Emerson II

Another brief quote from the master, whose worth I have sadly begun to doubt.

The temperance of the hero proceeds from the same wish to do no dishonor to the worthiness he has. But he loves it for its elegancy, not for its austerity. It seems not worth his while to be solemn, and denounce with bitterness flesh-eating or wine-drinking, the use of tobacco, or opium, or tea, or silk, or gold. A great man scarcely knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision, his living is natural and poetic. John Eliot, the Indian Apostle, drank water, and said of wine, — “It is a noble, generous liquor, and we should be humbly thankful for it, but, as I remember, water was made before it.” Better still is the temperance of King David, who poured out on the ground unto the Lord the water which three of his warriors had brought him to drink, at the peril of their lives.
It is told of Brutus, that when he fell on his sword, after the battle of Philippi, he quoted a line of Euripides, — “O virtue! I have followed thee through life, and I find thee at last but a shade.” I doubt not the hero is slandered by this report. The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely, and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. Poverty is its ornament. It does not need plenty, and can very well abide its loss.
But that which takes my fancy most, in the heroic class, is the good-humor and hilarity they exhibit. It is a height to which common duty can very well attain, to suffer and to dare with solemnity. But these rare souls set opinion, success, and life, at so cheap a rate, that they will not soothe their enemies by petitions, or the show of sorrow, but wear their own habitual greatness. Scipio, charged with peculation, refuses to do himself so great a disgrace as to wait for justification, though he had the scroll of his accounts in his hands, but tears it to pieces before the tribunes. Socrates’s condemnation of himself to be maintained in all honor in the Prytaneum, during his life, and Sir Thomas More’s playfulness at the scaffold, are of the same strain. In Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Sea Voyage,” Juletta tells the stout captain and his company, –
_Jul_. Why, slaves, ‘t is in our power to hang ye. _Master_. Very likely, ‘T is in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye.”
These replies are sound and whole. Sport is the bloom and glow of a perfect health. The great will not condescend to take any thing seriously; all must be as gay as the song of a canary, though it were the building of cities, or the eradication of old and foolish churches and nations, which have cumbered the earth long thousands of years. Simple hearts put all the history and customs of this world behind them, and play their own game in innocent defiance of the Blue-Laws of the world; and such would appear, could we see the human race assembled in vision, like little children frolicking together; though, to the eyes of mankind at large, they wear a stately and solemn garb of works and influences.

Far be it from me to criticize the words of my betters… so I’ll be very brief about it… When I read this it stirs a feeling of valor, but those feelings do not seem genuine. Funny – I’m reminded reading this of those modern talkers who are sometimes referred to mockingly as glibertarians. It sounds pretty but it doesn’t line up with my own self-appraisal or my appraisal of the best I know in other people. I’m being to hard. I shouldn’t say that it doesn’t line up – I should say that I don’t see it lining up in any kind of clear way. The impulse is there and it seems a fine one. But it relates to real life only in a partial and hazy way.

Earlier I said I don’t know if Emerson’s Grand is true or not. And I got corrected that there is an element of the grand in life. And I agree that there is. But I think it’s a kind of grand that lacks constancy, lacks regularity, and lacks heroism. It’s a grand of muddling through the best you can, take or create, and to savor, the best moments the best you can, and learning to take the worst ones without constant suffering – if you are able. And, I guess more than anything… that if there’s anything from Emerson’s experience that helps us see or experience grandeur, it’s only the happy accident that he walked a few of the same steps we have to…. not that he had anything special really figured out. He can make us glad that one time a slave laughed at his executioner – but he can’t tell us what to do between the time we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night that will give us that same character. He can’t even promise us that this is really the best character to have. Did the slave that cringed and wept and was left out of the noble story really live an inferior life than the one who laughed and was immortalized in flowery words? Or did he cringe and weep because he felt more to lose from the executioner?

I guess I’m just saying that for me, the clarity is gone from Emerson… And that’s probably good. I’d rather have the confusion of honestly not knowing than a false sense of having it all figured out.

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