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A Good Man Shall Be Satisfied from Himself

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A good man shall be satisfied from himself.” (Prov. 14:14)

These words express a sentiment as full of delight as it is of truth: the sufficiency of goodness to the soul, or rather the sufficiency of the nature of man to make his happiness without addition from without when once it is under the direction of religious principle. I wish to present two topics to your consideration, to which the sentiment may be divided: 1) That a man's knowledge of the truth should be satisfied from himself; 2) That a man's affections can be satisfied only by a good state of his own mind. One of the most obstinate errors yet prevail in keeping hold of the mind, and one of the most injurious is the opinion that it is the part of piety to receive the doctrines of religion without severe examination. It is thought to indicate pride if a man would measure by reason, the religious truth. It is thought a mark of a disposition to infidelity, and blamable self-confidence. The zealot writes, "Thus saith the Lord," upon every doctrine that is contained in the popular creed, and expects a good man to show his goodness by an unhesitating assent.

I think this a very prevalent and a very injurious mistake. There have been times when it operated upon all or almost all the minds of a whole age. Now it affects very deeply a large portion of the religious community and in some degree those who think themselves secure from it. If we look for truth, I think we shall find that whilst on the one hand this opinion is a false one and tends to corrupt and degrade the mind, on the other hand, the objectors to self-reliance in one sense, are perfectly right. There is always danger of pride and presumption, and of becoming wholly irreligious from an evil use of the understanding in religious questions. I shall endeavour to show the true distinction that should be made.

1. First then as to this opinion that it is more pious to receive religious truth than to set out to think for oneself, I answer, that to think is to receive, that to think, to study, to verify in each ones own experience every doctrine, is the only way in which truth can in any real sense be said to be received.

The commandment is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," not with thy neighbor’s, but with thy own. Go all lengths with this sentiment. Fully trust yourself as the judge of truth. For suppose that which you try to believe differs from what you see. What can a man do against the truth? If himself, if his reason clearly say one thing, and the Scriptures seem to say another, how can he receive that interpretation? Let him trust himself. Let him believe that whilst he honestly tries to know the true, he shall not see the false. You are a judge of the truth or falsehood of any proposition the terms of which you understand. I will believe that truth is stronger than I and will prevail. I will believe that truth is good enough for me and that I shall not be corrupted by knowing it. Yes, it seems to me that this distrust of human reason that cries out so loud upon infidelity, calls its own name; it is based on infidelity. It fears the light. It believes that free discussion and fair examination will show falsehoods in its religious system.

Are men afraid that their reason will outsee God? "Lest their own judgments should become too bright"? That the faculties which God hath made will see sharper than is good? Will find something more or different from what they should find? If they apprehend this, then I say, they do not believe in the true God, in God as he is, and the sooner their idol is overthrown, the better. And it is because men have been content to be religious by rote, to make piety to consist in giving a verbal assent to articles of faith, and in giving a bodily obedience to forms of worship, that theology has been so false, and that goodness has been so low. Religion has been asleep this thousand years. I do not speak of any one sect. I speak of all. I speak of us. I think almost all of us are content to be religious by education and not by realizing its truths. The only way for a man to become religious is to be so by himself. He is to go aside from all manner of society; he is to go into his closet and shut his door, not only upon his household and his friends, but upon the great association of believers with whom he is classed, upon the nations that are called of Christ, and upon the world that in some form worships God, and he is to pray unto his Father who is in secret, and his Father who seeth in secret will hear him [Matt. 6:6]. Yes, it is not important that a man go into privacy and darkness to pray. Jesus only warns him against ostentatious prayer. Let him pray if he will in thick of the crowd, but it is important that he go into a retirement of the spirit, from the subserviency to other minds that encourages at once both sloth and fear and shuts him out from a communion with God.

To reflect: to use and trust your own reason is to receive truth immediately from God, and so it be humbly received from him, I know it may be trusted. It will do good; it will tell whence it came. What truth you thus receive is a living faith. To take on trust certain facts is a dead faith. A trust in yourself is the height, not of pride, but of piety, an unwillingness to learn of any but God himself. Let a man therefore prove all things and hold fast that which is good [1 Thess. 5:21]. Let him not use any duplicity with himself. Let him never fear to reject that view of God which his heart tells him is wrong, believing that it is God in his heart who bears witness to Himself.

But whilst this doctrine may be pressed to its full extent of trust in reason, and any denial of it is suicidal, there is a truth of vital importance which must be considered with it that it may be safe, and that is, whilst you trust in self, the origin of self must be perceived. The moment a man loses sight of the truth that he did not make himself, that he is not a cause, but a mere effect of some other Cause, and so a mere manifestation of power and wisdom not his own—the moment he lets this truth go, he becomes a bundle of errors and sins. He sees all good that he is permitted to do as coming from himself and is proud. He sees all good that comes from his exertions to be his own and is selfish. And when the doctrines of religion are presented to him, he wants that first truth which should open the door to them. Unaccustomed to feel his direct and total dependence upon God, though he may have assented always to his worship, he now asks the proof; he asks that it should be shown to his eye and his ear and his touch and smell. It cannot be shown to him without his perception of the truth that he has no existence by himself. And so his former nominal belief is exchanged for a real and professed unbelief.

It is the observation of this face that has made good men fear trust in self.  And this distinction is as firm as that of good and evil. This distinction is made in the text—"A good man, etc.” A good man knows that he is not his own. To a man who sees that he has no other existence than that which he derives every moment from a power not his own, that is, from God, the doctrine may be safely preached of a boundless reliance on himself, because that is a reliance on God. To a man who does not perceive this fact, the same doctrine is welcome, but it inflames his pride and darkens his knowledge. He is great by the power, he is wise by the wisdom, and he lives by the life of God.

This distinction, once seen, is the perfect check entire security. I leave this doctrine, which amounts to no more in the end than to say: God cannot make him perceive truth except by the use of his own faculties.

2.  Akin to this is another doctrine on which I wish now to make a few remarks, viz., that it is only by our own affections that any object can be loved. This may seem so plain in the statement as it should never be doubted, and yet I think it has been neglected by Christians in their regard paid to Jesus Christ.

There is a feeling that has caused a great uneasiness to many that they ought to pay a great and religious deference to Christ as designated by God to an eminent place and work in his creation. The opinion prevails that God has made it their duty to love Christ. They derive hence from this feeling of obligation an uncertainty in their views of him, a greater incapacity to love him, and end perhaps in an open rejection of the faith or in a servile and hypocritical profusion of words of affection.

It is wholly wrong to attempt to require love and honour of a soul by representing it as an obligation, to compel affection. There is no power in the Universe that can force a mind to revere another mind. The idea that dignity like that conferred by a king on a subject demands respect and love is the mistake in this case. God does not use personal authority. It is the direct effect of all spiritual truth to abrogate and nullify personal authority, to make us love the virtue and the person exactly by the measure of his virtues. God is no respecter of persons. Love is the reward of loveliness. Reverence is the reward of wisdom and goodness. Do not suppose attachment to him is to be enjoined on you.

It is not his office, it is not his power, his renown, but his moral and intellectual being that are the objects of your regard. And these—how are these to be loved? Only by means of yourself. Yourself must be the mean through which only these exalted powers can satisfy your affections. For consider that any character can only be loved by likeness; whilst you are evil, you can never love him who is good.

But would you be his friends, keep his commandments. And when you are filled with benevolence, you will discern new worth and beauty in his character; as you become meek, and true, and pure, and useful, you shall find his name dearer to you and a warmer fellowship arise between your souls.

This is suitable to the language of the New Testament, where Christ is continually spoken of in the Epistles almost as an abstract name for those virtues that shone in him. “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” [1 Cor. 1:24]; “Christ who is our life shall appear” [Col. 3:4]; “We have the Spirit of Christ” [Rom. 8:9]. It was a name for moral perfection. “To live is Christ” [Phil. 1:21].

Thus, brethren, is a good man satisfied from himself, in his faculties and in his affections. And why is he thus perfect? It is written in the book of Genesis, and it is written also in the mind. God said, “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness, and let him have dominion over the beast of the field and fowl of the air” [Gen 1:27-28].

It is because we are of God, and only so far as we are of him, that we find the whole creation, both matter and mind, coming under our dominion and able to yield us the riches of all its gratification. But the attempt to separate ourselves from him to see knowledge and to get enjoyment by ourselves destroys both. We become false and wicked.

"When I am unhappy I am untrue to my principles."  Richter

Let us then feel, brethren, that we have our own work to do, that it is to no purpose that we are associated with religious minds, if we are not religious. Let us abstain from looking abroad or leaning on others, and go home. We must be satisfied from ourselves with truth or not at all. That only is our faith which is our own seeing; all the rest is shadows.

Let us feel also that the ground of all love is likeness, that the good love the good, and with a degree always measured by the greatness of their virtues, that as the beatitudes that dwelt like so many angels in the bosom of Jesus Christ, stronger shall be our own. Opening ourselves to the influences of God’s Spirit in our minds, we shall find ourselves drawn to him in the only true way.  We shall find ourselves filled with that spirit of God which makes all, as it made him, Sons of God. We shall then do the commandments and abide in the love of that glorious and excellent mind, even as he does his Father's commandments and abides in his love.

July 31 1831

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