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Homework Assignment: Come to class having, in a written paragraph, named and defined at least two portable concepts from “Circles”
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Circles
Circles
1
Nature centres into balls,
And her proud ephemerals,
Fast to surface and outside,
Scan the profile of the sphere;
Knew they what that signified,
A new genesis were here.
is
THE EYE IN THE first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and .
throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the/
highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the
nature of God as a circle whose center was everwhere, and its circum-,
ference nowhere. 2 We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense o ‘
this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering
the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another
analogy we shall now tracej that every action admits of being outdone
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle an
other can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a be
ginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, an
Text
under every deep a lower deep opens.
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This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral facts of the Unattainable
the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet, a
once the inspirer and the condemner of every success, may convenien
serve us to connect many illustrations of human power in every d,
partment.
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volaf
Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by God, is a tran
parent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds
fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after
all this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea: th
will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had bee,
statues of ice: here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining,
we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts:
June and July. For, the genius that created it creates now somewhat el:
202
2~3
The Greek letters last a little longer, but are already passing under the
same sentence, and tumbling into the inevitable-pit which the creation
of new thought opens for all that is old. The new continents are built
out of the ruins of an old planet: the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing. New arts destroy the old. See the investment
of capital in aqueducts, made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by
gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity.
You admire his tower of granite, weathering the hurts of so many ·
ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds,
is better than that which is built. The hand that built, can tear it down
much faster. Better than the hand, and nimbler, was the invisible
thought which wrought through it, and thus ever behind the coarse effect, is a fine cause, which being narrowly seen, is itself the effect of
a finer cause. 3 Everything looks permanent until its secret is known. A
rich estate appears to women and children, a firm and lasting fact; to a
merchant, one easily c_reated out of any materials, and easily lost. An orchard, good tillage, good grounds, seem a fixture, like a gold mine, or a
river, to a citizen, but to a large farmer, not much more fixed than the
state of the crop. Nature looks provokingly stable and secular, but it has
a cause like all the rest; and when once I comprehend that, Will these
fields stretch so immovably wide, these leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees. Everything is medial.
Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than bat-balls.
The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he
look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his
facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea
which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle,
which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outward to
new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this
generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force
or truth of the individual soul. For, it is the inert effort of each thought
having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance, as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite, to heap
itself on that ridge, and to solidify, and hem in the life. But if the soul is
quick and strong it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands
another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave,
with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with
a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.
Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series. Every general law
204
Circles
Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson
only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose it- ‘I
self. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The {j
man finishes his story-how good! how final! how it puts a new face on J’
all things! He fills the sky. Lo, on the other side, rises also a man, and)l
draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of 1;
the sphere. Then already is our first speaker, not man, but only a first/
speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his an1
tagonist. And so men do by themselves. The result of to-day which;’
haunts the mind and cannot be escaped will presently be abridged into ~.
a word, and the principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be
eluded as one example of a bolder generalization. In the thought of to-;’.;
morrow there is a power to up heave all thy creed, all the creeds, all the~
,,,,
literatures of the nations, and marshal thee to a heaven which no epiC:Ji:
dream has yet depicted. Every man is not so much a workman in the:i
world, as he is a suggestion of that he should be. Men walk as prophe~ {
des of the next age.
,
Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder: the steps are actions; the.l;
new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged byj
that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is,~
only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old;)
and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism. But,~
the eye soon gets wonted to it, for the eye and it are effects of one cause;}l
then its innocency and benefit appear, and, presently, all its energy(;
spent, it pales and dwindles before the revelation of the new hour.
Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and mate-]
rial, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit? Resist it not; it goes toJ
refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much. 4
,f
There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every ),
man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any ili:
truth in him, ifhe rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be,)ll
otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was nevet, i
opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is,8
every man believes that he has a greater possibility.
‘.1
Our moods do ~ot believe in each other. To-day, I am full of:j
thoughts, and can wnte what I please. I see no reason why I should not
have the same thought, the same power of expression to-morrow. What
I write, while I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but, }
yesterday, I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so j
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much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that ii
wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not(]’
I
in-< < t 205 strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall. The continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height, betrays itself in a man's relations. We thirst for approbation, yet cannot forgive the approver. The sweet of nature is love; yet if I have a friend, I am tormented by my imperfection. The love of me accuses the other party. If he were high enough to slight me, then could I love him, and rise by my affection to new heights. A man's growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends. For every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better. I thought, as I walked in the woods and mused on my friends, why should I play with them this game of idolatry? I know and see too well, when not voluntarily blind, the speedy limits of persons called high and worthy. Rich, noble, and great they are by the liberality of our speech, but truth is sad. 0 blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for these, they are not thee! Every personal consideration that we allow, costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and turbulent pleasure. How often must we learn this lesson? Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man's limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprises? has he knowledge? it boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again. Each new step we take in thought reconciles twe~ty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law. Aristotle and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. A wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes. By going one step further back in thought, discordant opinions are reconciled, by being seen to be two extremes of one principle, and we can never go so far back as to preclude a still higher vision. Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end. There is not a piece of science, but its flank may be turned to-morrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called eternal names of fame,
that may not be reviled and condemned. The very hopes of man, the
thoughts of his heart, the religion of nations, the manners and morals
of mankind, are all at the mercy of a new generalization. Generalization
is always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that
attends it.
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot
206
Circles
Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson
.’j’
have his flank turned, cannot be outgeneraled, but put him where
you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past ,.l
apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it from whatever’ft·J!
quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, i;
his christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and de- :
cease.
:
There are degrees in idealism. We learn first to play with it academically, as the magnet was once a toy. Then we see in the heyday of ·,1
youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and frag- i
ments. Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that
it must be true. It now shows itself ethical and practical. We learn that
God is; that he is in me; and that all things are shadows of him. The
idealism of Berkeley is only a crude statement of the idealism of Jesus,
and that, again, is a crude statement of the fact that all nature is the
rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself. Much more
obviously is history and the state of the world at any one time, directly
dependent on the intellectual classification then existing in the minds
of men. The things which are dear to men at this hour, are so on account of the ideas which have emerged on their mental horizon, and
which cause the present order of things as a tree bears its apples. A
new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize the entire system
of human pursuits.
Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the
termini which bound the common of silence on every side. The parties
are not to be judged by the spirit they partake and even express under.
this Pentecost.* To-morrow they will have receded from this high-water
mark. To-morrow you shall find them stooping under the old packsaddles. Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame while it glows on our walls.
When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates us from the
oppression of the last speaker, to oppress us with the greatness and exclusiveness of his own thought, then yields us to another redeemer, we
seem to recover our rights, to become men. 0 what truths profound
and executable only in ages and orbs, are supposed in the announcement of every truth! In common hours, society sits cold and statuesque.
We all stand waiting, empty-knowing, possibly, that we can be full,
surrounded by mighty symbols which are not symbols to us, but prose
and trivial toys. Then cometh the god, and converts the statues into
fiery men, and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil which shrouded all
J
*Term given to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, in the Bible, Acts 2.
207
things, and the meaning of the very furniture, of cup and saucer, of
chair and clock and tester,* is manifest. The facts which loomed so large
in the fogs of yesterday-property, climate, breeding, personal beauty,
and the like, have strangely changed their proportions. All that we n;ckoned settled, shakes now and rattles; and literatures, cities, climates, religions, leave their foundations, and dance before our eyes. And yet here
again see the swift circumscription. Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it. The length of the discourse indicates the distance of
thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one
in all parts, no words would be suffered.
Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal t circle, through which
a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase
by which we may move it. We fill ourselves with ancient learning; install
ourselves the best we can in Greek, in Punic, in Roman houses, only that
we may wiselier see French, English, and American houses and modes
of living.* In like manner we see literature best from the midst of wild
nature, or from the din of affairs, or from a high religion. The field cannot be well seen from within the field. The astronomer must have his
diameter of the earth’s orbit, as a base to find the parallax of any star.
Therefore, we value the poet. All the argument, and all the wisdom,
is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body
of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to
repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power
of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Ariosto, filled with the new
wine of his imagination, writes me an ode, or a brisk romance, full of
daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill
tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my
own possibilities. He claps wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber
of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in
theory and practice.
We have the same need to command a view of the religion of the
world. We can never see Christianity from the catechism-from the
pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amid the songs of wood-birds,
*Canopy, as over a bed.
tOfor belonging to the present day.
:j:That is, we study ancient culture and history (Greek, Punic, Roman) in order to
better understand our own via the contrast.

208
Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson
we possibly may. Cleansed by the elemental light and wind, steeped in
the sea of beautiful forms which the field offers us, we may chance to
cast a right glance back upon biography. Christianity is rightly dear to
the best of mankind; yet was there never a young philosopher whose j
breeding had fallen into the Christian Church, by whom that brave text
of Paul’s was not specially prized, “Then shall also the Son be subject
unto him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all:’* Let
the claims and virtues of persons be never so great and welcome, the instinct of man presses eagerly onward to the impersonal and illimitable,
and gladly arms itself against the dogmatism of bigots with this generous word out of the book itself.
The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric cir- ;l
des, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which
apprize us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but slid- ;j
ing. These manifold tenacious qualities, this chemistry and vegetation, )
these metals and animals, which seem to stand there for their own sake,
are means and methods only, are words of God, and as fugitive as other
words. Has the naturalist or chemist learned his craft, who has explored
the gravity of atoms and the elective affinities, who has not yet discerned the deeper law whereof this is only a partial or approximate
statement, namely, that like draws to like; and that the goods which belong to you, gravitate to you, and need not be pursued with pains and
cost? Yet is that statement approximate also, and not final. Omnipresence is a higher fact. Not through subtle, subterranean channels need
friend and fact be drawn to their counterpart, but, rightly considered,
these things proceed from the eternal generation of the soul. Cause and
effect are two sides of one fact.
The same law of eternal procession ranges all that we call the virtues, .~
and extinguishes each in the light of a better. The great man will not be J
prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduc- ‘/4
tion from his grandeur. But it behooves each to see when he sacrifices ,fi
prudence, to what god he devotes it; if to ease and pleasure, he had bet- ‘
ter be prudent still: if to a great trust, he can well spare his mule and
panniers, who has a winged chariot instead. Geoffrey draws on his
boots to go through the wood, that his feet may be safer from the bite
of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such a peril. In many years, neither is’
harmed by such an accident. Yet it seems to me that with every precaution you take against such an evil, you put yourself into the power of the
*Near quotation from the Bible, I Corinthians 15:28.
Circles
209
evil. I suppose that the highest prudence is the lowest prudence. Is this
too sudden a rushing from the center to the verge of our orbit? Think
how many times we shall fall back into pitiful calculations before we
take up our rest in the great sentiment, or make the verge of to-day the
new center. Besides, your bravest sentiment is familiar to the humblest
men. The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of
philosophy as well as you. “Blessed be nothing;’ and “the worse things
are, the better they are;’ are the proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.
One man’s justice is another’s injustice; one man’s beauty, another’s
ugliness; one man’s wisdom, another’s folly, as one beholds the same
objects from a higher point of view. One man thinks justice consists in
paying debts, and has no measure in his abhorrence of another who is
very remiss in this duty, and makes the creditor wait tediously. But that
second man has his own way of looking at things; asks himself, which
debt must I pay first, the debt to the rich, or the debt to the poor? the
debt of money, or the debt of thought to mankind, of genius to nature?
For you, 0 broker, there is no other principle but arithmetic. For me,
commerce is of trivial import; love, faith, truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can I detach one duty, like you, from
all other duties, …
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