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Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essays - History

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essays - History

Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned as an Unitarian minister in 1832 and subsequently tried to establish himself as a lecturer and writer. His efforts in this direction included the self-financed publication of a pamphlet entitled "Nature" in 1836. This essay, only five hundred copies of which were printed (and these took some six years to be distributed), received little initial notice but effectively articulated the philosophical underpinnings of the subsequently widely influential New England Transcendentalism movement.

In July 1838 Emerson caused considerable controversy through the content of an Address delivered to the senior class at Harvard College Divinity School. In this Address Emerson effectively attacked formal religion and encouraged people to seek an intuitive spiritual experience.

... the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. ...

Emerson's first substantial publication was a volume of Essays that issued from the presses in 1841. There were twelve essays in this volume the very first being one entitled "History".

This essay sets out a transcendentalist approach to History where the "innate Humanity" that is common to all of mankind is seen as operating throughout the ages in the shaping of events. The first two paragraphs include such sentiments as:-
"There is one mind common to all individual men.
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. all the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world".

Towards the end of the Essay Emerson asserts that :-
" every history should be written in a wisdom which divined the range of our affinities and looked at facts as symbols. I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is".

Emerson suggests that it is by looking at facts as symbolic of the application of human affinities that people may hope for a broader and deeper writing of history that would more truly express, and constructively demonstrate, Humanity's central and wide-related nature.

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There are several pages on our site that investigate the variously persuasive approaches to the study of History that have been adopted by a number of Famous Historians
That being said none of these Historians have really attempted to approach their studies from a Transcendentalist perspective!!!
Given this fact we have attempted to briefly set out an approach to Historical studies which hints at the operation of human affinities in the providing of the facts which Historians tend to take as their subjects of study.

It may be that if Emerson's call for a looking at facts as symbols were followed up we may hope to draw closer to an appreciation of Humanity's central and wide-related nature. Such an association is briefly attempted on our series of pages page that consider several rather dramatic episodes in European History.

Links to this series of pages are available further down this page.