Monday, April 23, 2007

"you entertain angels unawares"

From the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As he begins to write this, Emerson is getting ready to depart from Rome for Lombardy; he completes it after he has left. It's from a letter to his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, and is a typically philosophical meditation on acquaintance and our experience of others. It's about people of the present whom we respond to on first meeting and about people of the past whose lives we perceive in our encounters with what they have made and done. Although it's not a journal entry, this text is included in the 1909 edition of the journals edited by his son, Edward Waldo Emerson, and grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes.

ROME, begun April 22.

"Here is matter for all feeling," said Byron, and yet how evanescent and superficial is most of that emotion which art and magnificence can awaken. It yields in me to the interest the most ordinary companion inspires. I never get used to men. They always awaken expectations in me which they always disappoint, and I am a poor asteroid in the great system, subject to disturbances in my orbit, not only from all the planets, but from all their moons. The wise man, the true friend, the finished character, we seek everywhere, and only find in fragments. Yet I cannot persuade myself that all the beautiful souls are fled out of the planet, or that always I shall be excluded from good company and yoked with green, dull, pitiful persons. After being cabined up by sea and by land, since I left home, with various little people, — all better to be sure and much wiser than me, but still such persons as did not help me, — how refreshing was it to fall in with two or three sensible persons with whom I could eat my bread and take my walk and feel myself a free man once more of God's universe. Still these last were not instructors, and I want instructors. God's greatest gift is a Teacher, and when will he send me one full of truth and of boundless benevolence and of heroic sentiments? I can describe the man. I know the idea well, but where is its real blood-warm counterpart? I know whilst I write thus that the creature is never to dawn upon me like a sunburst. I know too well how slowly we edge along sideways to everything good and brilliant in life, and how casually and unobservedly we make all our most valued acquaintances. And yet I saw Ellen at once in all her beauty, and she never disappointed me, but in her death. And why may not the Master whom the soul anticipates, so appear?

Our stern experience replies with the tongue of all its days: Son of Man! it saith, all giving and receiving is reciprocal; you entertain angels unawares, but they cannot impart more or higher things than you are in a state to receive, but every step of your progress affects the intercourse you hold with all others; elevates its tone, deepens its meaning, sanctifies its spirit, and when time and suffering and self-denial shall have transfigured and glorified this spotted self, you shall find your fellows also transformed, and their faces shall shine with the light of wisdom and the beauty of holiness. You who cling with both hands to the literal word and to venerable traditions will, no doubt, find in my complaints a confession and a self-accusation. You will perhaps say I do not receive whom Heaven gives. But you must not say any such thing. For I am, you see, speaking truly as to my Maker. Jesus, who has done so much to raise and sweeten human life, and who prized sincerity more than sacrifice, cannot be to me what he was to John. My mother, my brothers, my companions, must be much more to me in all respects of friendship than he can be.
"How small, of all that human hearts endure,
The part that laws or kings can cause or cure:
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find."
In Rome it is not the diameter nor the circumference of the columns, it is not the dimensions, nor the materials of the temples, which constitute their chief charm. It is the name of Cicero; it is the remembrance of a wise and good man; It is the remembrance of Scipio and Cato and Regulus; the influence of human character, the heroes who struggled, the patriots who fell, the wise men who thought, — the men who contended worthily in their lifetime in the same trials which God in this city and this year is placing before each of us. Why are you dazzled with the name of Caesar? A part as important, a soul as great, a name as dear to God as his or any other's is your own.

It will take you long to learn another tongue so as to make yourself fully understood by those who speak it, but your actions are easy of translation. They understand what you do. Temperance is good English and good French and good Italian. Your courage, your kindness, your honesty, are as plain to a Turk as his own alphabet. In Boston they have an eye for improvement, a thing which does not exist in Asia nor in Africa.

And so I left, on the twenty-third of April, the city built on seven hills, the Palatine, the Capitoline, Crelian, Aventine, Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline.

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