In religion Emerson was only a nineteenth-century non-conformist instead of a fifteenth or seventeenth century one. It was a fundamental article in his creed that, although conformity is the virtue in most request, "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist." In the midst of increasing luxury, and of that easygoing, unbelieving conformity which is itself a form of luxury, Boston, the birthplace of Emerson, may well remember with honor the generations of non-conformists who made her, and created the intellectual and moral climate in which Emerson grew up. Inevitably, to conformists and to persons who still accept doctrines and opinions which he rejected, he seems presumptuous and consequential. In recent days we have even seen the word "insolent" applied to this quietest and most retiring of seers. But have not all prophets and ethical teachers had something of this aspect to their conservative contemporaries? We hardly expect the messages of prophets to be welcome; they imply too much dissatisfaction with the present.
The essence of Emerson's teaching concerning man's nature is compressed into the famous verse:—
"So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When Duty whispers low, Thou must, The youth replies, I can."
The cynic or the fall-of-man theologian replies—Grandeur indeed, say rather squalor and shame. To this ancient pessimism Emerson makes answer with a hard question—"We grant that human life is mean, but how did we find out that it was mean?" To this question no straight answer has been found, the common answer running in a circle. It is hard indeed to conceive of a measure which will measure depths but not heights; and besides, every measure implies a standard.
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I have endeavored to set before you some of the practical results of Emerson's visions and intuitions, because, though quite unfit to expound his philosophical views, I am capable of appreciating some of the many instances in which his words have come true in the practical experience of my own generation. My own work has been a contribution to the prosaic, concrete work of building, brick by brick, the new walls of old American institutions of education. As a young man I found the writings of Emerson unattractive, and not seldom unintelligible. I was concerned with physical science, and with routine teaching and discipline; and Emerson's thinking seemed to me speculative and visionary. In regard to religious belief, I was brought up in the old-fashioned Unitarian conservatism of Boston, which was rudely shocked by Emerson's excursions beyond its well-fenced precincts. But when I had got at what proved to be my lifework for education, I discovered in Emerson's poems and essays all the fundamental motives and principles of my own hourly struggle against educational routine and tradition, and against the prevailing notions of discipline for the young; so when I was asked to speak to you to-night about him, although I realized my unfitness in many respects for such a function, I could not refuse the opportunity to point out how many of the sober, practical undertakings of to-day had been anticipated in all their principles by this solitary, shrewd, independent thinker, who, in an inconsecutive and almost ejaculatory way, wrought out many sentences and verses which will travel far down the generations.
I was also interested in studying in this example the quality of prophets in general. We know a good deal about the intellectual ancestors and inspirers of Emerson; and we are sure that he drank deep at many springs of idealism and poetry. Plato, Confucius, Shakespeare, and Milton were of his teachers; Oken, Lamarck, and Lyell lent him their scientific theories; and Channing stirred the residuum which came down to him through his forbears from Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. All these materials he transmuted and moulded into lessons which have his own individual quality and bear his stamp. The precise limits of his individuality are indeterminable, and inquiry into them would be unprofitable. In all probability the case would prove to be much the same with most of the men that the world has named prophets, if we knew as much of their mental history as we know of Emerson's. With regard to the Semitic prophets and seers, it is reasonable to expect that as Semitic exploration and discovery advance, the world will learn much about the historical and poetical sources of their inspiration. Then the Jewish and Christian peoples may come nearer than they do now to Emerson's conceptions of inspiration and worship, of the naturalness of revelation and religion, and of the infinite capacities of man. Meantime, it is an indisputable fact that Emerson's thought has proved to be consonant with the most progressive and fruitful thinking and acting of two generations since his working time. This fact, and the sweetness, fragrance, and loftiness of his spirit, prophesy for him an enduring power in the hearts and lives of spiritually-minded men.