Representative Men by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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 power.

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 not outloved?

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 is higher.