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he was constantly seeking to pry as deeply as his human limitations would allow; and what he saw there he was constantly and eagerly interested to reveal. A Yankee preacher of unfettered idealism, one may call him ; better still, its seer, its prophet.
Idealism, of course, is ancestrally familiar to any race of Puritan origin. That life is a Aeeting manifestation of unfathomable realities which lie beyond it, that all we see and all we do and all we know are merely symbols of things unseen, unactable, unknowable, had been preached to New England from the beginning. But Emerson's idealism soared far above that of the Christian fathers. Their effort was constantly to reduce unseen eternities to a system as rigid as that which addressed their human senses; and this effort has so far succeeded that to-day those who call God by His name thereby almost clothe Him in Aesh and blood, in Jovelike beard and Aowing robes, turning Him once more, even though immortally, into a fresh symbol of the infinite divine self which essentially transcends all limitation. To Emerson, on the other hand, the name of God, like the life of Christ, grouped itself with the little facts of every-day existence as simply one more phenomenal symbol of unspeakable, unfathomable, transcendental truth. There is for ever something beyond; you may call it God, you may call it Nature, you may call it Over-Soul; each name becomes a fresh limitation, a mere symbolic bit of this human language of ours. The essential thing is not what you call the everlasting eternities; it is that you shall never cease, simply and reverently, with constantly living interest, to recognise and to adore them.
Now, in contrast with this infinite eternity of divine truth, no man, not even Christ himself, is free from the almost equally infinite limitations of earthly life. The essence of truth is that it comprehends and comprises all things, phenomena and ideals alike; and we men, great or small, ourselves on any eternal scale little more wonderful than are the leaves of grass which spring and wither in the field, can perceive at any moment only one aspect of this truth. Look at the moon; when it is full you shall see it as a silvery disk in the heavens ; again it is shrunk to a sickle; and yet again you shall see no moon at all. By and by you learn a little of the secret law which reveals the same satellite first in one of its protean forms and then in another throughout the changing months of our feeting human years. Gaze next into the infinities, whereof the system is so unspeakably further from simplicity than the motions of any moon or planets. At one moment
shall see them in one aspect, at the next in nother, and so on till life and eternity shall merge. Nay, you shall have less true knowledge of them than if for a little while one should revisit the glimpses of the moon, and, seeing only a curved line dimly gleaming in sunset skies, should return to the shades with news that there is no moon left but a sinking new one.
Would you strive to reconcile one with another the glories of eternity ? strive, with your petty human powers, to prove them consistent things ?
Why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself: what then? ... A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you have said to-day. . . . Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took fesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."
In Emerson's calm impatience of philosophic system there is a fresh touch of that unhesitating assurance with which he brushed aside the most sacred of Christian institutions, when
for a moment it threatened to limit him. “ See,” he seems to bid you, “and report what you see as truly as language will let you. Then concern yourself no more as to what men shall say of
of your seeing or of your saying.” For even though what you perceive be a gleam of absolute truth, the moment you strive to focus its radiance in the little terms of human language, you must limit the diffusive energy which makes it radiant. So even though your gleams be in themselves consistent one with another, your poor little vehicle of words, conventional and faint symbols with which mankind has learned to blunder, must perforce dim each gleam by a limitation itself irreconcilable with truth. Language at best was made to phrase what the cant of our passingly fashionable philosophy has called the knowable, and what interested Emerson surged infinitely throughout the unknowable realms.
Take that famous passage from his essay in “ Society and Solitude," on “Civilisation":
" It was a great instruction,' said a saint in Cromwell's war, 'that the best courages are but beams of the Almighty.' Hitch your wagon to a star. Let us not fag in paltry works which serve our pot and bag alone. Let us not lie and steal. No god will help. We shall find all their teams going the other way, - Charles's Wain, Great Bear, Orion, Leo, Hercules; every god will leave us. Work rather for those interests which the divinities honor and promote, justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility."
In one sense this seems hodge-podge; in another, for all its lack of lyric melody, it seems an almost lyric utterance of something which all men may know and which no man
“ Hitch your waggon to a star” has Aashed into the idiom of our speech; but if you try to translate it into visual terms you must find it a mad metaphor. The waggon is no real rattling vehicle of the Yankee country, squalid in its dingy blue; nor is the star any such as ever twinkled through the clear New England nights. No chain ever forged could reach far on the way from a Concord barn to Orion. Yet behind the homely, incomplete symbol there is a thought, an emotion, Aashing swifter than ever ray of starry light, and so binding together the smallest things and the greatest which lie within our human ken that for an instant we may feel them both alike in magnitude, each alike mere symbols of illimitable truth beyond, and both together significant only because for an instant we have snatched them together, almost at random, from immeasurable eternity.
For phenomena, after all, are only symbols of the eternities, and words at their best are trivial, Aeeting, conventional symbols of little nobler than these mere phenomena themselves :
“Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it. The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered.”
So in a way of his own Emerson disdained words. This peculiarity appears perhaps most clearly when he is avowedly dealing with matters of fact. In 1856 he published a book named “ English Traits,” in which he recorded the impressions made on him by two visits to England, some fifteen years apart. His subject here is what he had observed as a traveller ; his treatment of it falls into unsystematic notes, each phrased in terms of unqualified assertion. As you read, you find few statements which do not seem full of shrewd, suggestive truth
“ Man in England,” he says, for example, “ submits to be a product of political economy. On a bleak moor a mill is built, a banking house is opened, and men come in as water in a sluiceway, and towns and cities rise. Man is made as a Birmingham button. The doubling of the population dates from Watt's steam-engine. A landlord who owns a province, says, “ The tenantry are unprofitable; let me have sheep.' He unroofs the houses and ships the population to America."
Again, a little later we read :
“There is an English hero superior to the French, the German, the Italian, or the Greek. When he is brought to the strife with fate, he sacrifices a richer material possession and on more purely metaphysical grounds. He is there with his own consent, face to face with fortune, which he defies. On deliberate choice and from grounds of character, he has elected his part to live and die for, and dies with grandeur."
Each of these statements seems true, and they are not really incompatible ; but each needs the other to qualify the impression of universality which Emerson somehow conveys with every sentence.
Qualification he rarely stoops to. All he says is true, all incomplete, all suggestive, all traceable to the actual facts of that complex England which gave rise to all. And just as Emerson writes about England, with its wealth and its manufactures, its aristocracy and its cockneys, its “ Times” and its trade and its Stonehenge, so he writes elsewhere of God, of the eternities, of Concord farmers, of the Over-Soul, of whatever else passes before his untiring earthly vision.
A dangerous feat, this. Any one may attempt it, but most of us would surely fail, uttering mere jargon wherein others could discern little beyond our several limitations. As we contemplate Emerson, then, our own several infirmities slowly reveal to us more and more clearly how true a seer he was. With more strenuous vision than is granted to common men, he really perceived in the eternities those living facts and lasting thoughts which, with all the careless serenity of his intellectual insolence, he rarely troubled himself intelligibly to phrase.
Sometimes these perceptions fairly fell within the range of language; and of language at such moments Emerson had wonderful mastery. Open his essays at random. On one page you shall find phrases like this:
“ By the same fire, vital, consecrating, celestial, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light, we see and know each other."