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Texts : Essays: First Series : HEROISM
A selection of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings for searching and browsing

Heroism

from Essays: First Series (1841)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Paradise is under the shadow of swords."
Mahomet

Ruby wine is drunk by knaves,
Sugar spends to fatten slaves,
Rose and vine-leaf deck buffoons;
Thunderclouds are Jove's festoons,
Drooping oft in wreaths of dread
Lightning-knotted round his head;
The hero is not fed on sweets,
Daily his own heart he eats;
Chambers of the great are jails,
And head-winds right for royal sails.

 

ESSAY VIII Heroism

In the elder English dramaetcher, there is a constant
recognition of gentility, as if a noble behaviour were as easily
marked in the society of their age, as color is in our American
population. When any Rodrigo, Pedro, or Valerio enters, though he be
a stranger, the duke or governor exclaims, This is a gentleman,
and proffers civilities without end; but all the rest are slag and
refuse. In harmony with this delight in personal advantages, there
is in their plays a certain heroic cast of character and dialogue,
as in Bonduca, Sophocles, the Mad Lover, the Double Marriage,
wherein the speaker is so earnest and cordial, and on such deep
grounds of character, that the dialogue, on the slightest additional
incident in the plot, rises naturally into poetry. Among many texts,
take the following. The Roman Martius has conquered Athens, all
but the invincible spirits of Sophocles, the duke of Athens, and
Dorigen, his wife. The beauty of the latter inflames Martius, and he
seeks to save her husband; but Sophocles will not ask his life,
although assured that a word will save him, and the execution of both
proceeds.

"_Valerius_. Bid thy wife farewell.

_Soph_. No, I will take no leave. My Dorigen,
Yonder, above, 'bout Ariadne's crown,
My spirit shall hover for thee. Prithee, haste.

_Dor_. Stay, Sophocles, with this tie up my sight;
Let not soft nature so transformed be,
And lose her gentler sexed humanity,
To make me see my lord bleed. So, 't is well;
Never one object underneath the sun
Will I behold before my Sophocles:
Farewell; now teach the Romans how to die.

_Mar_. Dost know what 't is to die?

_Soph_. Thou dost not, Martius,
And, therefore, not what 't is to live; to die
Is to begin to live. It is to end |P372|p1
An old, stale, weary work, and to commence
A newer and a better. 'T is to leave
Deceitful knaves for the society
Of gods and goodness. Thou thyself must part
At last from all thy garlands, pleasures, triumphs,
And prove thy fortitude what then 't will do.

_Val_. But art not grieved nor vexed to leave thy life thus?

_Soph_. Why should I grieve or vex for being sent
To them I ever loved best? Now I'll kneel,
But with my back toward thee; 't is the last duty
This trunk can do the gods.

_Mar_. Strike, strike, Valerius,
Or Martius' heart will leap out at his mouth:
This is a man, a woman! Kiss thy lord,
And live with all the freedom you were wont.
O love! thou doubly hast afflicted me
With virtue and with beauty. Treacherous heart,
My hand shall cast thee quick into my urn,
Ere thou transgress this knot of piety.

_Val_. What ails my brother?

_Soph_. Martius, O Martius,
Thou now hast found a way to conquer me.

_Dor_. O star of Rome! what gratitude can speak
Fit words to follow such a deed as this?

_Mar_. This admirable duke, Valerius,
With his disdain of fortune and of death,
Captived himself, has captivated me,
And though my arm hath ta'en his body here,
His soul hath subjugated Martius' soul.
By Romulus, he is all soul, I think;
He hath no flesh, and spirit cannot be gyved;
Then we have vanquished nothing; he is free,
And Martius walks now in captivity."

I do not readily remember any poem, play, sermon, novel, or
oration, that our press vents in the last few years, which goes to
the same tune. We have a great many flutes and flageolets, but not
often the sound of any fife. Yet, Wordsworth's Laodamia, and the ode
of "Dion," and some sonnets, have a certain noble music; and Scott
will sometimes draw a stroke like the protrait of Lord Evandale,
given by Balfour of Burley. Thomas Carlyle, with his natural taste
for what is manly and daring in character, has suffered no heroic
trait in his favorites to drop from his biographical and historical
pictures. Earlier, Robert Burns has given us a song or two. In the
Harleian Miscellanies, there is an account of the battle of Lutzen,
which deserves to be read. And Simon Ockley's History of the
Saracens recounts the prodigies of individual valor with admiration,
all the more evident on the part of the narrator, that he seems to
think that his place in Christian Oxford requires of him some proper
protestations of abhorrence. But, if we explore the literature of
Heroism, we shall quickly come to Plutarch, who is its Doctor and
historian. To him we owe the Brasidas, the Dion, the Epaminondas,
the Scipio of old, and I must think we are more deeply indebted to
him than to all the ancient writers. Each of his "Lives" is a
refutation to the despondency and cowardice of our religious and
political theorists. A wild courage, a Stoicism not of the schools,
but of the blood, shines in every anecdote, and has given that book
its immense fame.

We need books of this tart cathartic virtue, more than books of
political science, or of private economy. Life is a festival only to
the wise. Seen from the nook and chimney-side of prudence, it wears
a ragged and dangerous front. The violations of the laws of nature
by our predecessors and our contemporaries are punished in us also.
The disease and deformity around us certify the infraction of
natural, intellectual, and moral laws, and often violation on
violation to breed such compound misery. A lock-jaw that bends a
man's head back to his heels, hydrophobia, that makes him bark at his
wife and babes, insanity, that makes him eat grass; war, plague,
cholera, famine, indicate a certain ferocity in nature, which, as it
had its inlet by human crime, must have its outlet by human
suffering. Unhappily, no man exists who has not in his own person
become, to some amount, a stockholder in the sin, and so made himself
liable to a share in the expiation.

Our culture, therefore, must not omit the arming of the man.
Let him hear in season, that he is born into the state of war, and
that the commonwealth and his own well-being require that he should
not go dancing in the weeds of peace, but warned, self-collected, and
neither defying nor dreading the thunder, let him take both
reputation and life in his hand, and, with perfect urbanity, dare the
gibbet and the mob by the absolute truth of his speech, and the
rectitude of his behaviour.

Towards all this external evil, the man within the breast
assumes a warlike attitude, and affirms his ability to cope
single-handed with the infinite army of enemies. To this military
attitude of the soul we give the name of Heroism. Its rudest form is
the contempt for safety and ease, which makes the attractiveness of
war. It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence, in
the plenitude of its energy and power to repair the harms it may
suffer. The hero is a mind of such balance that no disturbances can
shake his will, but pleasantly, and, as it were, merrily, he advances
to his own music, alike in frightful alarms and in the tipsy mirth of
universal dissoluteness. There is somewhat not philosophical in
heroism; there is somewhat not holy in it; it seems not to know that
other souls are of one texture with it; it has pride; it is the
extreme of individual nature. Nevertheless, we must profoundly
revere it. There is somewhat in great actions, which does not allow
us to go behind them. Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore
is always right; and although a different breeding, different
religion, and greater intellectual activity would have modified or
even reversed the particular action, yet for the hero that thing he
does is the highest deed, and is not open to the censure of
philosophers or divines. It is the avowal of the unschooled man,
that he finds a quality in him that is negligent of expense, of
health, of life, of danger, of hatred, of reproach, and knows that
his will is higher and more excellent than all actual and all
possible antagonists.

Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind, and in
contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good.
Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual's
character. Now to no other man can its wisdom appear as it does to
him, for every man must be supposed to see a little farther on his
own proper path than any one else. Therefore, just and wise men take
umbrage at his act, until after some little time be past: then they
see it to be in unison with their acts. All prudent men see that the
action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic
act measures itself by its contempt of some external good. But it
finds its own success at last, and then the prudent also extol.

Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the
soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of
falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted
by evil agents. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous,
hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations, and scornful
of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness, and
of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of
common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is
the butt and merriment of heroism. Heroism, like Plotinus, is almost
ashamed of its body. What shall it say, then, to the sugar-plums and
cats'-cradles, to the toilet, compliments, quarrels, cards, and
custard, which rack the wit of all society. What joys has kind
nature provided for us dear creatures! There seems to be no interval
between greatness and meanness. When the spirit is not master of the
world, then it is its dupe. Yet the little man takes the great hoax
so innocently, works in it so headlong and believing, is born red,
and dies gray, arranging his toilet, attending on his own health,
laying traps for sweet food and strong wine, setting his heart on a
horse or a rifle, made happy with a little gossip or a little praise,
that the great soul cannot choose but laugh at such earnest nonsense.
"Indeed, these humble considerations make me out of love with
greatness. What a disgrace is it to me to take note how many pairs
of silk stockings thou hast, namely, these and those that were the
peach-colored ones; or to bear the inventory of thy shirts, as one
for superfluity, and one other for use!"

Citizens, thinking after the laws of arithmetic, consider the
inconvenience of receiving strangers at their fireside, reckon
narrowly the loss of time and the unusual display: the soul of a
better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults
of life, and says, I will obey the God, and the sacrifice and the
fire he will provide. Ibn Haukal, the Arabian geographer, describes
a heroic extreme in the hospitality of Sogd, in Bukharia. "When I
was in Sogd, I saw a great building, like a palace, the gates of
which were open and fixed back to the wall with large nails. I asked
the reason, and was told that the house had not been shut, night or
day, for a hundred years. Strangers may present themselves at any
hour, and in whatever number; the master has amply provided for the
reception of the men and their animals, and is never happier than
when they tarry for some time. Nothing of the kind have I seen in
any other country." The magnanimous know very well that they who give
time, or money, or shelter, to the stranger so it be done for
love, and not for ostentation do, as it were, put God under
obligation to them, so perfect are the compensations of the universe.
In some way the time they seem to lose is redeemed, and the pains
they seem to take remunerate themselves. These men fan the flame of
human love, and raise the standard of civil virtue among mankind.
But hospitality must be for service, and not for show, or it pulls
down the host. The brave soul rates itself too high to value itself
by the splendor of its table and draperies. It gives what it hath,
and all it hath, but its own majesty can lend a better grace to
bannocks and fair water than belong to city feasts.

The temperance of the hero proceeds from the same wish to do no
dishonor to the worthiness he has. But he loves it for its elegancy,
not for its austerity. It seems not worth his while to be solemn,
and denounce with bitterness flesh-eating or wine-drinking, the use
of tobacco, or opium, or tea, or silk, or gold. A great man scarcely
knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision,
his living is natural and poetic. John Eliot, the Indian Apostle,
drank water, and said of wine, "It is a noble, generous liquor,
and we should be humbly thankful for it, but, as I remember, water
was made before it." Better still is the temperance of King David,
who poured out on the ground unto the Lord the water which three of
his warriors had brought him to drink, at the peril of their lives.

It is told of Brutus, that when he fell on his sword, after the
battle of Philippi, he quoted a line of Euripides, "O virtue! I
have followed thee through life, and I find thee at last but a
shade." I doubt not the hero is slandered by this report. The heroic
soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to
dine nicely, and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the
perception that virtue is enough. Poverty is its ornament. It does
not need plenty, and can very well abide its loss.

But that which takes my fancy most, in the heroic class, is the
good-humor and hilarity they exhibit. It is a height to which common
duty can very well attain, to suffer and to dare with solemnity. But
these rare souls set opinion, success, and life, at so cheap a rate,
that they will not soothe their enemies by petitions, or the show of
sorrow, but wear their own habitual greatness. Scipio, charged with
peculation, refuses to do himself so great a disgrace as to wait for
justification, though he had the scroll of his accounts in his hands,
but tears it to pieces before the tribunes. Socrates's condemnation
of himself to be maintained in all honor in the Prytaneum, during his
life, and Sir Thomas More's playfulness at the scaffold, are of the
same strain. In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Sea Voyage," Juletta tells
the stout captain and his company,

_Jul_. Why, slaves, 't is in our power to hang ye.
_Master_. Very likely,
'T is in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye."

These replies are sound and whole. Sport is the bloom and glow
of a perfect health. The great will not condescend to take any thing
seriously; all must be as gay as the song of a canary, though it were
the building of cities, or the eradication of old and foolish
churches and nations, which have cumbered the earth long thousands of
years. Simple hearts put all the history and customs of this world
behind them, and play their own game in innocent defiance of the
Blue-Laws of the world; and such would appear, could we see the human
race assembled in vision, like little children frolicking together;
though, to the eyes of mankind at large, they wear a stately and
solemn garb of works and influences.

The interest these fine stories have for us, the power of a
romance over the boy who grasps the forbidden book under his bench at
school, our delight in the hero, is the main fact to our purpose.
All these great and transcendent properties are ours. If we dilate
in beholding the Greek energy, the Roman pride, it is that we are
already domesticating the same sentiment. Let us find room for this
great guest in our small houses. The first step of worthiness will
be to disabuse us of our superstitious associations with places and
times, with number and size. Why should these words, Athenian,
Roman, Asia, and England, so tingle in the ear? Where the heart is,
there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of
fame. Massachusetts, Connecticut River, and Boston Bay, you think
paltry places, and the ear loves names of foreign and classic
topography. But here we are; and, if we will tarry a little, we may
come to learn that here is best. See to it, only, that thyself is
here; and art and nature, hope and fate, friends, angels, and the
Supreme Being, shall not be absent from the chamber where thou
sittest. Epaminondas, brave and affectionate, does not seem to us to
need Olympus to die upon, nor the Syrian sunshine. He lies very well
where he is. The Jerseys were handsome ground enough for Washington
to tread, and London streets for the feet of Milton. A great man
makes his climate genial in the imagination of men, and its air the
beloved element of all delicate spirits. That country is the
fairest, which is inhabited by the noblest minds. The pictures which
fill the imagination in reading the actions of Pericles, Xenophon,
Columbus, Bayard, Sidney, Hampden, teach us how needlessly mean our
life is, that we, by the depth of our living, should deck it with
more than regal or national splendor, and act on principles that
should interest man and nature in the length of our days.

We have seen or heard of many extraordinary young men, who
never ripened, or whose performance in actual life was not
extraordinary. When we see their air and mien, when we hear them
speak of society, of books, of religion, we admire their superiority,
they seem to throw contempt on our entire polity and social state;
theirs is the tone of a youthful giant, who is sent to work
revolutions. But they enter an active profession, and the forming
Colossus shrinks to the common size of man. The magic they used was
the ideal tendencies, which always make the Actual ridiculous; but
the tough world had its revenge the moment they put their horses of
the sun to plough in its furrow. They found no example and no
companion, and their heart fainted. What then? The lesson they gave
in their first aspirations is yet true; and a better valor and a
purer truth shall one day organize their belief. Or why should a
woman liken herself to any historical woman, and think, because
Sappho, or Sevigne, or De Stael, or the cloistered souls who have had
genius and cultivation, do not satisfy the imagination and the serene
Themis, none can, certainly not she. Why not? She has a new and
unattempted problem to solve, perchance that of the happiest nature
that ever bloomed. Let the maiden, with erect soul, walk serenely on
her way, accept the hint of each new experience, search in turn all
the objects that solicit her eye, that she may learn the power and
the charm of her new-born being, which is the kindling of a new dawn
in the recesses of space. The fair girl, who repels interference by
a decided and proud choice of influences, so careless of pleasing, so
wilful and lofty, inspires every beholder with somewhat of her own
nobleness. The silent heart encourages her; O friend, never strike
sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas.
Not in vain you live, for every passing eye is cheered and refined by
the vision.

The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have
wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you
have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to
reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common,
nor the common the heroic. Yet we have the weakness to expect the
sympathy of people in those actions whose excellence is that they
outrun sympathy, and appeal to a tardy justice. If you would serve
your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take
back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.
Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done
something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a
decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a
young person, "Always do what you are afraid to do." A simple,
manly character need never make an apology, but should regard its
past action with the calmness of Phocion, when he admitted that the
event of the battle was happy, yet did not regret his dissuasion from
the battle.

There is no weakness or exposure for which we cannot find
consolation in the thought, this is a part of my constitution,
part of my relation and office to my fellow-creature. Has nature
covenanted with me that I should never appear to disadvantage, never
make a ridiculous figure? Let us be generous of our dignity, as well
as of our money. Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.
We tell our charities, not because we wish to be praised for them,
not because we think they have great merit, but for our
justification. It is a capital blunder; as you discover, when
another man recites his charities.

To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some
rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an
asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at
ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the
great multitude of suffering men. And not only need we breathe and
exercise the soul by assuming the penalties of abstinence, of debt,
of solitude, of unpopularity, but it behooves the wise man to look
with a bold eye into those rarer dangers which sometimes invade men,
and to familiarize himself with disgusting forms of disease, with
sounds of execration, and the vision of violent death.

Times of heroism are generally times of terror, but the day
never shines in which this element may not work. The circumstances
of man, we say, are historically somewhat better in this country, and
at this hour, than perhaps ever before. More freedom exists for
culture. It will not now run against an axe at the first step out of
the beaten track of opinion. But whoso is heroic will always find
crises to try his edge. Human virtue demands her champions and
martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds. It is but the
other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a
mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was
better not to live.

I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, but
after the counsel of his own bosom. Let him quit too much
association, let him go home much, and stablish himself in those
courses he approves. The unremitting retention of simple and high
sentiments in obscure duties is hardening the character to that
temper which will work with honor, if need be, in the tumult, or on
the scaffold. Whatever outrages have happened to men may befall a
man again; and very easily in a republic, if there appear any signs
of a decay of religion. Coarse slander, fire, tar and feathers, and
the gibbet, the youth may freely bring home to his mind, and with
what sweetness of temper he can, and inquire how fast he can fix his
sense of duty, braving such penalties, whenever it may please the
next newspaper and a sufficient number of his neighbours to pronounce
his opinions incendiary.

It may calm the apprehension of calamity in the most
susceptible heart to see how quick a bound nature has set to the
utmost infliction of malice. We rapidly approach a brink over which
no enemy can follow us.

"Let them rave:
Thou art quiet in thy grave."

In the gloom of our ignorance of what shall be, in the hour
when we are deaf to the higher voices, who does not envy those who
have seen safely to an end their manful endeavour? Who that sees the
meanness of our politics, but inly congratulates Washington that he
is long already wrapped in his shroud, and for ever safe; that he was
laid sweet in his grave, the hope of humanity not yet subjugated in
him? Who does not sometimes envy the good and brave, who are no more
to suffer from the tumults of the natural world, and await with
curious complacency the speedy term of his own conversation with
finite nature? And yet the love that will be annihilated sooner than
treacherous has already made death impossible, and affirms itself no
mortal, but a native of the deeps of absolute and inextinguishable
being.

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