Dec 1, 1975
The Gospel of Emerson
“Here is the very essence of the great philosopher’s thinking, condensed, refined, and easy to read. And enlightening!”
A bit of background may help account for my favorable review of this remarkable book. Sometime ago, an English friend, one of the most scholarly and brilliant men of my wide acquaintance, startled me with, “Leonard, you are the most religious person I have ever known.” Nonplussed, indeed, for I have always thought of myself as rather far down the line in this phase of life. I did not know what he was driving at. Later, my friend asked who were my favorite philosophers. I gave him several names beginning with Emerson. His response, “I now know why I think of you as so religious.”
No subject has had more reflection than religion and none has produced a greater diversity of conclusions. These range all the way from the findings of Himalayan yogis to Augustine’s Confessions. And the explorers have ranged from lowly fishermen of Galilee to the greatest minds of all times, from small fry to, big shots, from so-called commoners to the acclaimed elite, from the likes of me to popes. And among them all, I have never come upon one more spiritual and religious than the notable and quotable Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Now to my point. The thoughts of this earthly hero of mine did not fit into any of our numerous orthodoxies. Religion to him was a growing, evolutionary, evolving phase of the individual human spirit. He rejected any and all “that-is-it” propositions. Here is an abbreviation of this phase of his gospel:
Thou shalt not profess that which thou dost not believe.
Thou shalt not heed the voice of men when it agrees not with the voice of God in thine own soul.
Thou shalt study and obey the laws of the Universe, and they will be thy fellow servants.
Nature shall be to thee as a symbol. The life of the soul in constant union with the Infinite shall be for thee the only real existence.
Teach men that each generation begins the world afresh, in perfect freedom; that the present is not the prisioner of the past, but that today holds captive all the yesterdays, to judge, accept, to reject their teachings, as they are shown by its own morning sun. (Italics mine.)
A remarkable dividend paid to those who reflect on the extensive writings of Emerson is that time after time a single sentence stimulates a new and enlarged world of thought. Here is an example, followed by what it inspired me to write:
I cannot find language of sufficient, energy to convey my sense of the sacredness of integrity.
Integrity is rarely mentioned or included among the virtues. The so-called cardinal virtues, as advanced in theology, are prudence, justice, fortitute, temperance. Integrity is omitted. I found, upon checking the largest of all quotation books, that integrity does not appear among the nearly 3000 headings. Indeed, so much neglected is this virtue, that one is tempted to side with Bernard Dougall: “Integrity was a word he couldn’t even spell, let alone define.” Such is the unawareness of its meaning and importance!
When it comes to listing the virtues, I know only those that are important to me. Integrity is by all means first and foremost. For the others—charity, intelligence, justice, love, and humility—I have no precise ranking. To me they are tied for second place.
At the outset, it may be helpful to draw the distinction between integrity and wisdom, for my definitions so closely parallel each other.
Integrity is an accurate reflection in word and deed of whatever one’s highest conscience dictates as right.
Wisdom is whatever one’s highest consciouness perceives as truth.
Conceded, one’s highest conscience may not in fact be right but it is as close to righteousness as one can get. Also, one’s highest consciousness may not be truth but as nearly approximates wisdom as is within one’s reach. Fallibility applies in either case!
People differ in their evaluation of Emerson’s philosophy, but all concede that his proclaimed positions, written and oral, were accurate reflections of whatever his highest conscience dictated as righteous. Never, to our knowledge, did he bend to expediency, that is, resort to deviations from conscience to gain favor or popularity with others. So rigorous were his spiritual convictions that he was at odds with the numerous religious orthodoxies and took no pains to conceal his innermost sentiments. Attuned to his conscience, he stood ramrod straight. As this rare posture is sometimes phrased, he sought approval from God, not men. Integrity!
Yet, Emerson, conscious of the sacredness of integrity, could find no words energetic enough to convey his sense of its importance. In the light of his genius as a thinker and a phraser of ideas, why his confessed inability to handle this concept? Why could he not explain the meaning of integrity to others?
As I see it, the answer lies in one of his own words: the sacredness of integrity. This virtue is in a moral and spiritual realm so far above normal experience that we possess no words to portray its meaning. It borders on the Infinite and, thus, is beyond our working vocabulary. This explains why it is so seldom included among the virtues. For these reasons, I am convinced that integrity cannot be taught; at best, it can only be caught. And, then, only by those who devoutly wish to be so graced!
Such integrity as I possess was caught, not taught. Fortunately, I came upon a high-ranking business executive who was no less an exemplar of this virtue than Emerson. Never in the many years of our intimate acquaintance have I observed him giving ground to expediency—conscience always in the driver’s seat! The question is, why did his exemplarity impress itself more upon me than upon others who also knew him well? Perhaps this cannot be answered. True, this unusual trait in him excited my admiration. But why me, of all his friends? Who knows!
Here is a possible explanation. Having had but little formal schooling, and always conscious of not knowing much, I resolved, some forty-five years ago, to associate myself with individuals from whom I might learn—superior persons. Parenthetically, these are not difficult to find and almost without exception are pleased to be so regarded. In any event, I was aware of an enormous unknown and, at the same time, eager to learn. In this state of mind one goes in search of that which is generally not known. Does such openness, perhaps, account for my coming upon this remarkable man and his integrity? All that I can specifically identify is a state of mind best described as wanting-to-know-it-ness. Would extensive formal schooling have lessened this? Again, who knows! The fortunate chain of events is shrouded in mysterious forces I do not understand.
Mysterious indeed is the way of life of anyone guided by integrrity. There comes to mind a recent day at the office. Whether in conversations across the desk, or over the phone, or in replies to letters, the answers were invariable No! Why? Every proposal was at odds with what I believed to be right, that is, contrary to the dictates of conscience. Thank heaven, that day was exceptional; happily, many questions can be answered yes. Nonetheless, integrity must rule the word, the deed, the action. This is the law of righteousness.
The temptation—sometimes close to overwhelming—is to gain the approval of some prestigious individual by saying yes when a no is right. In resisting this temptation, what is required? We must learn how to say no without giving offense, in a word, rise above cantankerousness. This art, if achieved, is highly rewarding, one that upgrades the intellect and the soul. It has its genesis in the practice of integrity.
Unless integrity is weighted and found worthy, the common conviction is that its practice would leave one a loner, an “odd ball” whose actions would drive friends away. The very opposite is the case; integity has a magnetic effect; it attracts others Why? The practitioners of this virtue can be trusted, and trust has drawing power, as daily experiences attest.
Years ago, when the attractiveness of adhering strictly to conscience was more of a new idea to me, I was invited to spend an evening with a dozen of the country’s leading businessmen. The subject for discussion had to do with the so-called Full Employment Act, then before the Congress. Most of the talk favored the tactic of opposing the measure by subterfuge, dealing under the table, so to speak—repulsive to me. When finally asked for my view, I hesitated a moment. To tell them exactly what I thought would do me in, damage my career, or so I imagined. But I told them! Never have I had a more rewarding experience. From that day forward those twelve were devoted friends, inviting me to counsel time after time. Why? Integrity!
An aside: While it is not dangerous to be honest, this does not mean that one must necessarily divulge all of his innermost thoughts. Many doubtless deserve further incubation. But once a position is taken and expressed, let there be in it no deviation from conscience.
Imagine the citizens of this nation practicing what their highest conscience dictates as right. No man could ever be elevated to public office except as he exemplifies integrity. Think what a change this would make in the national scene. Only statesmen; never a charlatan!
And who among us is truly educable in the higher realms of thought? Only people of integrity! The person who pays no heed to conscience is forever the victim of expediences; he is governed by fickle opinions, pressures, mass sentiments, a desire for momentary acclaim. Wisdom—whatever one’s highest consciousness perceives as truth—is out of range simply because integrity—whatever on’s highest conscience dictates as right—is not observed.
As if the above were not reason enough to strive for integrity! However, by far the most important reason remains: its sacredness. Though new to me, I now discover that this idea was perceived nearly 2000 years ago:
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.—Matthew 6:22
In other words, the light of the body is truth, wisdom, enlightenment. The eye is perception. And what is the meaning of “if thine eye be single”? Refer to Webster for the definition of “single” as here used: “Not deceitful or artful, simple, honest, sincere.” Shakespeare used the word in this same sense: “I speak with a single heart.”
Single, in this sense, is directly linked with integer, meaning “Whole, entire, not divided.” Contrasted to single is double, which has the same original root as the word duplicity. Such phrases as “double dealing,” and “double talk” convey this connotation. Integrity is related to integer; andsingle as used here, refers to integrity.
Phrased in modern idiom, Matthew’s insight would read as follows:
Enlightenment of the intellect and spirit of man depends on his powers of perception. If these powers be free from duplicity, that is, if they be grounded in pure integrity, man will be as much graced with enlightenment—wisdom—as is within his capability.
Whatever the mysterious Universal Power—the radiant energy that flows through all life—it is blocked, cut off, stifled by duplicity in any of its forms. Expediency, lying, double talk, and the like are ferments of the soul through which Universal Power does not and cannot flow. (“A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”—James 1:8)
Only in integrity—when the “eye be single”—do the powers of perception grow, evolve, emerge, hatch. Then the “whole body shall be full of light.” Then, and only then, are such virtues as charity, intelligence, justice, love, humility within our reach.
Finally, if we believe that we should not do unto others that which we would not have them do unto us—a concern for others as well as self—we have one more among all the compelling reasons why we should strive first and foremost for integrity. Shakespeare put it well:
To thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Imagine that single sentence of Emerson inspiring me to recognize for the first time the meaning of truths gleaned by the ancients! A light shines through to those who study Emerson’s works. Is it any wonder that I pay homage to one of the distinguished seers of all time!
Here is one of my favorite thoughts from Emerson’s mind and pen, one that relates to an explanation already made:
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence. To discern truth, to discern justice, we do nothing of ourselves but allow a passage of its beams.
But how do we allow? The answer is given above: the sacredness of integrity. Let there be no ferments of the soul, no addiction to past errors but only an ascension toward truths yet unknown; harmonize with the Cosmic Scheme, the eternal creative process.
Let me now cite a few of the ever so many Emersonian thoughts included in Dillaway’s book, any one of which inspires an awakening, no less mind-opening, than this single sentence on integrity.
There is a principle which is the basis of things, which all speech aims to say, and all action to evolve, a simple, quiet, undescribed, undescribable presence, dwelling very peacefully in us, our rightful lord: we are not to do, but to let do; not to work, but to be worked, upon….
To be worked upon! The meaning? Do not try to work over others to remake them in one’s own image; to the contrary,seek and harmonize with the Divine Light—let it work on the evolution of self. Resolve: I shall not try to make you like unto me; rather. I shall try as best I can, to make me like Thee!
Reflect on this wisdom:
No truth is: so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.
They who wish to be settled and succeed are but sediment. Stagnated, they fail to grow! As someone phrased it, “One does not grow old; one becomes old when he fails to grow.”
Read the passage below and reflect on how profound is the thought and, also, how ingenious and enlightening is the phrasing:
Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.
Aldous Huxley illustrates this truth in Grey Eminence. Father Joseph, the guiding brain of Cardinal Richelieu, leading minister of Louis XIII, had as his end The Glory of God. His means? The political ascendency of France! The result? At least 30 million people in Central Europe were slaughtered.
An end achieved by evil means will wind up rotten, regardless of how exalted the intention—though the evil might not be obvious until years or decades later. “The effect already blooms in the cause.” Thus, for the good life, look to the goodness of the means; if you would have good fruit, plant only good seeds! Here is another among countless gems:
What will you have? quoth God; pay for it and take it. Nothing venture, nothing have. Thou shalt be paid exactly for what thou hast done, no more, no less.
Do wrong and the cost cannot be avoided; do right and be recompensed accordingly. This is the law of compensation—of action and reaction. Wrote our philospher, “An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole as spirit, matter; man, woman; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay…. The same dualism underlies the nature and the condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect, an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.” How explain? “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor…. A great man is always willing to be little.”
And yet another! This one squares perfectly with growth in awareness, perception, consciousness, the love of liberty, and the free market philosophy:
Be content with a little light, so it be your own. Explore, and explore and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize, nor accept another’s dogmatism…. Truth… has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself. necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread.
Emerson had a foresight no less remarkable than his insight. The above was written when the American economy was but a fraction as specialized as in our day. Meaning what? The greater the division of labor—the more specialized—the further removed is each individual from self-sufficiency. Today, far more than in Emerson’s era, we are dependent upon the free, uninhibited exchanges of our countless specializations. How can I—or anyone else—who produces only a tiny speck of our “roof, and bed, and board” manage to survive, let alone thrive, as we do? “Explore, and explore,” which is to say, develop one’s uniqueness—make the self “necessary to the world,” be it economically, intellectually, morally, spiritually.
What is the free market philosophy if rightly understood? “Thou shalt be paid exactly what thou hast done, no more, no less.” Is payment always in money? Perish the careless thought! The most richly endowed individuals who have graced this world of ours have lived their lives in what we would call rags. Payment may well be “a little light.” Personally, I would much prefer to be endowed with the foresight and insight of Ralph Waldo Emerson than with all the money in the world’s largest bank.
Few, indeed, are the persons who have read all the works of Emerson—far too voluminous for most of us. And few ever will! However, Newton Dillaway was an exception, spending many years in the preparation of The Gospel of Emerson—only 128 pages.
I have read several of Emerson’s tomes and, thus, have a valid reason for this conclusion: Here is the very essence of the great philosopher’s thinking, condensed, refined, and easy to read. And enlightening! Reviewed by Leonard E. Read / Philosophy / Unity Books, 1968 / $2.95