Ralph waldo emerson’s essay on compensation

There are moments in all of our lives when we’re burdened by the suspicion that perhaps in the real world at least – it’s the dishonest people who are rewarded. . . while men and women who try to do the best work that they can while helping their neighbors and their planet are presented with one obstacle after another. Well, if such feelings have been getting you down lately, you might care to read the opinion of one of humankind’s great thinkers. . . in this excerpt from a classic essay.

Ever since I was a boy I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation; for it seemed to me, when very young, that on this subject life was ahead of theology, and the people knew more than the preachers taught….

I was lately confirmed in these desires by hearing a sermon at church. The preacher, a man esteemed for his orthodoxy, unfolded in the ordinary manner the doctrine of the Last Judgment. He assumed that judgment is not executed in this world; that

the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; and then urged from reason and from Scripture a compensation to be made to both parties in the next life. No offence appeared to be taken by the congregation at this doctrine. As far as I could observe, when the meeting broke up, they separated without remark on the sermon.

Yet what was the import of this teaching? What did the preacher mean by saying that the good are miserable in the present life? Was it that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them the like gratification another day-bank stock and doubloons, venison and champagne? This must be the compensation intended; for what else? Is it that they are to have leave to pray and praise? to love and serve men? Why, that they can do now. The legitimate inference the disciple would draw was – “We are to have such a good time as the sinners have now” – or, to push it to its extreme import “You sin now, we shall sin by and by; we would sin now, if we could; not being successful, we expect our revenge tomorrow” . . . .

But men are better than this theology. Their daily life gives it the lie. Every ingenuous and aspiring soul leaves the doctrine behind him in his own experience; and all men feel sometimes the falsehood which they cannot demonstrate….

I shall attempt to record some facts that indicate the path of the law of Compensation; happy beyond my expectation, if I shall truly draw the smallest arc of this circle….

Human labour, through all its forms, from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic, is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that everything has its price – and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get anything without its price-is not less sublime in the columns of a ledger than in the budgets of states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and reaction of nature. I cannot doubt that the high laws which each man sees implicated in those processes with which he is conversant, the stern ethics which sparkle on his chisel edge, which are measured out by his plumb and foot rule, which stand as manifest in the footing of the shop bill as in the history of a state, do recommend to him his trade and, though seldom named, exalt his business to his imagination.



Ralph waldo emerson’s essay on compensation