Circles
Ralph Waldo Emerson


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.

Circles

The eye is 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 centre was
everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime
reading the copious sense of 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 trace;
that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an
apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be
drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning;
that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every
deep a lower deep opens.

This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral fact of the
Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can
never meet, at once the inspirer and the condemner of every success,
may conveniently serve us to connect many illustrations of human
power in every department.

There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and
volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by
God is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the
fact and holds it fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea
which draws after it this train of cities and institutions. Let us
rise into another idea: they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is
all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a
solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of
snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts, in June and July. For
the genius that created it creates now somewhat else. 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 this 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 topple 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. Every thing looks
permanent until its secret is known. A rich estate appears to women
a firm and lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created 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. Every thing 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 outwards 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 only a particular fact of some more general law presently
to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no
circumference to us. The man finishes his story, -- how good! how
final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo!
on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the
circle we had just pronounced the outline of 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 antagonist.
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
included as one example of a bolder generalization. In the thought
of to-morrow there is a power to upheave all thy creed, all the
creeds, all the literatures, of the nations, and marshal thee to a
heaven which no epic dream has yet depicted. Every man is not so
much a workman in the world, as he is a suggestion of that he should
be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age.

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder: the steps are
actions; the new prospect is power. Every several result is
threatened and judged by 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; 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
material, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit? Resist it
not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much.

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 truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see
not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he
must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown,
unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater
possibility.

Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of
thoughts, and can write 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, whilst 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 much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall
wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this
infirm faith, this will not 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
imperfections. 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. O blessed Spirit,
whom I forsake for these, they are not thou! 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 enterprise? 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 twenty 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 farther 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 revised 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 have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him
where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth
to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it,
from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his
relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be
superseded and decease.

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 youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in
gleams and fragments. 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 pack-saddles. Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst 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.
O, 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 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 reckoned
settled shakes and rattles; and literatures, cities, climates,
religions, leave their foundations, and dance before our eyes. And
yet here again see the swift circumspection! 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 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 encyclopaedia, 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 amidst the songs of
wood-birds, 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 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
circles, 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 sliding. 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 prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will
be so much deduction from his grandeur. But it behooves each to see,
when he sacrifices prudence, to what god he devotes it; if to ease
and pleasure, he had better 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 woods, 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 evil. I suppose that
the highest prudence is the lowest prudence. Is this too sudden a
rushing from the centre 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
centre. 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 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. 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, O 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,
and concentrate my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys. Let
me live onward; you shall find that, though slower, the progress of
my character will liquidate all these debts without injustice to
higher claims. If a man should dedicate himself to the payment of
notes, would not this be injustice? Does he owe no debt but money?
And are all claims on him to be postponed to a landlord's or a
banker's?

There is no virtue which is final; all are initial. The
virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror of reform is
the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have
always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser
vices.

"Forgive his crimes, forgive his virtues too,
Those smaller faults, half converts to the right."

It is the highest power of divine moments that they abolish our
contritions also. I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day
by day; but when these waves of God flow into me, I no longer reckon
lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievement by
what remains to me of the month or the year; for these moments confer
a sort of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of
duration, but sees that the energy of the mind is commensurate with
the work to be done, without time.

And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear some reader exclaim,
you have arrived at a fine Pyrrhonism, at an equivalence and
indifferency of all actions, and would fain teach us that, _if we are
true_, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which we
shall construct the temple of the true God!

I am not careful to justify myself. I own I am gladdened by
seeing the predominance of the saccharine principle throughout
vegetable nature, and not less by beholding in morals that
unrestrained inundation of the principle of good into every chink and
hole that selfishness has left open, yea, into selfishness and sin
itself; so that no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme
satisfactions. But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head
and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an
experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least
discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as
true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred;
none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no
Past at my back.

Yet this incessant movement and progression which all things
partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some
principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal
generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That
central life is somewhat superior to creation, superior to knowledge
and thought, and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to
create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself; but in
vain; for that which is made instructs how to make a better.

Thus there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all
things renew, germinate, and spring. Why should we import rags and
relics into the new hour? Nature abhors the old, and old age seems
the only disease; all others run into this one. We call it by many
names, -- fever, intemperance, insanity, stupidity, and crime; they
are all forms of old age; they are rest, conservatism, appropriation,
inertia, not newness, not the way onward. We grizzle every day. I
see no need of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do
not grow old, but grow young. Infancy, youth, receptive, aspiring,
with religious eye looking upward, counts itself nothing, and
abandons itself to the instruction flowing from all sides. But the
man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their
hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary,
and talk down to the young. Let them, then, become organs of the
Holy Ghost; let them be lovers; let them behold truth; and their eyes
are uplifted, their wrinkles smoothed, they are perfumed again with
hope and power. This old age ought not to creep on a human mind. In
nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and
forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life,
transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or
covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but
it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People
wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any
hope for them.

Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess to-day the
mood, the pleasure, the power of to-morrow, when we are building up
our being. Of lower states, -- of acts of routine and sense, -- we
can tell somewhat; but the masterpieces of God, the total growths and
universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable. I
can know that truth is divine and helpful; but how it shall help me I
can have no guess, for _so to be_ is the sole inlet of _so to know._
The new position of the advancing man has all the powers of the old,
yet has them all new. It carries in its bosom all the energies of
the past, yet is itself an exhalation of the morning. I cast away in
this new moment all my once hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain.
Now, for the first time, seem I to know any thing rightly. The
simplest words, -- we do not know what they mean, except when we love
and aspire.

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to
keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new
road to new and better goals. Character makes an overpowering
present; a cheerful, determined hour, which fortifies all the
company, by making them see that much is possible and excellent that
was not thought of. Character dulls the impression of particular
events. When we see the conqueror, we do not think much of any one
battle or success. We see that we had exaggerated the difficulty.
It was easy to him. The great man is not convulsible or tormentable;
events pass over him without much impression. People say sometimes,
`See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely
I have triumphed over these black events.' Not if they still remind
me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to
fade and disappear, as an early cloud of insignificant result in a
history so large and advancing.


The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget
ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our
sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why;
in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved
without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by
abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of
performance through the strength of ideas, as the works of genius and
religion. "A man," said Oliver Cromwell, "never rises so high as
when he knows not whither he is going." Dreams and drunkenness, the
use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this
oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men. For
the like reason, they ask the aid of wild passions, as in gaming and
war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.