Experience | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Experience | Quotes


Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson opens the essay with metaphors of a series of days and experiences reflecting the universal human experience. He describes a sense of being dropped into an ongoing existence where neither the beginning nor the end is visible. This is an example of the aspects of human experience he discusses where the true meaning of things is hidden from people's perception.


People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson argues that a person might be tempted to think that suffering and grief will give them greater wisdom and understanding, but it turns out not to be the case. Despite suffering being an intense experience, it is still shallow and leaves people no better off. He illustrates this point by noting that even his feelings about the death of his son have become less intense after two years have passed. He now is able to experience that once-devastating loss as he would experience the less tragic loss of "a beautiful estate."


Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the chief factors that limits people's experience is personal temperament. This is the tendency of each person to adhere to the same habits of thinking and behavior throughout their life. People appear to be varying, creative, and able to change when they first encounter one another. Over the course of a lifetime, however, they learn that everyone including themselves is like a music box, only ever playing the same tune.


Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Even though every person is limited in what they can do and learn because of their temperament, this doesn't mean that they can never be creative. Emerson argues that there is always an opening for God, "the creative power," to enter into them and enable them to rise above their normal limits.


Of course, it needs the whole society, to give the symmetry we seek.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Any one person, experience, or book can only engage someone's whole attention for a short time. No matter how captivating it was the first time, it is always less so on later visits. For this reason, Emerson advises the reader to keep moving on from one thing to another and to have a wide variety of experiences. He refers to the Creative Power and says it speaks through different things each time, like a bird hopping from branch to branch.


To fill the hour, — that is happiness; to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson criticizes talk and argument about how to make a perfect society. He suggests that people instead go about their business, live in the present moment, and make the best of it. He advises people to treat others well even if they are not the best people they can be.


Everything good is on the highway.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson argues that the best things in life are not off in extreme and exotic places but right on the highway in front of us. He describes this highway as a middle temperate zone between "the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science" on one side and pure sensation on the other. He is encouraging the reader to find a balance between being purely logical and analytical and living purely for feelings and physical sensations.


So many things are unsettled which it is of the first importance to settle, — and, pending their settlement, we will do as we will do.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson advises people to go on about their business even if important issues and questions about it are still undecided. They should not wait for others to finish endless discussions about laws or policies that might affect their own work. They need to get on with the work in the meantime and make the most of each day.


The consciousness in each man is a sliding scale, which identifies him now with the First Cause, and now with the flesh of his body.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson refers to God as the "First Cause," a creative force that began the universe and that sometimes works through people in creative ways. This force does not do so consistently, however. Sometimes people's actions and thoughts are inspired by it, and sometimes their actions come only from themselves and their physical needs.


Fortune, Minerva, Muse, Holy Ghost, — these are quaint names, too narrow to cover this unbounded substance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's concept of God is of a mysterious and creative force. He suggests that the names and descriptions that various cultures and religions have given to God are too narrow and restrictive to be completely true. People must humble themselves before this force he refers to as the "First Cause" even though they will never have a real name for it.


Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson makes the point that everyone's subjective perspectives as individuals make it impossible to truly understand other people as they understand themselves. Subjective perspectives take place in a person's mind rather than the external world. A person can perceive things about others one thing at a time, but there will always be a separation between one person's awareness and another's.


There is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson ends the essay with a final optimistic prediction. Despite there being so many factors and forces that limit creativity and understanding, there can still be occasional revelations and moments of wisdom. He predicts that at some unknown point in the future humanity as a species will reach its full potential.

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