Chant the Beauty of the Good

It’s been a good long while since I hied myself to the high country where Ralph Waldo Emerson hangs out.

I often find him perched on a ledge on a steep hill overlooking the valleys of men and their works.   He lets his feet dangle over the abyss and swings his legs gently like a child, all the while looking straight out at the horizon, a faraway light in his eyes.

“Waldo,” I call out, “dude!”

With a small smile, he deigns to acknowledge my tendency towards the insolent, and we carry on our conversation as if it wasn’t months since the last time I came calling.

“Waldo, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to some of the things we discussed… ”

He smoothly interrupts: “Character is higher than intellect… A great soul will be strong to live, as well as to think. ”

There, that’s the thing.  He’ll come right out of nowhere with these zingers.  In my everyday world (and I assume yours, as well) of the deliberate lying of advertising and politicians, of constant consumerist indoctrination, of television and radio and movies and video games dwelling upon violence, horror and titillation, of nations preying upon nations, of nations preying upon their own people, of the very world itself choking upon man’s dominion, to hear Waldo talk leaves me with a deep appreciation that someone, somewhere, meets the world this way.

I started to speak of this to Waldo by way of thanking him.  He held up a hand: “Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.”

All right!  I like that, the rhythm of that sentence, the way he rolls it out, the Socratic attention to “the good.”  How often do we hear any one speak of “the good” in that way any more?

Waldo has his secret cynical side though, which he let slip the last time we chatted: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

He chuckled at me when I told him this turn in the conversation took me by surprise and he said, in the closest to sly he ever gets: “A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.”

But on this day, I have other things on my mind.  I struggle with writing, I tell him.  I know I can write.  I feel the power of the language sometimes, crouching back there behind me.  But there’s no real focus, no real need to tell anybody anything.

He listened patiently.  Then he said,

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Waldo paused thoughtfully, then went on.  “Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none.  This sculpture in the memory is not without pre-established harmony.  The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.”

“Waldo,” I protested, “this partakes too much of predestination for the likes of me…” This is another problem, talking with Waldo, I start taking on old-fashioned word choices and cadences.  If I’m not careful, I start saying things like, “Vouchsafe me, prithee…”

Waldo ignored me, as he is sometimes wont to do, although not without a cut of his eyes in my direction.

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy,” he says, “against the manhood of every one of its members.”  I chime in, knowing I’m keying in on one of his infrequent but typical oversights.  “And against the womanhood too, right?” I say brightly.  He nods, a little annoyed that I feel the need to show him up.

He continues, “The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.  It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”  He stopped to gauge my reaction.

I tell him, “I know you’re right on that.  But we’re still not getting to the essence of my problem of lacking anything of gravitas to write about.  Being a nonconformist for the sake of nonconformity is not helping me here.”

He always smiles when I start to get so insufferably self-involved.

200px-rwemerson.jpg“Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality of nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth that though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation?”

Waldo’s been toying with me again… now he gets down to it.  I’m nodding like crazy.

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius!” he says drily. “A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

I murmur my thanks and make to go.  As usual, Waldo has made me think, without giving me any easy answers.

“About writing,” Waldo says as I am about to go back down the rocky trail.  I turn back, eager, for any hint he may give me.

“A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss,” he says.  “Do you know that?”

“Thank you, Waldo,” I say sincerely.  He nods and smiles at me warmly, and returns his gaze to the horizon.

There’s a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson on the web.

Here are a couple of sites: and

Quotes above were taken from his essays Self-Reliance and Nature, and a few other sources.


A note about Emerson’s name (Dec. 2015):

I was chagrined to learn recently that Emerson never went by Ralph in his lifetime, but was always Waldo to himself and his friends and peers.  My original version of this post used what I assumed was his first name to give it an air of familiarity, but instead displayed the opposite.

So I’ve changed every Ralph to Waldo.  It’s unfortunate that Waldo, as an unusual first name in our time, is probably most commonly associated with “Where’s Waldo?”, a visual puzzle about spotting a character in a crowd.  Perhaps there’s a tangential relationship….

Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Culture, Heroes, Writing

8 Comments on “Chant the Beauty of the Good”

  1. qazse Says:

    very clever piece.

    “In my everyday world (and I assume yours, as well) of the deliberate lying of advertising and politicians, of constant consumerist indoctrination, of television and radio and movies and video games dwelling upon violence, horror and titillation, of nations preying upon nations, of nations preying upon their own people, of the very world itself choking upon man’s dominion, ” I love this!


    ps, I read so much Emerson I became Transcendentally ill

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey thanks, qazse,

    I do seem to get rolling sometimes. Odd that sentences like that are in the opposite direction from where I consider intellectually that good writing starts: short, punchy sentences. Important to mix it up, though. I start to get intoxicated with the sound of my own interior voice, which may not always be so good.

    I had a lot of fun with this. I’m going for a walk with Hank (Henry Thoreau) before too long, if he doesn’t get disgusted and stride off without me when the time comes.


  3. fencer Says:

    P.S. I trust your transcendental illness receded to leave you high-minded and refreshed. Though I’m obviously fond of Ralph, I think my temperament is more in line with Thoreau’s: Ralph gets too abstruse and rarefied for me sometimes. (After doing this, he’s always going to be Ralph to me instead of Mr. Emerson…)


  4. qazse Says:

    Yes, I am feeling much better thank you.

    I am often pleased that the impressive and effective sentence I just read was two or three lines long. F%&* the experts.

  5. fencer Says:

    Yes, I like the rhythm and sound of language, and there’s a cumulative effect that sometimes takes over and makes a sentence long. I don’t get to it that often, but a long, well-written sentence can be carried and made interesting by variations in the rhythm so you don’t notice… the meaning just rolls onto you.

    Something like that! You’re playing with rhythm all the time with your writing, I think.


  6. Tony Says:

    Wow..I enjoyed this very much!

  7. […] “Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson. […]

  8. […] For my own encounters with Thoreau and Emerson, there are the posts A Walk With Hank, and Chant the Beauty of the Good. […]

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