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What is Man?

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This sermon was given at Chauncy Place, August 5, 1827 and at Northampton, October 29, 1827.

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Psalm 8:4.

Some thousands of years have passed since King David put this question in his pious ascription. He stopped as he praised on his harp the glory of the heavens and noted in the innumerable host of stars the little planet whereon man is lodged, and he exclaimed, “What is man?” The royal minstrel of Judah’s line after a few years was gathered to his fathers; a palsy crept upon the cunning of his hand, and the strings of his divine harp were snapped with time. But the question he had asked was not answered. His son, the prosperous favourite of Heaven and accounted the wisest of men, examined all the parts of human fortune but proved all unable to read the mystery or make known the interpretation. His royal line is perished. His mighty city, the glory of the East, has been razed to the ground. His nation has long fulfilled the tremendous doom which the awful voice of prophecy had for ages portended. Far and wide from their promised land the children of Israel and Judah have gone out into all the nations to be a shaking of the head and a byword among men. The prodigious revolution of human affairs has swept into ruin—not the generations of men alone, but all the cities, the nations, and the very names that were then strong and honourable. Other empires have been founded and overthrown by the waters of Jordan. Tracts then unexplored have been filled with men. New continents have been disclosed and new nations born. And in all this passage of time and all this unmeasured multiplication of human life, the question, “what is Man?”, has not lost any of its interest, although much has been done towards furnishing an answer.

It is a question, my brethren, that cannot be indifferent to any of us. There is not one here so gay or so gloomy or so busy that he has not sometimes found this anxious inquiry in his mind. It involves all we can hope or fear. It involves the whole of life and, what is of much more consequence to us, the whole of what is to follow. It is a question directly of what power, what agency, interests man, beyond and above his own. “What is man,” is in fact wholly dependent on the question “What is God?”

It will aid us, it is probable, to form just views of our duty, to refresh within us good resolutions from their just sources, to review rapidly as the time requires the false answers and the true, which have been suggested to the interrogation of the King of Israel.

Man, said the pagan proverb, is the son of the earth and the grandson of nothing. Man, said the pagan philosopher, is the unpremeditated result of a blind necessity, and the same necessity will reduce him presently to dust. He is the offspring, said another, of mere chance, and tis ridiculous to inquire why he is what he is, or whither he is tending, for all his constitution and all his destiny is subject to the same tossing incalculable chance. He is vanity, said Solomon; he is vanity and vexation of spirit. He is an animal, one degree higher than the brute, said Epicurus, created in the sport of the Gods, who have left him to himself and do not disturb their own felicity by any superintendence of his race. Man, said the gloomy scoffer, go visit him in his shroud. Look where lies in a dreamless sleep in his narrow house. There’s no colour in his cheek, no beating at the heart. He shall talk, think, and act never again. His soaring affections are dissipated, at last his faculties, his schemes, are broken, his unbounded wishes—here is all that is left. No matter how high his lot, “the heart and life of a great emperor is the breakfast of a little worm.”

These are the answers which a vain philosophy or a vainer conceit furnished in another age to that grave inquiry in which all the inquirers felt that they had the highest stake. But God did not permit that men should remain in this pernicious ignorance of their own hopes and his goodness. He sent his Son into the world to solve the great enigma that had baffled the mighty and disconcerted the wise. He scattered the doubts of men by revealing the doctrine of immortality and of a moral government of the universe. And now, in the spirit of his religion, let us attempt to answer the question as well, as our better lights of reason and revelation will enable us.

It appears, then, that each of us has been set here on the earth by our common Father, who is an infinitely powerful and good Being. God has put you in the earth that he may add a unit to the amount of happiness by endowing you with life and then with immortal powers. He has set us down each in such circumstances as he, for reasons not yet known to us, saw in his wisdom to be best for each. He has created us poor and destitute. Naked we came into the world, not of raiment alone, but of all the equipment of powers, the affections, the accomplishments that make our crown of immortality. Nothing but the folded up seminal principle of all these, the aftergrowth, did we possess. We are compelled ourselves to bring them out of darkness to their powerful maturity by an obedience to those necessities, which call them out on every side. The same Providence that first designed still presides over the infant’s development. Follow out the history of a single child and mark how God is continually shifting and enlarging the field of its intellectual vision. As the scholar proceeds to a more advanced treatise from an elementary one, so from the busy mind of that little trifler God withdraws in succession one motive, one group of objects, one desire, as fast as their several ends are answered.  Whilst it is still a babe and has not learned the first properties of matter, nor the use of its limbs, there is imparted to it an incessant restlessness and an unlearned curiosity that have no intermission in the waking hours. When the years increase, and the body has been moulded to answer the purposes, to be the minister of the soul, this inconvenient excess of inquisitiveness and physical uneasiness subsides, and the same power that gave these means of knowledge now begins to furnish new and larger opportunities, new and manlier and more cogent motives. And now, in its more advanced education, we begin to recognize tendencies and powers that intimate its true destiny. It begins to be seen that God is designing us for higher and better things, that the child of clay is the heir of immortality. Within the bosom of man, affections expand that he is conscious may feed him with immeasurable joy.

My brethren, I do not think we accustom ourselves enough to consider the wonderful properties of our nature. We are apt to forget the great qualities that exist in things familiar to us. Man is a common sight. We are surrounded by tens of thousands of our fellow beings and do not stop to ponder on the greatness of their fate. We disregard in their multitude, that which would amaze us, if it stood alone. The bosom of this being so frail, so weak, subject to contagion and destruction from so many forms of disease, begins to dilate with lofty thoughts that speak to him of a more desirable creation. Within that wasting form, a mind abides that contains that masterwork of Deity: the memory, the capacious house of thought, where the innumerable ideas of a whole life, the persons, the places, the traditions, the studies, the very color and shades of all things, live again for our use, unconfused and immortal. By this faculty, this feeble agent, who can walk but a span at a time along the ground, sends back his soul, with a speed that mocks the whirlwind, to other places and times, and hath a kind of property in all the past. By his reason, by his hope, by his imagination, he surveys, he masters all the present, and runs forward into the tardy ages of the future. I need not finish the enumeration of powers, since it only needs, my friends, that each of you should explore that standing miracle, your own soul, to see how miserably short of the truth is any description. I must only add that over all these collected energies and the main central prominent power of the soul is the moral sentiment—the Conscience, the distinguisher of right and wrong, that gives to all these powers the unity of one moral being, that adds its sentence of censure or approval to every act of the agent, that in every moment of temptation points as with a silent finger to something, it says not what, that is to come. Do these things, these wonderful faculties, smell of corruption? Do you think these can perish as a body can perish, and this divine instinct of the future can corrupt and moulder with the earth it animated? Or do they not vindicate to themselves another birthright as creatures of God made in his image?

To these beings thus constituted God has revealed his character and will, has commanded their obedience to his moral law, and sanctioned it with happiness and misery. Hear the words of the apostle, who preached “the righteous judgement of God, who will render unto every man according to his deeds; to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory honour and immortality eternal life; But unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil.”—Rom 2:5-8.

And furthermore my friends, a pious mind will draw from these indications the inference, which reason and religion do abundantly sanction, that the account of his existence, which each of us must render to himself, the reason of all the persons and things with which we have been associated is this, that God is unrolling the universe before each of us for our instruction, is placing us in successive series of circumstances, is bringing into the neighborhood of each, now one and now another, mind or group of minds in exact accommodation to what are seen to be our peculiar exigences at the moment, until by just degress we shall be fitted in each immortal fibre for the scenes of action and thought that are presently to be disclosed. My brethren, let us be careful that these considerations lead us to proper feelings. I dwell on these noble parts of our nature not that it may excite pride in our breasts—it is the last feeling it ought to awaken—but that seeing what endowments and opportunities we have, comparing the greatness of our Maker’s design with the lowness of our performance, comparing what we might be with what we are, it may make us humble, may make us contrite, may make us better.

And for what purpose does this education go on, and why so vast an arena of preparation, and to what theatre of action, do such difficult exercises invigorate us? That is to say, to what world are we transferred when our bodies sleep the sleep of death? Is it imagined by any of us that when life draws to its close, we have done our work, that if our imperfect obedience has found favor with God, our toils are over, our crown is ready, our minds are to become channels through which happiness is to flow as a stream, and flow forever? Are we to be laid up, much as children imagine, of Eastern Kings in magnificence and joy in abodes of beauty in the instantaneous gratification of every wish amid armies of bright beings who fulfill with every act the measure of our sovereign felicity? These are but rude ideas of heaven and not many degrees removed from the absurdity of that faith which promises the believer all sensual luxury. No, my friends, not such an intimation of God's purpose is gotten from what is done here. Is it an idle Paradise, an eternity of dreams, a long and pleasant sloth? Are we to sit sluggish, as if our science were full, our virtues perfect, and this poor earth had been the triumphal field that witnessed our ultimate success in moral and intellectual action? Alas, my friends, what have we done, and where are the mighty virtues we have exhibited, that we should think so meanly of what is expected from us by our Maker and of the employments of the future time? No, the earth is rather the porch, the threshold, of the mighty temple wherein our exertions are appointed, the antechamber where we prove our strength and provide ourselves with the instruments of labor. Let us judge of heaven by earth, judge of happiness to come by happiness that is past. Consider what are the purest enjoyments of which your nature has yet partaken and believe it will be capable of the same and better when it drops its vestment of flesh. As the tree falleth, so shall it lie. As you die in this world, you shall be born into that. You’ll enter that world with the character with which you left this. I beg you, then, to reflect if in your life any enjoyment has been so pure in its beginning, its progress, and its consequence as the doing of good. It had no end. That enjoyment was ever the parent of new enjoyments. Let me ask again whether your experience has determined that sloth and indulgence of passion and voluptuousness did not, when their consequences were also seen, lose their seeming beauty in loathsome deformity? And whether the greatest pleasure was not found to consist in overcoming pleasure? No, my friends, I cannot but think we beguile ourselves with very incompetent notions of the future. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart imagined the glory that shall be revealed,” saith the Scripture. Will heaven then fall short of our feeble conceptions? And yet our own minds condemn the representation of a scene of passive enjoyment. We do injustice to the Deity, we do injustice to our own convictions, by such a belief. It is a scene of magnificent action, of ever enlarging diligence and labor, of great beneficent achievement, of which at present our straining conceptions can shadow out but a poor and inadequate idea.

But I should do injustice to my subject did I leave it here. There is yet another element that enters into the composition of man. He is a tempted being and prone to sin. The design was to rear us to virtue. And the only way in which virtue is acquired is by resistance to evil. But alas, he has yielded to the pleasures of vice which are but for a season and slighted the boundless good which lay in store for his integrity. And lo, my friends, what widespread consequences avenge the guilt. Sin, which was admitted a little thing to the heart of each, now bloated and terrible walks abroad like a pestilence, consuming the health and the happiness of the world; it is in every place: in courts, in cottages, in action, in speech, and nestles in the heart.

And what remedy is provided to stay the plague? What balsam is in Gilead to heal this poison of the atmosphere we breathe? What is the last crowning gift to man that makes him what he is, and more—glorifies him to what he may become? Religion, my brethren, the religion of Jesus Christ that will renovate the dying man of sin with the new man of the spirit and blows the trump of resurrection over the sheeted dead.

It is an old fable that has appeared in some form amid the fictions of different nations, and which seems to be therefore an idea agreeable to the human mind, that there existed enchantments for the restoration of exhausted nature, that there were powerful persons to whom an art was known by which youth and health could be recovered to the old and decrepit, and fair proportions to the crooked and deformed. I need hardly represent to you, that if such a magician should appear among us, with what alacrity we should unburden ourselves of age and disease and decrepitude. Who would not think his swiftest haste was loitering who prepared to get rid of a chronic and loathsome disease, which disturbed the operation of all his senses, which made his life a burden to his friends and a burden to him, which made all the joys of life lose their character when he partook of them and only filled his bosom with the sharpest mortification? Yet this, my friends, is but a faint delineation of the evil of sin, which is the sickness of the soul; for one but kills the body and ends in death, but the other kills the soul. But what the ancients only feigned of the cure of the body, to us is come to pass, is more than realized in the cure of the soul. A way of health, a divine panacea, is freely offered us for the healing of this malady that has broken out and is consuming our immortal parts. Religion is this best restorative, this real enchantment that straightens the distorted mind, that infuses new hope into the self abandoned heart, the ardour of benevolence into the contracted soul, shedding the love of truth like sunlight into the darkened and noisome chambers of the understanding, impels like a torrent the feeble circulations of the thoughts and purposes, and sends out the being that crept before in a selfish small and despised round of petty ends, renewed invigorated to be a ministering angel in the world, to teach the ignorant, to aid the weak, to go about the earth like his Divine Master doing good.

My friends, let these considerations have their weight with us. We are of this ancient, erring, highly destined human race. Let our lives furnish the best answer to the question: What is man? We are the creatures of the Almighty, the candidates for heaven. We are tempted by our passions. We are frail and sinful. We need this antidote to bear about us as a medicine to our disease, as a solace to our griefs, as the ornament of our life, and as an earnest of heaven.

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference