I've read this short essay the second time now and it's fully of profound wisdom. The language is definitely not an easy read — it's from 1848 —, but it's worth every sentence. I'm working with the topic of knowing what is true and what not at the moment and this text gives a good confrontation: *none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried*. It's not about knowing from the head :)
My notes from the book
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you,
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loth to disappoint them.
Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Greatness appeals to the future.
The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this.
Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation.
For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.
At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say, “Come out unto us.” But keep thy state; come not into their confusion.
Let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth.
I will not hide my tastes or aversions.
If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions.
High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!
We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.
Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us.
He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not “studying a profession,” for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.
As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.
Another sort of false prayers are our regrets.
Traveling is a fool’s paradise. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
Insist on yourself; never imitate.
Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.
Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.
Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge.
Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.
But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature.
He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.
So use all that is called Fortune.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.