In a series of lectures at Boston’s Masonic Temple in 1836 and 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson worked through the ideas that would in appear in the essays we are reading this week from the First Series, “History” and “Politics.” In class we began talking about reading Emerson. Here I want to offer a few notes on Emerson’s intellectual preoccupations, the ideas he is thinking with and through.
Emerson questions the value of what he called “the barren and wearisome chronicle” of events and people that we call history. He also questions the individual as central to the story we call history. In fact he begins the lecture series “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” with the claim that “we arrive at the great discovery that there is one mind common to all men: that what is individual is less than what is universal.” He goes on to say that “Every being in nature has its existence so connected with other beings that if set apart from them it would instantly perish.” He will repeat this formulation be claiming that the individual is diminished when separate from. “Insulate a man and you annihilate him. He cannot unfold, he cannot live without a world.” In his lecture “Art,” he goes so far as to say that in creating a work of art the artist must “deindividualize” him or herself.
To think with Emerson about history is to turn over the soil in the seedbed of American individualism. Often Emerson is understood as the father of this idea and his essay “Self Reliance” cited as its gospel. Indeed, in the essay “History,” Emerson appears to endorse a subjective approach to knowledge, to knowing the past. However in these lectures, as an attentive reader of Emerson will notice, Emerson is working out a distinctive theory of democratic individuality that does not begin with a defense of individual self-determination under threat by an external force, such as a government.
Thinking with Emerson about the individual is to see the common sense notion that the individual is not all, and that the idea of individualism pure and simple (an idea often attributed to Emerson) makes it difficult to understand the ideal of an individual in a democracy. Consider what Emerson says about the relationship between imperfect institutions and the individual citizen in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers”:
The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.
In the essay “Politics” we are considering this week, Emerson begins with a description of this relationship between self “renovation” and the State or its institutions:
In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institution are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it, as every man of strong will, like Pisistratus, or Cromwell, does for a time, and every man of truth, like Plato, or Paul, does forever.
The corollary of Emerson’s instance on self renovation is the contingent institution or the “flow” of society. The lesson is that both institutions and societies are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.”
Another fascinating connection is between the individual and creative work. In a later essay, Emerson returns to the relationship between the present and the past, the individual and the tradition that constitute our lives. The passage is useful for us, too, as readers and writers in an age that prizes the idea of originality:
Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.
Interested in reading more from Emerson on the idea of the individual and originality? See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Quotation and Originality,” Letters and Social Aims.
“Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative, history is to be read and written”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
What are we to make of Emerson reading history? “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time,” he writes in the third paragraph of “History,” the opening essay in in the First Series of essays published in 1841. His essay probes the relation between our lives and the past to build a case for reading and writing history “actively and not passively.”
For Emerson, the reading of history is an act designed to empower a reader, or in his words, “to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it. It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” as Emerson will say in his essay “Illusions,” is to live a life of unrealized potential. We read history to know our selves.
Early in the essay Emerson appears to reduce history to the interpretation of a single person. “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Yet to presume that he is endorsing a subjective approach to knowledge, or to knowing the past, is to misread Emerson. For as the essay goes on to elaborate, history will only come alive when we make the past a part of ourselves—for we are defined through the ongoing process of relating to the world around us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson writes. The challenge is to bring history alive in the present, to make it an inseparable part of our experience in the world. As Emerson explains, “All inquiry into antiquity, — all curiosity respecting the Pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”
For Emerson, history is not limited to “the civil and metaphysical history of man.” For he also talks about natural history, the history of the external world:
But along with the civil and metaphysical history of man, another history goes daily forward, — that of the external world, — in which he is not less strictly implicated. He is the compend of time; he is also the correlative of nature. His power consists in the multitude of his affinities, in the fact that his life is intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being.
Whether or not we are studying cultural or natural history, we only come to know history when that knowledge becomes ourselves. “Civil and natural history, the history of art and of literature, must be explained from individual history, or must remain words.”
The essay “History” is a users guide to reading and writing history—to making history. For Emerson, in reading history actively we are engaging in the building of ourselves. That is to say, as a student of history, I release “the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.” When Emerson says at the end of the essay that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.