I often read a page or two of Emerson before greeting the sun. For me, he is the wisest of American philosophers and the most practical, because his words create a stir in the spirit that is a wonderful incitement to action. He is the perennial enemy of hand-me-down systems of belief and self-limiting notions about what is possible in a life. When we are wandering lost in a fog of confusion in the low marshlands of group-think, he pipes the tune and shines the light that will get us back to the upward slopes of our life purpose.
The other day, leading a five-day adventure in Active Dreaming at the Omega Institute, I guided a group of brave and ready souls on a journey to a real place in the Imaginal Realm that I call the House of Time. It is the kind of locale that creators, shamans and mystics have always wanted to visit, a place where we may encounter an inner teacher who is the master of any field that compels our best attention and study, and where any book of secrets – even that Book of Life containing our sacred contract – may be accessible.
While drumming for the group to provide fuel and focus for the journey to the Library in the House of Time, I found myself in contact with intelligences who have guided and inspired my work in the past. It seemed that Emerson, in high collar and frock coat, had joined the group. I do not say this was the individual spirit of the great sage; I do not claim the privilege of a personal interview, and I am sure that wherever Emerson may now be, he has many things to do. I say only that for a few moments I seemed to be in the presence of a figure who embodied some essence of Emerson’s thought. I was eager to receive insights I could easily retain, while my consciousness was working on several levels, including that of drumming for the members of the group and watching over their own adventures.
My Emerson gave me three words: Rectitude. Plenitude. Attitude. Just now, in the twilight before dawn, as the first pink suffused the gray sky, I tracked these clues through Emerson’s essays and letters, and through the pedigrees of the terms themselves.
In its origin, rectitude is the virtue of being straight, or upright, in your conduct and condition. It derives from the Latin rectus or straight. It has nothing to do with a narrow moralism. As Emerson wields this word, it is the property and armor of the brave soul who dares to live by his own lights. In his famous 1838 address to Harvard Divinity School – a speech the faculty tried to suppress but the senior class insisted upon – Emerson defined “the grand strokes of rectitude” as “a bold benevolence”, and that independence of mind that enables us to ignore the counsel and caution of our friends when they seek to hold us back from pursuing our calling, and the readiness to follow that calling without concern for praise or profit. Those who can do this are “the Imperial Guard of Virtue” and “the heart and soul of nature.” They “rise refreshed on hearing a threat”; they come to a crisis “graceful and beloved as a bride”; they can say like Napoleon at Massena that they were not themselves until the battle began to go against them.
Plenitude is fullness or abundance, coming from the Latin plenus, or “full”. For Emerson, plenitude – abundance – is our natural condition, and we miss it only by failing to live from the fullness and integrity of our own spirit. When we develop self-trust, we gain “the plenitude of its energy and power to repair harms,” he instructs in his essay on Heroism. “There is no limit to the Resources of Man,” he adds in a letter on that theme. “The one fact that shines through all this plenitude of powers is…that the world belongs to the energetic, belongs to the wise.”
Attitude has an even more suggestive etymology. It first came into usage to describe the posture an actor playing a role strikes on the stage. Go further back, and we find it is kissing cousins with the word “aptitude” and both share a common root in the Latin aptus which means “fit” or “suited” – in short, ready for something. Our attitudes indeed determine what experiences we are apt to encounter on our roads of life. “The healthy attitude of human nature,” Emerson instructs us in his essay on Self-Reliance, is “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner” – in other words, the confidence that since we are at home in the universe, the universe will support us. In the face of hardship and challenge, we need to strike that posture of determination that “by [that] very attitude and…tone of voice, puts a stop to defeat,” Emerson adds in his letter on Resources.
We are now entering one of the great open secrets of life. “We are magnets in an iron globe,” as Emerson told the young men at Harvard. “We have keys to all doors….The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.” We choose which doors will open or remain closed. We decide what we will attract or repel in life according to whether or not we are straight, and full, and ready.