Friday, May 8, 2009

Emerson's essay, "Compensation"

Some of the best teachers I've had weren't popular among the other students. One such teacher introduced me to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. After years of reading them, the words still provoke thought and shape action.

An Emerson quote under Brigid's eyes pulled me into reading his essay, Compensation. Here are some ideas from it that are as true today as they were in 1841.

Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess.

For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.

For every benefit you receive a tax is levied.

Material good has its tax, and if it came without desert or sweat, has no root in me, and the next wind will blow it away.

But because of the dual constitution of things, in labor as in life there can be no cheating. The thief steals from himself. The swindler swindles himself. For the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue, whereof wealth and credit are signs. These signs, like paper money, may be counterfeited or stolen, but that which they represent, namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen. These ends of labor cannot be answered but by real exertions of the mind, and in obedience to pure motives. The cheat, the defaulter, the gambler, cannot extort the knowledge of material and moral nature which his honest care and pains yield to the operative. The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power: but they who do not the thing have not the power.

None of us, individually or collectively, can override the dualist, reaction-born-of-action, "law of Compensation" that Emerson witnessed in nature and our human condition. It's a comfort in these days when words such as change and hope have been misappropriated and rendered meaningless.

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