Emerson on Compensation

Emerson’s Essay on Compensation: Week 6

So you’re having trouble reading Emerson’s Essay on Compensation? Me too.

But this week I persevered, read it not once, but several times, highlighter in hand and notepad right beside me. I was determined it would not conquer me!

And I’m so glad I did.

In his long and often convoluted sentences and paragraphs that go on forever, Emerson has revealed a plethora of truths that coincide perfectly with the entire Master Keys teachings.

Yes, it was tough going at times, but here’s the summary of what I understand from this 14 page essay on Compensation.

Emerson’s Essay on Compensation

Ralph Waldo Emerson begins his essay this way:

“… It seemed to me… that on this subject (ie: compensation) life was ahead of theology, and the people knew more than the preachers taught.” He thought that “if this doctrine (theology) could be stated in terms with any resemblance to those bright intuitions (ie: the writings from which theology was drawn) in which this truth is sometimes revealed to us, it would be a star in many dark hours”.

I can’t say that his discourse that follows is an easy read, and today likely is not “a star in many dark hours”, but it is well worth studying.Emerson on Compensation

Emerson recognized that the theology of the day had a fallacy in its teachings. Preachers taught that judgments don’t happen here on earth, but compensation for our actions, whether good or evil, will be made only in the next life. So, why then, would anyone strive for goodness in this life?

Instead Emerson turns to look at the daily life of people, revealing that people do live by principles (“Their daily life gives it the lie”) because they are wiser than they know. There is a law of Compensation in this life, a law of natural balance, dualism and equity that Mankind recognizes.

He goes on, in his inimitable way, to say we cannot separate an act and its consequence, reward, or retribution. A certain compensation balances every gift and every defect, and there is always some mechanism or circumstance that equalizes or levels. These may not be immediately obvious, but they will appear. No offence goes unchastened.

This is because the Universe is alive, it is omnipresent, and everything is a part of it.

“Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

The truths and principles for living are often found in proverbs, which have evolved out of the intuition of mankind everywhere.

  • Tit for a tat
  • Eye for an eye
  • Love for love
  • Give and it shall be given to you
  • Pay for it and take it
  • A man cannot speak but he judges himself.
  • Every opinion reacts on him who utters it.

So how do these principles apply to us and our daily lives? If we treat others as ‘pawns and ninepins’, we will suffer as they do. “If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own”. If we treat others without love, we will be without love ourselves. Our actions align themselves with their consequences and compensations.

Wise men, therefore will know that you always will, in the end, pay your debts. He cautions people about accruing prosperity without using it to confer its benefits on others.


The following quotation is in complete accordance with the Master Key teachings:

“In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. Beware of too much good staying in your hand. It will fast corrupt and worm worms. Pay it away quickly in some sort.”

This balance of give and take is necessary, so we do not live a bound, selfish and atrophied life. Emerson states that things (ie Natural laws) are arranged or weighted on the side of truth and benefit. Because of this, penalties are there for wrongdoing. Yet, receiving love is the result of giving love. All is returned to its own nature.

Essay on Compensation


We learn from and through our weaknesses. They give us a chance to learn something, to gain facts and truth, to learn skills, to cure conceit and self-aggrandizement. The circumstances of life we find ourselves in are indifferent. Life is a progress, not a stationary thing, and growing and dying are both natural. They are merely circumstances in life, and the soul – the “I” is the life.

He goes on to say that “there is no penalty exacted to virtue”or wisdom, no excess to love, knowledge or beauty. These are proper additions to the being or soul. Thus life – soul – I – always refuses to be limited but is always growing and expanding. We give up old beliefs that constrict us, grow into new friends as we give up the old ones that do not allow us to expand.

Change and growth occur because our new self cannot fit into the old shell, so we must form a new shell, a new set of beliefs that serve to allow us to grow rather than looking backwards.

Wow! Is that related to Og Mandino’s book or what!

In the end, “the Man of today scarcely recognizes the man of yesterday”.

Emerson concludes his essay on compensation by discussing the compensations for the calamities that occur within our lives. In summary, he says the death of a loved one may leave us devastated, but eventually it may open the door to a new mentor, allow new acquaintances, form new ways of living, all of which are more friendly to the growth of character in the following years.

I love his final statement:

“The man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener, is made the banyan of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighbourhoods of men.”

Studying this marvellous essay on Compensation (yes, it really is marvellous) has made me grow, and I’m ready to spread my roots and my branches, to yield fruit and shade to others in any way I can.
Nicolette Goff

PS: Go check out this lighter look at Emerson.


Leave a Comment:

Davene Januszewski says November 2, 2016

I LOVE this blog. Very honest and insightful mahalo for sharing all these ideas and for persevering through this astounding essay!

    Nicki says November 2, 2016

    Thanks for the kind words, Davene. Actually I found as I persevered through it, I began to love his thoughts and way of expression. My nerdy teacher coming out!

Suzanne Lavigne says November 2, 2016

Great blog and explanation of a very difficult read.

    Nicki says November 2, 2016

    Thanks for reading, Suzanne.

Dominica Eyckmans says November 2, 2016

well done!! xxx 🙂

    Nicki says November 2, 2016

    Thanks, Dominica!”Twas worth the effort!

Dennis says November 2, 2016

Nicki, thank you for your excellent post on this brilliant essay. I must admit I found the essay a challenging read. Your perspective in this post simplified Emerson without compromising the truth it unfolds for us. Wisdom for all ages…

    Nicki says November 2, 2016

    Yes, it is a challenging read, but well worth the effort, in my opinion ;))

    Heather Carley says November 2, 2016

    Well said Dennis.

Heather Carley says November 2, 2016

Thank you for taking the time and breaking down Emerson’s essay. I read it and understood some, but not with the detail you did. And you so eloquently explained so much!

    Nicki says November 2, 2016

    Thank you for reading it, Heather. It was a challenge I couldn’t ignore! 🙂

Terrence G Neraasen says November 2, 2016

Well Nicki aren’t you just an absolute gem! I commend you in the highest for extracting the wisdom from Ralph Waldo’s essay. You did such a superb job of putting it into eloquent and understandable English. I must say I’ve had wisdom teeth pulled with less pain than inflicted by reading Emerson and others of his day. I’ll be back to read it again!

    Nicki says November 3, 2016

    Haha! that’s pretty funny, Terry! Glad I could be of help!

Catherine BODARWE says November 4, 2016

I’m so happy I found your post about Emerson’s Essay of Compensation. Speaking French, this essay is very difficult for me to read and understand. Your post is exactly what I needed it to digest the information more easily. Thanks a lot Nikki ! Blessings <3

    Nicki says November 4, 2016

    Kate: you’re most welcome! Glad I could help you.

Willena Flewelling says November 13, 2016

I’m glad you stuck with it, because I enjoyed reading about the gems you mined from it. Thank you for sharing!

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