23 Jan Ralph Waldo Emerson Audio Books | Circles Essay
Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from an essay entitled “Circles” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1841….
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference nowhere.
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 rising after nightfall, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our earthly globe is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds its fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after it a train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea, however, and they will disappear.
Greek sculptures have melted away, as if they had been statues of ice: here and there but a solitary figure or fragment remains. For the genius that created it, creates now something else.
Consider the investment of capital in aqueducts, made useless by hydraulics; arrows, by gunpowder; canals and rivers, by roads and railways; sails, by steam; steam, by electricity. And so it goes.
Everything looks permanent until its secret is known. A rich estate appears to children a firm and lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created out of any materials, and easily lost. An orchard seems a fixture, like a gold mine, or a river, to the average citizen; but to a farmer, not much more fixed than the state of the crop. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Everything is in motion.
The key to every man or woman is their thoughts. Each life is a self-evolving circle, which rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel or without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul.
Though society will try to control our thoughts, the heart refuses to be imprisoned. In its first and narrowest pulses, it already beats outward with a vast force and to immense and countless expansions.
Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series—every general law only a particular fact of some more general law that eventually will disclose itself. The concerns of today, which haunt the mind and cannot be escaped will soon be abridged into a single word, and the principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example of a bolder generalization.
In our thoughts of tomorrow there is a power in overthrowing all the creeds, all the literatures of nations, and to set our sights on an epic dream that has yet been depicted. Every person is not so much a worker in the world, as they are a suggestion of what humanity can, and should, be. We, as men and women, 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 result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every previous one seems to be contradicted or limited by the new. Indeed, the new statement is always hated by the old and opens up an abyss of skepticism. But the revelation of the new hour cannot be fought eternally. Eventually, it shall be embraced, as the old skepticism pales and dwindles; its energy finally spent.
To live consciously is to always believe that greater possibilities lie ahead. New doors to open. New steps to climb. New ways to love and learn.
Beware when the universe 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 one knows where it is safe, or when it will end. There is not a piece of science that may not be proved untrue; there is not any reputation, history, or legend that may not be revised and condemned. The very hopes of humanity, the thoughts of our hearts, the religion of nations, the manners and morals of society, are all at the mercy of new beliefs and ideals.
The great individual is not prudent in the popular sense. Every precaution we take against the evil of the world, we put ourselves into the power of that evil. Do not forget the old proverbs, “Blessed be nothing,” and “The worse things are, the better they are,” for they express the transcendentalism of common life.
One person’s justice is another’s injustice; one person’s beauty another’s ugliness; one person’s wisdom another’s folly; as one beholds the same objects from a higher point of view. 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 as such, into the same pit that has consumed our vices. Forgive us our crimes, forgive us our virtues too.
But lest I should mislead anyone, let me remind the person who is listening 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 had settled anything as universally true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts to me are sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, for I am an endless seeker with no past at my back.
However, this endless 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. Nature is a series of concentric circles. And while the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. Forever it labors to create a life and thought, not only as large and excellent as itself, but continuously 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 our most chronic disease. We grizzle every day. But I see no need to. While we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young. When we look upward with a youthful, aspiring, and enchanted eye, we abandon ourselves to the instruction flowing from all sides.
But the man or woman of seventy assumes to know all. They throw up their hope; renounce aspiration; accept the actual for the necessary and talk down to the young. If they but opened themselves to the Holy Spirit of life, love, and truth, their eyes would become uplifted, their wrinkles smoothed, their lives perfumed again with hope and power.
Old age should not creep upon 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 is so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled: but only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.
Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being. Of lower states (of acts of routine and the senses), we can tell somewhat, but the masterpieces of the spirit, the total growths and universal movements of the soul, are hidden; they are incalculable.
I can know that truth is divine and helpful; but how it shall help me I can have no guess. The new position of the advancing soul has all the powers of the old, yet has them all anew. 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 anything rightly. The simplest words acquire new meanings as I once again love and aspire.
The difference between talent and character is that the former keeps the old and well-trodden around, while the latter has the power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals. Character creates an overpowering present (a cheerful, determined hour), which fortifies all in its company by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not thought of before.
No matter your age, whether you are 18 or 80, there is much left to do, much to achieve, and much to get excited about. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. Seek it out with abandonment. In the words of Oliver Cromwell, “One never rises so high, as when you know not whither you are going.”
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