May 25 marks Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birthday. “The Sage of Concord,” called “the outstanding representative of romantic symbolism in the English speaking world,” was a major poet and influence on 19th century America. He was also an essayist who emphasized individualism and challenged traditional authority. He worked for women’s rights and against slavery. According to Barbara Solowey, “He inspired many of the best minds of his age to quest for authentic freedom…[He] embodied much of what is noblest and most admirable in our national character.”
Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation of Economic Education, in almost 30 books, also quoted Emerson more than any other person, except Edmund Burke, Read’s model of a philosopher-statesman. In fact, Read’s single most frequently quoted line was from Emerson: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.” Knowing some of what Read gleaned from Emerson doesn’t just give us a window into Leonard Read’s thoughts, but something well worth thinking for ourselves.
Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than material force, that thoughts rule the world.
What you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
Look not mournfully to the past—it comes not back again; wisely improve the present—it is thine; go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear, and with a manly heart.
There is a persuasion in the soul of man that he is here for a cause, and that he was put down in this place by the Creator to do the work for which He inspired him; that thus he is an over-match for all the antagonists that could contrive against him.
Thought must take the stupendous step of passing into realization.
[N]o man thoroughly understands a truth until first he has contended against it.
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Trust men and they will be true to you.
We lie in the lap of Immense Intelligence which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves but allow a passage of its beams.
America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of divine Providence in behalf of the human race.
All I have teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.
Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you.
Self-trust is the essence of heroism.
I cannot find language of sufficient energy to convey my sense of the sacredness of integrity.
The best lightning-rod for your own protection is your own spine.
Cause and effect cannot be severed.
[A mob is] a society of bodies voluntarily bereaving themselves of reason.
[A]n institution is but the lengthening shadow of one man.
Talent for talent’s sake is a bauble and a show. Talent working with joy in the cause of universal truth lifts the possessor to new power as a benefactor.
The genius of man is a continuation of the power that made him and that has not done making him!
Thought is the seed of action; but action is as much its second form as thought is its first. It rises in thought, to the end that it may be uttered and acted. Always in proportion to the depth of its sense does it knock importunately at the gates of the soul, to be spoken, to be done.
Explore, and explore and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize nor accept another’s dogmatism…Truth…has its roof, and bed, and board. Make yourself necessary to the world, and mankind will give you bread.
The Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes he employed reveal many aspects of Leonard Read. They include Read’s emphasis on the spiritual, the need for morality, the need for integrity, the need for careful thought, the need to focus on the future and its possibilities rather than the past and its failures, the impossibility of achieving moral ends with immoral means, the need to stand up for what one believes, and the importance of each individual and their growth. The rest of us could benefit from rethinking those thoughts along with him.
I would also add some of Emerson’s most insightful thoughts on liberty to Read’s list.
[T]he times favor the idea of self‑government, and leave the individual…to the rewards and penalties of his own constitution…
[A]ll have equal rights…
We want…a state of things which allows every man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other man.
Liberty is the Crusade of all brave and conscientious men…
A man’s right to liberty is as inalienable as his right to life.
We wish…to offer liberty instead of chains…
If any person have less love of liberty…shall he therefore dictate to you and me?
[L]iberty is an accurate index, in men and nations, of general progress.
It is not skill in iron locomotives that makes so fine civility, as the jealousy of liberty.
A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom…can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means…
[The State’s] institutions…are not superior to the citizen…
Man exists for his own sake and not to add a laborer to the State.
Who is he that shall control me?…Who has forged the chains…and must I wear them?
[W]henever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of [others] also…it must be executed…by force. This undertaking for another is the blunder which stands in colossal ugliness in the governments of the world.
This is the history of governments–one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me, ordains that a part of my labor shall go to this or that whimsical end, not as I, but as he happens to fancy.
[Many] believe…any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people, if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand…
[S]tatesmen…are sure to be found befriending liberty with their words, and crushing it with their votes.
We…pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force…
Every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well.
[N]ecessity…secures the rights of person and property against the malignity or folly of the magistrate…
[W]hat is the use of constitutions, if all the guaranties…for the protection of liberty are made of no effect, when a bad act of Congress finds a willing commissioner?
[T]he less government we have, the better–the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal Government is…the growth of the Individual…
We must not…doubt that roads can be built, letters carried, and the fruit of labor secured, when the government of force is at an end.
Emerson’s admirers praise him as a poet and the freedom of expression he stood for. Yet we should remember, as did Leonard Read, his devotion to all of our freedoms. He recognized that “Every step in the history of political liberty is a sally of the human mind into the untried Future,” but had confidence that “the great interests of mankind, being at every moment through ages in favor of justice and the largest liberty, will always…at last win the day.”
Note: This article is adapted in part from my book, Apostle of Peace (2013).