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

The study of “the Nature of Things” (POH 144) is, as shown throughout this analysis, the starting point of all inquiries into history and the associated sciences. In his lecture “Ethics”, delivered on 16 February, Emerson intends to identify the string of consequences of

The law of all action which cannot yet be stated, it is so simple, of which every man has glimpses in a lifetime and values that he knows of it more than all knowledge, which whether it be called Necessity or Spirit or Power is the law whereof all history is but illustration, is the law that sits as pilot at the helm and guides the path of revolutions, of wars, of emigrations, of trades, of legislation. (144)

Some of the various consequences he deducts from this nondescript law are: (1) the need for self-trust but not in the sense of pretending to be someone or something you are not. This self-trust is based on the understanding that the universal mind reveals itself differently in every human being and in accord with his or her individual nature. The maxim of correspondence implicates itself in the unique forms of the universal mind. The internalisation of self-trust, correspondence and the varying kinds of the soul lead to self-reliance[1] and show genius (see POH 146-152). The second consequence of this law is some kind of a balance of fate. The concept of consequentiality of the natural law appears to be a hybrid of various beliefs on fate. According to Emerson’s ‘an-eye-for-an-eye-you-reap-what-you-sow’ principle, pure evil cannot exist, it is self-destructive. Human nature is equipped with a tool of justice – a righteous wheel of fortune (see POH 152-156):

The virtuous man, the seeker of truth, finds brotherhood and countenance in so far forth in the stars, the trees, and the waters. All Nature cries to him, All Hail! The bad man finds opposition, aversation, death in them all. All mankind oppose him. No whisper from secret beauty and grandeur cheers him. The world is silent: the heaven frowns. (POH 155)

The sequential lecture “The Present Age”[2] is an uncharacteristically gloomy description[3] on the state of the contemporary society. In this lecture, like in other of Emerson’s works at the time, he “seems to be searching for the right metaphor […] to describe this relationship” between past and present (Steinbrink 214). In order to describe this relationship and in order to dismiss any assumption that the former is inferior to the latter, he names all the defects of the present. Emerson claims that his present age is characterised by greed and bribery (see POH 161), drivel hidden by decorum (POH 161-163), the decay of erudition caused by readily available so called knowledge through mass-produced literature (POH 164-166), blind deference to facts and the resulting aversion to all things marvellous and immeasurable (POH 166-168). The latter has a fatal effect on imagination and the creative process as “[t]he muse is checked and cowed by the watch that is kept on her” (POH 169), followed by another casualty, faith, “[b]ut we pay a great price for this freedom. The old faith is gone; the new loiters on the way. […] We have lost our Hope, we have lost our spring” (169). After this rather negative outlook on his era, Emerson asserts that “there is always a presumption against the truth of a gloomy view” (POH 170) and that a lot of these characteristics of the age “are only visible because it is now present, and were prominent in every preceding age but perish without memory” (POH 171).

The concluding lecture of The Philosophy of History deals with the affiliation of the individual to history. Conservative historians claim that history can teach present and future societies how to advance. It has lessons to teach and thus has to be studied. However, Emerson maintains that

Truly speaking, all history exists for the Individual. Each of us stands absolutely alone in nature, and the great events of history only colossally represent the tendencies, the emotions, and the faculties of one man. (POH 173)

Apart from giving a summary of all the preceding lectures’ results (POH 181), Emerson gives a description of the claims the historian of the “Age of Reflection” has to satisfy:

The scholar of History is now to feel dignity of his inquiry. He is to be so truly conscious of that immense nature which a man is, that he is to come in its greatness to the temple of Time. If he asks oracles from the tablets of history let him feel that regarded as ultimate facts they are naught and can avail him not, but that they do delineate and embody that nature which he has and some of the secret passages of his thought. (POH 181-182)

This statement alongside various parables, such as the hermit gaining knowledge in seclusion (POH 179), shows that an individual’s own life and experience are what give history meaning. Due to this dependence on history’s deeper meaning on the individual’s nature it implies that universal history can be read “in one person”  (POH 178) and that “in the immensity of matter there is no great, no small […] The Individual learns that his place is as good as any; his fortunes are as good as any” (POH 185). According to Richardson, “the equality of all ages” that Emerson propagates “removes chronology as the measure of history” (History 59); instead of chronology the individual becomes the measure of history and his “view of things” is therefore as valid as any view from the center […] Since the laws of nature are the same everywhere, anywhere is as good as the center” (History 61). Emerson’s subjectivism is in opposition to “positivism, determinism, Calvinism, and any other view that exalts the past at the expense of the present” (Richardson, History 60). Emerson concludes this lecture and consequentially his lecture series Philosophy of History by saying:

In the endless variety, all is blended into unity and order by the overpowering energy of one principle. […] We feel within our imperfect private life the perfection of the universal. […] we see that we are not children of time […] we hear with calm assent the primeval strains in which age chaunts to age the immortality of the soul. (POH 188)

[1] It is not a surprise that he copied many ideas and sentences into his essay “Self-Reliance”.

[2] Delivered 23 February 1837.

[3] See introductory note (POH 173).

Content mine: 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, Robert D. “Emerson on History”; Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect. Ed: Joel Porte. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982. 49-64. Print.

Steinbrink, Jeffrey. “The Past as ‘Cheerful Apologue’: Emerson on the Proper Uses of History”; ESQ Vol. 18. Pullman WA: Washington State University, 1981. 207-221. Print.


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