A Review of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay - Compensation Part I


Ralph Waldo Emerson, courtesy of Wikipedia

The theory of dualism is everything is created in pairs of opposites. Some examples of created opposing pairs are: a coin has two sides - heads/tales; directions have four pairs - north/south and east/west; days have both light and darkness; wet/dry; yes/no; a game has a winner/loser; hot/cold; male/female; positive/negative; sweet/bitter; young/old; and darkness/light, just to name a few. Is dualism also evident in our relationships with ourselves and the community? Does what goes around really comes back around? Are there really consequences for every personal action? Yes. In his essay Compensation, Ralph Waldo Emerson explains that every action has a reaction and everyone reaps what they sow. Let's discuss....

Why did Emerson write the essay, Compensation?

According to the essay, Emerson was inspired to write on the topic of the law of compensation because he did not agree with a belief that bad people are successful on earth, but that good people have to wait until heaven for justice.  Perhaps, you have often wondered why some people seem to get away with things, but others are instantly punished.  Is life fair? According to Emerson, whether life is fair or not is subjective, but we all reap what we sow. As such, no one is better than the other, but we do experience life differently based on our choices and consequences. Every infraction has a penalty; and every good has a reward. 


Life is fair to our choices. Understanding the law of compensation is a way to increase our self-esteem.  We have confidence that a way to change our life is to change our choices. We have the power to choose our reality because for every choice we cultivate there is a corresponding result. We have the ability to understand that with every loss is a gain. With every difficulty, there is relief. Every sweet has a bitter. Therefore, instead of coveting the lives of others with a belief that theirs is more valuable, we can cultivate a way of seeing value in our own lives. If you want to reap differently, then sow differently. 

The caveat is life is fair to our choices, but we do not have complete power in how we receive the results of our choices. Some parents birth children, while others adopt. Either way, they are still parents. Our suffering comes from comparing ourselves to other people and making judgments as to who is higher or lower on social and economic ladders based on subjective evaluations.  However, if we can understand that we reap what we sow, every perfection has a flaw, and every sweet has a bitter, then we can cultivate grace and be gentler with ourselves and less self-critical. How you think about yourself results in your reality.  

Why is it a law?

Another word for law is 'rule', so the law of compensation is a theory based on the rules of cause and effect. These rules maintain balance. "For an example, in the animal kingdom, no creatures are favorites.  A certain compensation balances every gift and defect. A surplusage given to one part is paid out of a reduction from another part of the same creature. If the head or neck are enlarged, the trunk and extremities are cut short (Emerson, Compensation)."  

Law of Compensation in the Social World

Dualism may be difficult to see in the social world because the actions and reactions are not always immediately visible. However, polarity still exists. For an example, we can say that sleep/work are pairs of opposites.  These opposites cannot be performed at the same time because when one increases the other decreases. When we sleep, our sleep hours increase and our work hours decrease.  When we are awake, our sleep hours decrease and our work hours increase.  But, you cannot have a productive work time if you do not get enough sleep. Likewise, if you get too much sleep then you will not be productive. Everything is created in pairs. Every choice has a consequence.


In a free world, we choose to exchange our time to gain monetary resources. With more money comes more responsibility. Being a top executive at a company provides high salaries, but with it also comes long work hours, stress and high responsibilities. You have less freedom, but more financial resources. Alternatively, a social job may have comparably lower salaries, but there are less work hours, stress and responsibilities. You have more freedom, but less resources.  Every sweet has a bitter.  You decide what is best for you. 

Remote work/Being in the office

During the COVID-19 epidemic, most employees worked from home because it was the only option. To halt the spread of the disease, social distancing was required. After the COVID-19 epidemic subsided, many employees pushed back against returning to the office. Why should I work in the office when I can work from home? The reaping and sowing of choosing to either work from home or be in the office also follows the law of compensation, like everything else.  At home, employees can be more comfortable and work in their pajamas, have more privacy and avoid commute times. The negative aspect of working from home is employees miss out on valuable social interaction, collaboration and coaching that only being in the office provides.  


According to Emerson, there is a sweet with every bitter. In a previous blog, we discussed the consequences people face when deciding, either by choice or circumstance, of being single vs married. A benefit of being single is independence and autonomy over your finances and life. A single person does not have to compromise with anyone. There are no commitments. They can spend their money however they want, and do whatever they want.  However, a single person does not enjoy the benefits a healthy marriage provides.  Single people do not have the support of a spouse, and must make all of their decisions themselves. In comparison, married people have a shared household, which means they lose their autonomy and independence. There must be give and take (another pair). They usually have an agreed budget and commitment is expected. They give up their independence for the marriage, but they enjoy the benefits stable relationships provide such as love, commitment and support.  

Checks and Balances - Social Rejection vs Social Acceptance

The law of compensation can be illustrated by checks and balances.  In the banking system, the money stored in our accounts are consequences of our choices, time, energy and investments. When you write a check, you are requesting to gain access to the funds (reap), that you have already earned (sowed). If there is enough money in the account, then your check is cashed. What happens when you write a check that is more than your balance? Your check will bounce. You will get a penalty of insufficient funds. 

Checks and balances also exist in the social world. Rejection is an example of writing a check but not having the sufficient social capital, or compatibility, to meet the request. The 'check' is the social request to connect with a person or group.  The social capital is the value that person or group assigns to the social request, which is subjective to their opinion. The social request to connect bounces when it is more than what the perceived social capital has to offer. The request is to be lovers, but the assessed value is a friend. When this happens, a person may choose to either research what characteristics are needed to be in that particular type of relationship or find another relationship that is a better fit. 

You are valuable, but not everyone sees value the same. One person may value a sense of humor, while another may see it as a negative quality. The right people for you see your value and appreciate you for who you are.

Unfortunately, stalking and harassment usually happens when a person refuses to accept this law of compensation. They want to force the other person to accept their value, which is not possible. Acceptance usually occurs when your social request is equal to your social value, or your social value is more than your request. This concept is the foundation for the adage "birds of a feather flock together" or "Like for Like."  

Unhealthy Relationships

Unhealthy relationships are also examples of the law of compensation. They exist due to negative ways of thinking. For every person with low self-esteem, there is someone willing to exploit that person. The relationship is one-sided and lacks positive reciprocity.  Givers somehow find takers. People with trust issues end up with cheaters. If you sow feelings of negativity or scarcity, you will probably reap unhealthy relationships. However, even unhealthy relationships (bitter), have benefits (sweet). The benefit, and I say this cautiously, is that a person is not alone, albeit temporarily. Perhaps, an exchange of knowledge occurs between the two parties.  Or, they make a good team in some areas, but not in crucial areas.  Pleasures exist in unhealthy relationships, but the bitter outweighs the sweet. Unhealthy relationships are difficult to leave when a party focuses too much on the sweet, but not enough on the bitter. After the relationship is over, both parties reap the benefits of wisdom, but they lose the time that they could have been in a more balanced relationship. No struggle is ever wasted. 

We Are Constantly Sowing and Reaping, Always

Per Emerson, "Every act rewards itself. All things are double, one against the other. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Give and it shall be given to you. Love for love. "

Every thought/idea has a reaction/companion. If you desire to reap differently, try sowing differently. Nature takes time. Some trees take thousands of years to grow, but some plants only take weeks sprout.

End of Part I

Thank You!

Thank you for your support over the years. My goal is to articulate my synchronicity influenced experiences to inspire you to see life in a different perspective to cultivate growth and peace. This blog has been fun to write for six years, and I look forward to many more.

Ralph Waldo Emerson,