Man is the game we hunt. Man is the mystery we unveil. Part I

After sharing some chapters from my thesis about Carlyle’s views on history, I thought I share my readings of some of Emerson’s text with regards to his views on history with you. As I wrote my thesis about works from the 1st half of the 19th c, I chose (in addition to his essay “History” and is work Representative Men) his lesser known lecture series Philosophy of History from 1836. The lecture series is divided into 11 lectures and in order to not produce extremely long blog posts I decided to publish it in installments. I will publish other blog posts as well as I don’t really have to do much for the Emerson ones except copy paste.

According to Richardson 1836 (till early 1837), was one of Emerson’s busiest years with a growing family, new projects like the Club, the production of numerous letters and articles. In spite of all these commitments

Emerson managed to sustain his creative outburst for several months while he planned, wrote and delivered the most intellectually coherent and thematically unified set of lectures he would ever do, lectures that were the foundation – and much of the substance – of the best work of the next five years (Fire 253).

This comprehensive series of lectures which serves, as mentioned in the quote above, as the foundation of many of Emerson’s following essays and lectures was called Philosophy of (Modern) History[1]:

He kept the title broad, partly to give himself elbowroom, partly because he was still trying to storm the main gate, as he had in Nature. He intended to treat religion, literature, science, and art ‘directly’ and to ‘indicate the foundation of them in the nature of things’. (Richardson, Fire 253)

Any critical edition of this early lecture confirms Richardson’s argument by listing all quotes and passages he reused in later works such as “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul” or “Politics” in Essays, First and Second Series. The introduction, in particular, is dotted with footnotes relating this text to his essay “History”. Considering the fact that Emerson reused many passages of Philosophy of History in “History”, as well as the fact that “History” is a more focused, precise, and structured collection of Emerson’s thoughts on history, this section aims to highlight additional or parent ideas to those expressed in “History” and to avoid repeating the same quotes that appear in the essay.

The “Introductory Lecture to a Course on the Philosophy of History read at the Masonic Temple 8 Dec. 1836” opens with Emerson’s finding that “It is remarkable that most men read little History. Even scholars, whose business it is to read, complain of its dulness [sic]” (POH 7). Emerson soon reasons that this lack of interest in history is based on the fact “that it is not rightly written for it should, should it not? correspond to the whole of the mind, to whatever is lovely and powerful” (POH 7). A correctly written history would be attractive to every reader and could never “be void of interest” (POH 7). He continues by posing the question of what history really is and what our so-called history actually depicts. Emerson argues that it is nothing but an enumeration (with little variation) of the same story, only the dates and names of the participants change, which makes these records of history “hardly more attractive than if one should watch all day the roaring and tumbling of waves in a tempest” (POH 8).  For him this history is not “the faithful record of man” (POH 8) because it tells the reader nothing about man. This “wearisome chronicle” which is our history, is so superficial it only covers the lives of predominant families, their properties and wars “in which the student does not even take sides, and reads history as he would read the tables of a Life Assurance Company” (POH 8).

In contrast to his later essay “History”, in which he focuses more on how history is misinterpreted because it is erroneously perceived, where the historian as reader and teacher is criticised, here the historian as historiographer is attacked as someone who is a creator of shoddy records. Emerson’s vision of a “commensurate” history of man shows by implication all the defects of conservative history which “can only be truly felt by comparing it with its ideal. That is, of course, with the Nature of Man (POH 9, 11).  Emerson’s ideal history will (POH 9-10):

  • Inquire into all aspects of human faculties.
  • Describe the environment and conditions in which man and his action develop.
  • Portray all forms of societies and classes within society. It will not be reduced to the lives of the nobility or upper-class.
  • Show all aspects of a man’s life and describe all of his attributes, bad and good.
  • Investigate the history of man’s relations on an individual as well as societal level to discover the law by which man and all his actions are moved.

The remainder of the introduction was obviously the basis for a lot of his ideas presented in his essay “History”, which becomes evident by the huge amount of sentences he reutilised, sometimes with little to no editing. Which is why his most important arguments like the universal mind, the concept of correspondence, how history can only be understood through the reader’s own experience and how a correctly perceived history can offer insight into human faculties (POH 12-16), will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

A true historian (here again in the sense of annalist) should be aware of all these facts of human nature, when he buckles down to the task of recording history. Emerson accuses antecedent historians of having blinders on when collecting the content for their annals. But at the same time he mitigates his accusation by acknowledging some kind of a reason for their misdeed within their social environment, which is somehow inevitable as they are all too human:

And yet perhaps a wiser mind will not accuse the meagre historians who wrote what they should have omitted and omitted what they should record, for they and their works are also part of history: these surely indicate the tendency, the genius of the time, what ideas usurped the intellect, and from what others they were screened. Always history must be written by men and when will men be unbiased? (POH 19)

Emerson finishes off this first lecture on the philosophy of history by indicating his reason for this series and announcing the topics of the lectures to come:

It is with the design of attempting a more just survey of man’s relations that I have invited this audience. The Philosophy of Modern History is man’s relations to Religion, Law, Nature, Art, Literature. A few laws contain all the innumerable facts recorded in each of these systems. A single principle is more worth than all the facts it determines. […] Could I succeed in suggesting to the studious, to minds solicitous of truth, some principles in each of these departments, could I at all impart my own conviction, that there is nothing casual in nature, nothing trivial in life, but that the least as the largest actions are rounded in by laws of a beauty indescribable, I should feel the joy of having done somewhat to establish a good mind and feel that I had given and received a pledge of fidelity to virtue and truth. (POH 20-21)

Emerson, subsequently, gives eleven more lectures on topics like art, religion, and literature, which at first glance seem not to be as obviously connected to a philosophy of history as the content of his introductory lecture, but because the

conception of a common spiritual bond existing not only between man and nature but among all men, regardless of place, station, or time, underlies both Emerson’s conception of history and his interpretation of the various  other human creations, activities, and institutions that are examined […] Each of the lectures which follow in the series may be read as a study of man’s creativity, since Emerson regarded all human enterprises as outward expressions of an inward and essentially spiritual condition […] (Sealts Jr. 83)

 and are sequentially like history integral features of the same law or universal mind enacted.

Emerson’s second lecture in the series is called “Humanity of Science” and was delivered on December 22, 1836. He introduces it by drawing attention to the fact that the order-preferring human mind is always seeking “relations between the multitude of facts under its eye” (POH 22) and thus, “[c]lassification is one of the main actions of the intellect” (POH 25). According to Emerson, all scientific investigations, which can sometimes lead to some ground-breaking discoveries, are driven by

the impatience of the human mind in the presence of a multitude of facts, and the energy with which it aims to find some mark on them according to which they can all be set in some order” (POH 24-25).

This human need for unity is paralleled in nature and is therefore not only very helpful for studying nature, but also a simply natural trait: “Not only man puts things in a row, but things belong in a row” (POH 25). Emerson continues in this lecture by describing the origins of science and pondering its merit. By doing so, he is able to embed science in his “philosophy” of history; as science like history cannot only be a means to discover the universal truth behind everything, the laws enacted, but also spring from a human faculty which is why it, like history, must be “humanly studied” (POH 36):

The history of science in the last and the present age teems with this truth [that man’s thoughts run parallel with the creative law]. The multitude of problems; the stimulated curiosity with which they have been pondered and solved, the formation of societies, the expeditions of discovery and the surveys, the gifts which science has made to the domestic arts are signs that the human race is in sympathy with this omnipresent spirit and in a perception of its rights and duties in regard to external nature. (POH 36)

[1] Different names depending on edition.

As mentioned before, I wrote this paper and I only give a shortened citation for my thesis: D.P.P, ““- anything but history.” – Emerson and Carlyle on Meaning, Relevance and (Ab)Use of History”, D 2015.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Philosophy of History; The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vol. II 1836-1838. Eds. Stephen Whicher and Robert Spiller. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. 7-900. Print.

Richardson jr., Robert D. Emerson – The Mind on Fire. Berkley: University of California, 1995. Print.

Sealts Jr., Merton M. “Mulberry Leaves and Satin: Emerson’s Theory of the Creative Process”; Studies in American Renaissance. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1985. 79-84. Print.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Megan says:

    Wow, Emerson was way ahead of his time with his idea of comprehensive history. Histories of science and marginalized social classes have only become popular over the past decades (in the English academic literature at least). Fascinating read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debra says:

      My prof always described him as proto-modern and I think this is true 95% of the time but he was also highly influenced by his contemporaries as well as enlightenment.

      Liked by 1 person

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