Orestes Brownson,
Review of R. W. Emerson's "Divinity School Address"
1838

ART. VII.--An Address delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, 15 July, 1838.  By RALPH WALDO EMERSON. Boston: James Munroe & Co. 1838.  8vo. pp. 32.

1
This is in some respects a remarkable address,--remarkable for its own character and for the place where and the occasion on which it was delivered.  It is not often, we fancy, that such an address is delivered by a clergyman in a Divinity College to a class of young men just ready to go forth into the [501] churches as preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Indeed it is not often that a discourse teaching doctrines like the leading doctrines of this, is delivered by a professedly religious man, anywhere or on any occasion.
2
We are not surprised that this address should have produced some excitement and called forth some severe censures upon its author; for we have long known that there are comparatively few who can hear with calmness the utterance of opinions to which they do not subscribe.  Yet we regret to see the abuse which has been heaped upon Mr. Emerson.  We ought to learn to tolerate all opinions, to respect every man's right to form and to utter his own opinions whatever they may be.  If we regard the opinions as unsound, false, or dangerous, we should meet them calmly, refute them if we can; but be careful to respect, and to treat with all Christian meekness and love, him who entertains them.
3
There are many things in this address we heartily approve; there is much that we admire and thank the author for having uttered.  We like its life and freshness, its freedom and independence, its richness and beauty.  But we cannot help regarding its tone as somewhat arrogant, its spirit is quite too censorious and desponding, its philosophy as indigested, and its reasoning as inconclusive.  We do not like its mistiness, its vagueness, and its perpetual use of old words in new senses.  Its meaning too often escapes us; and we find it next to impossible to seize its dominant doctrine and determine what it is or what it is not.  Moreover, it does not appear to us to be all of the same piece.  It is made up of parts borrowed from different and hostile systems, which "baulk and baffle" the author's power to form into a consistent and harmonious whole.
4
In a moral point of view the leading doctrine of this address, if we have seized it, is not a little objectionable.  It is not easy to say what that moral doctrine is; but so far as we can collect it, it is, that [502] the soul possesses certain laws or instincts, obedience to which constitutes its perfection.  "The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws."  "The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul."  The moral sentiment results from the perception of these laws, and moral character results from conformity to them.  Now this is not, we apprehend, psychologically true.  If any man will analyze the moral sentiment as a fact of consciousness, he will find it something more than "an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul."  He will find that it is a sense of obligation.  Man feels himself under obligation to obey a law; not the law of his own soul, a law emanating from his soul as a lawgiver; but a law above his soul, imposed upon him by a supreme lawgiver, who has a right to command his obedience.  He does never feel that he is moral in obeying merely the laws of his own nature, but in obeying the command of a power out of him, above him, and independent of him.
5
By the laws of the soul, we presume, Mr. Emerson means our instincts.  In his Phi Beta Kappa Address, reviewed in this journal for January, he speaks much of the instincts, and bids us "plant ourselves on our instincts, and the huge world will come round to us."  The ethical rule he lays down is then, "follow thy instincts," or as he expresses it in the address before us, "obey thyself."  Now if we render this rule into the language it will assume in practice, we must say, obey thyself,--follow thy instincts,--follow thy inclinations,--live as thou listest.  Strike out the idea of something above man to which he is accountable, make him accountable only to himself, and why shall he not live as he listeth?  We see not what restraint can legitimately be imposed upon any of his instincts or propensities.  There may then be some doubts whether the command, "obey thyself," be an improvement on the Christian command, "deny thyself." [503]
6
We presume that when Mr. Emerson tells us to obey ourselves, to obey the laws of our soul, to follow our instincts, he means that we shall be true to our higher nature, that we are to obey our higher instincts, and not our baser propensities.  He is himself a pure minded man, and would by no means encourage sensuality.  But how shall we determine which are our higher instincts and which are our lower instincts?  We do not perceive that he gives us any instructions on this point.  Men like him may take the higher instincts to be those which lead us to seek truth and beauty; but men in whom the sensual nature overlays the spiritual, may think differently; and what rule has he for determining which is in the right?  He commands us to be ourselves, and sneers at the idea of having "models."  We must take none of the wise or good, not even Jesus Christ as a model of what we should be.  We are to act out ourselves.  Now why is not the sensualist as moral as the spiritualist, providing he acts out himself?  Mr. Emerson is a great admirer of Carlyle; and according to Carlyle, the moral man, the true man, is he who acts out himself.  A Mirabeau, or a Danton is, under a moral point of view, the equal of a Howard or a Washington, because equally true to himself.  Does not this rule confound all moral distinctions, and render moral judgments a "formula," all wise men must "swallow and make away with"?
7
But suppose we get over this difficulty and determine which are the higher instincts of our nature, those which we must follow in order to perfect our souls, and become,--as Mr. Emerson has it,--God; still we ask, why are we under obligation to obey these instincts?  Because obedience to them will perfect our souls?  But why are we bound to perfect our souls?  Where there is no sense of obligation, there is no moral sense.  We are moral only on the condition that we feel there is something which we ought to do.  Why ought we to labor for our own [504] perfection?  Because it will promote our happiness?  But why are we morally bound to seek our own happiness?  It may be very desirable to promote our happiness, but it does not follow from that we are morally bound to do it, and we know there are occasions when we should not do it.
8
Put the rule, Mr. Emerson lays down, in the best light possible, it proposes nothing higher than our own individual good as the end to be sought.  He would tell us to reduce all the jarring elements of our nature to harmony, and produce and maintain perfect order in the soul.  Now is this the highest good the reason can conceive?  Are all things in the universe to be held subordinate to the individual soul?  Shall a man take himself as the centre of the universe, and say all things are for his use, and count them of value only as they contribute something to his growth or well-being?  This were a deification of the soul with a vengeance.  It were nothing but a system of transcendental selfishness.  It were pure egotism.  According to this, I am everything; all else is nothing, at least nothing except what it derives from the fact that it is something to me.
9
Now this system of pure egotism, seems to us to run through all Mr. Emerson's writings.  We meet it everywhere in his masters, Carlyle and Goethe.  He and they may not be quite so grossly selfish as were some of the old sensualist philosophers; they may admit a higher good than the mere gratification of the senses, than mere wealth or fame; but the highest good they recognise is an individual good, the realization of order in their own individual souls.  Everything by them is estimated according to its power to contribute to this end.  If they mingle with men it is to use them; if they are generous and humane, if they labor to do good to others, it is always as a means, never as an end.  Always is the doing, whatever it be, to terminate in self.  Self, the higher self, it is true, is always the centre of gravitation.  Now is the man who adopts this moral rule, [505] really a moral man?  Does not morality always propose to us an end separate from our own, above our own, and to which our own good is subordinate?
10
No doubt it is desirable to perfect the individual soul, to realize order in the individual; but the reason, the moment it is developed, discloses a good altogether superior to this.  Above the good of the individual, and paramount to it, is the good of the universe, the realization of the good of creation, absolute good.  No man can deny that the realization of the good of all beings is something superior to the realization of the good of the individual.  Morality always requires us to labor for the highest good we can conceive.  The moral law then requires us to seek another good than that of our own souls.  The individual lives not for himself alone.  His good is but an element, a fragment of the universal good, and is to be sought never as an end, but always as a means of realizing absolute good, or universal order.  This rule requires the man to forget himself, to go out of himself, and under certain circumstances to deny himself, to sacrifice himself, for a good which does not centre in himself.  He who forgets himself, who is disinterested and heroic, who sacrifices himself for others, is in the eyes of reason, infinitely superior to the man who merely uses others as the means of promoting his own intellectual and spiritual growth.  Mr. Emerson's rule then is defective, inasmuch as it proposes the subordinate as the paramount, and places obligation where we feel it is not.  For the present, then, instead of adopting his formula, "obey thyself," or Carlyle's formula, "act out thyself," we must continue to approve the Christian formula, "deny thyself, and love thy neighbor as thyself."
11
But passing over this, we cannot understand how it is possible for a man to become virtuous by yielding to his instincts.  Virtue is voluntary obedience to a moral law, felt to be obligatory.  We are aware of the existence of the law, and we act in reference to it, [506] and intend to obey it.  We of course are not passive but active in the case of virtue.  Virtue is always personal.  It is our own act.  We are in the strictest sense of the word the cause or creator of it.  Therefore it is, we judge ourselves worthy of praise when we are not virtuous.  But in following instinct, we are not active but passive.  The causative force at work in our instincts, is not our personality, our wills, but an impersonal force, a force we are not.  Now in yielding to our instincts, as Mr. Emerson advises us, we abdicate our own personality, and from persons become things, as incapable of virtue as the trees of the forest or the stones of the field.
12
Mr. Emerson, moreover, seems to us to mutilate man, and in his zeal for the instincts to entirely overlook reflection.  The instincts are all very well.  They give us the force of character we need, but they do not make up the whole man.  We have understanding as well as instinct, reflection as well as spontaneity.  Now to be true to our nature, to the whole man, the understanding should have its appropriate exercise.  Does Mr. Emerson give it this exercise?  Does he not rather hold the understanding in light esteem, and labor almost entirely to fix our minds on the fact of the primitive intuition as all-sufficient of itself.  We do not ask him to reject the instincts, but we ask him to compel them to give account of themselves.  We are willing to follow them; but we must do it designedly, intentionally, after we have proved our moral right to do it, not before.  Here is an error in Mr. Emerson's system of no small magnitude.  He does not account for the instincts nor legitimate them.  He does not prove them to be divine forces or safe guides.  In practice, therefore, he is merely reviving the old sentimental systems of morality, systems which may do for the young, the dreamy, or the passionate, but never for a sturdy race of men and women who demand a reason for all they do, for what they approve or disapprove. [507]
13
Nor are we better satisfied with the theology of this discourse.  We cannot agree with Mr. Emerson in his account of the religious sentiment.  He confounds the religious sentiment with the moral; but the two sentiments are psychologically distinct.  The religious sentiment is a craving to adore, resulting from the soul's intuition of the Holy; the moral sense is a sense of obligation resulting from the soul's intuition of a moral law.  The moral sentiment leads us up merely to universal order; the religious sentiment leads us up to God, the Father of universal order.  Religious ideas always carry us into a region far above that of moral ideas.  Religion gives the law to ethics, not ethics to religion.  Religion is the communion of the soul with God, morality is merely the cultus exterior, the outward worship of God, the expression of the life of God in the soul: as James has it, "pure religion,--external worship, for so should we understand the original,--and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."
14
But even admitting the two sentiments are not two but one, identical, we are still dissatisfied with Mr. Emerson's account of the matter.  The religious sentiment, according to him, grows out of the soul's insight of the perfection of its own laws.  These laws are in fact the soul itself.  They are not something distinct from the soul, but its essence.  In neglecting them the soul is not itself, in finding them it finds itself, and in living them it is God.  This is his doctrine.  The soul then in case of the religious sentiment has merely an intuition of itself.  Its craving to adore is not a craving to adore something superior to itself.  In worshipping then, the soul does not worship God, a being above man and independent on him, but it worships itself.  We must not then speak of worshipping God, but merely of worshipping the soul.  Now is this a correct account of the religious sentiment?  The religious sentiment [508] is in the bottom of the soul, and it is always a craving of the soul to go out of itself, and fasten itself on an object above itself, free from its own weakness, mutability, and impurity, on a being all-sufficient, all-sufficing, omnipotent, immutable, and all-holy.  It results from the fact that we are conscious of not being sufficient for ourselves, that the ground of our being is not in ourselves, and from the need we feel of an Almighty arm on which to lean, a strength foreign to our own, from which we may derive support.  Let us be God, let us feel that we need go out of ourselves for nothing, and we are no longer in the condition to be religious; the religious sentiment can no longer find a place in our souls, and we can no more feel a craving to adore than God himself.  Nothing is more evident to us, than that the religious sentiment springs, on the one hand, solely from a sense of dependence, and on the other hand, from an intuition of an invisible Power, Father, God, on whom we may depend, to whom we may appeal when oppressed, and who is able and willing to succor us.  Take away the idea of such a God, declare the soul sufficient for itself, forbid it ever to go out of itself, to look up to a power above it, and religion is out of the question.
15
If we rightly comprehend Mr. Emerson's views of God, he admits no God but the laws of the soul's perfection.  God is in man, not out of him.  He is in the soul as the oak is in the acorn.  When man fully developes [sic.] the laws of his nature, realizes the ideal of his nature, he is not, as the Christians would say, god-like, but he is God.  The ideal of man's nature is not merely similar in all men, but identical.  When all men realize the ideal of their nature, that is, attain to the highest perfection admitted by the laws of their being, then do they all become swallowed up in the One Man.  There will then no longer be men; all diversity will be lost in unity, and there will be only One Man, and that one man will be God.  But what and where is God now?  Before all men have realized [509] the ideal of their nature, and become swallowed up in the One Man, is there really and actually a God?  Is there any God but the God Osiris, torn into pieces and scattered up and down through all the earth, which pieces, scattered parts, the weeping Isis must go forth seeking everywhere, and find not without labor and difficulty?  Can we be said to have at present anything more than the disjected members of a God, the mere embryo fragments of a God, one day to come forth into the light, to be gathered up that nothing be lost, and finally moulded into one complete and rounded God?  So it seems to us, and we confess, therefore, that we can affix no definite meaning to the religious language which Mr. Emerson uses so freely.
16
Furthermore, we cannot join Mr. Emerson in his worship to the soul.  We are disposed to go far in our estimate of the soul's divine capacities; we believe it was created in the image of God, and may bear his moral likeness; but we cannot so exalt it as to call it God.  Nor can we take its ideal of its own perfection as God.  The soul's conception of God is not God, and if there be no God out of the soul, out of the me, to answer the soul's conception, then is there no God.  God as we conceive him is independent on us, and is in no sense affected by our conceptions of him.  He is in us, but not us.  He dwells in the hearts of the humble and contrite ones, and yet the heaven of heavens cannot contain him.  He is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.  He is above all, the cause and sustainer of all that is, in whom we live and move and have our being.  Him we worship, and only him.  We dare not worship merely our own soul.  Alas, we know our weakness; we feel our sinfulness; we are oppressed with a sense of our unworthiness, and we cannot so sport with the solemnities of religious worship, as to direct them to ourselves, or to anything which does not transcend our own being.
17
Yet this worship of the soul is part and parcel of the transcendental egotism of which we spoke in commenting [510] on Mr. Emerson's moral doctrines.  He and his masters, Carlyle and Goethe, make the individual soul everything, the centre of the universe, for whom all exists that does exist; and why then should it not be the supreme object of their affections?  Soul-worship, which is only another name for self-worship, or the worship of self, is the necessary consequence of their system, a system well described by Pope in his Essay on Man:
"Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use?  Pride answers, ' 'T is for mine:

For me, kind nature wakes her genial power,

Suckles each herb, and spreads out every flower;

Annual for me, the grape, the rose, renew

The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew;

For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings;

For me, health gushes from a thousand springs:

Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;

My footstool earth, my canopy the skies.'"
To which we may add,
"While man exclaims, 'See all things for my use!'
'See man for mine!' replies a pampered goose:

And just as short of reason he must fall

Who thinks all made for one, not one for all."
18
Mr. Emerson has much to say against preaching a traditional Christ, against preaching what he call historical Christianity.  So far as his object in this is to draw men's mind off from an exclusive attention to the "letter," and to fix them on "the spirit," to prevent them from relying for the matter and evidence of their faith on merely historical documents, and to induce them to reproduce the gospel histories in their own souls, he is not only not censurable but praiseworthy.  He is doing a service to the Christian cause.  Christianity may be found in the human soul, and reproduced in human experience now, as well as in the days of Jesus.  It is in the soul too that we must find the key to the meaning of the Gospels, and in the soul's experience that we must seek the principal evidences of their truth.
19
But if Mr. Emerson means to sever us from the [510] past, and to intimate that the Christianity of the past has ceased to have any interest for the present generation, and that the knowledge and belief of it are no longer needed for the soul's growth, for its redemption and union with God, we must own we cannot go with him.  Christianity results from the development of the laws of the human soul, but from a supernatural, not a natural, development; that is, by the aid of a power above the soul.  God has been to the human race both a father and an educator.  By a supernatural,--not an unnatural--influence, he has, as it has seemed proper to him, called forth our powers, and enabled us to see and comprehend the truths essential to our moral progress.  The records of the aid he has at different ages furnished us, and of the truths seen and comprehended at the period when the faculties of the soul were supernaturally exalted, cannot in our judgment be unessential, far less improper, to be dwelt upon by the Christian preacher.
20
Then again, we cannot dispense with Jesus Christ.  As much as some may wish to get rid of him, or to change or improve his character, the world needs him, and needs him in precisely the character in which the Gospels present him.  His is the only name whereby men can be saved.  He is the father of the modern world, and his is the life we now live, so far as we live any life at all.  Shall we then crowd him away with the old bards and seers, and regard him and them merely as we do the authors of some old ballads which charmed our forefathers, but which may not be sung in a modern drawing-room?  Has his example lost its power, his life its quickening influence, his doctrine its truth?  Have we outgrown him as a teacher?
21
In the Gospels, we find the solution of the great problem of man's destiny; and, what is more to our purpose, we find there the middle term by which the creature is connected with the Creator.  Man is at an infinite distance from God; and he cannot by his own strength approach God, and become one with him. [512]  We cannot see God; we cannot know him; no man hath seen the Father at any time, and no man knoweth the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son reveals him.  We approach God only through a mediator; we see and know only the Word, which is the mediator between God and men.  Does Mr. Emerson mean that the record we have of this Word in the Bible, of this Word, which was made flesh, incarnated in the man Jesus, and dwelt among men and disclosed the grace and truth with which it overflowed, is of no use now in the church, nay, that it is a let and a hindrance?  We want that record, which is to us as the testimony of the race, to corroborate the witness within us.  One witness is not enough.  We have one witness within us, an important witness, too seldom examined; but as important as he is, he is not alone sufficient.  We must back up his individual testimony with that of the race.  In the Gospel records we have the testimony borne by the race to the great truths it most concerns us to know.  That testimony, the testimony of history, in conjunction with our own individual experience, gives us all the certainty we ask, and furnishes us a solid ground for an unwavering and active faith.  As in philosophy, we demand history as well as psychology, so in theology we ask the historical Christ as well as the psychological Christ.  The church in general has erred by giving us only the historical Christ; but let us not now err, by preaching only a psychological Christ.
22
In dismissing this address, we can only say that we have spoken of it freely, but with no improper feeling to its author.  We love bold speculation; we are pleased to find a man who dares tell us what and precisely what he thinks, however unpopular his views may be.  We have no disposition to check his utterance, by giving his views a bad name, although we deem them unsound.  We love progress, and progress cannot be effected without freedom.  Still we wish to see certain sobriety, a certain reserve in all speculations, something like timidity about rushing off into [513] an unknown universe, and some little regret in departing from the faith of our fathers.
23
Nevertheless, let not the tenor of our remarks be mistaken.  Mr. Emerson is the last man in the world we should suspect of conscious hostility to religion and morality.  No one can know him or read his productions without feeling a profound respect for the singular purity and uprightness of his character and motives.  The great object he is laboring to accomplish is one in which he should receive the hearty cooperation of every American scholar, of every friend of truth, freedom, piety, and virtue.  Whatever may be the character of his speculations, whatever may be the moral, philosophical, or theological system which forms the basis of his speculations, his real object is not the inculcation of any new theory on man, nature, or God; but to induce men to think for themselves on all subjects, and to speak from their own full hearts and earnest convictions.  His object is to make men scorn to be slaves to routine, to custom, to established creeds, to public opinion, to the great names of this age, of this country, or of any other.  He cannot bear the idea that a man comes into the world to-day with the field of truth monopolized and foreclosed.  To every man lies open the whole field of truth, in morals, in politics, in science, in theology, in philosophy.  The labors of past ages, the revelations of prophets and bards, the discoveries of the scientific and the philosophic, are not to be regarded as superseding our own exertions and inquiries, as impediments to the free action of our own minds, but merely as helps, as provocations to the freest and fullest spiritual action of which God has made us capable.
24
This is the real end he has in view, and it is a good end.  To call forth the free spirit, to produce the conviction here implied, to provoke men to be men, self-moving, self-subsisting men, not mere puppets, moving but as moved by the reigning mode, the reigning dogma, the reigning school, is a grand and praiseworthy work, and we should reverence and aid, not [514] abuse and hinder him who gives himself up soul and body to its accomplishment.  So far as the author of the address before us is true to this object, earnest in executing this work, he has our hearty sympathy, and all the aid we, in our humble sphere, can give him.  In laboring for this object, he proves himself worthy of his age and his country, true to religion and to morals.  In calling, as he does, upon the literary men of our community, in the silver tones of his rich and eloquent voice, and above all by the quickening influence of his example, to assert and maintain their independence throughout the whole domain of thought, against every species of tyranny that would encroach upon it, he is doing his duty; he is doing a work the effects of which will be felt for good far and wide, long after men shall have forgotten the puerility of his conceits, the affectations of his style, and the unphilosophical character of his speculations.  The doctrines he puts forth, the positive instructions, for which he is now censured, will soon be classed where they belong: but the influence of his free spirit, and free utterance, the literature of this country will long feel and hold in grateful remembrance.

Source: Boston Quarterly Review I (Oct. 1838), 500-514. Paragraph numbers have been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets.

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