Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most quotable writers that ever lived. Many a brilliant saying has been misattributed to him, which only goes to show how brilliant he is. Reading his essays yourself, it’s not hard to see why he has meant so much to so many. There is just a calm eloquence about his words, as though they come from some immovable source of wisdom.
It was his 208th birth anniversary last May 25, and that is excuse enough for me to pick out some quotes of his ― just 12 in all. I could have put in a lot more; I have a large bunch of selections in my files. However, I figured that it would be more rewarding for you to read his whole essays for yourself; my only hope is that these quotes encourage you to do so.
There is no particular theme I am emphasizing, but his overall philosophy exemplifies the holistic means of thinking and living that make for civilized society, the political aspect of which would involve an absolute regard for the right to property.
[T]he interrogation of custom at all points is an inevitable stage in the growth of every superior mind, and is the evidence of its perception of the flowing power which remains itself in all changes. (‘Uses of great men,’ from ‘Representative men’)
[T]he soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet… and, very incurious concerning persons or miracles, and not at all disturbed by chasms of historical evidence, it accepts from God the phenomenon, as it finds it, as the pure and awful form of religion in the world. (‘Idealism,’ from ‘Nature’)
[A] guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation… (‘Prospects,’ from ‘Nature’)
Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them. (‘Circles’)
People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say… The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is… souls never touch their objects… Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, ― no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If to-morrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, ― neither better nor worse. So it is with this calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar… all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual. (‘Experience’)
Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. (‘Self-reliance’)
Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man… Our love goes out to him and embraces him because he did not need it. (‘Self-reliance’)
All good conversation, manners, and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great. Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive. Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits. We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual. The most attractive class of people are those who are powerful obliquely, and not by the direct stroke: men of genius, but not yet accredited: one gets the cheer of their light, without paying too great a tax. (‘Experience’)
[T]he form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. (‘Politics’)
[T]he expectation of gratitude is mean, and is continually punished by the total insensibility of the obliged person. It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning, from one who has had the ill lack to be served by you. (‘Gifts’)
The wise man throws himself on the side of his assailants. It is more his interest than it is theirs to find his weak point. (‘Compensation’)
Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. (The ‘American scholar’ address)