Some of the lectures delivered by Emerson during his lecturing
tour in England were published in 1850 under the title
of "Representative Men," and the main trend of their thought
and opinion is here followed in Emerson's own words. It will
be noted that the use of the term "sceptic," as applied to Montaigne,
is not the ordinary use of the word, but signifies a person
spontaneously given to free inquiry rather than aggressive
disbelief. The estimate of Napoleon is original. In "Representative
Men" Emerson is much more consecutive in his
thought than is customary with him. His pearls are as plentiful
here as elsewhere, but they are not scattered disconnectedly.
Among secular books, Plato only is entitled to Omar's
fanatical compliment to the Koran: "Burn all books,
for their value is in this book." Out of Plato come all
things that are still written and debated among men of
thought. Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato. No
wife, no children had he, but the thinkers of all civilised
nations are his posterity, and are tinged with his mind.
Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. They
lived in their writings, and so their house and street life
is commonplace. Their cousins can tell you nothing about
them. Plato, especially, has no external biography.
Plato stands between the truth and every man's mind,
and has almost impressed language and the primary
forms of thought with his name and seal.
The first period of a nation, as of an individual, is the
period of unconscious strength. Children cry, scream,
and stamp with fury, unable to express their desires. As
soon as they can speak and tell their wants they become
gentle. With nations he is as a god to them who can
rightly divide and define. This defining is philosophy.
Philosophy is the account which the human mind gives to
itself of the constitution of the world.
Two cardinal facts lie ever at the base of thought:
Unity and Variety—oneness and otherness.
To this partiality the history of nations corresponds.
The country of unity, faithful to the idea of a deaf, unimplorable,
immense fate, is Asia; on the other side, the
genius of Europe is active and creative. If the East loves
infinity, the West delights in boundaries. Plato came to
join and enhance the energy of each. The excellence of
Europe and Asia is in his brain. No man ever more fully
acknowledged the Ineffable; but having paid his homage,
as for the human race, to the illimitable, he then stood
erect, and for the human race affirmed: "And yet things
are knowable!" Full of the genius of Europe, he said
"Culture," he said "Nature," but he failed not to add,
"There is also the divine."
This leads us to the central figure which he has established
in his academy. Socrates and Plato are the double-star
which the most powerful instrument will not entirely
separate. Socrates, in his traits and genius, is the best
example of that synthesis which constitutes Plato's extraordinary
Socrates, a man of humble stem, and a personal homeliness
so remarkable as to be a cause of wit in others, was
a cool fellow, with a knowledge of his man, be he whom
he might whom he talked with, which laid the companion
open to certain defeat in debate; and in debate he immoderately
delighted. He was what in our country people
call "an old one." This hard-headed humorist, whose
drollery diverted the young patricians, turns out in the
sequel to have a probity as invincible as his logic, and to
be, under cover of this play, enthusiastic in his religion.
When accused before the judges, he affirmed the immortality
of the soul and a future reward and punishment,
and, refusing to recant, was condemned to die; he entered
the prison and took away all ignominy from the place. The
fame of this prison, the fame of the discourses there,
and the drinking of the hemlock, are one of the most
precious passages in the history of the world.
The rare coincidence in one ugly body of the droll
and the martyr, the keen street debater with the sweetest
saint known to any history at that time, had forcibly
struck the mind of Plato, and the figure of Socrates
placed itself in the foreground of the scene as the fittest
dispenser of the intellectual treasures he had to communicate.
It remains to say that the defect of Plato is that he is
literary, and never otherwise. His writings have not the
vital authority which the screams of prophets and the
sermons of unlettered Arabs and Jews possess.
And he had not a system. The acutest German, the
lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was.
No power of genius has ever yet had the smallest success
in explaining existence. The perfect enigma remains.
The philosophers affirm disdainfully the superiority
of ideas. To men of this world the man of ideas appears
out of his reason. The abstractionist and the materialist
thus mutually exasperating each other, there arises
a third party to occupy the middle ground between the
two, the sceptic. He labours to be the beam of the balance.
There is so much to say on all sides. This is the
position occupied by Montaigne.
In 1571, on the death of his father, he retired from the
practice of the law, at Bordeaux, and settled himself
on his estate. Downright and plain dealing, and abhorring
to be deceived or to deceive, he was esteemed
in the country for his sense and probity. In the civil
wars of the League, which converted every house into
a fort, Montaigne kept his gates open, and his house
without defence. All parties freely came and went, his
courage and honor being universally esteemed.
Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers.
The essays are an entertaining soliloquy on every random
topic that comes into his head, treating everything
without ceremony, yet with masculine sense. I know
not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is
the language of conversation transferred to a book.
Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world, and
books, and himself; never shrieks, or protests, or prays.
He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; he likes
to feel solid ground and the stones underneath.
We are natural believers. We are persuaded that a
thread runs through all things, and all worlds are strung
on it as beads. But though we reject a sour, dumpish
unbelief, to the sceptical class, which Montaigne represents,
every man at some time belongs. The ground occupied
by the sceptic is the vestibule of the temple. The
interrogation of custom at all points is an inevitable stage
in the growth of every superior mind. It stands in the
mind of the wise sceptic that our life in this world is not
quite so easy of interpretation as churches and school
books say. He does not wish to take ground against these
benevolences, but he says: "There are doubts. Shall
we, because good nature inclines us to virtue's side, say,
'There are no doubts—and lie for the right?' Is not the
satisfaction of the doubts essential to all manliness?"
I may play with the miscellany of facts, and take
those superficial views which we call scepticism; but
I know they will presently appear to me in that order
which makes scepticism impossible. For the world is
saturated with deity and law. Things seem to tend
downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues,
to defeat the just; but by knaves as by martyrs the just
cause is carried forward, and general ends are somewhat
answered. The world-spirit is a good swimmer,
and storms and waves cannot drown him. Through the
years and the centuries, through evil agents, through
toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly
streams. So let a man learn to look for the permanent
in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to
bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence
without losing his reverence.
Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare.
So far from Shakespeare being the least known, he is
the one person in all modern history known to us. What
point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy,
of taste, of conduct of life has he not settled? What
district of man's work has he not remembered? What
king has he not taught statecraft? What maiden has not
found him finer than her delicacy? What lover has he
Some able and appreciating critics think no criticism
on Shakespeare valuable that does not rest purely on
the dramatic merit; that he is falsely judged as poet
and philosopher. I think as highly as these critics of his
dramatic merit, but still think it secondary. He was a full
man who liked to talk; a brain exhaling thoughts and images,
which, seeking vent, found the drama next at hand.
Shakespeare is as much out of the category of
eminent authors as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably
wise; the others, conceivably. With this
wisdom of life is the equal endowment of imaginative
and lyric power. An omnipresent humanity co-ordinates
all his faculties. He has no peculiarity, no importunate
topic, but all is duly given. No mannerist is he; he
has no discoverable egotism—the great he tells greatly,
the small subordinately. He is wise without emphasis
or assertion; he is strong as Nature is strong, who
lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and
by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and
likes as well to do the one as the other. This power of
transferring the inmost truth of things into music and
verse makes him the type of the poet.
One royal trait that belongs to Shakespeare is his
cheerfulness. He delights in the world, in man, in
woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them.
Beauty, the spirit of joy, he sheds over the universe. If
he appeared in any company of human souls, who would
not march in his troop? He touches nothing that does
not borrow health and longevity from his festal style.
He was master of the revels to mankind.
Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century,
Bonaparte owes his predominance to the fidelity with
which he expresses the aim of the masses of active and
cultivated men. If Napoleon was Europe, it was because
the people whom he swayed were little Napoleons.
He is the representative of the class of industry and
skill. "God has granted," says the Koran, "to every
people a prophet in its own tongue." Paris, London,
and New York, the spirit of commerce, of money, of
material power, were also to have their prophet—and
Bonaparte was qualified and sent. He was the idol of
common men because he, in transcendent degree, had
the qualities and powers of common men. He came
to his own and they received him.
An Italian proverb declares that if you would succeed
you must not be too good. Napoleon renounced,
once for all, sentiments and affections, and helped himself
with his hands and his head. The art of war was
the game in which he exerted his arithmetic. He had a
directness of action never before combined with so much
comprehension. History is full of the imbecility of
kings and governors. They are a class of persons to
be much pitied, for they know not what they should do.
But Napoleon understood his business. He knew what
to do, and he flew to his mark. He put out all his
strength; he risked everything; he spared nothing; he
went to the edge of his possibilities.
This vigour was guarded and tempered by the coldest
prudence and punctuality. His very attack was never
the inspiration of courage, but the result of calculation.
The necessity of his position required a hospitality to
every sort of talent, and his feeling went along with
this policy. In fact, every species of merit was sought
and advanced under his government. Seventeen men
in his time were raised from common soldiers to the rank
of king, marshal, duke, or general. I call Napoleon the
agent or attorney of the middle class of modern society.
His life was an experiment, under the most favourable
conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.
All passed away, like the smoke of his artillery,
and left no trace. He did all that in him lay to
live and thrive without moral principle.
I find a provision in the constitution of the world for
the writer or secretary who is to report the doings of
the miraculous spirit of life that everywhere throbs and
works. Nature will be reported. All things are engaged
in writing their history. The planet goes attended
by its shadow. The air is full of sounds, the sky of
tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures.
Society has really no graver interest than the well-being
of the literary class. Still, the writer does not
stand with us on any commanding ground. I think this
to be his own fault. There have been times when he was
a sacred person; he wrote Bibles; the first hymns; the
codes; the epics; tragic songs; Sibylline verses; Chaldĉan
oracles. Every word was true, and woke the nations to
new life. How can he be honoured when he is a sycophant
ducking to the giddy opinion of a reckless public?
Goethe was the philosopher of the nineteenth century
multitude, hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy
to cope with the century's rolling miscellany of facts and
sciences, and by his own versatility dispose of them with
ease; and what he says of religion, of passion, of marriage,
of manners, of property, of paper-money, of
periods of belief, of omens, of luck, of whatever else,
refuses to be forgotten.
What distinguishes Goethe, for French and English
readers, is an habitual reference to interior truth. But
I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest
grounds from which genius has spoken. He is incapable
of self-surrender to the moral sentiment. Goethe
can never be dear to men. His is a devotion to truth
for the sake of culture. But the idea of absolute eternal
truth, without reference to my own enlargement by it is
higher; and the surrender to the torrent of poetic inspiration