Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our next Master of Chiasmus is the American writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), one of the most quoted
people in history. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why.
If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments
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An examination of the most reputable quote books—Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,
the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations—will reveal that Emerson is
the most frequently-quoted American author of all time. While his essays can sometimes be ponderous, many of his
sentences are crisp and very quotable. One critic even called him "the philosopher of the sentence." And, happily,
some of his best sentences are perfect examples of chiasmus.
Emerson is not only one of history's most quoted people, Robert Frost listed him as one of "my four greatest Americans,"
alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. In his "On Emerson" essay, Frost even composed a wonderful chiastic
observation about him: "Emerson's name has gone as a poetic philosopher or as a philosophical poet, my favorite kind of both."
Emerson seemed to think of himself as both a poet and a philosopher, and often tried to bridge the gap between these
two ancient and often antithetical endeavors:
"The true philosopher and the true poet are one,
and a beauty, which is truth,
and a truth, which is beauty,
is the aim of both."
This observation, from Emerson's Nature (1836), was probably inspired by the famous chiastic line from
Ode on a Grecian Urn, written by John Keats in 1819: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Stimulated by Frost's earlier observation, I believe it's possible to say that Emerson was one of only
a handful of people in history who've been able to successfully bring poetry to philosophy and philosophy to poetry.
And when it came to philosophy, Emerson was influenced by thinkers from both the Western and the Eastern tradition, but
he appeared to have a special fondness for one Greek philosopher in particular:
"Plato is philosophy,
and philosophy Plato."
A chiastic compliment like this is just about the best thing that can be said about someone who absolutely dominates a
field of endeavor. In the early 1990s, one could have said essentially the same thing about Michael Jordan and the NBA.
By the way, Emerson is not alone in extolling Plato's importance. Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "The safest general
characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
After becoming an ordained minister in his early twenties, Emerson spent the remainder of his adult life shedding religious
doctrine and moving further and further away from organized religion. He was often critical of the religious leaders
of his day. Railing against clergyman with screwed-up priorities, he once wrote:
"Instead of making Christianity a vehicle of truth,
you make truth only a horse for Christianity."
And in The Preacher (1867) he wrote these oft-quoted lines:
"It is the old story again:
once we had wooden chalices and golden priests,
now we have golden chalices and wooden priests."
The "old story" phrase at the beginning of the quote suggests that the sentiment was well known when Emerson was writing.
In fact, it had been well known for centuries. The original observation was created more than 250 years earlier, when religious
dissidents were making their break with the church of Rome. John Jewel, an Anglican bishop who is considered the father of
English Protestantism, wrote in 1609: "In old time we had treen chalices and golden priests, but now we have treen priests and golden chalices."
Treen is not a commonly-used word these days, but it's one of those great Anglo-Saxon words
whose meaning you can almost guess by examining the word itself (here's a hint-think tree). Treen
means "wooden" (those of you who are a little long in the tooth may even recall the word "treenware").
Here are a couple more of Emerson's chiastic quotes with a religious or moral theme:
"Every man takes care that
his neighbor shall not cheat him.
But a day comes when
he begins to care that
he do not cheat his neighbor.
Then all goes well."
"The merit claimed for the Anglican Church is that,
if you let it alone,
it will let you alone."
Emerson was not only fond of using chiasmus in his writing, he appeared to enjoy chiasmus in the works of other
writers. Here's another:
"Is not marriage an open question,
when it is alleged, from the beginning of the world,
that such as are in the institution wish to get out,
and such as are out wish to get in?"
This observation reflects an age-old irony about wedlock—many who are married wish
they weren't, and vice versa. Like the John Jewel quote earlier, the sentiment was not
original with Emerson, he was simply recalling a memorable passage from one of his favorite writers,
the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who described marriage this way in 1580: "It may be compared
to a cage, the birds without try desperately to get in, and those within try desperately to get out."
The following two quotes, both found in Emerson's Journals, further reveal his appreciation for
chiasmus, in this instance chiastic repartee:
"The reason of my success
said Garrick to the clergyman is because
I tell fictions as if they were truths
and you, truths as if they were fictions."
"The Arabians say that
Abul Khain, the mystic, and
Abu Ali Seena, the philosopher,
conferred together; and, on parting,
the philosopher said, 'All that he sees I know'
and the mystic said, 'All that he knows I see.'"
Just as he tried to bridge the gap between poetry and philosophy, Emerson also tried to mend the
ancient rift between religion and philosophy:
"In the uttermost meaning of the words,
thought is devout,
and devotion is thought."
What Emerson is saying here is that deep, penetrating, reflective thought and deep, devout meditation
are virtually synonymous.
"The sensual man conforms thoughts to things;
the poet conforms things to his thoughts."
Here, Emerson crafts a chiastic comparison to describe two very different ways of comprehending
the world. One could easily extend the observation to, say, objective and subjective people,
with objectivists trying to make sure that perception matches reality, and subjectivists attempting
to do the reverse.
Some of Emerson's chiastic observations captured the reality of everyday life:
"Infancy conforms to nobody;
all conform to it."
Anyone who's ever witnessed the effect of a new baby can appreciate the truth of this observation, as adults
begin to manifest all kinds of infantile behavior as soon as they find themselves in the presence of the newborn.
Emerson's writings are sprinkled with chiastic aphorisms and epigrams. Here are a dozen of them, presented for
your enjoyment without any comment:
"Words are also actions,
and actions are a kind of words."
"The heroic cannot be the common,
nor the common the heroic."
"If a man owns land,
the land owns him."
"Let not a man guard his dignity,
but let his dignity guard him."
"The secret of the world is
the tie between person and event.
Person makes event
and event person."
"For everything you have missed,
you have gained something else;
and for everything you gain,
you lose something."
"Out of sleeping a waking,
Out of waking a sleep."
"The State is our neighbors;
our neighbors are the State."
Every spirit makes its house;
but afterwards the house confines the spirit."
"The democrat is a young conservative;
the conservative is an old democrat."
"All public facts are to be individualized,
all private facts are to be generalized."
"Machinery is aggressive.
The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine.
If you do not use the tools,
they use you."
I've noted a number of times that chiasmus is not merely an interesting literary device or simply a method
for cleverly turning a phrase. Sometimes it's able to capture some deep and profound truths
about human life. Take this quote:
"Speech is better than silence;
silence is better than speech."
At first, this might appear to be a tautology. If you're not familiar with the word, a
tautology is a meaningless or empty sentiment that says the same basic thing, but in different words.
However, closer examination of this quote reveals that it meets the criterion of a profound truth, for it
can justifiably be claimed that both statements are true (for further discussion of this concept, see
Neils Bohr's description of trivial and profound truths in Welcome to the World of Chiasmus).
"Be a little careful of your Library.
Do you foresee what you will do with it?
Very little to be sure.
But the real question is,
What it will do with you."
Emerson was a prolific writer and an avid reader, and he saw a real relationship between
authors, books, and readers. He once even wrote, "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book."
But here he emphasizes the powerful impact a book can have on the reader. He ended this 1873 Journal
entry with another chiastic thought: "You will come here & get books that will open your eyes, & your ears,
& your curiosity, & turn you inside out or outside in." (italics are mine).
"Implied chiasmus" occurs when the words of a popular saying are deliberately reversed. Some popular examples are Mae West's
"A hard man is good to find," Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies." If you're not familiar with
the term, you can find further information at implied chiasmus.
So far, I've found only two examples of implied chiasmus in Emerson's writings, and only the most literate readers will
recognize this first one as an example. Let's see how you do:
"The French woman says,
'I am a woman and a Parisienne,
and nothing foreign to me
appears altogether human.'"
If you recognize the original saying that inspired this observation, congratulations, it means you're an
exceptionally well-read person. In the quote, Emerson cleverly comments on the French tendency to look
down their noses at everything that is not French by reversing the words of the Roman writer, Terence, who
wrote, "I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me."
"A man must thank his defects and
stand in some terror of his talents."
This is another not-so-obvious example of implied chiasmus, with Emerson reversing the natural tendency
of people—to be thankful for their talents and to be in some terror of their defects.
This completes our look at the chiastic Ralph Waldo Emerson. In our next edition, we'll take a look at another
chiastic master, the most celebrated writer of all time, William Shakespeare.