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

Intellect

from Essays: First Series (1841)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Go, speed the stars of Thought
On to their shining goals;
The sower scatters broad his seed,
The wheat thou strew'st be souls.

ESSAY XI Intellect

Every substance is negatively electric to that which stands
above it in the chemical tables, positively to that which stands below
it. Water dissolves wood, and iron, and salt; air dissolves water;
electric fire dissolves air, but the intellect dissolves fire,
gravity, laws, method, and the subtlest unnamed relations of nature,
in its resistless menstruum. Intellect lies behind genius, which is
intellect constructive. Intellect is the simple power anterior to
all action or construction. Gladly would I unfold in calm degrees a
natural history of the intellect, but what man has yet been able to
mark the steps and boundaries of that transparent essence? The first
questions are always to be asked, and the wisest doctor is gravelled
by the inquisitiveness of a child. How can we speak of the action of
the mind under any divisions, as of its knowledge, of its ethics, of
its works, and so forth, since it melts will into perception,
knowledge into act? Each becomes the other. Itself alone is. Its
vision is not like the vision of the eye, but is union with the
things known.

Intellect and intellection signify to the common ear
consideration of abstract truth. The considerations of time and
place, of you and me, of profit and hurt, tyrannize over most men's
minds. Intellect separates the fact considered from _you_, from all
local and personal reference, and discerns it as if it existed for
its own sake. Heraclitus looked upon the affections as dense and
colored mists. In the fog of good and evil affections, it is hard
for man to walk forward in a straight line. Intellect is void of
affection, and sees an object as it stands in the light of science,
cool and disengaged. The intellect goes out of the individual,
floats over its own personality, and regards it as a fact, and not as
_I_ and _mine_. He who is immersed in what concerns person or place
cannot see the problem of existence. This the intellect always
ponders. Nature shows all things formed and bound. The intellect
pierces the form, overleaps the wall, detects intrinsic likeness
between remote things, and reduces all things into a few principles.

The making a fact the subject of thought raises it. All that
mass of mental and moral phenomena, which we do not make objects of
voluntary thought, come within the power of fortune; they constitute
the circumstance of daily life; they are subject to change, to fear,
and hope. Every man beholds his human condition with a degree of
melancholy. As a ship aground is battered by the waves, so man,
imprisoned in mortal life, lies open to the mercy of coming events.
But a truth, separated by the intellect, is no longer a subject of
destiny. We behold it as a god upraised above care and fear. And so
any fact in our life, or any record of our fancies or reflections,
disentangled from the web of our unconsciousness, becomes an object
impersonal and immortal. It is the past restored, but embalmed. A
better art than that of Egypt has taken fear and corruption out of
it. It is eviscerated of care. It is offered for science. What is
addressed to us for contemplation does not threaten us, but makes us
intellectual beings.

The growth of the intellect is spontaneous in every expansion.
The mind that grows could not predict the times, the means, the mode
of that spontaneity. God enters by a private door into every
individual. Long prior to the age of reflection is the thinking of
the mind. Out of darkness, it came insensibly into the marvellous
light of to-day. In the period of infancy it accepted and disposed
of all impressions from the surrounding creation after its own way.
Whatever any mind doth or saith is after a law; and this native law
remains over it after it has come to reflection or conscious thought.
In the most worn, pedantic, introverted self-tormenter's life, the
greatest part is incalculable by him, unforeseen, unimaginable, and
must be, until he can take himself up by his own ears. What am I?
What has my will done to make me that I am? Nothing. I have been
floated into this thought, this hour, this connection of events, by
secret currents of might and mind, and my ingenuity and wilfulness
have not thwarted, have not aided to an appreciable degree.

Our spontaneous action is always the best. You cannot, with
your best deliberation and heed, come so close to any question as
your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your
bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before
sleep on the previous night. Our thinking is a pious reception. Our
truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent
direction given by our will, as by too great negligence. We do not
determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away,
as we can, all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to
see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners
of ideas. They catch us up for moments into their heaven, and so
fully engage us, that we take no thought for the morrow, gaze like
children, without an effort to make them our own. By and by we fall
out of that rapture, bethink us where we have been, what we have
seen, and repeat, as truly as we can, what we have beheld. As far as
we can recall these ecstasies, we carry away in the ineffaceable
memory the result, and all men and all the ages confirm it. It is
called Truth. But the moment we cease to report, and attempt to
correct and contrive, it is not truth.

If we consider what persons have stimulated and profited us, we
shall perceive the superiority of the spontaneous or intuitive
principle over the arithmetical or logical. The first contains the
second, but virtual and latent. We want, in every man, a long logic;
we cannot pardon the absence of it, but it must not be spoken. Logic
is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but
its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as
propositions, and have a separate value, it is worthless.

In every man's mind, some images, words, and facts remain,
without effort on his part to imprint them, which others forget, and
afterwards these illustrate to him important laws. All our progress
is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct,
then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and
fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no
reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall
ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.

Each mind has its own method. A true man never acquires after
college rules. What you have aggregated in a natural manner
surprises and delights when it is produced. For we cannot oversee
each other's secret. And hence the differences between men in
natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common
wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no
experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the
savant. The walls of rude minds are scrawled all over with facts,
with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the
inscriptions. Every man, in the degree in which he has wit and
culture, finds his curiosity inflamed concerning the modes of living
and thinking of other men, and especially of those classes whose
minds have not been subdued by the drill of school education.

This instinctive action never ceases in a healthy mind, but
becomes richer and more frequent in its informations through all
states of culture. At last comes the era of reflection, when we not
only observe, but take pains to observe; when we of set purpose sit
down to consider an abstract truth; when we keep the mind's eye open,
whilst we converse, whilst we read, whilst we act, intent to learn
the secret law of some class of facts.

What is the hardest task in the world? To think. I would put
myself in the attitude to look in the eye an abstract truth, and I
cannot. I blench and withdraw on this side and on that. I seem to
know what he meant who said, No man can see God face to face and
live. For example, a man explores the basis of civil government.
Let him intend his mind without respite, without rest, in one
direction. His best heed long time avails him nothing. Yet thoughts
are flitting before him. We all but apprehend, we dimly forebode the
truth. We say, I will walk abroad, and the truth will take form and
clearness to me. We go forth, but cannot find it. It seems as if we
needed only the stillness and composed attitude of the library to
seize the thought. But we come in, and are as far from it as at
first. Then, in a moment, and unannounced, the truth appears. A
certain, wandering light appears, and is the distinction, the
principle, we wanted. But the oracle comes, because we had
previously laid siege to the shrine. It seems as if the law of the
intellect resembled that law of nature by which we now inspire, now
expire the breath; by which the heart now draws in, then hurls out
the blood, the law of undulation. So now you must labor with your
brains, and now you must forbear your activity, and see what the
great Soul showeth.

The immortality of man is as legitimately preached from the
intellections as from the moral volitions. Every intellection is
mainly prospective. Its present value is its least. Inspect what
delights you in Plutarch, in Shakspeare, in Cervantes. Each truth
that a writer acquires is a lantern, which he turns full on what
facts and thoughts lay already in his mind, and behold, all the mats
and rubbish which had littered his garret become precious. Every
trivial fact in his private biography becomes an illustration of this
new principle, revisits the day, and delights all men by its piquancy
and new charm. Men say, Where did he get this? and think there was
something divine in his life. But no; they have myriads of facts
just as good, would they only get a lamp to ransack their attics
withal.

We are all wise. The difference between persons is not in
wisdom but in art. I knew, in an academical club, a person who
always deferred to me, who, seeing my whim for writing, fancied that
my experiences had somewhat superior; whilst I saw that his
experiences were as good as mine. Give them to me, and I would make
the same use of them. He held the old; he holds the new; I had the
habit of tacking together the old and the new, which he did not use
to exercise. This may hold in the great examples. Perhaps if we
should meet Shakspeare, we should not be conscious of any steep
inferiority; no: but of a great equality, only that he possessed a
strange skill of using, of classifying, his facts, which we lacked.
For, notwithstanding our utter incapacity to produce any thing like
Hamlet and Othello, see the perfect reception this wit, and immense
knowledge of life, and liquid eloquence find in us all.

If you gather apples in the sunshine, or make hay, or hoe corn,
and then retire within doors, and shut your eyes, and press them with
your hand, you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light,
with boughs and leaves thereto, or the tasselled grass, or the
corn-flags, and this for five or six hours afterwards. There lie the
impressions on the retentive organ, though you knew it not. So lies
the whole series of natural images with which your life has made you
acquainted in your memory, though you know it not, and a thrill of
passion flashes light on their dark chamber, and the active power
seizes instantly the fit image, as the word of its momentary thought.

It is long ere we discover how rich we are. Our history, we
are sure, is quite tame: we have nothing to write, nothing to infer.
But our wiser years still run back to the despised recollections of
childhood, and always we are fishing up some wonderful article out of
that pond; until, by and by, we begin to suspect that the biography
of the one foolish person we know is, in reality, nothing less than
the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the Universal
History.

In the intellect constructive, which we popularly designate by
the word Genius, we observe the same balance of two elements as in
intellect receptive. The constructive intellect produces thoughts,
sentences, poems, plans, designs, systems. It is the generation of
the mind, the marriage of thought with nature. To genius must always
go two gifts, the thought and the publication. The first is
revelation, always a miracle, which no frequency of occurrence or
incessant study can ever familiarize, but which must always leave the
inquirer stupid with wonder. It is the advent of truth into the
world, a form of thought now, for the first time, bursting into the
universe, a child of the old eternal soul, a piece of genuine and
immeasurable greatness. It seems, for the time, to inherit all that
has yet existed, and to dictate to the unborn. It affects every
thought of man, and goes to fashion every institution. But to make
it available, it needs a vehicle or art by which it is conveyed to
men. To be communicable, it must become picture or sensible object.
We must learn the language of facts. The most wonderful inspirations
die with their subject, if he has no hand to paint them to the
senses. The ray of light passes invisible through space, and only
when it falls on an object is it seen. When the spiritual energy is
directed on something outward, then it is a thought. The relation
between it and you first makes you, the value of you, apparent to me.
The rich, inventive genius of the painter must be smothered and lost
for want of the power of drawing, and in our happy hours we should be
inexhaustible poets, if once we could break through the silence into
adequate rhyme. As all men have some access to primary truth, so all
have some art or power of communication in their head, but only in
the artist does it descend into the hand. There is an inequality,
whose laws we do not yet know, between two men and between two
moments of the same man, in respect to this faculty. In common
hours, we have the same facts as in the uncommon or inspired, but
they do not sit for their portraits; they are not detached, but lie
in a web. The thought of genius is spontaneous; but the power of
picture or expression, in the most enriched and flowing nature,
implies a mixture of will, a certain control over the spontaneous
states, without which no production is possible. It is a conversion
of all nature into the rhetoric of thought, under the eye of
judgment, with a strenuous exercise of choice. And yet the
imaginative vocabulary seems to be spontaneous also. It does not
flow from experience only or mainly, but from a richer source. Not
by any conscious imitation of particular forms are the grand strokes
of the painter executed, but by repairing to the fountain-head of all
forms in his mind. Who is the first drawing-master? Without
instruction we know very well the ideal of the human form. A child
knows if an arm or a leg be distorted in a picture, if the attitude
be natural or grand, or mean, though he has never received any
instruction in drawing, or heard any conversation on the subject, nor
can himself draw with correctness a single feature. A good form
strikes all eyes pleasantly, long before they have any science on the
subject, and a beautiful face sets twenty hearts in palpitation,
prior to all consideration of the mechanical proportions of the
features and head. We may owe to dreams some light on the fountain
of this skill; for, as soon as we let our will go, and let the
unconscious states ensue, see what cunning draughtsmen we are! We
entertain ourselves with wonderful forms of men, of women, of
animals, of gardens, of woods, and of monsters, and the mystic pencil
wherewith we then draw has no awkwardness or inexperience, no
meagreness or poverty; it can design well, and group well; its
composition is full of art, its colors are well laid on, and the
whole canvas which it paints is life-like, and apt to touch us with
terror, with tenderness, with desire, and with grief. Neither are
the artist's copies from experience ever mere copies, but always
touched and softened by tints from this ideal domain.

The conditions essential to a constructive mind do not appear
to be so often combined but that a good sentence or verse remains
fresh and memorable for a long time. Yet when we write with ease,
and come out into the free air of thought, we seem to be assured that
nothing is easier than to continue this communication at pleasure.
Up, down, around, the kingdom of thought has no inclosures, but the
Muse makes us free of her city. Well, the world has a million
writers. One would think, then, that good thought would be as
familiar as air and water, and the gifts of each new hour would
exclude the last. Yet we can count all our good books; nay, I
remember any beautiful verse for twenty years. It is true that the
discerning intellect of the world is always much in advance of the
creative, so that there are many competent judges of the best book,
and few writers of the best books. But some of the conditions of
intellectual construction are of rare occurrence. The intellect is a
whole, and demands integrity in every work. This is resisted equally
by a man's devotion to a single thought, and by his ambition to
combine too many.

Truth is our element of life, yet if a man fasten his attention
on a single aspect of truth, and apply himself to that alone for a
long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself, but falsehood;
herein resembling the air, which is our natural element, and the
breath of our nostrils, but if a stream of the same be directed on
the body for a time, it causes cold, fever, and even death. How
wearisome the grammarian, the phrenologist, the political or
religious fanatic, or indeed any possessed mortal whose balance is
lost by the exaggeration of a single topic. It is incipient
insanity. Every thought is a prison also. I cannot see what you
see, because I am caught up by a strong wind, and blown so far in one
direction that I am out of the hoop of your horizon.

Is it any better, if the student, to avoid this offence, and to
liberalize himself, aims to make a mechanical whole of history, or
science, or philosophy, by a numerical addition of all the facts that
fall within his vision? The world refuses to be analyzed by addition
and subtraction. When we are young, we spend much time and pains in
filling our note-books with all definitions of Religion, Love,
Poetry, Politics, Art, in the hope that, in the course of a few
years, we shall have condensed into our encyclopaedia the net value
of all the theories at which the world has yet arrived. But year
after year our tables get no completeness, and at last we discover
that our curve is a parabola, whose arcs will never meet.

Neither by detachment, neither by aggregation, is the integrity
of the intellect transmitted to its works, but by a vigilance which
brings the intellect in its greatness and best state to operate every
moment. It must have the same wholeness which nature has. Although
no diligence can rebuild the universe in a model, by the best
accumulation or disposition of details, yet does the world reappear
in miniature in every event, so that all the laws of nature may be
read in the smallest fact. The intellect must have the like
perfection in its apprehension and in its works. For this reason, an
index or mercury of intellectual proficiency is the perception of
identity. We talk with accomplished persons who appear to be
strangers in nature. The cloud, the tree, the turf, the bird are not
theirs, have nothing of them: the world is only their lodging and
table. But the poet, whose verses are to be spheral and complete, is
one whom Nature cannot deceive, whatsoever face of strangeness she
may put on. He feels a strict consanguinity, and detects more
likeness than variety in all her changes. We are stung by the desire
for new thought; but when we receive a new thought, it is only the
old thought with a new face, and though we make it our own, we
instantly crave another; we are not really enriched. For the truth
was in us before it was reflected to us from natural objects; and the
profound genius will cast the likeness of all creatures into every
product of his wit.

But if the constructive powers are rare, and it is given to few
men to be poets, yet every man is a receiver of this descending holy
ghost, and may well study the laws of its influx. Exactly parallel
is the whole rule of intellectual duty to the rule of moral duty. A
self-denial, no less austere than the saint's, is demanded of the
scholar. He must worship truth, and forego all things for that, and
choose defeat and pain, so that his treasure in thought is thereby
augmented.

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose.
Take which you please, you can never have both. Between these, as
a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose
predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the
first political party he meets, most likely his father's. He gets
rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He
in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from
all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and
recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his
being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and
imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is
not, and respects the highest law of his being.

The circle of the green earth he must measure with his shoes,
to find the man who can yield him truth. He shall then know that
there is somewhat more blessed and great in hearing than in speaking.
Happy is the hearing man; unhappy the speaking man. As long as I
hear truth, I am bathed by a beautiful element, and am not conscious
of any limits to my nature. The suggestions are thousandfold that I
hear and see. The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress
to the soul. But if I speak, I define, I confine, and am less. When
Socrates speaks, Lysis and Menexenus are afflicted by no shame that
they do not speak. They also are good. He likewise defers to them,
loves them, whilst he speaks. Because a true and natural man
contains and is the same truth which an eloquent man articulates: but
in the eloquent man, because he can articulate it, it seems something
the less to reside, and he turns to these silent beautiful with the
more inclination and respect. The ancient sentence said, Let us be
silent, for so are the gods. Silence is a solvent that destroys
personality, and gives us leave to be great and universal. Every
man's progress is through a succession of teachers, each of whom
seems at the time to have a superlative influence, but it at last
gives place to a new. Frankly let him accept it all. Jesus says,
Leave father, mother, house and lands, and follow me. Who leaves
all, receives more. This is as true intellectually as morally. Each
new mind we approach seems to require an abdication of all our past
and present possessions. A new doctrine seems, at first, a
subversion of all our opinions, tastes, and manner of living. Such
has Swedenborg, such has Kant, such has Coleridge, such has Hegel or
his interpreter Cousin, seemed to many young men in this country.
Take thankfully and heartily all they can give. Exhaust them,
wrestle with them, let them not go until their blessing be won, and,
after a short season, the dismay will be overpast, the excess of
influence withdrawn, and they will be no longer an alarming meteor,
but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven, and
blending its light with all your day.

But whilst he gives himself up unreservedly to that which draws
him, because that is his own, he is to refuse himself to that which
draws him not, whatsoever fame and authority may attend it, because
it is not his own. Entire self-reliance belongs to the intellect.
One soul is a counterpoise of all souls, as a capillary column of
water is a balance for the sea. It must treat things, and books, and
sovereign genius, as itself also a sovereign. If Aeschylus be that
man he is taken for, he has not yet done his office, when he has
educated the learned of Europe for a thousand years. He is now to
approve himself a master of delight to me also. If he cannot do
that, all his fame shall avail him nothing with me. I were a fool
not to sacrifice a thousand Aeschyluses to my intellectual integrity.
Especially take the same ground in regard to abstract truth, the
science of the mind. The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling,
Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only
a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness,
which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating.
Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that
he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness. He
has not succeeded; now let another try. If Plato cannot, perhaps
Spinoza will. If Spinoza cannot, then perhaps Kant. Anyhow, when at
last it is done, you will find it is no recondite, but a simple,
natural, common state, which the writer restores to you.

But let us end these didactics. I will not, though the subject
might provoke it, speak to the open question between Truth and Love.
I shall not presume to interfere in the old politics of the
skies; "The cherubim know most; the seraphim love most." The gods
shall settle their own quarrels. But I cannot recite, even thus
rudely, laws of the intellect, without remembering that lofty and
sequestered class of men who have been its prophets and oracles, the
high-priesthood of the pure reason, the _Trismegisti_, the expounders
of the principles of thought from age to age. When, at long
intervals, we turn over their abstruse pages, wonderful seems the
calm and grand air of these few, these great spiritual lords, who
have walked in the world, these of the old religion, dwelling
in a worship which makes the sanctities of Christianity look
_parvenues_ and popular; for "persuasion is in soul, but necessity is
in intellect." This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles,
Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius, and the rest, have
somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that
it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and
literature, and to be at once poetry, and music, and dancing, and
astronomy, and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed
of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams, the soul lays the
foundations of nature. The truth and grandeur of their thought is
proved by its scope and applicability, for it commands the entire
schedule and inventory of things for its illustration. But what
marks its elevation, and has even a comic look to us, is the innocent
serenity with which these babe-like Jupiters sit in their clouds, and
from age to age prattle to each other, and to no contemporary. Well
assured that their speech is intelligible, and the most natural thing
in the world, they add thesis to thesis, without a moment's heed of
the universal astonishment of the human race below, who do not
comprehend their plainest argument; nor do they ever relent so much
as to insert a popular or explaining sentence; nor testify the least
displeasure or petulance at the dulness of their amazed auditory.
The angels are so enamoured of the language that is spoken in heaven,
that they will not distort their lips with the hissing and unmusical
dialects of men, but speak their own, whether there be any who
understand it or not.

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