The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and social aims [Vol. 8]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882., Emerson, Edward Waldo, 1844-1930.


This essay is drawn largely from the concluding lecture of a course given at the Meionaon in Boston in the autumn of 1868. "Greatness" is a heading which occurs through the journals from 1840 onward, but of course the thoughts on this subject were drawn upon for many lectures that had not the name.

Page  430 In July, 1872, Mr. Emerson spoke at Amherst College on the Greatness of the Scholar, and probably somewhat earlier at Middlebury College, Vermont, on the same theme. The essays on The Scholar, The Man of Letters, Aristocracy and Manners very probably have matter drawn from the lectures on Greatness, and that here given is only a portion of the lecture as delivered.

Page 301, note 1. "The moment a great man fails us as a cause, it is only to become more valuable and suggestive as an effect."

Page 302, note 1. Journal, 1857: "Every great man does in all his nature point at and imply the well-being of all the institutions and orders of the state. He is by inclination (though it may be far remote in position) the defender of the grammar-schools, the almshouse, the Sabbath, the priest, the judge, the legislator and the executive arm. Throughout his being he is loyal."

Page 303, note 1. The following passage in the lecture is here omitted:—

"The main question of any person whatever is, 'Does he respect himself?' Then I have no option. The universe will respect him. Greatness requires self-respect and it must be constitutional, indicating natural courage."

The sentence which follows in the text suggests the stoic attitude of his friend Thoreau.

Page 304, note 1. In the lecture this sentence and quotation followed: "Thus self-respect is ever refining, ever retreating to an inward and higher self.

"'O what is Honor? 'T is the finest sense
Of justice that the human mind can frame,
Intent each lurking frailty to disclaim
Page  431 And guard the way of life from all offence
Suffered or done.'"


Page 308, note 1. Mr. Emerson's journals were mainly records of the oracles which came to his listening ear in his wood walks, and thoughts which the events and conversation of the day had suggested, but the outward circumstances usually have to be inferred.

Page 310, note 1. These were the words of Miss Mary Rotch of New Bedford, and they made deep impression on Mr. Emerson, when in 1834 he was invited to preach for a time in that city. His cousin, the Rev. David Greene Haskins, relates in his little book, before referred to, that when Mr. Emerson praised Swedenborg's writings to him he asked whether he was a Swedenborgian. This Mr. Emerson would not fully allow. "On my asking him how, then, he would define his position, he answered, and with greater deliberateness and longer pauses between his words than usual, 'I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the "still small voice" and that voice is Christ within us.'" This was probably in the year 1839.

Page 311, note 1. In the last pages of the essay on New England Reformers, in the second volume of Essays, Mr. Emerson wrote of "the Law alive and beautiful which works over our heads and under our feet. … 'Work,' it saith to man, 'in every hour, paid or unpaid, see only that thou work, and thou canst not escape the reward: whether thy work be fine or coarse, planting corn or writing epics, so only it be honest work, done to thine own approbation, it shall earn a reward to the senses as well as to the thought: no matter how often defeated, you are born to victory. The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.'".

Page  432

Page 312, note 1. Journal: "Do you, as wise man, while some play at chess, some at cards, and some at the stock exchange—do you play at Cause and Effect."

Page 312, note 2. This sentence followed in the lecture: "The man whom we have not seen is the rapt lover in whom no regards of self degraded the adorer of the laws."

The paragraph in the text is treated more fully in "Aristocracy," in Lectures and Biographical Sketches.

The following is from the lecture sheets:—

"The persons generally most praised and esteemed are not those whom I most value; for the world is not receptive or intelligent of Being, but of Intellect. But heroes are they who value being. Being cannot be told, but is left alone, not only because little appreciated, but that its influence is silent and quiet. The world is awed before the great and is subdued without knowing why."

Page 313, note 1. "Whenever Heaven sends a great man into the world, it whispers the secret to one or two confidants."—Lecture sheets.

Page 313, note 2. When it is remembered that the Self-Reliance which Mr. Emerson taught is on the sublimated self, the individual giving passage to the universal Soul, it is seen that both positions, the haughty courage of the hero and the renunciation of all choice by the saint, are one. Each loses himself to save himself.

Page 314, note 1. This sentence followed in the lecture: "Does any one say, Who cares for these conceited minorities?—the study of greatness! of the masters! the great are exceptional. Yes, but every man is exceptional."

Page 317, note 1. This passage appears somewhat differently in the journal of 1864:—

"The Spectator says of the three obituary notices of Thackeray Page  433 by Dickens, Trollope and Kingsley, only Dickens's is equal to the subject; the others strain to write up, and fail. It was said lately of Goethe's correspondence with the Duke of Weimar that the Duke's letters are the best. The experience is familiar day by day, that of two persons, one of character and one of intellect, character will rule and intellect must bow. It is interesting in Goethe's case because of his patronizing tone to all the world."

Page 320, note 1. Here, perhaps, belongs a sheet from the lecture: "The first fact is the long hidden one, that the world is as we are. If we bring to it a sound body and mind, it is full of joy and power, and is plastic like wax in our hands; if we come to it morbid and vicious, it torments and tyrannizes over us."

Page 320, note 2. The human and hopeful feeling towards mankind appears here:—

"I wish such statements only as are friendly and respectful to every man. Every law, custom, revolution is agreeable to me which treats him kindly and considerately. I wish him magnified. Let ages and nations look to their own. Every age has its object and symbol. So has every man. Why not then every epoch of our life its own; and a man should journey thro' his own Zodiac of signs. I wish the days to be great."

The following sheets, which once did duty in the lecture "Success," may be added here:—

"For events are, not as the brute circumstance that falls, but as the life which they fall upon. The atoms of matter are plastic enough, for they are of us and we of them, and carbon and azote, mountain and planet, play one tune with man and mind.

"Why we can reach so far to the planets and sun with our short arms, is because we have a pocket edition of the whole. Page  434 Your brain is timed with the sea-tide, has agreements with the sun.

"Understanding and love are the powers of a reasonable creature; and the last exists to be communicated; and is the only thing that is really in our power to bestow; and is moreover the noblest good that can be given; and deserves the greatest retribution that can be made. And our principal care must be to confer it wisely or well,—to confer it only on that which deserves it all, and can repay it. We thought we were equals of Jove, when we learned to be Stoics; but here is a new greatness. The passages of affection in life are an enlargement once for all. Nobility lies under it. It is an exchange of nobleness. We are easily great with our friend. In unlocking to us another heart and mind, it unlocks our own heart and mind in a wonderful manner."