Emerson swears by no master. He admires, but always with a reservation. Plato comes nearest to being his idol, Shakespeare next. But he says of all great men: “The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor.”
Emerson loves power as much as Carlyle does; he likes “rough and smooth,” “scourges of God,” and “darlings of the human race.” He likes Julius Caesar, Charles the Fifth, of Spain, Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden, Richard Plantagenet, and Bonaparte.
“I applaud,” he says, “a sufficient man, an officer equal to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, well born, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and all heroes by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thoughts, destroying individualism; the power is so great that the potentate is nothing.—
“The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow.—All that respects the individual is temporary and prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a catholic existence.”
No man can be an idol for one who looks in this way at all men. But Plato takes the first place in Emerson’s gallery of six great personages whose portraits he has sketched. And of him he says:—
“Among secular books Plato only is entitled to Omar’s fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, ’Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.’ Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.”—
“In proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars.”—“How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night to be his men!—His contemporaries