Review of R. W. Emerson's "Divinity School Address"
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.
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  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.
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
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.
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 
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.
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." 
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"?
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  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.
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.
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,  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?
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."
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,  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.
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. 
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."
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  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.
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  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.
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.
Yet this worship
of the soul is part and parcel of the transcendental egotism of which
we spoke in commenting  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:
for what end the heavenly bodies shine,
To which we may add,
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.'"
man exclaims, 'See all things for my use!'
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.
But if Mr. Emerson
means to sever us from the  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.
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?
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.  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.
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  an unknown universe, and some little regret in departing
from the faith of our fathers.
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.
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
 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.
'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."
Quarterly Review I (Oct. 1838), 500-514. Paragraph numbers have
been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets.