddess of Reason, — to-day, pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in
madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms
already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and
new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.
A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify. Two inestimable
advantages Christianity has given us; first; the Sabbath, the jubilee of the whole world;
whose light dawns welcome alike into the closet of the philosopher, into the garret of
toil, and into prison cells, and everywhere suggests, even to the vile, the dignity of
spiritual being. Let it stand forevermore, a temple, which new love, new faith, new sight
shall restore to more than its first splendor to mankind. And secondly, the institution of
preaching, — the speech of man to men, — essentially the most flexible of all organs, of
all forms. What hinders that now, everywhere, in pulpits, in lecture-rooms, in houses, in
fields, wherever the invitation of men or your own occasions lead you, you speak the very
truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men
with new hope and new revelation?

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern
men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall
speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that
have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary;
are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall
follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their
rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the
identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought,
that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

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2 responses to “Divinity School Address Emerson

  1. In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?

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