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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • [Born in Boston, 1803; graduated at Harvard College; minister of the Second Unitarian Church in Boston, 1829–32; essayist and lecturer; editor of the “Dial,” 1842–44; published “Representative Men,” 1850; “English Traits,” 1856; died 1882.]
  • When you strike at a king, you must kill him.

  • To a young man, who, in his college days, wrote an essay on Plato, and mentioned the subject to Mr. Emerson.
  • A smart young lawyer said to a young lady, “There was no thought in Emerson’s lecture [on Memory]: I can’t remember any thing he said in it.”—“Oh yes,” she replied, “he said ‘shallow brains have short memories.’”
  • In a letter to Carlyle, July 31, 1841, Emerson spoke of “this great, intelligent, sensual, and avaricious America.” He said of the Anglo-Saxon race, “It is proud and strong and selfish. England maintains trade, not liberty.”
  • In conversations during a trip to California, in 1871, recorded by Professor Thayer, he called Swedenborg “like Linnæus, or those who devised the nomenclature of chemistry,—a sort of classifier of souls.”—A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson, 17. He called Mormonism, “with their Bible names and imagery, an afterclap of Puritanism.” Of a delightful ride to Mirror Lake, “One thinks here,” said Emerson, “of the Arab proverb, ‘Allah does not count the days spent in the chase.’” He praised some one’s rule, “Take notes on the spot: a note is worth a cart-load of recollections.” Speaking of an address on Immortality, delivered by Mr. Emerson in San Francisco, the “Alta California” said that “all left the church feeling that an eloquent tribute had been paid to the creative genius of the Great First Cause, and that a masterly use of the English language had contributed to that end;” which led Dr. Holmes, in his “Life of Emerson” (p. 267), to recall the story of the Rev. Horace Holley, pastor of the Hollis-street Church in Boston, from 1809 to 1818, who delivered a prayer on some public occasion, and Major Ben Russell, editor of the “Columbian Centinel,” spoke of it in his paper next day as “the most eloquent prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience.”
  • The motto of William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Lord High Chancellor of England in 1367, was, “Manners make a man,” which he inscribed on buildings of his founding, as New College, Oxford, and the college at Winchester, and which thereafter became proverbial. Alluding to it, Emerson defined manners, in his essay on that subject, as “the happy ways of doing things.”
  • Emerson once wrote to Carlyle: “I do not belong to the poets, but only to a low department of literature, the reporters, suburban men;” but he also wrote to Miss Peabody: “I am not a great poet, but whatever is of me is a poet.”
  • Asked if he had read the Rev. J. S. C. Abbott’s “Life of Napoleon,” Mr. Emerson replied in the affirmative, and said it had given him an entirely different idea of that man: “It seems to teach, that the object of Napoleon, in all his wars, was to establish in benighted Europe our New England system of Sunday schools.”—E. P. WHIPPLE: Recollections of Eminent Men, 150. Mr. Whipple, in his essay on Emerson, says that to Professor Agassiz belongs the dubious honor, or dishonor, of calling Emerson “our Greek-Yankee, a cross between Plato and Jonathan Slick;” and he is less certain as to the other statement, that he was “a Hindoo-Yankee, a cross between Brahma and Poor Richard.” Mr. Whipple records the answer of Agassiz, when offered a large sum by the president of a Western lyceum for a course of lectures in natural history. Being at that time absorbed in some minute investigations in a difficult department of zoölogy, he replied, “I cannot afford to waste my time in making money.”
  • Dr. Holmes, in speaking of Emerson at the height of his fame, recalls the time when “a litterateur now almost forgotten could call him ‘whipped syllabub;’” but in 1833, at the beginning of their acquaintance, Carlyle called him “one of the most lovable creatures in himself we had ever looked upon.” He introduced Emerson to the British public as “the singular man who did not wish to be President.” Father Taylor of the Methodist Seamen’s Bethel, in Boston, called him “one of the sweetest creatures God ever made. He must go to heaven when he dies, for if he went to hell the Devil would not know what to do with him. But he knows no more of the religion of the New Testament than Balaam’s ass did of the principles of the Hebrew grammar.” Mr. M. D. Conway tells the story a little differently: When some of Taylor’s Methodist friends objected to his friendship for Emerson, who, as a Unitarian, must go to the place which a divine of Charles II.’s day said it was not good manners to mention in church,—“It does look so,” said Father Taylor, “but I am sure of one thing: if Emerson does go to that place, he will change the climate, and emigration will set that way.”—O. W. HOLMES: R. W. Emerson, 56. Theodore Parker thanked God “for the sun, moon, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
  • Periodicity, reaction, are laws of mind as well as of matter.

  • In an address on the “Progress of Culture,” before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, in 1867; in which he also said, “The foundation of culture, as of character, is at last the moral sentiment;” and, “Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than any material force, that thoughts rule the world.”