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4 Brilliant Remarks From History’s Wisest American


If I have a hero, it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He represents to me humanity’s potential: wise, self-reliant, honest, unencumbered by conformity, and able to enjoy every little detail of life as if they were all miracles.

He possessed the hallmark of a human being ahead of his time: he was hailed as a genius and simultaneously reviled as a subvert.  His views were radical for his era, but his wisdom could not be denied, even by his detractors.  Even Herman Melville, author and professed Emerson-hater, later described him as “a great man.”

I am convinced that all of the secrets to personal peace and freedom reside within the ideas recorded in Emerson’s essays and lectures.  His eloquence is well-known from his famous quotations, yet most people today would find a full essay of his to be too verbose to digest in one sitting, if at all.

Perhaps this is why he is so widely quoted and so scarcely read.  His works are full of difficult metaphors and archaic phrases that would require everyday people like you and me to really slow our eyes down from their normal scanning pace, and give ourselves plenty of moments to pause and think.  Perhaps this is a good habit to develop anyway.

It’s worth the effort.  I think the man is one of humanity’s greatest offerings to the world.  His writing has effected a personal transformation in myself and who knows how many others in the two hundred years his ideas have been around.  His writings are so altogether profound that I wonder why humanity still lags so far behind him.  I suppose his difficult writing style has something to do with it.

“People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.

A person’s opinion of the world they live in really seems to be a foolproof litmus test for their strength of character.  The tendency towards blame and disdain seems to vary inversely with the virtues of courage and compassion.

The wisest people I know invariably revere the world, and the most ineffective ones hate it.  For a while now I’ve believed that cynicism about the world is a method of defense against one’s one inadequacy.  When a person is defeated at every turn, they tend to peg the whole world as the culprit.  This relieves them from the painful responsibilities of humility and growth.

I have been on both sides.  Knowing the world as an enemy removes responsibility for oneself.  Behaving and speaking as though the world is against you is only a clever way of abandoning any accountability for the state of your life and the world you live in.   Knowing the world as an ally instead of an adversary leaves no room for excuses.

I now recognize disdain for the world as sure sign of weakness, not just when I see it in others but also when I catch myself thinking that way.  Whenever I’m caught up disparaging this or that, it’s a clear message to any astute observer that in that moment, I’ve lost my composure and maturity.

If you want to know if a person is a suitable teammate, lover, boss or employee, pay attention to their opinion of the world.  It reveals all.  Try it and see.

“There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.

No matter how unassuming we are, a person’s appearance triggers certain assumptions that we aren’t even aware of.  In any first encounter with a person, the brain involuntarily makes connections between the person’s looks and their social standing, income level, education, intelligence, trustworthiness, physical capability, values and worth.

We cannot keep track of all the assessments our brain is making behind the scenes, so it makes sense to assume that some part of your initial impression is certainly wrong, and you don’t know which part.  Sometimes we are too trusting of new people, other times too dismissive.

If you really think about it, a first impression can never be accurate.  First impressions consist only of a few details that jump out at you, and the interpretations your mind makes of them.  So much just cannot be seen, let alone interpreted with fairness and without assumption.  A whole person is far more complex a territory than can be mapped out in a single encounter.

Take a moment and think of a few of your long-time friends.  Can you remember the moment you first met them, and the impression you got?

Without a doubt, in that moment, your brain told you a few things about them that turned out to be wrong.

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.

Emerson was an open critic of the academic culture of his time.  He reasoned there was too much emphasis on deferring to the masters, and too little on self-reliance.  A prolific academic himself, he was tired of listening to young Ivy-League men talking his ear off about religion and philosophy without using any of their own ideas.

This quote is more than a clever jab at vapid aristocrats.  It illustrates a deep truth about science and knowledge in general.  To understand the world we live in requires more than just the gathering of existing opinions.  If education was nothing more than sorting and absorbing humanity’s knowledge, it would not take us beyond what we’ve already discovered.

For humanity to advance beyond itself, individuals must take it upon themselves to discover things nobody could ever teach them.  This takes a committed spirit of inquiry, and a healthy mistrust of the ideals and convictions of others.  Civil disobedience.  Suspicion.  Wonder.

Emerson was capable of conveying more insight in a simple statement than any human being I know of.  I will never stop quoting him.  But whenever I do repeat his words, I remember the above quotation, and remind myself that I should always have more to offer than only someone else’s insight.

And my favorite:

“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Remembering this quote has protected me from so many instances of shame and self-doubt for things I’ve said and stances I’ve taken.  One truth I keep encountering again and again is that one cannot stay the same person throughout life.  As we experience more and more, our perspectives change and consequently so do our beliefs.  Change is the unchangable state of the universe, so how could one’s beliefs stay the same throughout life?

Yet society seems to value a certain consistency of belief.  We are expected not just to share our opinions, but to be them, to swear to them as a lifelong conviction.  People proudly declare, “I am a conservative.  I am a Christian.  I am a Democrat.”  If you equate your beliefs with yourself in this way, there is no room to ever genuinely reconsider, not without an insurmountable bias towards the beliefs you’ve already embodied.  You’ll always feel a compulsion to protect those beliefs, as viscerally as if it’s your internal organs that are threatened, because you consider them to be just as much a part of you.

When someone is that afraid of being contradicted, they are no longer concerned with the truth, only with protecting their priceless investment in what they have said.  To honor a statement you made yesterday as a binding declaration of who you are is a tragic, yet extremely common mistake.  This is the fundamental error that plagues humanity: to mistake one’s ego for oneself.  Enforcing an impossible, lifelong consistency in what you say and believe can only lead to dishonesty and despair.

Someone whose opinions change freely with experience is clearly someone who is not guided by dogma or the expectations of others, but instead by a clear internal compass of inquiry and honesty.  To such a “pure and wise spirit,” it is far more important to seek the truth than to be regarded as having had it all along.  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Emerson.

Whenever I feel a pang of regret for something I’ve said, I remember that all I did was speak what I thought at the time in hard words, even if today I speak different ones.  It’s only human.


I picked only four lines from the entire works of Emerson.  I had originally planned seven, but this post would have been too long.  There is just so much wisdom in his works, and it takes so long to digest, that I’ll spend my whole life reading and rereading it.

Emerson’s entire works are available online, for free.  Enjoy.  His essay “Self-Reliance” is a great place to begin.  Read softly and carry a big dictionary.


Positively Present June 18, 2009 at 6:24 am

This is great! I love reading Emerson but wasn’t alware of these quotes by him. Thanks so much for sharing them and your analyses of the quotes are just brilliant. As always, great stuff here on Raptitude!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..8 ways to make yourself shine =-.

Lisis June 18, 2009 at 6:43 am

David… it’s beautiful. I love this post on so many levels, and in so many parts, that I don’t even know where to begin commenting. Three of my favorite sections:

I now recognize disdain for the world as sure sign of weakness…

To be great is to be misunderstood.

When someone is that afraid of being contradicted, they are no longer concerned with the truth, only with protecting their priceless investment in what they have said.

Wonderful, thought-provoking and inspiring post! :)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..5 Delightful Ways To Torture Your Children =-.

Nelia June 18, 2009 at 8:22 am

Thanks for the reference. I look forward to digging in!
.-= Nelia´s last blog ..Is Your Relationship an Illusion? An Interview with Robert Scheinfeld =-.

Jay Schryer June 18, 2009 at 8:45 am

This is awesome, David. You’ve converted me. I’m gonna dive into his stuff head first now. Nothing else to say except: I second what Lisis said!
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Mindful Meditation Monday – Wrap Up =-.

Srinivas Rao June 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

Very nice post. I think i’m gonna have to add some Emerson to my reading material list.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..Filter your reality through empowering beliefs =-.

Diane June 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

What a wonderful post!! Not just the quotes, but also the interpretations and writing. Like other readers, I will give Mr. Emerson’s writings another look. And I look forward to your subsequent posts on other quotes.
Thank you for enriching my day!

Brenda June 18, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Hi David

I taught American Lit for nine years and the Romantic period was always my favorite because of Emerson and Thoreau. I recall with some “disdain” the huge intellectual war between Emerson and Thoreau on one side and Hawthorne and Melville on the other over the existence of evil. The Transcendentalists lost because Americans were so entrenched in their Biblical belief system. I’m not sure it would play out any differently today, but I am sure you’ve got it right — “all of the secrets to personal peace and freedom reside within the ideas recorded in Emerson’s essays and lectures.” I’m so glad you took the time to remind us that America, too, has produced a “guru” worthy of our attention.
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Oprah’s Lavender =-.

Nadia - Happy Lotus June 18, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Hi David,

I was an English Literature major in college and we studied Emerson in depth. I thought he was awesome. He was a spiritual writer long before there was such a genre and he lived what he believed. I remember reading how he gave a lecture on religion that was based more on spirituality than on the dogma of religion. I believe it was at Harvard that he did that and he was highly criticized for his actions. He still stood by his beliefs. We need more people like that in the world. :)
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Dealing With The Lumps Under The Carpet =-.

suzen June 18, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Wow, you gave us enough meat on the bones today – along with the whole cow of reading Emerson! Superb writing! I can feast for days on this! Each one quote and what you wrote was a good blog – I’m glad you stopped at four but I look forward to the rest of them.
.-= suzen´s last blog ..The Blessing of Adversity? WHAT? =-.

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching June 18, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Thanks for this. The “I hate quotations” quote reminds me of how I’ve felt about conversations lately — whenever the subject turns to politics or religion or something like that, I find myself immediately wanting to talk about the other person. I don’t want to hear how well they can repeat or argue for the party line of whatever organization they support — I want to be with them.
.-= Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching´s last blog ..10 Motivational Metal Masterpieces =-.

Jess June 19, 2009 at 2:54 am

Thanks for this post David. My favourite is:

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
– Emerson

Love it :)

Martin Shirley August 8, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Thanks for this… Great ideas.

prayerthegate June 19, 2009 at 10:05 am

Loved this. I can see how studying the writers of that era influenced your own style. You have a clarity and directness in your thought, with beauty in the expression.

Joanne June 19, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Well written, David! Emerson is one of my favorites. When it comes to profound statements of fact, his were visionary (as is your insight).

“Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one’s own sunshine.” [Emerson]

Roger June 21, 2009 at 1:53 am

Well! I’m sure many long-time readers
of Emerson will find the verb ‘subvert’
attributed to Emerson as a noun at least
in keeping with his iconoclastic
attitude . . . somehow.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap June 21, 2009 at 6:17 am

David, this is a very good article. I like Emerson’s quotes and I have to admit I’ve never read a fully essay of his.

“One truth I keep encountering again and again is that one cannot stay the same person throughout life.”

There is a thread that runs through our lives but this idea that we are the same person is just totally false. From a physical perspective our cells replace themselves. From a mental perspective, every experience we have changes us. For me personally I have changed my mind on just about every core belief one can have: religion, politics, human nature, relationships, science, etc. I’m not the same person and neither is anyone else.
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Don’t Be Offended =-.

Nate @ ItStartsWith.Us June 21, 2009 at 8:26 pm

David, I really liked your thoughts on first impressions, and how often they are (at least partially) wrong. I thought of three of my great friends from college, and realized that two of the first impressions were dead wrong.

So if we look back we can figure it out, but that doesn’t change the fact that first impressions DO count. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re accurate – the mind still does it. I do think, however, that if we cognitively understand how our mind functions in new situations with new people, we will at least be able to temper the assumptions with a little bit of reality, and not jump to the final conclusion our mind would have us go.

Good post, and good food for thought, as always.
.-= Nate @ ItStartsWith.Us´s last blog ..A Note To New Readers =-.

David Cain June 22, 2009 at 12:50 am

Wow, thank you for the excellent comments everyone. I just flew in from Minneapolis and I’m beat, but I’ll address them specifically tomorrow.

I think I will do a second installment of Emerson’s wisdom in the future.

Hilda June 22, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Hi David,

This is a fabulously written post! I am very guilty of not having read Emerson, yet I use his quotes often in my Thoughts for the Week. He was so wise, and your post has made me think it’s high time I read behind the quotes I love so much.
.-= Hilda´s last blog ..Don’t be afraid of making a mistake =-.

Roger June 22, 2009 at 6:59 pm

I’m looking forward to your exploration
of Mark Twain.

David June 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

Brenda — I’ve always liked Thoreau too. I don’t know much about Hawthorne and Melville; I’d like to see what all they disagreed with the Transcendentalists about.

Jess — That’s a beautiful passage. I don’t know if I’ve read it before, but if I have, it never affected me like it did just now. Very profound, thank you. :)

Hilda — I had seen so many Emerson quote before I actually read the pieces they came from. Many of them seem to mean something different when read in context.

Roger — Mark Twain is definitely another one to cover. Oscar Wilde too.

jeff June 29, 2009 at 7:44 am

Hi David

It is always good to be reminded of this amazing man, who is virtually unknown here in UK (He had a profound influence upon writers such as Oscar Wilde though the latter often appears as E’s ‘evil twin’ in his subversive satirical comedies of manners). ‘Self Reliance’ is a MUST for any seeker. I initially read it years ago in an ancient little edition of his Essays, in the tiniest print imaginable. I guess he was a kind of sublime self help writer in his time!

There is a book of Emerson Meditations, one for each day of the year which is excellent. ‘A Dream too Wild’ edited by Barry Andrews.

“We are always getting ready to live, but never living” (Emerson)

“The supreme vice is shallowness” (Oscar Wilde)
.-= jeff´s last blog ..Presence =-.

David June 29, 2009 at 8:12 am

“We are always getting ready to live, but never living”

That’s another great one, and it really describes the last few weeks for me. I’ve been trying to get things in order so that I can finally live again. I’ve been ‘making other plans’ while life has continued to unfold.

Lisa September 6, 2009 at 7:22 am

Hi, I just stumbled on this website and wanted to say thanks for such a great article! I really enjoyed your writing, and look forward to reading more.

David September 6, 2009 at 10:45 am

Thanks Lisa, I’m glad you liked it. Hope to hear more from you, too.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) September 24, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Thx David for sharing your perspective of Emerson; I would really like to read his works now, but first to finish the biography of Muhammad.

These two statements of yours resonated with me:

“… give ourselves plenty of moments to pause and think.”
“Knowing the world as an enemy removes responsibility for oneself.”

Previously, I saw many enemy’s~ my keys would be taken, items moved around or broken, malicious gossip spread…when I looked for my responsibility in this repetitive cycle I realised that I did not use language/body language the way that most others did. Especially, I was not “fast” or “edgy”…at least intentionally…
And that by not taking the time to learn how many use language/body language I was creating my own world of victimisation. I accepted that the message I was sending was “I don’t care about you”, “I think that I am better than you” and have begun to relearn English…
…the dance now (mine’s a slow one mostly) is to use their words for my purpose~ harmony, balance, unity, boundaries, reminderer of our strengths and potential, of the incredible lightness of being…
….perhaps this is what is meant to be in the world yet not of it …

Dario April 10, 2010 at 3:18 am

I liked this tiny post and would like to say thanks to the people who contributed to create it. Lots of cheers and joy from Italy :)

Vanessa June 30, 2010 at 5:58 pm

wow! I’m somewhat overwhelmed but elated by this.

Najeema August 2, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I came across your blog from a friend who’s been blogging longer and stronger than I have. But that’s not important. I was compiled to write that Emerson has been one of my favorite writers and thinkers since I was educated on his works. I was so moved by his thoughts that I tied it to the life and works of Malcolm X based on this quote.
“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”
My HS Senior English paper compared the works and speeches of RWE and Malcolm X. It was a challenging work, based on the fact that both RWE & Malcolm seemingly contradicted themselves over time. The thinking and growth in each man was amazing. Thanks for this post. Emerson did inspire me profusely as a young thinker. I should return to his work for more inspiration.

David August 2, 2010 at 4:02 pm

I should read him more often too. That quote is such a powerful idea, I think of it at some point everyday.

Usurper August 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm

very good article/post. rare for the internet. stumbledupon this and I am glad I did.

Seth Chong August 29, 2010 at 12:41 am

I absolutely love this post. Thank you so much for writing like this.

Dr. Len Gougeon September 17, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Those who are interested in a gateway to Emerson’s thought will find the following work to be helpful. You can learn more about “Emerson’s Truth, Emerson’s Wisdom” at http://www.amazon.com/Emersons-Truth-Wisdom-Transcendental-Everyday/dp/0615348459/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1283714083&sr=1-1

Daily Success Place October 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I am a bit “unread” on Emerson. I’ve heard and read many of his quotes, but didn’t know of his great influence on many lives.

David October 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm

All of his work is available on http://www.rwe.org, free.

Mark February 10, 2011 at 7:15 am

Brilliant article, I must admit that I didnt know an awful lot about Emerson, but could’nt agree more with messages that that he presents.

I too loath the ostentatious way in which some people just regurgitate views and opinions from the “masters” without ever thinking for themselves what they actually mean. Indeed you often see this with people believing everything they see on the news and read in the paper’s, such behaviour often encourages facile outlooks!.

I for one will be reading far more of Emerson’s work, so thank you for the pointer!

Eric February 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm

This post was very inspirational to me. I always try to find ways of living each day better than the one before, and I think today, after reading this post, was one of the more influential perspectives I have encountered. Thank you for having the will to share this insight and material with all of us. It is concerning that there are not more people enticed to digest works of people such as Emerson; we would all greatly benefit from it.

kevin michael February 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

What does consistency have to do with truth


Chris H April 17, 2011 at 5:04 am

I have to say I find your writing to be quite moving. It truly resonates with me and I thank you for it.

I too have written about struggles, virtually all of which were internal. For a time a shared what I had written online, until I neglected to renew my paid webhosting during a bout with depression.

I continued to write (and do to this day) although I did not make the effort to share like I had before.

Your writing is inspiring me to start again, given the tools I now have and resources now freely available. In sharing, I believe we all have an opportunity for growth.

I thank you.

Steph in Berkeley August 6, 2011 at 12:50 am

I *just* added a comment about an hour ago to your current post on anger making you forget people are people…that compared your livelihood to Thoreau’s, which was more than an intimation about work. An hour later I open my laptop. The first thing my eyes rest on is this article 4 Brilliant Remarks…wisest American. I knew it was Thoreau. I was wrong. But close.

Max September 21, 2011 at 11:29 am

I’m always inspired by great men, and Emerson is one of them.
Just a side note : Barack Obama is another men I admire and I just discovered that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” has been listed among his favorite books.

I think I’ll give a shot to this “Self-Reliance” book you propose. I’m sure I’ll find something to learn from.

A great man is always willing to be little. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kale October 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm

“Yet society seems to value a certain consistency of belief. We are expected not just to share our opinions, but to be them, to swear to them as a lifelong conviction. People proudly declare, “I am a conservative. I am a Christian. I am a Democrat.” If you equate your beliefs with yourself in this way, there is no room to ever genuinely reconsider, not without an insurmountable bias towards the beliefs you’ve already embodied. You’ll always feel a compulsion to protect those beliefs, as viscerally as if it’s your internal organs that are threatened, because you consider them to be just as much a part of you.”

I’m always looking for ways to explain my philosophies to other people and this paragraph nicely sums up one of the many ideas I struggle to communicate. Is it a concept you came up with or is it developed from Emerson’s works? If you came up with it, ‘bravo’ and if it’s developed from something you’ve read I would dearly enjoy reading it myself.

David Whatley October 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Agreed. Very nice.

shivam November 17, 2011 at 12:39 am

good work man but i think you need to broaden your understanding keep learning bcoz if we think we know all the phenomenas then we are highly mistaken.

Gita Madhu November 24, 2011 at 12:21 am

Another wonderful entry!
I was introduced to Emerson by my father (to whom my one of my blogs is devoted). It did change me a lot.
I hope people will read your blog with open eyes and heart-there is a lot to learn

anna July 24, 2012 at 2:16 am

Your post is a ray of light in my day. Thank you.
Hugs from Italy,

Trisha August 12, 2012 at 6:17 am

This is brilliant. I’m only 17 but I can relate a lot of Emerson’s quotes to some of the modern ideas about life by others. This has been an insightful article and I envy you for the way you write.

Andrew November 1, 2012 at 9:24 pm

I loved this post! Thank you so much!

T November 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm

It is extremely difficult to live without disdain after life deals a devastating blow. I have been struggling for four years after just such a blow, and it is difficult not to feel gut-wrenching disappointment and bitterness. The focus on what is positive and right is easily shifted when I allow resentment to interfere. Even when I recognize this behavior in myself, it is difficult to stop it. I am hoping that time truly does heal my weak character.

Marina Bellini May 1, 2013 at 7:15 pm

That was the best text I’ve EVER read in my life. (but all of the things that you wrote are what I already think about life and people, nothing new, but everything brilliant!)

Hector April 12, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hi David,

I want to concur with many of the comments in congratulating on such a polished and focused representation of R.A. Emersons allusions. While I have read many authors of various generations, there are only a few that make my spine tingle; his words align so closely with my own view of the world, and bring greater form of clarity to each moment I am lucky enough to spend in it.

While I long ago happened upon his essays on Self-reliance and Nature, which in their own right are truly impacting works of literary prose, I more recently listened to an audiobook of his essay on Spiritual Laws. I truly felt like a great cloud had lifted, though I wasn’t truly aware it had ever been present.

As a fervent atheist, I sometimes find it hard to accept religions premise and value, but within the space of two paragraphs, he managed to change everything. Much as you were saying, I saw my own annoyance in others belief as a lack of understanding in its value as a model to help people find their own sense of self. It was a show of immaturity.

I wanted to share the lines with you that hit me so hard and say that I will follow your future writing with great interest.

“…the hero fears not, that, if he withhold the avowal of a just and brave act, it will go unwitnessed and unloved. One knows it, — himself, — and is pledged by it to sweetness of peace, and to nobleness of aim, which will prove in the end a better proclamation of it than the relating of the incident. Virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things, and the nature of things makes it prevalent. It consists in a perpetual substitution of being for seeming, and with sublime propriety God is described as saying, I AM.

The lesson which these observations convey is, Be, and not seem. Let us acquiesce. Let us take our bloated nothingness out of the path of the divine circuits. Let us unlearn our wisdom of the world. Let us lie low in the Lord’s power, and learn that truth alone makes rich and great.”

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