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    by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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    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

    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

    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

    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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