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Selected Quotes from Emerson's Essay: Compensation


''In 'Compensation,' Emerson unveils the eternal truth that binds us all, reminding us to live in sync with the universe to unlock the treasures of existence.''

Summary of Emerson's Essay: Compensation

"Compensation," written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841, is a philosophical essay that explores the concept of balance and reciprocity in life. Emerson argues that the universe operates on the principle of compensation, where every action has a corresponding reaction. He emphasizes the importance of understanding this principle and living in accordance with it to achieve a sense of balance and fulfillment in life. Those who fail to do so will experience frustration and disappointment. 

The essay is considered one of Emerson's most significant works and a seminal text in American literature. It expresses his philosophical beliefs about the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of living in harmony with the universe. "Compensation" continues to be studied and revered as a powerful and timeless reflection on the nature of life and the human experience.


Selected Quotes

(Legend: Emerson's quote is in bold text. My translation of it is in blue italics and my annotation follows in plain text. Additionally, I've bolded some key points)

1. "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature, this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference nowhere."
The world works in circles. What goes around comes around. It's like a pattern that repeats itself endlessly. This is a symbol of the universe, and it's reflected in everything around us. This refers to the concept of cause and effect, which is central to his philosophy. Emerson believed that everything in the universe is interconnected and that all actions have consequences that ripple outward, creating a pattern of cause and effect that repeats endlessly.

The idea of "what goes around comes around"(this is 'karma' in the Western sense) is a shorthand way of expressing this principle. It means that the actions we take today will have consequences in the future, either positive or negative. Emerson saw this as a fundamental law of the universe, one that governs everything from the movements of the stars to the interactions between individuals.

The concept of circularity is also important here. Emerson believed that the universe operates in cycles and that everything has its own rhythm and pattern(as in wave function: see quantum mechanics). This is reflected in the seasons, the movements of the planets, and even in the patterns of our own lives. For Emerson, this circularity was a symbol of the universe itself, and he saw it as a reminder that we are all part of something larger than ourselves.

2. "The true life and satisfactions of man seem to elude the utmost rigors or felicities of condition and to establish themselves with great indifferency under all varieties of circumstances. Under all governments the influence of character remains the same,--in Turkey and in New England about alike." No matter what your situation, your character determines your happiness. Your circumstances don't define you; you define yourself.

This quote is a powerful reminder that our personal character is one of the most important factors in determining our happiness and success in life.

Emerson believed that no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, it is our own character(and our thoughts themselves) that ultimately determines our well-being. This means that even if we face difficult challenges or setbacks, we can still find happiness and fulfillment by cultivating positive qualities within ourselves, such as resilience, determination, and compassion.

Emerson's philosophy emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance. He believed that we are not defined by our external circumstances, but rather by the choices we make and the values we hold. In other words, our circumstances do not determine our identity; we define ourselves through our own actions and attitudes.

This quote also underscores the idea that we have the power to shape our own destiny. By focusing on our own character and inner qualities, we can overcome obstacles and achieve our goals, regardless of our external circumstances. Ultimately, Emerson believed that true happiness and fulfillment come not from external success or material possessions, but from living a life of purpose and meaning that aligns with our deepest values and beliefs.

In summary, this quote encourages us to take ownership of our lives and to focus on developing our own character as a key to finding lasting happiness and fulfillment.

3. "The law of nature is alternation forevermore. Each electrical state superinduces the opposite. The soul environs itself with friends that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season that it may exalt its conversation or society." Nature is all about balance. For every positive, there's a negative. For every up, there's a down. It's like a dance, where you have to be willing to move between different states of being. 

This quote speaks to Emerson's philosophy of duality and polarity, which emphasizes the interconnectedness and balance of all things in nature.

Emerson believed that the universe operates according to a system of checks and balances, in which every positive force is countered by a negative force, and every upswing is followed by a downswing. This dynamic interplay between opposing forces creates a sense of rhythm and balance, much like a dance in which each partner must be willing to move and adjust to the movements of the other.

In this sense, nature can be seen as a reflection of this dance of polarity, with every action and reaction balancing each other out to create a harmonious whole. For Emerson, this balance was essential to the functioning of the universe, and he believed that it was important for individuals to recognize and embrace this balance in their own lives as well.

Emerson believed that we must be willing to move between different states of being, to embrace the ups and downs of life and to find balance during change. This requires a certain level of flexibility and adaptability, as well as a willingness to see the positive aspects of even the most challenging situations.

Summary: this expresses Emerson's belief in the importance of balance and polarity in nature, and the need for individuals to cultivate this balance in their own lives by embracing the rhythms and cycles of the universe.

4. "Action and reaction, which is the law of physics, is also the law of mind. The law of nature is alternation forevermore. Each electrical state superinduces the opposite." Just like in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is true for the mind as well. You can't do something without it having some sort of consequence.

This quote is about Emerson's belief in the law of cause and effect, which states that every action we take has a corresponding reaction or consequence.

Emerson believed that this law applies not only to the physical world, but also to the realm of the mind and human behavior. In other words, our thoughts and actions have a profound impact on our lives, and we cannot expect to do something without it having some sort of consequence.

This idea underscores the importance of personal responsibility and accountability for our actions. We must recognize that the choices we make, both consciously and unconsciously, have an impact on our lives and the world around us. This means that we must be mindful of the consequences of our actions, and strive to act in ways that are aligned with our deepest values and principles.

Emerson's philosophy of cause and effect also highlights the interconnectedness of all things. Every action we take has a ripple effect on the world around us, and the consequences of our actions can be far-reaching and long-lasting. This is why it is so important to approach life with a sense of intentionality and purpose and to be mindful of the impact we have on others and the world.

Summary: this quote reminds us of the importance of personal responsibility and the law of cause and effect, and encourages us to be mindful of the consequences of our thoughts and actions as we navigate through life.

5. "Every evil is some good in a state of transition. Every adversity in life is only temporary, and it will pass. The constant flux of life means that every situation is changing into something else, and nothing remains fixed forever." There's no such thing as a purely good or bad situation. Every negative experience has a lesson to teach you, and it's up to you to learn from it and grow as a person.

This is about Emerson's belief in the transformative power of adversity and challenges.

Emerson believed that there is no such thing as a purely good or bad situation and that every experience we have in life has the potential to teach us something valuable. Even the most difficult and trying circumstances can be opportunities for growth and self-discovery if we approach them with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

This idea underscores the importance of resilience and the ability to bounce back from adversity. Instead of being defeated by negative experiences, we can use them as a springboard for personal growth and development. By embracing the lessons that life has to offer, we can become stronger, wiser, and more compassionate human beings.

Emerson's philosophy also highlights the importance of personal agency and the power of choice. While we may not always be able to control the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can always choose how we respond to them. By taking ownership of our experiences and using them as opportunities for growth, we can transform even the most challenging situations into something positive and life-affirming.

Summary: this encourages us to approach life with a growth mindset, and to view challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and self-improvement. By embracing the lessons that life has to offer, we can become more resilient, compassionate, and fulfilled individuals.


Postscript: These five quotes are, to me fairly representative of the theme of Emerson's essay, but there are so many more nuggets of wisdom to be discovered by reading it in its entirety. Here is the link to the complete text and to the audio version.

Important note: Ralph Waldo Emerson is often considered as one of the pioneers of the New Thought movement, but he is not typically referred to as the "father" of the movement.

The New Thought movement was a spiritual and philosophical movement that emerged in the late 19th century, emphasizing the power of positive thinking and the belief in the interconnectedness of all things. Emerson's works, particularly his essays and speeches, had a significant influence on the development of the New Thought movement. He emphasized the importance of individualism, self-reliance, and intuition, all of which were central tenets of New Thought.

However, the New Thought movement was not founded by Emerson, nor was he directly involved in its organization or development. Other prominent figures associated with the movement include Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, and Thomas Troward.


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